The Martian Menace

There are Sherlock Holmes novels. And there are novels starring Sherlock Holmes. There’s a difference, a subtle one, but still a difference.

A Sherlock Holmes novel has the usual trappings — the client upon the stair, a few cuts at the violin strings, some deduction, a hansom cab out on a dark night on a foggy street, “the game is afoot.” In other words, Vincent Starrett’s famous poem “221B” brought to life in prose.

A novel starring Sherlock Holmes novel, on the other hand, is simply a novel that stars Sherlock Holmes but doesn’t have any of the qualities I outlined above.

I formed this distinction a number of years ago — almost twenty now, come to think of it — when I read Manly Wade and Wade Wellman’s novel Sherlock Holmes’ War of the Worlds. I’d wanted to read it for a long time, and it was one of the first things I bought — if not the first — when I started using eBay. Sherlock Holmes! Martians! It could only be awesome, I thought. And, while I enjoyed it, except for the bits with Mrs. Hudson which were terribly misguided, I also thought that nothing about the story required Sherlock Holmes. It was simply an account of what Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson got up to during the Late Martian Unpleasantness. I’m not even sure that it had any mystery elements. It was, I decided, a novel starring Sherlock Holmes, not a Sherlock Holmes novel.

D.G. Leigh’s take on Sherlock Holmes and H.G. Wells’ The War on the Worlds, The Massacre of Mankind: Sherlock Holmes vs. The War of the Worlds, was also a novel starring Sherlock Holmes. (It’s also not good.) Though it’s not a crossover, Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind, the novel on which Mr. Holmes is based, is another that I would class as a novel starring Sherlock Holmes.

Loren D. Estleman’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, which I had read a decade earlier, was, on the other hand, a Sherlock Holmes novel. Yes, it had Dracula as its antagonist, and yes, it fit fairly seamlessly into Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it felt like a Sherlock Holmes novel to me. For that matter, so did Sherlock Holmes vs. Frankenstein.

Cover of Eric Brown's The Martian Menace (Titan Books, 2020)

Some Sherlock Holmes crossovers work and make good Sherlock Holmes novels. Some result only in novels starring Sherlock Holmes. I didn’t know where Eric Brown’s own take on “Sherlock Holmes vs. The War of the Worlds,” The Martian Menace, was going to fall, but I was encouraged that publisher Titan Books was releasing it under their Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes line (which is their classic pastiche style Sherlock Holmes line) than the Sherlock Holmes line (which is their more supernatural/steampunk Sherlock Holmes line). Anything with Martians is automatically not going to be a classic pastiche that could fit alongside the Doyle canon, but if the tone is right, if the characters are true, perhaps it could be the “Sherlock Holmes novel” that previous War of the Worlds crossovers had not been.

(There is, by the way, an Irene Adler on Mars story. Dynamite Entertainment published a comic book a number of years ago that teamed “the woman” with Dejah Thoris from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter novels. I would have to dig out the issues from my longboxes and give it a reread to refresh my memory, but I remember being more annoyed at things Barsoomian than things Sherlockian.)

As non-traditional as The Martian Menace is, I avidly turned the pages, finishing it in two marathon sessions. And though its mystery elements are not the book’s focus, I will put The Martian Menace down on the “Sherlock Holmes novel” side of the ledger.

1910. Sixteen years after the Martian invasion (see The War of the Worlds) and the Reichenbach Falls incident (see “The Final Problem”), a decade after the arrival of the second Martian armada (this one peaceful and benevolent), Sherlock Holmes is asked first to investigate the murder of the Martian ambassador to London in his residence and, then, the murder of a prominent Martian philosopher at his home on Olympus Mons. But things on Mars may not be as the Martians suggest they are, and Holmes and Watson find themselves in deep waters on another planet as they uncover a conspiracy that reaches from the sands of Mars to the halls of human power on Earth.

Martians! Celebrity cameos (G.K. Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells)! Literary cameos (Professor Challenger!) Investigations! Disguises! Three-pipe problems! Mycroft! Desperate actions against overwhelming odds! The Martian Menace may be one of the longest Sherlock Holmes novels in my collection, but it flew right on by. It’s breathlessly plotted, Brown’s evocation of Watson’s voice, even in a world deeply altered by the presence of Martians, is believable, and the characters ring true.

No book is perfect, though, and there were a few quibbles and loose ends. Is it really believable that, even with their advanced intelligence to the point of arrogance, that the Martians would not see [redacted] in their midst? The identity of a character is raised, the character says that now (ie., that point in the story) is not the time to answer it, but then it never is. Nothing that mars the book, certainly nothing that stopped me from turning the pages.

Even though The Martian Menace is a sequel to The War of the Worlds, I never found myself comparing it to Stephen Baxter’s official sequel to the novel, The Massacre of Mankind; other than being sequels, they have nothing in common. Instead, the mental comparisons I made were to Harry Turtledove’s Ruled Britannia, about England under Spanish rule following the Spanish Armada, and Kirill Yeskov’s The Last Ringbearer, as I was reminded of the espionage thriller in that book.

The Martian Menace is non-traditional, as any Sherlock Holmes novel with Martians would be. If you like your Sherlock Holmes “pure,” this may not be the book for you. But if you have an open mind, The Martian Menace is worth a shot. I’m persnickety when it comes to Sherlock Holmes pastiches; I’ll drop a book on page ten if the Watson voice is “off” or there’s some detail that doesn’t feel right.  The Martian Menace didn’t have to work hard at all to win me over, and it was easily one of my most enjoyable reading experiences in recent memory.

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