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Review of Test of the Professionals I

23 Jan

Last year, Marcia Wilson joined the Sherlockian mainstream with her wonderful debut novel You Buy Bones. Beginning just after the fateful meeting between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, it transformed the Scotland Yarders—Gregson, Bradstreet, and Lestrade—from mere foils to be outshone by Holmes into living, breathing characters in their own right. Since then, Ms. Wilson’s short stories have been featured in several MX Publishing anthologies, edited by David Marcum, and in Derrick Belanger’s anthology Beyond Watson.


Now she carries her saga forward to the autumn of 1883, as the Yarders investigate seemingly unrelated waterfront crimes (missing seamen, stolen flour barrels) linked to an agent of the master criminal who still lurks behind the scenes. Whereas Watson was as important as the Yarders to the plot of You Buy Bones, here the focus is on Inspector Geoffrey Lestrade. In Ms. Wilson’s hands, he becomes a full-fledged personality, not the one-dimensional character we met in Doyle. While not the smartest of the Yarders, “Inspector Plod” is truly (as Holmes admits) the best of them, due to his iron sense of ethics (for which he has paid a heavy price) and his grim determination to battle both criminals and his own limitations in the pursuit of justice. In Test, we learn of an incident in Lestrade’s past that forever darkened his relations with his family, as well as his career at Scotland Yard. An old enemy returns to devil him, serving as both the charming, heartless villain of the piece and a romantic rival. For Test is also the story of Lestrade’s meeting with Clea Cheatham, a young woman of independent mind and her own unusual family and backstory. Like the inspector’s, they are woven skillfully into the tale.


Underlying these delights of plot and character is some amazing historical research. Marcia Wilson has an encyclopedic knowledge of Victorian minutia; happily, her footnotes are helpful rather than intrusive. Osage orange trees, Krakatoa, mudlarks, and tie-mates all find their places in the story. A potato pie, we learn, can be an insult. There are even notes explaining Inspector Bradstreet’s strange invective. On another level, Ms. Wilson writes with compassion of the day-to-day perils of the London poor. We see far more of Watson as a doctor, and of Mrs. Hudson as a housekeeper, than we ever did in Doyle.


Readers who buy A Test of the Professionals should not expect a traditional Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Ms. Wilson does not tell her story with Victorian reserve; her intimate, informal style is in keeping with the rough-and-tumble lives led by the Yarders. Yet, devotees of the Master will find nothing to offend them, for the characters in Test are never incompatible with their originals. The idiosyncrasies of Holmes, and his interactions with Watson and the Yarders, are as familiar and delightful here as ever. The difference is that for her canvas of Victorian London, Marcia Wilson employs a more colorful palette and a broader brush than Conan Doyle’s. Such is her artistry that she enriches and fully brings to life the world he left us.

Reviewed by Thomas A. Turley

Test of the Professionals I is available from all good bookstores including The Strand Magazine, Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK and for free shipping worldwide Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Kindle and Kobo.

9781787050297

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