Review – The Affair of the Mysterious Letter

TAOTML

From the publisher

In this charming, witty, and weird fantasy novel, Alexis Hall pays homage to Sherlock Holmes with a new twist on those renowned characters.

Upon returning to the city of Khelathra-Ven after five years fighting a war in another universe, Captain John Wyndham finds himself looking for somewhere to live, and expediency forces him to take lodgings at 221b Martyrs Walk. His new housemate is Ms. Shaharazad Haas, a consulting sorceress of mercurial temperament and dark reputation.

When Ms. Haas is enlisted to solve a case of blackmail against one of her former lovers, Miss Eirene Viola, Captain Wyndham is drawn into a mystery that leads him from the salons of the literary set to the drowned back-alleys of Ven and even to a prison cell in lost Carcosa. Along the way he is beset by criminals, menaced by pirates, molested by vampires, almost devoured by mad gods, and called upon to punch a shark.

But the further the companions go in pursuit of the elusive blackmailer, the more impossible the case appears. Then again, in Khelathra-Ven reality is flexible, and the impossible is Ms. Haas’ stock-in-trade.

Review:

I read several novels this summer but this novel marked the beginning of my summer vacation. I loaded The Affair of the Mysterious Letter onto my kindle and, as soon as I was settled into my airplane seat, I began reading. And, of course, it was everything I expect Hall’s novels to be – fully immersive, clever and witty. I didn’t finish it on the flight – I fell asleep from the sheer exhaustion of going from one continent to another. But when I did finish it, I found it such a delightful novel, I shared it with my husband, with whom I normally share nothing in common in terms of books (I’m an avid fiction reader and he’s content to read Whitehead or Popper).

Hall writes the most distinct character voices. Some writers seem to write the same stock characters over and over in their novels but I have yet to find two characters in the books Hall has written that are the same. I enjoyed being in Captain Wyndham’s head. He’s a fitting stand-in for Watson, sort of the straight man to the sorceress, Shaharazad Hass. Conservative to the point that he won’t recount a swear word to the reader and possessing an endless store of euphemisms, he’s recently returned from fighting in a war in another universe to escape the disapproval of his people because he is trans male. But before you go imagining that sexual orientation or preference becomes some sort of extrinsic plot device in this novel, it’s not. It is part of Captain Wyndham’s backstory but it seems almost everyone in this fabulous novel is queer.

The world building is detailed and completely bonkers, featuring alternative universes, divergent timelines and weapons that defy the space-time continuum. And sorcery. Lots and lots of sorcery. The narrative is populated by the strangest creatures, not all of whom are humanoid or even mortal, and some beings who will just as soon take your soul as eat you alive. It’s really all delightful.

The character of Shaharazad Hass is a wonderful, well-wrought creation. She very clearly is a reworking of Holme’s character – unabashedly secular, intelligent and addicted to all kinds of substances. She simply does not give an absolute f*ck about anything. Cleanliness is optional. So are manners, politeness or punctuality. Everything bores her but when something crazy is about to go down, there is nothing she loves more. Her complete indifference to even the cursory exercises of the ordinary are thrown over in her gleeful pursuit of adventure and something upon which to engage her extraordinary mind. The blackmailing of her former lover provides just this opportunity and forms the mystery at the heart of the novel.

Talking about the mystery in the novel, it’s fun, it holds the plot together but is almost secondary to the pleasure of watching Hass get herself – and Captain Wyndham – in and out of mischief. Of course I wanted to know who was blackmailing Miss Eirene Viola (who stands in very nicely for the esteemed Irene Adler), but honestly, I just wanted to sit back and see what other complications Ms. Hass was going to drag her (somewhat) unwilling side-kick into. I wouldn’t mind a few more books featuring them in their wild adventures.

As books go, it’s a strong start to what I hope is a long series.

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