Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 320 pp., $16.99
It is extremely unusual for a literary character to remain popular for more than a century. But Sherlock Holmes is no ordinary character. Ever since the eccentric, pipe-smoking detective first appeared on the page in 1887, the tweedy London logician has been revered and emulated, the subject of 200-plus films and television shows and dozens of literary spinoffs. So it's only natural that Arthur Conan Doyle fans may be curious about what may have shaped the detective in his youth. Now we have "Death Cloud," the first in a young-adult series approved by Conan Doyle's estate, in which British author Andrew Lane casts Holmes as a sleuth-in-training.
Lane has used a bit of deductive reasoning in constructing his prequel, which begins in 1868 when Sherlock is 14. Lane has plucked details from the original stories, harvesting the few clues that exist about Sherlock's family, including an older brother named Mycroft who works for the British government.
"Death Cloud" opens with Mycroft picking up Sherlock from a boys' school that has let out for summer break. Sherlock had been expecting his father, but the elder Holmes has just left for India as part of the British army. Sherlock's mother is too frail for him to live at home, so he is sent to live with an unfriendly aunt and uncle in the remote and sprawling Holmes Manor, staffed with an even less welcoming housekeeper.
Being a teenager with nothing to do, Sherlock is destined to find trouble, and he does. Mycroft has hired his brother a tutor by the name of Amyus Crowe, who is American but nevertheless more Sherlockian than Sherlock himself as he counsels his student to "seek out information" and "collect it assiduously." That advice comes in handy when Sherlock, out mushroom collecting with his new teacher, happens upon a dead body. It's Crowe who teaches Sherlock how to deal with a body and who encourages observation as a methodology for solving crime.
After another body is found, both with unusual boils on them, Sherlock and an orphan boy named Matty Arnatt embark on a mission to solve the mystery. Riding bicycles, horses and other pre-automotive transportation, they traipse around the countryside, then to London, and stumble upon a vast conspiracy involving beekeeping and the military.
While the scarred villain who hatched the plot adds to an unusual and captivating story line, it also makes the book feel equally derived from James Bond, another beloved British character who has been reimagined as a teen. Lane is most successful in showing how Sherlock's intellect may have developed and in capturing some of his personality traits, but is less so in translating the original into an equally intriguing teen, perhaps because doing so would make him too unrelatable for a young modern audience. A loner who shuns women and enjoys dressing in disguise is charming on some levels, but a teen who exhibits these same characteristics may seem odd.
Lane's writing style is action-packed and detail-oriented, incorporating old-fashioned letters that appear in intriguing script fonts. He includes period details about toothbrush powder and early ideas about modern medicine. The young Sherlock is drugged with the opiate laudanum, which fills his dreams with demons and leaves him fuzzy-headed. Sherlock expresses a dislike for the notion that some people seek out laudanum to intentionally experience these effects. It will be interesting to see how Lane will evolve this 19th-century twist on Just Say No into a pipe smoker, and it's doubtful that young Holmes will be a recreational drug user, as he was in Conan Doyle's originals.
Unfortunately, many Holmesian quirks and the deadpan wit are absent from "Death Cloud." While the teen Sherlock is inquisitive and adventurous and the mystery he finds himself in is clever and oftentimes exhilarating, his personality is just too elementary.