LitStack Review: Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? by Paul Cornell

by Sharon Browning

Who Killed Sherlock HolmesWho Killed Sherlock Holmes?
Paul Cornell
Pan Books
Release Date:  May 19, 2016
ISBN 978-1-4472-7326-4

London detectives James Quill, Tony Costain and Kevin Sefton, and analyst Lisa Ross form a unique team; they have been “gifted” with the Sight – the ability to see the hidden, supernatural side of London.  Its often not a pretty sight, and can, in fact, be downright horrifying both on a societal and personal level, laying bare even knowledge of Hell itself.

In this third book of his Shadow Police series, author Paul Cornell has crafted yet another tense and fascinating tale of chasing crime that is occurring simultaneously in the mundane and the supernatural hotspot that is modern day London.  After having brought down the witch Mora Losley in London Falling and the demonic aspect of Jack the Ripper that stalked The Severed Streets, the team has earned some notoriety within the Metropolitan Police force, even among some of the denizens of London’s underworld itself.  Word has gotten out that there is another “law of the land” vesting itself in hidden London years after the sudden and mysterious demise of the previous overseeing body, known as the Continuing Projects Team.  And just in time, as the shadow side of London is in turmoil, with centuries old traditions being shoved aside by new factions, causing not only friction but in some cases outright violence.

Thankfully, Quill, Costain, Sefton and Ross have come to fully accept the strangenesses and impossibilities that having the Sight has revealed to them, and have even started to embrace their own developing specialties as well their burgeoning knowledge of magical items and processes.  They are still deep inside a learning curve, but their willingness to accept what their own rational minds push against has allowed them to become more effective in their jobs, while still doggedly adhering to police protocols and methods.

So when the team comes across the spectral murder of the ghost of Sherlock Holmes (for it is from the collective memory of the residents of London that the spirits which walk the city streets gain purchase), they gain insight into a series of grisly murders that use crimes in the fictitious detective’s stories as a template for mayhem.  As they race to stay one step ahead of the very corporeal murders even while focusing on the death of the ghost of Holmes, they find themselves drawn deeper into a realm of evil that seems to know their every move.

But author Paul Cornell (whom a contemporary calls an “omnidirectional virtuoso… who would no doubt write heartbreaking masterpieces for kitchen sinks if they came with narrative functionality”) doesn’t take the easy road on this one.  Just like the other Shadow Police books, this novel is layered with plot lines that swirl and intersect with each other like London fog.  There are intriguing complications, such as three different modern media productions of “Sherlock Holmes” currently filming in London (a smart BBC show, a slick American version with a female Holmes, and a big budget Hollywood film – sound familiar?), putting their respective stars in peril; when the danger does play out, it does so in a way that is totally unexpected and yet perfectly synched with the other not so obvious developments in the narrative.

Add to that a healthy dose of personal drama, as well, and the story moves from interesting to compelling.  Each member of the team is dealing with their own stressors, with Detective Inspector Quill the most impacted due to his visit to Hell itself; his attempts to keep the horrors he saw from those he loves not only distances him from his support system but even grows to risk his very sanity.  Elsewhere, in a wonderful twist, we learn more of mysterious District Superintendent Rebecca Lofthouse, the team’s boss, who does not possess the Sight but knows more about hidden London than she’s willing – or able – to share.  Finally in this book her backstory slowly comes into focus in a wonderful balancing act, outside of the Holmes story and yet no less compelling, eschewing the reader from forgetting that there is much more at stake than what has been dubbed Operation Game (as in, “the game is afoot”).

Whether read as a stylish police procedural, a supernatural thriller, or forceful personal interest story (or rather, stories), Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? is an involving and expansive experience.  How Paul Cornell is able to keep it so real and yet so very bewitching (literally!) is beyond me, but as long as he keeps these Shadow Police stories coming, I’ll certainly keep reading them – and you should, too.

~ Sharon Browning

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