The Affair of the Mysterious Letter: A Lovecraftian Sherlock Holmes pastiche

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsCaptain John Wyndham has returned to Khelathra-Ven after being away with the army for several years. Rents are high, so he decides to answer an ad for a housemate. When he moves in, he discovers that his new companion is Shaharazad Haas, a renowned and powerful sorceress who’s addicted to opium. When Ms. Haas is asked to find out who is blackmailing her ex-girlfriend, Captain Wyndham tags along and starts getting involved in a case which turns into a weird and wacky adventure.

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter (2019) is a gender-bending Lovecraftian Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Shaharazad Haas is Sherlock Holmes and Captain Wyndham, who was female when he was young, is Watson. The plot, which is quirky and whimsical, involves vampires, eldritch gods, time travel, the multiverse, a literary critic, and a shark (not the same character as the literary critic). It was sometimes hilarious and almost always silly. To my disappointment, though, the mystery was not clever or interesting and sometimes the plot really dragged. I did not find the story itself to be entertaining.

What was entertaining, though, was the tone and voice. It’s written from Wyndham’s perspective in a wordy, elevated, self-conscious style that I found appealing, especially when he tells us about his editor’s writing advice, or disagreements with his editor:

My editor suggests to me that informing you at this juncture of conversations which can only have taken place after the experiences I presently describe robs the forthcoming narrative of any sense of tension or uncertainty. I personally do not understand this complaint. You the reader must surely know that I am writing this book many years after these events. And while it is true that some popular memoirs have been penned by the deceased (Miss Evadne de Silver’s Life Amongst the Bone Cults of Lei being a particularly fine example of the genre) such texts remain a rarity and are normally composed by persons with access to, and knowledge of, powerful necromantic arts.

Despite being homosexual and transgender (which has nothing to do with the plot), Wyndham is a prude who’s obsessed with modesty and propriety:

Ms. Haas moved her mouth close to my ear. “I cannot believe I engaged in connubial activities with this gentleman. But I suppose I was very young.”

 

As a matter of record, I should add that the words “engaged,” “connubial,” “activities,” and “gentleman” were not, in actuality, used by Ms. Haas at this juncture, but I have taken some licence in representing her use of language in order to protect the sensibilities of my readers.

This particular little habit is hilarious at first but eventually becomes tiresome.

I expect that some readers will find Wyndham’s entire manner tiresome, but I thought it was mostly quite amusing. I suspect that my enjoyment of the voice has a lot to do with the narrator of the audiobook edition I listened to. Nicholas Boulton was absolutely perfect and I loved his performance. Penguin Audio is the publisher and the audiobook is 10.5 hours long. If you plan to read The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, I recommend this version.

Published in June 2019. In this charming, witty, and weird fantasy novel, Alexis Hall pays homage to Sherlock Holmes with a new twist on those renowned characters. Upon returning to the city of Khelathra-Ven after five years fighting a war in another universe, Captain John Wyndham finds himself looking for somewhere to live, and expediency forces him to take lodgings at 221b Martyrs Walk. His new housemate is Miss Shaharazad Haas, a consulting sorceress of mercurial temperament and dark reputation. When Miss Haas is enlisted to solve a case of blackmail against one of her former lovers, Miss Eirene Viola, Captain Wyndham finds himself drawn into a mystery that leads him from the salons of the literary set to the drowned back-alleys of Ven and even to a prison cell in lost Carcosa. Along the way he is beset by criminals, menaced by pirates, molested by vampires, almost devoured by mad gods, and called upon to punch a shark. But the further the companions go in pursuit of the elusive blackmailer, the more impossible the case appears. Then again, in Khelathra-Ven reality is flexible, and the impossible is Miss Haas’ stock-in-trade.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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2 comments

  1. This does sound pretty fun. It looks like it’s going to be a series; I wonder if the mysteries will end up improving. Sometimes that happens.

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