Thursday, 12 November 2020



It’s London in 1942; the streets are dark with fog and wartime blackout. And a killer calling himself Crimson Jack is murdering women on the same dates as the infamous Jack the Ripper murders more than 50 years before. It is a case for Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.

What? I hear you say. Holmes and the Ripper were products of the same era; in fact they’ve been brought together before (most notably in Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, but also, for example, in the films A Study In Terror and Murder by Decree). It was inevitable that Holmes, the greatest fictional icon of Victorian London would be brought together with its greatest real villain, both steeped in the atmosphere of the time and reflective of its violent hypocrisies lurking beneath that fog-bond surface.

But, as Robert Harris points out in his preface, Holmes and Watson were already brought forward into the wartime world of 1942, in the now timeless movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce for Universal. The placing of Holmes in this milieu, set against his own age’s greatest villain, was probably less inevitable than the works mentioned above, but given a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, it is an interesting conceit.

There are, however, a problems, and a couple of them are Holmes and Watson themselves. We probably should not expect them to be Rathbone and Bruce, but it’s hard to avoid at least comparing these atavars to the originals. In fact, this Holmes is a more gossamer construct, dependent on our own images, while Harris’ Watson is certainly not Nigel Bruce’s, full of Blimpish bluster. Bruce, while perfect in defining his role, always puzzled me a bit; not least with the ring he wears on his middle finger, a denoter of class that would place him below what we’d expect from Watson. Harris’ Watson is still slow on the update, but more the stronger presence to which Holmes attaches himself in the books than Bruce’s more dim-witting sidekick.

The story creaks at times, with herrings overly red and an ultimate villain who may be perhaps too easy to pick out. But its strongest points are the way it weaves between its possible Ripper connections and the pattern of the killings themselves, introducing many is not most of the best-known Ripper ‘solution’ theories. And where the time bending may work best is in the introduction of a woman journalist, part Martha Gellhorn and part Hildy Johnson, to spice up the action (and Dr Watson). This may suggest a sequel, to work out that unresolved situation, because Watson even in 1942, remains a Victorian gentleman, while the American journalist Gail Preston, whose dialogue tries hard to be Forties USA but often slips, at least is the only person in the Holmes saga, canonical or otherwise, who constantly calls Watson “Doc” and gets away with it.

A Study In Crimson byRobert J Harris Polygon Books, £12.99, ISBN 9781849675271

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

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