What’s always been missing from the world of Sherlock Holmes? That’s right, laugh-out-loud slapstick comedy. You’ll wonder how the world’s greatest consulting detective and master of logical deduction ever existed without it when you read G.S. Denning’s new genre-bending book, “Warlock Holmes: A Study in Brimstone.”
In an ingenious collection of six stories, the drab and soot-stained streets of Victorian-era London become like a long lost Marx Brothers movie — that is if Groucho ever dabbled in mythology, demonology and just the slightest tinge of Lovecraftian horror. In fact, “Warlock Holmes” is the best reimagining of the famous character since Neil Gaiman’s Hugo award-winning short story “A Study in Emerald” and the similar crossover anthology “Shadows Over Baker Street.”
In the acknowledgments, Denning writes, “To … Who? Sir Arthur Whatsis? Who’s that guy?” Not surprising since he takes Conan Doyle’s iconic character and turns him on his head — quite literally at that — to the point where he becomes a new protagonist entirely. You see, Warlock Holmes differs from Sherlock Holmes in one very big way: he’s a total idiot in possession of magical and alchemical powers. Sure, he’s still the eccentric and asocial occupant of 221B Baker Street, but he can also request favors from demons and other otherworldly beings who wish to enter our plane of existence in order to exact mischief or, you know, just destroy reality as we know it.
If it were not for the arrival of the level-headed (and completely powerless mortal) Dr. John Watson, injured and practically impoverished from his service in Afghanistan, Warlock would never learn the art of deduction. When we first meet Warlock he’s slapping up a corpse and attempts to credit his omniscience to mere observation. He uses a magnifying glass not to look for evidence, but because it makes him look more intimidating with a seemingly enlarged eye. In reality, the spirit of Professor James Moriarty — along with some other unsavory characters — are stuck in his head, ready to speak prophecies and revelations through their earth-bound detective host.
Together, the mismatched crime-solving duo of Holmes and Watson take on cases involving a twisted tale of revenge over a donut named Lucy among American gold rushers, a unique take on Pandora’s Box with Frank Belknap underpinnings and even one inspired by “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” They also get a little help from the resident vampire and ogor inspectors at Scotland Yard, Vladislav Lestrade and Torg Groggson. And then there’s the Baker Street Irregulars, a pack of mutated rats led by Wiggles, a shapeshifting street urchin boy. In each rib-tickling story, Watson discovers more and more about the paranormal while trying to turn Warlock into the rational consultant every narrow-minded mortal being perceives him to be. In other words, nothing is elementary for Warlock unless it has to do with things beyond human comprehension.
Denning really owes a debt of gratitude to legends like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett (both mentioned in the acknowledgements as well) whose works seamlessly blend genres like comedy, fantasy and science fiction. Indeed, I haven’t laughed so much while reading since “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” And like his idols, his writing is not only hilarious, but creative and even profoundly insightful at times with delightfully anachronistic commentary on the modern world.
The final story, “Charles Augustus Milverton: Soulbinder,” (an amalgam of Cthulu mythos titles “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “Herbert West—Re-animator”) leaves the Twilight Zone-y door open for many more adventures to come, which should come as a comfort to the reader because this world is just too good for one volume. Its sequel “The Battle of Baskerville Hall” will arrive next spring.
In which case, the hunt is afoot! Or, as Warlock would probably say, “What does that even mean, Watson? How can a hunt be a foot? Don’t you need two feet for hunting? I say, it would make tracking game much easier if you didn’t have to hop everywhere.”