Book Review: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Retellings
Series: Book 1/Stand Alone
Publisher: Ace (June 18, 2019)
Length: 352 pages
I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes retellings, and to my joy, I found The Affair of the Mysterious Letter to be very similar to the Warlock Holmes series that I love in terms of its quirky light tone and cheeky style of humor, though it also possesses a lot of its own unique charms. For example, this retelling takes a queer friendly approach to our characters, where Sherlock Holmes is Ms. Shaharazad Haas, a “consulting sorceress,” and Watson is John Wyndham, our trans narrator who has spent the last five years fighting a war in another universe. Recently returned to the city of Khelathra-Ven, it was his search for a place to live which had first landed him on Ms. Haas’ doorstep at 221b Martyrs Walk.
Needless to say, it doesn’t take long for Wyndham to find out just what it means to be Shaharazad Haas’ new housemate. For one thing, they get a lot of interesting guests. The book begins with a visit from Miss Eirene Viola, who has sought out her former lover Ms. Haas with a plea to help her solve a dastardly case of blackmail. Drawn into the investigation, Wyndham joins his new partner on her hunt to identify the mysterious extortionist, accompanying Haas to all kinds of shady and magical places in the underbelly of the city that he never knew existed, from dingy alleyways to gaudy art houses where you’ll meet all sorts of fantastical creatures and bizarre characters.
What a delight this book was, and I guarantee you’ve never read a Sherlock Holmes retelling quite like this one. It’s jam packed with imagination and twists on the classic that were absolutely fun to discover, and not just on the diversity front. In addition to our wonderfully drawn characters and genderqueer cast, we are also treated to world steeped in fantasy and practically overflowing with magical elements. We have sorcerers and demons, multiple universes, and, believe it or not, even a touch of cosmic horror. At the same time though, I’m pleased to report that the framework of the Sherlock Holmes tradition remains strong, a familiarity which also allows readers to form an immediate connection to our protagonists Haas and Wyndham.
And then there’s the humor. Wyndham is an engaging narrator, and very entertaining in that completely lovable and incognizant way of his. Prim and proper, he’s completely taken aback by Haas and her sorceress lifestyle, not to mention her very candid and audacious personality. Nothing seems to faze her, while on the other hand, we frequently find poor flustered Wyndham struggling to find the politest ways to describe all the shocking scandal and debauchery they witness while on the investigation. Obviously the two of them are complete opposites, but in spite of that they manage to mesh well on the page, creating a wonderfully powerful and energetic dynamic that was never boring.
But for a few hiccups, I probably would have given this novel a higher rating. I thought there was plenty of material to keep the plot interesting, unpredictable, and chugging along at a good pace, but some of the repeated jokes started to wear on my nerves after a while, like Wyndham’s stubborn refusal to say naughty words, instead coming up with all kinds euphemisms for cursing or to describe sexual acts. Yup, I think I got the gist of it after the first 257 times, thanks. There were definitely moments where I felt the book was trying too hard, tripping up and falling from clever and witty into downright cheesy territory, and at times like this I did feel that the humor got to be a bit too much for me. Fortunately, there weren’t too many of these instances, and always the author pulled things back before they got too out of hand.
So all in all, I would say The Affair of the Mysterious Letter was a good read. Wildly entertaining and charismatic, this novel features a cast of captivating characters, utterly fascinating world-building, and a punchy storyline that zipped along at an exciting pace. Fans of inventive retellings and readers interested in broadening their horizons with something diverse and completely unique will certainly want to check this one out.