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by Mick Finlay
MIRA, July 2017
352 pages
ISBN: 077833094X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In contemporary crime fiction, Sherlock Holmes spinoffs are plentiful. There are non-canonical Holmes-and-Watson adventures, Baker Street vampires, reboots in other times, nations, and even planets. There were female Holmeses long before there ever was a female Time Lord, and Holmes and Watson have traveled well beyond the Marylebone pale to such exotic places as Japan and Minnesota. However, there are still some constants. Mr. Holmes might be uncouth (Downey) or inexplicably a shape-shifter (Mitchell and Webb), but he is always distinctly upper-class, hence his ability to do so much unpaid detective work. Perhaps we don't discuss class as a defining Holmesian feature, in comparison with, say, his exceptional manner of thinking, emotional unavailability, or even "the hat." But he is first and foremost a patrician detective, more likely to snoop for the King of Bohemia than for the proverbial Bohemians of Soho, Clerkenwell, or far-away Hackney.

That usually-unspoken fact makes Mick Finlay's new crime novel, ARROWOOD, incredibly exciting. Not so much a Holmes spinoff as a Holmes riposte, ARROWOOD takes place in 1895 London, where Watson's true stories of Holmes's adventures have made the pair famous. However, Finley keeps Holmes and Watson offstage, and instead introduces us to savvy private detective William Arrowood, who works—for wages, at daily rates—in the vicinity of Great Dover Street, Southwark. He is introduced as "the guvnor," by our admiring narrator, his assistant Norman Barrett, not a doctor but a former penny-paper journalist who had focussed on crime reporting. In lieu of stalwart landlady Mrs. Hudson, the former roommates (Barrett had married and moved out) have Arrowood's sister Ettie, a tuba-playing Salvation Army-type street evangelist who unhelpfully monitors their drinking. A third Barrett sibling's widower, Sidney, owns a hackney cab company for which Barrett moonlights when he's hard up. To Arrowood's great consternation, he gets the clients who can't afford "the best" in the business: Holmes. "If we had his cases we'd be living in Belgravia, Barnett," Arrowood rages. "We'd have a permanent suite at the Savoy!" He further reveals his insecurity in his occasional alias, "Locksher." The problem is, in order to get Holmes' cases, Arrowood would need to live in Belgravia. Then as now, the press doesn't care about crimes that victimize the poor.

Arrowood charts one particular case. Caroline Cousture, a young Frenchwoman, hires Arrowood to locate her brother, Thierry "Terry" Cousture, a migrant worker who had come Rouen to work at a sketchy Southwark pub, the Barrel of Beef. Arrowood is reluctant to take the case because he and Barrett have some old history with the owner of the "Beef," the criminally connected Mr. Cream. But Miss Cousture is hard up, and so are they. So Arrowood deploys his special skill—not Holmesian deductive reasoning, but psychological profiling, which, at the dawn of psychoanalysis, is both timely and quite a feat. Thus begins an adventure that takes the reader on a journey round working-class late-Victorian Southwark (Lloyd's Weekly! Photographic studios! The newfangled Enfield Rifle!) and brings to light social problems that plague London—and most cities—in the twenty-first century.

Will Arrowood and Barrett find Terry Cousture alive? Just as importantly, will they crack the case before Sherlock Holmes does? Finley suspensefully pursues these questions, creating a page-turner with psychological realism and just enough cynical humor. A Sherlock Holmes of the people: it's elementary.

§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She specializes in nineteenth-century literature. https://uwgb.academia.edu/RebeccaNesvet

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, July 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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