Saturday, September 23, 2023

The Improbable Tales of Baskerville

Standish, Ali. The Improbable Tales of Baskerville Hall
September 12, 2023 by HarperCollins
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Young Arthur Doyle is living in Edinburgh in 1868 with his mother, many young sisters, and illustrator father who is too fond of drink. He knows that he will most likely have to quit school in order to get a job; he has even scoped out opportunities, like at the local butcher shop. He is an astute young man with a keen eye, and when he notices a young woman about to swoon, he takes swift action, including clonking a passerby with a rock to get his attention, to make sure that the pram with her baby in it is not hit by a passing carriage. The man he hit with a rock praises his quick thinking, but Arthur doesn't think much more about it. The next day, a message arrives that he has secured a place in the elite Baskerville Hall, where the staff are illustrious members of society in various fields. An airship will pick him up the next day, and all expenses will be covered. He hates to leave his family, but can't turn down this opportunity. He is soon introduced to a wide range of people, like students Grover Kumar, Mary (whose style of dress leads her to be addressed as "Pockets"), Irene Eagle, and staff John Watson, housekeeper Mrs. Hudson, and librarian Mr. Underhill. The courses offered at the academy, which is in England, are unusual. There's even a course on mesmerism, and one that includes boxing, and Arthur runs afoul of Sebastian, who doesn't like Scotsmen, because of  his clever observations and wily ways. These same things win the adminration of fellow student Jimmie Moriarty, which is good, because the two are roomates. Odd things are happening in Baskerville Hall, and there are some thefts that are being committed in the sprawling manor house. Do these have anything to do with the inventions of the very clever Dinah Grey, who is trying to invent electric lights? Or the globe trotting Valencia Fernandez? Irene, Jimmie, and Arthur are all approached to be part of an elite, secret society, Clover, and are put to the test in matters of bravery, honor, and loyalty. While Arthur doesn't care much for the clandestine activities, he knows that being a member will help him to succeed and to be able to take care of his family. When he is required to "borrow" an item, he borrows a stone from Valencia which turns out to be a dinosaur egg that hatches in his possession. The dinosaur, which they name Kipper, imprints on Arthur, and causes a lot of problems, especially when he goes missing. How do Kipper, the Green Knight, Clover, and the break ins at Baskerville Hall all intertwine?
Strengths: I really enjoyed the beginning of this, when we met Arthur in Edinburgh and saw him struggle to take care of his family. There is something very appealing about people born into poverty who manage to overcome the obstacles of their early lives and to flourish. I even enjoyed the steampunk aspect of the airship; the line "patches of autmn forest gave way to amber moors" is indicative of the Victorian English countryside vibe that was so enjoyable. While Doyle himself would have most likely been in an all male institution, with very little cultural diversity, it was interesting to see a wide array of characters, like the Native American Irene, the "olive skinned" Jimmie, Grover Kumar, and globe trotting women adventurers and scientists. This was written with the blessing of the Conan Doyle estate, so there are some good details. 
Weaknesses: I thought this would continue along the lines of Stevens' Wells and Wongs mysteries, with a  solid murder or theft mystery, with a dash of Bunce's Myrtle Hardcastle investigations with some science and technology added. Instead, this turned into a fantasy academy story, which just wasn't what I wanted. There was an odd mixture of Doyle's life and the world of Sherlock Holmes that had me scratching my head a bit. We have John Watson (in a wheelchair) and Mrs. Hudson in Arthur's realm, but Sherlock Holmes appears as a character late in the book. 
What I really think: There are any number of middle grade treatments of Sherlock Holmes, including Springer's Enola Holms, Barrett's The 100 Year Old Secret, Cavallaro's A Study in Charlotte, Peacock's Boy Sherlock books, Hearn's Sherlock Holmes and the Disappearing Diamond, Harris's The Gravedigger's Club, my favorite, Lane's Young Sherlock Holmes, and even Titus' Basil of Baker Street. I'm not sure that Doyle is that much of interest to young readers these days, but this might be a good introduction, especially for readers who enjoyed Gratz's League of Seven Series

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