A stuffed specimen of the great auk, a flightless bird supposed to be extinct, is being unveiled at the British Museum when a young ornithologist tries to vandalise it after accusing it of being a fake. When he is murdered in a fashion similar to how conventionally flightless birds are done away with, Sherlock Holmes is entrusted with three missions: to solve the murder, to prove the legitimacy of the specimen, and to save the museum and the late contributor of the specimen from further scandals.
Whenever any attempt is made to bring out a new novel or movie from a known franchise, there arise certain expectations that are built up from the previous experiences associated with it. If the new product fits the template, it is, personally, a satisfactory experience for me. If it alters the franchise in a great way that radically changes our attitude towards it, like how Christopher Nolan transformed the cinematic landscape of Batman movies, I am delighted. But if the retelling tries to subvert my expectations and spoil my goodwill towards the franchise, it will be a horrible disappointment. I had my fingers burned with Sherlock Holmes once before by reading The Curious Case of 221B by Partha Basu.
Thus, it was with a certain curiosity about how it would turn out that I started reading Sherlock Holmes and the Legend of the Great Auk, which was provided by Netgalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. It is written by Linda Stratmann and is the fifth installment of the series The Early Casebooks of Sherlock Holmes. The novel chronicles the mysteries solved by Holmes in his pre-Watson period, while he was a student doing rather dangerous chemical experiments and accumulating different skills and knowledge required for his celebrated and distinguished future career.
As this is the fifth book in the Early Casebook series, the character is properly established in this universe. Linda Stratmann doesn't deviate much from the template set by Conan Doyle. The character of Holmes displays all the quirks and eccentricities that are made famous by the classic stories. The author has toned down a lot of his tendencies towards substance abuse. It is evident that Stratmann has a good understanding of the historical mapping of the times and the literary style of Doyle. The language she uses is thankfully very similar to that of Doyle and suitable for the story. The plot is intriguing, with many threads of mysterious incidents overlapping one another.
The story is narrated by Mr. Stamford, a student of surgery who is also Stratmann's stand-in for Dr. Watson. There is nothing to complain about the character, but while I would appreciate that Stratmann chose to stay as close to Doyle in other aspects, a slight variation in this character, who very much resembles Dr. Watson, would have taken the novel to a higher level. It is evident that Stamford narrates his adventures with Holmes at a later period, long after Watson has already published his stories with Holmes. This setup is excellent, as it leaves room for a lot of references to the plots of various classic Holmes mysteries. It will also be interesting to explore the motivation behind Stamford's recounting of these old accounts so late in life. Was it a late attempt to grab fame and limelight when Watson has already achieved them? Does this attempt compromise his storytelling in any way? Some interesting details to ponder about
Stratmann has used several real-life figures and incidents in the novel, which became evident to me only after reading the final notes. This also became a factor that I appreciated about the book, as it added an additional layer to it. The plight of the great auks and the final extinction of the flightless, monogamous, penguin-like species are heartbreaking. Though the author doesn't explicitly express it in the book, ecological conservation manages to come out as a major takeaway. An envelope of humor—a tad more than that can be found in the works of Doyle—covers the Legend of the Great Auk.
Linda Stratmann has delivered a suspenseful detective novel featuring Holmes, very much in the style of Doyle. Though this Holmes never attempts to break any new ground and settles to stay close to its classic predecessor, the book ultimately was a satisfying experience.