Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes to readers more than a century ago, and few other characters have proved to possess such longevity or elasticity. Just in my lifetime alone, I've seen Holmes presented as a youngster, a keen yet stuffy detective, a roguish brawler, and an occult detective. I can honestly say I never expected Holmes to come face to face with the Cenobites of Clive Barker's mythology, but Paul Kane corrected that in a mostly, and surprisingly, effective mashup.
Holmes and Watson are charged with investigating the disappearance of one Francis Cotton, a name Barker reader's will know well from The Hellbound Heart, which serves as more than mere inspiration here. As the investigation proceeds, more individuals disappear and the investigators are pulled deeper into the darkest corners of London's recesses as they search for a mysterious organization known as the Order of the Gash, as well as the strange murder weapon - a small puzzle box known as the Lament Configuration.
Right from the get-go, it's pretty clear that Kane is both a Holmes and Barker aficionado (heck, the man wrote about the Hellraiser films and put together a tribute anthology to Barker's mythology), and Barker has even stated in the past that, "Paul’s the resident Hellraiser expert." So yeah, the dude clearly knows his Cenobites from his cinnabites.
Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell is at its best during the book's first half, with Holmes and Watson chasing down leads and disappearances and becoming slowly involved in every-increasingly supernatural events. Holmes himself is still recovering from his fall over Reichenbach Falls, and Watson is happy to have him back, even if slightly wounded by his friend's disappearances and secrets. There's some really solid character work between these two and their relationship, colored by their past cases together, and you get a terrific sense of their shared history. I must admit, I had only read one Holmes book previously, and roughly fifteen years ago at that, and my introduction to Barker came only recently with the audiobook of The Hellbound Heart, but the pop culture landscape these icons have become infused in made reading about them here welcomingly familiar.
I was quite captivated by the subtle shadings of horror Kane revealed over the course of Holmes's and Watson's legwork and appreciated the subdued nature as the story grew progressively darker. Where it kind of fell apart for me was in the finale, where the supernatural horror elements became an almost dark superhero fantasy. The book synopsis notes that this is "Holmes’ most outlandish adventure to date," and that's certainly accurate. It just depends on how much outlandishness you can appreciate, and there's certainly a fair bit of fan-service conducted in the book's final third that didn't quite work for me. Barker fans may relish some of these events, and there are certainly some cool aspects to the hell-raising finale, but it struck me as being so tonally different and fantastical from the well-grounded events prior that it never quite jelled for me.
My other problem came with the structure of the third act. In Part One, the story is recounted by Watson, and Part Two is left to Holmes' point of view. Part Three offers us a look at both, and with this comes a fair amount of repetition. Stuff happens in Holmes' narrative that then gets immediately recounted from Watson's view point, but without enough dissimilarity to make these recaps sufficiently necessary. Thankfully, the shifting narrative in part three works more often than it fails, but it was problematic enough to niggle ever so slightly.
Mostly, Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell worked for me, and it was cool reading such two disparate characters and mythologies as Holmes and the Cenobites come together to produce something unique. I greatly enjoyed seeing the references to Barker's canon and the way some of his plots and characters became repurposed elements for a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Kane's depictions of characters was spot-on, and he captured the grotesque sensual suffering of the Cenobites quite effectively. The last few chapters proved to me, though, that you can definitely have too much of a good thing.
Final verdict: 3 out of 5 stars
[I received a copy of this title for review from the publisher via NetGalley.]