There’s something about Christmas that the British psyche connects with the Victorian era. Whether that’s in the ghost stories of MR James or one of the most successful tales of all time – Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, the period often evokes the festive spirit. This is your opportunity to slip back into the snowy December of London in 1890 and enjoy a slice of Victoriana involving the world’s most famous consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his friend and chronicler of their adventures, Dr. John Watson. ‘What Child is This?’ is an original ‘Sherlock Holmes’ story and is the latest in a series of books featuring the great detective by author Bonnie MacBird.
For readers who enjoy the world created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘What Child is This?’ has much to recommend it. Bonnie MacBird diligently writes in the style of Conan Doyle, and skilfully captures the era of late Victorian London, peppering her story with characters and phrases that could easily have come from the pen of the originator himself. She follows the custom of having the story narrated in the first person by the dependable Dr. Watson. Her writing style also has the ring of authenticity about it. Given that Conan Doyle tended to write short stories and short novels featuring his most famous literary creation, it’s perhaps appropriate that ‘What Child is This?’ is a short, entertaining novel. It can be enjoyed in a single sitting, or over a few relaxing evenings, preferably sitting snugly in front of the fire.
‘What Child is This’ sees Holmes and Watson witness the attempted abduction of the young son of Lord and Lady Endicott. The villain gets away, but Holmes begins to suspect that the Endicott’s child was targeted, and was not a random snatch. A distinctive birth mark on the child’s neck, shaped rather like a star, provides a clue to unlocking his past. Holmes’ investigation takes him into the dark and shady world of corrupt orphanages and laudanum addition as he uncovers secrets about the child’s origins in order to secure his future. At the same time, another son is missing. Holmes engages the help of his friend Heffie in tracking down Reginald Weathering, son of a Marquis. They work together on the cases to solve both mysteries ahead of Christmas Day.
MacBird’s deviation from the world of Conan Doyle is in providing a degree of social commentary. Holmes sees the potential in Heffie O’Malley, a young working class girl, and does his best to provide her with the opportunity for upward social mobility. In solving the disappearance of Reginald Weathering, he shows great compassion for those who live outside of societal norms. He takes a broad-minded view on how tragic circumstances can lead people to a life of addiction. Readers may enjoy this or not, depending upon taste, but the author certainly justifies her approach through her characterisation of Sherlock Holmes. He is a calculating machine driven by reason rather than emotion, and as such, it’s his accurate reading of human nature that ultimately provides a resolution to satisfy all parties. Parts of the novel will warm the heart whilst staying true to the essence of Conan Doyle’s world. Only the names of the orphanages stood out as sounding too contemporary to fit into the Victorian period. I still imagined the voice of Jeremy Brett in my head whilst reading, as Holmes’ speech patterns certainly felt truthful to the character so many readers have a clear conception about.
Overall, ‘What Child is This’ is a diverting read, where the enthusiasm of the author for the subject matter and the characters is tangible. Some original characters, especially Heffie O’Malley, are a joy to meet. Inevitably, creating original stories based on one of the world’s best-known literary characters invites comparisons with the original, and the mysteries at the heart of the book aren’t as compelling as the best of the Sherlock Holmes stories. On a few occasions, the dialogue is a touch florid, and some of the supporting characters feel perfunctory. The sequence of events during the showdown at the Endicotts’ mansion doesn’t entirely satisfy. However, the emotional pay-off makes up for any doubts about the plotting.
The book is well-produced, with a slip cover over a dark red hardback. The stunning illustrations by Frank Cho complement the text and help to visually bring the book to life, capturing well the period fashions and decor. There’s no mistaking that ‘What Child is This?’ is a very entertaining and often amusing read, and it will prove a Yuletide treat for any Sherlockian in your life.
Publisher: Collins Crime Club Publication date: 13th October 2022 Buy ‘What Child is This?’