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James Lovegrove's latest Sherlock Holmes spinoff adventure, THE BEAST OF THE STAPLETONS, is a sequel to The Hound of the Baskervilles. Poor Sir Henry Baskerville, the quiet, affable Canadian turned Yorkshire aristocrat, is persecuted once again by a diabolical animal, or else by rumors thereof. This time, there's no way that the animal is a mundane version of itself. A vampire moth, this "beast" appears several times the size of a specimen of that real-world species, has glowing eyes, and attacks human beings in a manner that justifies its common name.
When Sir Henry's wife Lady Audrey Baskerville turns up dead from massive blood loss, the rumored moth becomes the prime suspect, to Holmes's predictable disbelief. Prompted by Henry's friend, African-American veteran Corporal Benjamin Grier, Holmes and Watson find themselves heading back to Dartmoor to investigate. Grier suggests the moth is a "skinwalker"– a native American animal- to-human shapeshifting mythological being, which readers of modern American mysteries may have encountered via Tony Hillerman's Leaphorn and Chee bestseller Skinwalkers. Grier has learned of this figure while traveling "on the Mexican border," among the Navajo. In Holmes's skeptical paraphrase, Grier suspects that "a Navajo witch has taken up residence in Dartmoor and is using black magic to bring terror and death to the region."
Grier is a promising character. As a veteran of the so-called "Indian Wars"– in the Dakotas, not the Subcontinent – Grier is a Watsonian doppelganger, and Lovegrove's Watson seems almost conscious of that. Lovegrove does not soften the white Victorians' attitudes towards Corporal Grier. Henry Baskerville's three-year-old son calls him "Mr. Chimneysweep," on account of never before having seen a black man. This embarrasses Henry, which reveals his inept attempts at antiracist rearing of his son. Characters including Holmes keep on using that name, as perhaps they would have had Doyle written them. Henry also suspects another character's "impulsive Latin temperament," as a white Canadian of his era well may have done.
Several characters' constant interpretations of Grier as rare, unique, or supernatural is unsettling, and may be true to their culture but maybe not. Victorian England was full of homogenous white communities, but Yorkshire is one of the few places that has a historic hero who is (arguably) a black man, Heathcliff in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Black characters turn up in illustrated Victorian fiction, too. Lately, this reviewer has read one example for the first time: an illustrated English translation of Eugene Sue's potboiler Paula Monti. The work of historian (and British Academy fellow) Caroline Bressey has lately been turning up the elusive but far from rare presence of people whom she
terms "ordinary Black Victorians" in London and across the country – demonstrating that Sherlock Holmes characters of African background need not be Americans. Appearing at the top of one chapter of
THE BEAST OF THE STAPLETONS as a shadow looming behind Henry Baskerville, Grier is definitely a thinner and more shadowy figure than the memorable Black Victorian and idealistic philanthropist Cyrus Redding in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse's Mycroft Holmes series, whose metropolitan encounters explore in a complex way the range of plausible cultural experiences of Black Victorians.
However, THE BEAST OF THE STAPLETONS isn't his story. As usual, Holmes leads the chase and Watson plays Boswell. If all this seems incredibly repetitive of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's canonical novel, it is, mostly. While the wildernesses into which the mystery propels Holmes, Watson, and Grier prove more remote than the Great Grimpen Mire, and the mystery's solution is logical yet unpredictable, this novel does not seriously question the Holmesian world as defined by Doyle. Lovegrove concedes this by calling the novel THE BEAST OF THE STAPLETONS. Some Sherlock Holmes adventures by modern writers introduce elements unimaginable in the canon. Lovegrove does that himself in his weird, whimsical Doyle-meets-Lovecraft mashup series, THE CTHULHU CASEBOOKS.
However, there are Sherlockians who simply wish that Doyle had never died; had kept writing forever; following the patterns that his most successful Adventures made famous. THE BEAST OF THE STAPLETONS is that kind of adventure: comprised of 100 percent recycled elements but certainly entertaining and foreboding. In other words, this spinoff is a real scarecrow.
§ 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, September 2019
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