Review: Unquiet Spirits by Bonnie Macbird

The second Sherlock Holmes pastiche from writer Bonnie Macbird tries to answer two questions which have haunted (get it?) Sherlockians for as long as the ‘Great Game’ has been played. They are simply: ‘where was he educated?’ and ‘why does he have such an aversion to romantic attachments?’
 
Countless pastiches have tried to answer these questions with theories as wild as they have been varied. It’s very hard to answer without delighting one half of the fandom while equally upsetting the other half at the same time. It’s brave but enticing territory and I applaud Macbird for daring to tread such well-trodden but risky ground – as dangerous as the Grimpen Mire some might say.
 
What I think makes this foray into young Sherlock’s early experiences of school, university and even love successful, is Macbird’s lightness of touch. They are neatly woven into a greater mystery which gives them purpose and significance. This makes such experiences entirely believable in the context of the story and they are written with such care that they don’t jar with what we already know about Holmes.
 
Unquiet Spirits is written in the traditional style, purporting to be a lost tale written by Doctor Watson’s own hand. It follows on from Macbird’s first novel, Art in the Blood, and sees the welcome return of lovable scoundrel French detective Vidocq. Again, Holmes and Watson travel to France at the beginning of the case, but for me, Unquiet Spirits really gets going when the action moves to the beautiful, atmospheric Scottish Highlands.
 
One of the writer’s great strengths is the detailed research that goes into each of her novels. Here we have the most wonderful, vivid descriptions of the Highlands, of the castle at the centre of mystery and of course, its whiskey distillery. The information about whiskey production, the distillery itself and the whiskey industry is fascinating and give the novel a rich, multi-layered authenticity. Everything is so beautifully described, you really are transported to another world. 
 
Told through the voice of a very loyal, warm, self-deprecating and brave Watson, we follow Holmes as he tries to unravel three interconnecting mysteries. Through the course of this, we get a glimpse into the Holmes of childhood, of his struggles at university and a young woman who captured his heart.
All the elements expected from a good pastiche are here; Holmes’ brilliant observations and deductions, the blundering police force, the unbelieving and difficult client, danger, false accusations and light being shone into darkness. But what stands out for me is the depiction of the friendship between Holmes and Watson, the fun they have sharing these adventures, the humour between them (in-jokes about Watson’s gambling and how transparent he is being favourites.)
 
Watson really lets Holmes shine, he functions exactly as a Watson should – a facilitator and biographer, medical man and friend. He remains an auxiliary figure unlike some recent incarnations where I think his role has been overstated and he/she (Elementary) has been put on an almost equal footing to Holmes. Here we have a Watson whose love for Holmes is so touching, their easy friendship though tested at one point, remains solid and strong, the linchpin on which all else hangs.
 
Unquiet Spirits is an excellent addition to any Holmesian collection and a very enjoyable read.

About barefootonbakerstreet

Author from Shropshire
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