The Angel of Crows by Katherine Addison
After the Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison's next book The Angel of the Crows is clearly her ode to the genius of Arthur Conan Doyle - and the BBC Series 'Sherlock' ( self proclaimed as "Wing-Fic" by the author herself)
This is not the book I had been expecting. Period.
I mean, after the initial shock wore off, Katherine's smooth prose soon sucked me into the middle of the 1880's foggy and dreary London with hansom cabs, restless Scotland yard police officials and the dark waters of river Thames hiding gruesome secrets. But Katherine's version of London also has a number of the inexplicable supernatural creatures that inhabit the dark alleyways or the grimy tunnels beneath. Angels, the proper ones that are bound to their habitation [ like Angel of the Victoria's Square who looks after this area/habitat] and then there are the Nameless ones who are still quite befuddled without much purpose or a direction in life. Among the viler versions are the Fallen. Then there are Vampires [who group together as 'Hunts'] and the more berserker version of the blood-drinking ones called Hemophages. In addition, there are Hell-Hounds, Werewolves and Cerebrus [ three-headed robotic dog-like apparitions!] that reside the dark, along with normal human beings.
Into this set up, comes John H Doyle - formerly a medical army doctor, recently injured in the Afghan Wars - having suffered a glancing blow from a Fallen - that has given him a bad knee and a lifetime collection of walking sticks. Doyle ( Katherine's version of Watson, of course) meets up with the eccentric Crow, who claims to be the Angel of London whole but who is also a consulting detective for the police force and whom Doyle thinks to be eccentric enough to suffer his own quirks and natural disdain of the rest of the society. They both move into '221 Baker Street' - and thus, begins a long tale of friendship between these two as Crow frequently consults and pulls Doyle into most of his bizarre and baffling cases that the London police ( including the affable but hapless Lestrade, the bull-headed but frustrated Gregson) have no clue, how to even begin to solve.
Frankly, I was amazed and happy in equal measures as reading up the complete adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle - is one of my most soul-satisfying memories, from my childhood days. So I was excited to be taken back to the foggy streets of London, going back to that blood-soaked empty room where the walls have 'RACHE' written in blood but the dead body on the floor has no signs of violence. Or chasing after one-legged killers and their treasure chests from India. Meeting up with the vile Moriarty. Escaping across the nightmarish moorlands, saving people from the ghostly terrifying hound. And there's the baffling case of the speckled band where a woman lies dead in a locked room, with no signs of break-in.
Katherine cleverly brings in some of the most famous cases of Sherlock for Crow and Doyle to partner up and solve. As you would have surmised from above, Study in Scarlet ( Still remains my favourite novella from the collections, partly because of the slightly different treatment with that flashback and the love-story angle ) is still the first of the cases that Crow drags Doyle into. And then there's the Sign of Four about the treasure chest and the maniacal wooden-legged man in pursuit of the same, not averse to leaving a chain of dead bodies behind. But interestingly enough, the Moriarty angle is brought into this story in a twist of sorts - Moriarty is a Vampire and from the initial looks of it, an amiable gentleman who minds his own business instead of terrorising the whole of Europe with his crimes. Frankly, was a bit disappointed because the pitched animosity between Holmes and Moriarty has been the key focus of a lot of televised versions of the series and I was eager to see how Katherine would have the vampire face-off with the Angel. Like the death of Sherlock Holmes and the adventure of the Empty House etc are not really referenced in this version at all.
What Katherine does bring in, however - in a massive departure from the original or the TV series - is the introduction of Jack the Ripper and the series of Whitechapel murders. Mixing this up seamlessly into the narrative, we've got the London police, press and hot-polloi in general terrorised and appalled at the wanton gruesomeness of these murders, where the elusive murderer casually dismembers the prostitutes who work this area in the night, leaving a trail of grisly dead bodies missing parts of their anatomy. Crow is a bit out of his depth here as the clues are minimal. But surprisingly Doyle - who is harbouring his own secrets - is the one who is able to pitch in on this serial killer case. Again, a welcome departure and twist in the narrative, which I quite enjoyed. The friendship between Doyle and Crow is perhaps the other best thing about the book, a marked departure where Doyle and Crow are almost on equal footing and Doyle isn't just another hanger-on to the mysteries that Crow eagerly dashes out to solve.
The supernatural elements in London are a bit muted though. Katherine so effortlessly weaves in the Angels [ there are quite a few who make their appearance in the narrative but none of them with any depth so to stick in our memories] into the story that we often forget the implausibility of such and go with the flow. But frankly, I felt by muting a lot of details of who or what of the Angels and making the Angels or the monster ubiquitous, we are robbed of their impact on the actual stories. Like we are given glimpses into the past of Crow - about he was a Nameless first and then he takes on the mantle of Angel of London itself but by keeping this detail about transitions between Angel, Fallen or Nameless to a bare minimum, I frankly have a lot of gaps in my understanding of the same. But this doesn't affect how much I enjoyed the reading of course!
With tons of Easter eggs thrown in to the case-files, teasing details left out for us to ponder over. Katherine definitely has written an engaging winner in terms of a fresh take on Sherlock and Watson. What I truly enjoyed, is the focus on the character of Doyle - the narrator here - and his own travails and troubles that dot the story throughout and sometimes, brings in the best of the twists to it. The stories are amusing and thrilling - victorian pastiches of that foggy mysterious London with killers lurking in the dark, truly enjoyable. There are baffling subversions of the genre that Katherine takes readers down - lanes that don't generally end up anywhere meaningful but forms a great diversion by itself. Like in her own way, Katherine brings out gender roles and racism that existed in this era.
Overall, a faithful rendition of the original stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, Angel of Crows is an engaging read that will appeal to the Holmes fans, with its own twists in the form of supernatural angels and vampires thrown in. However don't expect twisty detecting or hefty clues to be tracked down to get to the bottom of the mysteries.