Sherlock Holmes The Thinking Engine by James Lovegrove

Titan Books, 2015, 304 p. Reviewed for Interzone 261, Nov-Dec 2015.

 Sherlock Holmes The Thinking Engine  cover

After The Stuff of Nightmares and Gods of War this is the third of Lovegrove’s Sherlock Holmes novels for Titan Books. (By other hands there are four more with two forthcoming.) The foreword here, supposedly written in 1927 by a retired Dr Watson, places The Thinking Engine in the interstices between the Holmes stories published in The Strand.

Books which extend a franchise, as it were, potentially have to satisfy more than one constituency; devotees of the originals, those of passing acquaintance, the possibility of attracting new adherents – even the odd reviewer unfamiliar with the oeuvre save, perhaps, as part of the general cultural background. Adherents are catered for here by frequent mentions of previous Holmes cases, a couple of diversions on how often Holmes ever used the word “elementary”, sly references to inconsistencies in the canon, several citings of the Reichenbach Falls and an evocation of the Great Grimpen Mire.

The premise of The Thinking Engine promises a foray into Alternative History, a speculative slant to the proceedings, a steampunk ambience. A certain Balliol Professor, Malcolm Quantock, has constructed the Engine of the title, said to be able to solve crimes merely by providing it with all the data required, and newspaper proprietor Lord Knaresfield has offered a prize to anyone who can disprove its accuracy. How can this fail to interest the Great Detective?

The Engine’s first case is that of the murder of a mother and her two daughters for which the prime suspect, the husband and father, has an apparently cast-iron alibi (involving a dog which did not bark.) Holmes, given access to the crime scene by an unusually helpful policeman, Inspector Tomlinson, solves it in short order. So too does the Thinking Engine, a device of whirring rotors and tickertape print-outs (though it later gains a voice based on phonographic disc recordings.) We have to wait a while for this encounter, though, as in the early chapters we are introduced to a pre-fame Harry Houdini, animating the mummy of an Egyptian pharaoh in the midst of night in order to drum up business for an exhibition of antiquities. Such unlikely meetings with the famous in perhaps unfamiliar roles are one of the small pleasures of Alternative History; but here there are few other instances. We are told Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) consults the Thinking Engine on a mathematics problem (and appears crushed by its, evidently correct, solution). Later, Home Secretary H H Asquith and the London Police Commissioner visit to assess the Engine’s suitability to aid in the wider aspects of law enforcement.

The Engine’s second case at first seems more trivial. Student Aubrey Bancroft sends poison pen letters to his tutor but is easily unmasked. This affair takes on more sinister attributes when Bancroft is himself poisoned by strychnine contained in a celebratory bottle of champagne. Another apparent piece of nonsense about the crew kidnapping and replacing the arrogant stroke of a rowing VIII ends in the murder of ringleader Hugh Llewellyn. In both of these Watson is conscience-struck by being unable to save the lives of the victims despite being in attendance.

Holmes’s repeated failures to rebut the Engine delight reporter Archie Slater, who takes great pleasure in lambasting him in print. Yet all the cases bear the hallmarks of the perpetrators being manipulated into their acts. A greater intelligence is at work.
Unlike SF, it is the duty of the detective story, of the detective, to restore order to an errant world. Holmes, naturally, does so, but not before exposing himself to danger and humiliation.

Despite occasional USianisms such as, “it’s down to me,” “So you’ve shown up,” “ruckus,” “fit” used as a past tense and instances of possibly unWatsonian usage like, “Oh pish! Think nothing of it,” plus the surely modern, “You reckon you’ve cracked it?” and, “It fair broke my heart,” it’s all very cleverly done and devotees will (I assume) be pleased enough; but lovers of speculative fiction may be less enthralled. The story sticks closely to the Holmesian template, remains firmly down to earth. Far from being an advance on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, the workings of the Thinking Engine are foreshadowed by the business with the mummy, and resolutely quotidian. Its closest comparator (Spoiler!) is a historical machine known as the Mechanical Turk, which Lovegrove himself acknowledges in the text. After this the revelation of the villain of the piece does not come as too great a surprise.

There are neat authorial touches such as Quantock’s allusion to, “paths laid out before me, following the lead of others,” and Watson’s statement that, “It is possible to have refined tastes and peddle dross,” but this book is one mainly for Holmes aficionados.

These comments did not appear in the published review (but “Americanisms” for “USianisms” did):-
Pedant’s corner:- the book is set in 1895 yet Holmes suggests a criminal would be transported to the colonies. Penal transportation had ended by 1868. There are references to Slater’s bookmaker (but off-course betting wasn’t legalised in Britain till 1960.)
Opuses (the plural of opus is actually opera – though I agree that could be confused with a type of musical entertainment,) medieval (mediaeval.) “Whet my whistle” (a confusion with “whet my appetite”? “Whet” means “sharpen”. The correct phrase is “wet my whistle”.) The chemists (it may be plural I suppose but the context suggests otherwise, so chemist’s,) between him and Quantock (“himself” would be less awkward than “him”,) font of all wisdom (I prefer fount,) “when you have quite so clearly lost” (“quite clearly” or “so clearly” but not “quite so clearly”,) one less villain (fewer,) mostly likely (most likely.)

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