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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Arrowood by Mick Finlay

Mira, 368 pages, $15.99

The setting for “Arrowood” is Sherlock Holmes’ England at the turn of the last century. That description could be the unkindest cut of all, because William Arrowood, the corpulent, irritable, irritating private detective at the heart of Mick Finlay’s novel, is arrogant about his superiority to Sherlock Holmes, whose fictional milieu Arrowood shares. Everywhere Arrowood turns, the police and press are lauding Holmes’ almost magic ability to sniff out crime. While he, Arrowood, unwept and unsung, is left with the common and cheap dregs. The front cover banner for this book says, “London society takes its problems to Sherlock Holmes. Everyone else goes to Arrowood.”

Once a gentleman of means, Arrowood is now a pinch-penny by necessity. After an investigation went sideways, he lost his job as a newspaper reporter, his wife left him, he took to drink, and he easily falls prey to his unpredictable temper. Furthermore, he is physically unfit, his shoes pinch, and his private investigation employs exactly one-and-a-half men, Norman Barnett and ten-year-old Neddy. (A ten-year-old boy, one of the characters remonstrates. Holmes employs lots of boys is the irritable retort.)

Arrowood’s casebook seems so shabby compared to Holmes’. Arrowood plods, stumbles, and is puzzled while he chases errant husbands and other meager fare. Holmes suavely ponders, scientifically examines, and easily banters with aristocrats and the police.  At one point, Arrowood rails against a thousand-pound fee Holmes receives, claiming Holmes has scarcely earned it, given all the holes in his logic. And that is the hook Finlay uses to draw his readers in. Holmes, unseen and unmet, has a looming presence in Arrowood’s universe. Arrowood dissects some of Holmes’ cases and points out the flaws in reasoning, the luck he enjoys that allows him to solve his cases. And what of the cases not reported by the faithful Watson? Arrowood is certain those are rife with the stink of failure.

Caroline Cousture has a charming French accent and a sympathetic mission to find her sweet brother in villainous London. She says she cannot afford Holmes, so … Arrowood swallows his shame and takes the case, the coffers being more empty than full. He and Barnett then take us on a tour of the unsavory and vicious underbelly of London. It seems much more authentic than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s version, but the physical toll the case takes on our heroes is also more graphic.

Finlay places his fictional story within the real events of the time, including the Irish rebellion against English rule and the Ripper murders. He does a bang-up job of that.

Arrowood is more realistically drawn than Holmes, but do readers want that any more than clients want Arrowood over Holmes? There is despair around every corner. Even Barnett has a sorrowful secret. The investigators hang in the insalubrious parts of town, fight against stepping over the line into their own extreme poverty, and show us the flip-side of Holmes’ tidy London.

Are you ready to watch Holmes topple off his pedestal? Finlay is giving it his best shot, and has created a viewpoint and characters that make reading his work worthwhile.

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