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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Holmes Among the Witches

Some of the most memorable cases of Sherlock Holmes flirted with the supernatural or other-wordly, notably including “Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” and The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Now comes Joe Revill with a novel of Sherlock Holmes called A Case of Witchcraft, a third-person account in which Holmes is assisted not by Watson but by real-life occultist Aleister Crowley. Together they investigate the presumed murder of a clergyman who was poking into witchcraft in the Northern Isles in 1899.

It’s a thoroughly researched tale of bewitching witches that comes to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion. Holmes has a great line when he says: “I would a thousand times rather be the rescuer of a living man than the avenger of a dead one.”

Being a bit of a fundamentalist about Holmes, I enjoy non-canonical Holmes stories best if I read them as though they are the adventures of an alternate-universe Holmes – a Holmes as he might have been in other circumstances. That is a reading attitude that certainly helped me with this book.

Joe Revill’s hasheesh-smoking, socialist Holmes views God as “a mythical character, whom Man has invented as the embodiment of all that which he most admires.” By contrast, the canonical Holmes appears to be a theist despite his admiration of Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man. One might argue that when he tells Dr. Watson in 1914 that the East Wind coming is “God’s own wind nonetheless” he is using the term as Revill’s Holmes does, but I would not find that argument convincing.

The theology of Sherlock Holmes is worth mentioning in any consideration of this novel because many of its pages are devoted to the subject as Holmes engages in theological dialogue with other characters..

For an alternative view – and a Holmes that is different from the canonical one in another direction – check out An Opened Grave by L. Frank James, also published as A Study in Truth. In this book Holmes travels back to Jerusalem at the dawn of Christianity and becomes a believer in the Resurrection while Watson remains a skeptic.

Different Holmes for different folks, I suppose.

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