Book Review: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Ace Books
Publication Date: June 18th, 2019
Pages: 352, trade paperback
Source: Library

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 Ms. Shaharazad Haas, a consulting sorceress of mercurial temperament and dark reputation.

When Ms. 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 Ms. Haas’ stock-in-trade.

I thoroughly enjoyed this strange little mashup of Lovecraft and Sherlock Holmes that shouldn’t work but absolutely does. The mystery is well layered, the culprit believable, and the conclusion satisfying. Putting queer and PoC into the world of Lovecraft is one of my favorite tropes, simply because I know it would horrify the racist were he alive now to see it. 

Shaharazad is an immensely fun character to read about, though I will say she’s more of a composite of the pop culture idea of Sherlock Holmes than a direct translation of the character. She veers closer to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, only more queer and terrifyingly powerful. Whereas the Watson of this story, John Wyndham, a gay trans man, hews closer to the original Watson. It works better than it has any right to, but if you’re looking for a faithful adaptation of the Holmes character, I would lower my expectations on that front. 

The important part is that Shaharazad’s friendship with Wyndham reads as genuine and touching, which should always be the biggest accomplishment of any Sherlock Holmes adaptation.

The only thing I truly found tiresome is that Wyndham has to leave his home country because of the trans hatred he faces there, from society and his own family. In a world where you can visit a Mad God and be back in time for tea, the fact that bigotry against trans people is a thing that still exists is unoriginal and annoying, especially in a book that teems with originality. 

Still, I’ll be back for the next book in the series, and I can’t wait to see how Moriarty is adapted to this universe (if he is).

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