The Baker Street Phantom by Fabrice Bourland

8 April, 2011

Subtitled Evil Haunts the Streets of London: The very first Singleton and Trelawney mystery. Now, I am a sucker for mysteries, especially those featuring detective pairings and I can trace this all the way to Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Hastings. Even before Holmes and Watson. However, I am an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes and read most of his mysteries and watched most of the TV series featuring Jeremy Brett, all aquiline nose and red-rimmed eyes. So I was intrigued by Fabrice Bourland’s The Baker Street Phantom. The cover suggested a parody, however it’s an old-fashioned whodunnit but with a very surprising twist.

1932, London. Andrew Singleton and James Trelawney are two young Canadians who have recently set up as private detectives in Bloomsbury. Singleton, the cerebral and bookish one of the duo, comes from a prominent family, motherless and with a father who has become increasingly reliant on spiritualists after his wife’s sad demise. Trelawney, on the other hand, is in ruddy health and is always playing sports and can be relied upon to be the muscle. Three months after they set up shop in London, and bored out of their brains, they receive a mysterious visitor who turns out to be the widow of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. She reports that there has been mysterious goings-on including poltergeist activity in the newly allocated 221 Baker Street and she fears that it may have connections with her deceased husband and may even have something to do with the increased spate of vicious murders in the capital. Soon Singleton and Trelawney are knee deep in with the spiritualists, attending séances and on the trail of what looks like several copycat murders. And in their midst materialises the great detective himself.

Slightly reminiscent of Sarah Waters’ Affinity, what Bourland does brilliantly here is tie in the spiritual aspect (ectoplasm and all), an important part of Doyle’s life, together with his creation and then churn in a little more phantasmagoria to make a tale that is a mixture of all things Victorian and gothic. You have a bit of everything: Jack the Ripper, Jekyll and Hyde and even Dracula. I think you definitely have to suspend belief, but if you can do that, then it’s a highly entertaining read.

The translation by Morag Young was fine although there were certain bits that stuck out, such as the word ‘orangeade’ which I’m not sure is because Bourland is writing about a Canadian protagonist but it felt out of place in a tale set in 1930s Britain (although I think it was available in the States at the time and so makes sense for a Canadian to use the word. Besides, hey, what do I know?)

My main gripe would be that Bourland places too heavy an emphasis on the spiritual aspect of Arthur Conan Doyle’s life and sometimes I forgot I was reading a novel as it felt a little too much like a lecture or a thesis. I’m sure when you do a lot of historical research you want to put as much info as possible into the text, but sometimes, less is more. I think it was David Mitchell who said that you only use about 10% of your historical research material and it’s probably advice that should be heeded. There was just too much detail that could have been edited out to make for a smoother reading experience. Instead, I’d have liked more on Singleton and Trelawney.

Nevertheless The Baker Street Phantom is an interesting and highly original tale and I hear that a sequel, The Dream Killer of Paris, will be out next month and I’d like to see what Singelton and Trelawney get up to next. You can read an interview with Fabrice Bourland here.

I won this book in a twitter competition courtesy of Gallic Books during the world cup football last summer.

11 Responses to “The Baker Street Phantom by Fabrice Bourland”

  1. Joanne Says:

    This sounds great, and I love the cover of the book.

  2. Eva Says:

    This sounds quite interesting! I think I’ll try to get my hands on it. 🙂

  3. gaskella Says:

    I like the sound of this book Sakura.

  4. Novroz Says:

    This sounds really interesting, I am intrigued.
    When I first read the title,I thought it would have something to do with Sherlock 😉

  5. savidgereads Says:

    Oh I am 100% sold on this one, I have just ordered it from the local library and simply cannot wait to get my hands on it, sounds like a perfect read for me. Conan Doyle, 1930s and ectoplasm – perfect!

    • sakura Says:

      It’s the ectoplasm, isn’t it? Thank you for stopping by as I know how hectic it’s been for you. I hope this book provides some light relief and I’d be interested to see what you think.

  6. […] mentally popped it into my ‘maybe one day’ pile of never ending books I might read. Then I saw Sakura’s review of it and thought ‘ooh maybe I will give that one a go’. It happened to be in my library just […]

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