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Award winning Hollywood screenwriter Bonnie Macbird produces a solid Sherlock Holmes adventure with THE DEVIL'S DUE, imbued with intriguing Easter Eggs for fans of historical Victoriana, but also imbued with some head-scratching world-building choices. Macbird's brisk pacing, believably Watsonian narration, and an embattled, more than usually outcast Holmes make THE DEVIL'S DUE a diverting romp, if you don't overthink it.
Macbird claims to have adapted her novel from a recently discovered manuscript at the British Library, by Dr. John H. Watson, of course. This gimmick participates in what Sherlockian scholar Sheldon Goldfarb has recently called "the 'Great Game' that some aficionados of Holmes and Watson play "wherein “Holmes and Watson were real people and Watson wrote the stories," occasioning "lots of tongue-in-cheek 'Sherlockian scholarship' quite different from academic scholarship." This "game" has dramatic potential, for instance, in Sherlockian spinoffs that engage the question of what makes supposed textual evidence sound authoritative. Nicholas Meyer's new novel THE PECULIAR PROTOCOLS is a great example.
It is less clear why Macbird employs this stratagem. It's the early 1890s, and Holmes is being persecuted by a muckraking journalist, Gabriel Zanders, who calls him a "deranged poseur." There's a real deranged poseur on the loose: Hyde Park Speaker's Corner preacher James Fardwinke, who calls Holmes literally diabolical ("the Devil in the flesh!") and stirs up his crowd to persecute Holmes. The reverend's henchman is a Scotland Yard investigator, one Titus Billings... a name reminiscent of the seventeenth century "Popish Plot" moral panic instigator and pathological liar Titus Oates and Noel Pemberton-Billing, MP, who in 1917 created a homophobic, xenophobic witch-hunt focused on performers of the late Oscar Wilde's play Salome. However, Billings is also a particularly modern maniac. He and his "restrictionists" stir up white supremacist hatred, stoking fears of "economic and racial decline" to "militarize the police... as if the streets were at war."
To this intriguing conflict Macbird adds a serial murder case, brought to Holmes by his government-managing brother Mycroft. There are bombers on the loose, adding a touch of truth to Billings' paranoid lies. Someone has been killing celebrity philanthropists, mostly in alphabetical order of last name. Sherlock and Watson must find this "alphabetical killer" while preventing him, her, or them from offing the likely next target: a brilliant, provocative, scandalous Irish playwright, bon vivant, former Oxfordian, and rumoured gay man named... Oliver Flynn. That is, not Oscar Wilde, but nearly.
Why isn't he just called "Wilde?" The parallels are unmissable. His voice is an "Irish lilt." (Is an Irish accent ever anything but a lilt?) His plays are "brilliantly funny" and both "skewer" and sympathize with the aristocracy. Some characters find him an "effete excuse for a man." Who else could he be? And why is Watson concealing his name, when in the canonical stories, he doesn't conceal names of such infamous yet sympathetic people as "Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory?"
Flynn differs from Wilde in one respect: "Irish terrorist sympathies." Flynn is suspected of them. To many modern readers, Wilde did not defend his natal country vigorously enough. Another Irish character, Wiggins-like street girl heroine Heffie O'Malley, comes across as a stereotype of Dickensian child poverty, without any of the original's horrors. Her once-mentioned, never explored Jewish background (on her mother's side) cements her as a fixture of a lost East End. She discovers another lost child, one who is trying to free herself via prostitution. This situation is not explored with any empathy or emotional complexity. She is just a bad, bad girl.
As the adventure continues, Macbird pulls the reader in two directions: unmasking Flynn as Wilde, and discovering the alphabet murderer before Holmes can. To her credit, it is hard to succeed at either. While not an incredibly inventive Sherlockian adventure, and riddled with missed opportunities for exploration of genuine problems and enigmas, including the political ones personified by Billings, THE DEVIL'S DUE is one that keeps the suspense live and the reader pursuing breadcrumbs from the historical 1890s.
§ 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, November 2019
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