‘The Affair of the Mysterious Letter’ serves up a spellbinding take on the Sherlock Holmes mythos

September 6, 2019

“The Affair of the Mysterious Letter” is a very boring title for a mystery novel. It is up there with “The Case of the Stolen Object” and “The Mystery of the Guy Who Was Murdered” in terms of titles that neither catch the eye nor entice the mind, and that must rely solely on their infuriating vagueness to compel someone to crack open the book. Having done just that, I imagine author Alexis Hall must have chosen his title with a supreme smirking self-awareness, because “The Affair of the Mysterious Letter” is one of the most insanely creative and creatively insane novels I have read in a long time.

         Hall’s mystery novel follows Captain John Wyndham, a veteran of a universe spanning eternal war against The Empress of Nothing and her void-born demons. He comes to the ancient and glorious city of Khelathra-Ven in search of a new start and finds lodging at 221b Martyrs Walk, home of the eccentric and relentlessly sharp Shaharazad Haas, a consulting sorceress of both fame and infamy. Soon Mr. Wyndham finds himself swept up in Ms. Haas’ latest distraction, a case of blackmail against one of her own more storied lovers, Miss Eireen Viola. It is an investigation that will take the pair from the drowned ruins of a sunken city to the dark towers of a Vampiress’s gothic lair to the psychedelic realms of mad gods as they transverse a tantalizing creative cocktail of a world, equal parts Victorian, high-fantasy and Lovecraftian.

         If you haven’t guessed by now, “The Affair of the Mysterious Letter” is a unique take on the Sherlock Holmes cannon, with Haas taking on the role of the great sleuth and Wyndham as her Watson. Haas is quintessential modern Holmes: petty, childish, sarcastic, in constant and obsessive need of stimulation and entertainment, possessing a god-like ego and self assuredness, and bereft of any sense of consequence or emotional sensitivity. There is little in her character that is not also summoned up in “House MD” or BBC’s “Sherlock,” maintaining an air of aloofness about her while hinting at a deeper pain and care for her companions — occasionally. 

This edge of predictability to her character isn’t the fault of the writer. The character of Sherlock Holmes has been so definitively defined over the last century that it is nigh impossible to write a new version without feeling the echoes of his myriad iterations. To stray too far from the Sherlock archetype would be to lose all the things that make Sherlock Holmes a memorable, interesting and engaging character, things Haas has in droves. She is a person as comfortable infiltrating an aristocratic ball as she is persuading eldritch gods not to devour her soul, or summoning demons in the kitchen before afternoon tea. Haas’s all encompassing nonchalance to the near constant life or death stakes she is faced with, along with her bone-deep yet self-aware childishness make her an incredibly fun protagonist to follow. She may not be wholly unique, but damn is she fun to read. 

Thankfully, the same stringent character confines do not apply to the detective’s loyal partner. I feel writers never have enough fun with the character of Watson. Too often he is relegated to the practical loyal partner, always on the brink of being fed up with Sherlock’s eccentricities. His character maintains startling consistency in recent years despite being the less defined of the duo. Alexis Hall takes his Watson back to his roots as Sherlock’s straight man. In fact, John Wyndham is the straightest, straight man, who ever did straight. He is in a near-constant condition of monocle popping and “Oh my word-ing” at every morally dubious, and occult thing Ms. Haas does (and she does a lot). If Haas is the epitome of childish smugness, Wyndham is the epitome of childish innocence. He adheres to a naive sense of right and wrong, an unwavering belief in goodness and decorum even in the face of the cynical, dark, and debaucherous world that his partner openly revels in. 

Wyndham hails from a place that can be best described as “Planet Protestant,” instilled with such an ironclad sense of needless modesty that he believes cufflinks are far too gaudy an extravagance to wear. The extreme nature of his humility rivals the outlandishness of the promiscuous, hyperactive, reality hopping witch he partners with, making him one of the most endearing characters I’ve read in quite some time. One of the funniest too. He narrates the story from the point of hindsight, with each chapter a new installment of his life story, diegetically captured for this week’s newspaper. This farming device is employed well, capturing the tone of the original Holmesian chronicles to a tee. It allows the author to have fun through Wyndham’s writing style and world view, allowing for many rather humorous descriptions and a hilarious running joke of Wyndham trying and failing to retroactively censor the many vulgarities his partner spewed during their adventure. It becomes even more fun when the story takes Wyndham and Haas places where reality itself is uncertain and he is forced to portray it anyway. After reading the novel, Wyndham has been solidified as my favorite incarnation of Dr. John Watson. 

But he isn’t my favorite character, nor is he the author’s. That honor goes to the very world of the book. Hall focuses the bulk of his creative energies into the forging of his fantasy world. It is a brilliant mosaic of myth, legend, real world history, Victorian society, dungeons and dragons campaign and Lovecraftian horror, churning and frothing into a vague yet immersive universe that you ache to learn more about. As Haas and Wyndham journey from country to country, realm to realm, time to time, tracking down suspects, the reader is taken to memorable and captivatingly imaginative new worlds. We visit an underwater city, populated by fish men and ruled over by sundered trade deities that transcend time. We visit a dark and malevolent industrialized country, governed by a mysterious, reality-bending psudo-communist party and haunted by a disposed god-king. We meet gothic vampires, forest witches, necromantic bankers and sky pirates. The sights and stories of this world are relayed in a rather hilarious fashion (a personal favorite is when Haas recounts having met the physical embodiment of Hope, described as a god with far too many eyes). You are left wanting to know more about The City of Khelathra-Ven, The Myrmidons, Joy-In-Sorrow, Witch King Iustinian, steel mages, the guilds, The Empress of Nothing, the Savior Yohannah and a thousand and one other creative little things. The giddiness you get out of watching this clever fictional world form in front of your eyes and the agonizing interest summoned by the depth hinted at is honestly the best thing this novel has to offer, and on that front alone I would recommend it to aspiring fantasy writers as a well of inspiration. 

But unfortunately, the worldbuilding is also this novel’s greatest weakness. The author very clearly prioritized the fantasy of this story over the story itself, with the narrative structured to have the main duo visit some new exotic local corresponding to one of their suspects. As such, the outlandish circumstances and surroundings our protagonists find themselves in are made more important than the suspects, and even the mystery itself. It is very easy to forget why Wyndham and Haas are doing something and get lost in where they are and what new strange thing is happening in the moment. 

The fact that the actual mystery is so unimportant is not an oversight on Hall’s part. His priorities were in a different place and I can respect that given how fun the book came out. But mysteries should center on characters going through a defiant process to determine why and how a specific event happened, not worldbuilding. The mystery itself is by far the least engaging aspect of “The Mysterious Letter” and for a world as multifaceted and creative as the one Hall fashions, you would think there would be a more fittingly interesting and strange mystery as the crux of the story, like the murder of a god or the theft of some uber-powerful magic idol, instead of simple blackmail. Then again, it all wraps up creatively enough and for the first book in a series, and it’s good to start off with a smaller and more personal story to help introduce us to the characters. I am certain that this will be a series, as it seems specifically structured to be so. The narrative introduced us to every corner of the world and teaches us the rules, and characters are introduced that are obviously earmarked for later development and story. Our narrator is also constantly alluding to future events and knowingly elbowing us in the ribs a little too hard. 

At the very least, read this book so Alexis Hall has an excuse to continue to flesh out his characters, world and mystery. And for my sake, as a fan. Because despite all its faults and shortcomings, “The Affair of the Mysterious Letter” is still a hilarious, stylistic and imaginatiative romp that taps new springs of wit and humor with every page turn. It’s coy, it’s self aware, it’s clever and most importantly, it’s really, really fun to read. In the end, the least memorable thing about this time trodding tome of refreshing Holmesian insanity is the title.

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