I had just finished reading Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute by Jonathan L. Howard and was trawling through Goodreads when I came across a review that compared Johannes Cabal and his brother Horst to Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, and it was like a cartoon lightning bolt of epiphany had struck me (I understand that I’ve alienated most of you with this sentence but trust me, it’s accurate).
Of course! That was exactly right! Why hadn’t I thought of that? From there I started to compare and contrast the two and imagine a mashup of the two universes; Holmes’ rationality meeting Cabal’s supernatural dealings and necromancy, a certain similarity yet profound difference in their attitudes and relationships to their brothers…
This was the mindset I was in when I first encountered the gift that is Warlock Holmes: A Study in Brimstone by G.S Denning, who is surely some kind of warlock himself for managing to conceive and execute this amazingly ridiculous idea so successfully beyond the first few pages. My first thought was how this book seemed to be an answer to my unfulfilled yearning for some sort of Cabal/Holmes crossover, not quite in the way I had imagined but a collision of the two nonetheless. Well, that was my second thought. My first response after leafing through the first pages was hysterical laughter.
Warlock Holmes is exactly what you would imagine and more, a retelling of some early Sherlock Holmes stories with a few minor tweaks: Sherlock Holmes is now a bumbling warlock, Lestrade is an emo vampire, Gregson an ogre with a penchant for the ballet, and John Watson, in the biggest shock of all, a man of above average intelligence somewhat proficient in the science of deduction.
He even utters the fateful words “When you eliminate the impossible…”, a line that is of course snorted at by Holmes as the height of naïvety in this world where supernatural beings stalk the streets regularly committing impossible acts, the most dangerous of whom being Holmes’ arch nemesis Moriarty, as well as Holmes himself.
The punchline to several of the cases rests in this inversion, that rather than rational thinking and deduction triumphing and clearing away the clouds of uncertainty, the very possibility of this irrational element renders this process of deduction utterly useless, much to the regret of Doctor Watson.
It’s impossible to even attempt to define what makes this book so funny: there’s a new joke on every page coming from each supernatural twist on the familiar Sherlock Holmes tropes, as well as the comedy that stems from these particular versions of the characters once we get to know them a bit better. Obviously, the humour relies on a certain familiarity with Sherlock Holmes but even those with a passing familiarity with the cultural phenomenon will get the jokes, though there are some which reward deeper knowledge of the books.
What makes this book so enjoyable to read, beyond the sheer joy of reading about a world where the name of Warlock Holmes is accepted without the batting of an eyelid, is how Denning manages to build up a sense of character and create impactful relationships with each successive case despite the inherent silliness of the concepts. In a manner reminiscent of the original stories, we see the growth of the bond between Watson and Holmes, a bond which we can believe in despite their madcap surroundings, which is truly impressive.
Also between the pure self indulgent silliness, and ogres ripping off people’s ears, are a few moments of quiet contemplation that are actually very effective, perhaps due to their incongruity: for instance, Holmes in a rare serious moment musing on the self-destructive nature of his powers as he turns lead into gold for an enraptured Watson.
The last story ends on a nail-biting cliffhanger, and I certainly can’t wait to read the sequel The Hell-Hound of the Baskervilles, which promises to be just as enjoyable, how can’t it be with a name like that?
Check out the Johannes Cabal series too- they are some of my favourite books and so underrated.