Monday, February 17, 2014

Review: The Baker Street Letters by Michael Robertson

The Baker Street Letters
By: Michael Robertson
Publisher: Minotaur
ASIN: B002LA0A16


Reggie Heath's life should not be so complicated. A successful attorney, he's long dated Laura, a smart and gorgeous actress (incidentally his brother's ex), enjoys new chambers on Baker Street, and has a promising slate of cases. But Laura seems more interested in furthering her career -- in AMERICA -- than him any longer, and his hapless brother Nigel is on the verge of seeing his own law career jettisoned for good unless he can pass his reinstatement hearing. However, to Reggie's chagrin Nigel seems more concerned with the letters arriving at their new chamber offices than reclaiming his career -- letters addressed to one Sherlock Holmes, which find their way to Reggie's office as the new leaseholder of the 221b Baker Street address. 

Nigel quickly becomes fascinated with the human interest side of the letters -- the desperation that often drove individuals to reach out to the world's greatest (fictional) detective's only known address -- in particular a two-decades old one from a little girl halfway across the world in search of her missing father. When that girl writes back, Nigel breaks every rule of no-contact written in Reggie's lease to find the woman behind the letters in America, leaving Reggie to do damage control over his reinstatement hearing and, worst of all, deal with the body of a dead clerk found in Nigel's office. Convinced of his brother's innocence, Reggie follows him to America, determined to uncover the truth behind the letters and stop Nigel from destroying his life on a fool's errand. But one he arrives in Los Angeles, Reggie quickly discovers that Nigel may have accidentally involved them both in a dangerous, decades-long conspiracy of fraud, murder, and secrets powerful people will do anything to make sure stay buried...

A few weeks ago this was a Kindle $1.99 deal, and as a sucker for anything with a Sherlock Holmes connection I snapped it up immediately. The concept behind this novel is absolute GOLD. What if current residents of 221b Baker Street found themselves the recipient of Sherlock Holmes's mail -- everything from childish tributes to cases worthy of the Great Detective himself -- and though they shouldn't get involved, they find that they just can't help stepping into Sherlock's legendary shoes. Unfortunately, this spectacular premise falls woefully short in its execution, leaving this one of the more colorless "tributes" to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's timeless literary creation that I've encountered.

The biggest issue I had with this novel was the choice to make Reggie the central character. I couldn't connect with him at all -- I never got a sense of what drives him, of why I should care whether or not Laura wants to leave him (honestly, until the very end of the book I was convinced she could do better with literally ANYONE else!), or -- and perhaps most egregiously -- that as a supposedly successful lawyer he has no idea of his office lease terms. *eyeroll* And then there's the fact that he has apparently been quite comfortable treating his only sibling as an idiot for years, never realizing until this Sherlock-letter-writing-crisis that maybe, just maybe, he's as much or more to blame for Nigel's problems through his habitual selfishness. 

 Pacing is another issue -- the first half of the novel advances in fits and starts. I kept turning pages because I just *knew* this concept had to pay off -- and to some extent, it does. The action building towards the novel's climactic scene, deep in the bowels of a subway tunnel site, is surprisingly interesting (considering that unlike my brother, I have no interest in geologic surveys - ha!). But for a novel where one is asked to believe that letters addressed to a famous fictional detective not only turn Reggie and Nigel's lives upside-down -- they nearly die as a result -- the mystery itself has sadly little to do with the character of Sherlock or the story canon. While I adore the canon, I'm no purist, as steampunk-inspired Sherlock stories are a recent favorite of mine -- so taking that one step farther, a canonical connection isn't strictly necessary. But the premise is so rich, and the possibilities of giving Sherlockians canonical nods seems endless -- and as a consequence, the lack of a tie to Holmes, aside from his address, feels like a gigantic missed opportunity to celebrate this novel's ostensibly clever premise. 

The Baker Street Letters is a debut full of sadly unrealized -- or perhaps more accurately stated, under-utilized -- promise. Uneven pacing and wooden, flat characterizations make the story lag where it should sing. Were the pacing better and the characters more compelling, I could overlook the lack of a better Sherlock connection to the "meat" of the story -- but without those elements to hook the reader, to truly get one invested in the storyline, the unrealized potential of the Baker Street connection left me craving Doyle's original stories, or at the very least Sherlock-inspired fiction with more zest and life. While this debut left me wanting, there is a lot of potential to this conceit as a proposed series, and with stronger characterizations and tighter plotting, as well as OWNING the Sherlockian possibilities, future installments of Reggie and Nigel's investigations could hold promise. 

About the book:

First in a spectacular new series about two brother lawyers who lease offices on London’s Baker Street--and begin receiving mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes

In Los Angeles, a geological surveyor maps out a proposed subway route--and then goes missing. His eight-year-old daughter, in her desperation, turns to the one person she thinks might help--she writes a letter to Sherlock Holmes.

That letter creates an uproar at 221b Baker Street, which now houses the law offices of attorney and man about town Reggie Heath and his hapless brother, Nigel. Instead of filing the letter like he’s supposed to, Nigel decides to investigate. Soon he’s flying off to Los Angeles, inconsiderately leaving a very dead body on the floor in his office. Big brother Reggie follows Nigel to California, as does Reggie’s sometime lover, Laura---a quick-witted stage actress who’s captured the hearts of both brothers.

When Nigel is arrested, Reggie must use all his wits to solve a case that Sherlock Holmes would have savored and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fans will adore.


Heidenkind said...

I suspected this book might be a mess from the summary. It sounded all over the place. And who wouldn't expect Sherlockian mail to arrive at 221B Baker Street? Was this man raised in a bubble?

Unknown said...

@Tasha - Yep you are right, my friend. Basic good idea but the execution of to say the least.