Book Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Vanishing Man (Philip Purser-Hallard)

One of the beautiful things about Sherlock Holmes–the character–being out of copyright is that publishing houses like Titan Books can keep bringing us licensed adventures of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s iconic detective from an array of different writers.

The Vanishing Man is one such tale. Conan Doyle’s stories often were novellas or even short stories as Dr. John Watson, erstwhile partner to the unique and maddening genius Holmes, would recount their ‘problems’ to the reader, and Philip Purser-Hallard gets a full novel sized plot for the detective duo to unravel. In doing so, he doesn’t remotely reinvent the wheel. This is a classic, traditional Holmes & Watson case, set in their heyday during 1896, which could slot perfectly well amongst Conan Doyle’s canon. The Vanishing Man has a solid central mystery, a litany of garish and exuberant Victorian characters, and the joy of a conclusion in which we see Sherlock putting it all together in front of our eyes.

In short, The Vanishing Man is going to scratch the Holmesian itch for fans of these stories nicely.

The fun of The Vanishing Man lies in how it balances both a traditional mystery with a hearty dose of pseudo-scientific mysticism. Conan Doyle’s stories often flirted with the fantastical while never quite going there and Purser-Hallard does the same.

In this case, Holmes and Watson have to deal with the Victorian-era nonsense of psychic transference to Venus involving alien beings who wish to raise certain humans to more of an advanced level. Thomas Kellway vanishes in a controlled experiment being ran by a wealthy knight of the realm at his mansion home, and everyone is convinced he was essentially ‘beamed’ up by Venusians after claiming he had the ability. Through the diarised prism of Watson’s ever measured, ever factual writing, he and Holmes take on the case with a significant dose of scepticism as they put the pieces together.

The joy of a good Holmes story lies in Sherlock having figured most of it out early on, Watson following him as he pulls various odd and seemingly unconnected strands together, before the final classic detective denouncement whereby he reveals not just the ‘who’ did the crime but ‘how’, and The Vanishing Man does eventually in time-honoured tradition become not just a baffling disappearance but also a murder investigation. Purser-Hallard manages to convincingly craft a story filled with a rogue’s gallery of suspects from different walks of society alongside a central mystery which, come the ultimate unveiling, is an impressive, inevitable slight of hand.

In other words, The Vanishing Man doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Could it have been a short story? Quite possibly. Purser-Hallard does have to work at points to bulk everything out to a 300 page length but not to the detriment of an entertaining, well put together story being told. Holmes and Watson sound authentic and their Victorian setting is neatly evoked in the imagination.

Perhaps not likely to convert newcomers to the franchise and its characters, but Sherlock Holmes: The Vanishing Man is a fun lark if you want another dose of the world’s greatest detective duo.

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