It is 1895, and Sherlock Holmes’s new client is a High Court judge, whose free-spirited daughter has disappeared without a trace.
Holmes and Watson discover that the missing woman—Hannah Woolfson—was herself on the trail of a missing person, her close friend Sophia. Sophia was recruited to a group known as the Elysians, a quasi-religious sect obsessed with Ancient Greek myths and rituals, run by the charismatic Sir Philip Buchanan. Hannah has joined the Elysians under an assumed name, convinced that her friend has been murdered. Holmes agrees that she should continue as his agent within the secretive yet seemingly harmless cult, yet Watson is convinced Hannah is in terrible danger. For Sir Philip has dreams of improving humanity through classical ideals, and at any cost…
This was my third Holmes-pastiche from James Lovegrove after Gods Of War and The Thinking Machine two books which had several strong individual parts but these did not come together satisfyingly to form a great novel. So, let’s see whether The Labyrinth Of Death is more successful in this regard!
Hannah Woolfson, a young woman of independent spirit and great intelligence has disappeared. The trail leads Holmes and Watson to a bizarre cult-like group obsessed with ancient Greek culture and mythology. Are they just a harmless bunch of nutters? Or have they taken the more bloodthirsty rituals and myths too seriously?
The first few chapters move rather slowly. But once Holmes and Watson arrive at the headquarters of the mysterious sect things start to get exciting.
Lovegrove’s strength lies in his great ability to bring these classic characters to life. These are the Holmes and Watson we know and love, behaving like they would in the original stories. There is also some wonderfully witty banter between the two friends as in the following passages:
“I know you would prefer me to represent your investigations as if they were treatises, Holmes, with a premise, an explanation and a conclusion. But what would be the point in that? Who would read them bar a handful of academics and intellectual snobs?”
“They would at least have the virtue of serious and lasting scientific value. Thanks to you, I strongly doubt that my achievements will be heralded in the future. Whereas a more sober, factual record of my deeds would live on indefinitely in scholarly libraries, adding to the sum total of mankind’s wisdom and benefiting the student of crime for generations to come.”
He was being ironic. At least, I like to think he was.
“Holmes,” I said, “it is not up to me, or to you, what of us lives on past our deaths and what does not. A higher power determines that.”
My companion grinned. “Then let us hope that posterity is kind to me and you. Perhaps you are right. Perhaps a century from now or more, my renown will persist through your jottings. Who knows? Other authors might even pick up where you leave off and invent chronicles of their own about me. Since you fictionalise my doings, Watson, who is to say I will not in the end come to be considered completely fictitious, a figment of the imagination, and therefore air game for pasticheurs and homageurs and similar such mountebanks bereft of originality?”
He seemed tickled by the prospect.
“An afterlife as the hero of literary works by diverse hands”, he mused. “A very specific Valhalla. My own private Elysium. Ha!”
The story reads like a mixture between Donna Tartt's The Secret History and an Indiana Jones adventure. Lovegrove creates some atmospheric scenes and presents the reader with enough shifty characters to keep us guessing who is friend or foe. Alas, just like its predecessors The Labyrinth Of Death stumbles at the finish line. The identity of the culprit is anything but a huge surprise, and once the mystery plot has been solved the entire last act is taken up by our two protagonists trapped in the titular labyrinth having to escape several death traps. This part feels almost like an overlong Sudoku-puzzle or the ending of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade stretched out over 60 minutes. Admittedly Lovegrove is very good at setting up these riddles which are all based in ancient Greek mythology. But once we arrive at this part of the story the big bad has already been unmasked and his rather mundane motives have been explained. The result is a lack of tension. It's a shame, really, because there were parts where I thought that this would end up being a winner. Ultimately though it's just a solid but also slightly underwhelming example of a Holmes pastiche.