A Study in Crimson: Sherlock Holmes 1942

Written by Robert J. Harris
Review by Nick Wisseman

Sherlock Holmes is the type of character who works well in any setting. The Victorian original will always be my favorite, but if you’re looking for a runner-up, you could do worse than World War II. Robert J. Harris grew up on such adaptations. As he explains in the preface to his new book A Study in Crimson: Sherlock Holmes 1942, he’s following in the footsteps of a classic series of films that began by pitting “Holmes against Nazi saboteurs.” That’s hard to resist on its own. But by setting his story in Blitz-era London, Harris also gets to show us the city on a wartime footing.

What a fabulous context for a new case. Yet instead of taking full advantage of the compelling circumstances he chose, Harris doubles back to the 1880s and resurrects the “bloodthirsty spectre of” Jack the Ripper—not in the flesh. This isn’t the actual Whitechapel Murderer, just a copycat killing women in the same gruesome ways on the same calendar dates. But it’s still an odd contortion to fully transport Holmes and Watson (along with supporting characters like Inspector Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson) to the 1940s, only to concern them with an echo of their primordial past.

I still enjoyed myself, though. The book moves at a brisk pace, and jumping forward a half-century updates Holmes’ and Watson’s backstories in interesting ways. (In this version, they both served during World War I, Watson as a doctor-soldier and Holmes as an intelligence agent, an experience that honed his abilities as a “master of disguise.”) All in all, A Study in Crimson is an engaging read. The game, as Harris says in his preface, “is once more afoot”—and in fine fashion.