#REVIEW: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, by Alexis Hall

I first encountered this book through Twitter, and I’ve completely lost track of how; I’m not even sure if it was specifically recommended to me or whether I just happened across someone being enthusiastic about it. At any rate, I’m mad at everyone else who has read it. Why? Because all of you should have recommended this book to me– yes, to me specifically, whether you know who the hell I am or not– because I’m pretty sure this book was written for me and me alone.

This is another “tell you the premise, and then I’m done” sort of book. The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, starring a bisexual, amoral sorceress named Shaharazad Haas in the Holmes role and a transexual gay man(*) named John Wyndham in the role of Watson. The book starts off as a clear homage to A Study in Scarlet, as Wyndham arrives in the city of Khelathra-Ven as a wounded veteran of a war in another dimension, in need of a job and housing, and ends up answering an ad for a place at 221B Martyrs Lane, where he meets Haas.

Who immediately attempts to shoot him.

You may have noticed the word sorceress. Wyndham is very Victorian British in his comportment and his morals, and Alexis Hall’s ability to mimic the writing style of the Holmes stories is flat-out uncanny, but the rest of the book is pure eldritch horror, where I want to compare it to Lovecraft but the simple fact is that I think Alexis Hall out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft. He does forbidden knowledge Man is not meant to taste very, very well, and Haas might be the single most memorable practitioner of magic I’ve ever encountered. They end up in Carcosa for a while. There are byakhees. And vampires. And Wyndham fights a shark. Their landlady is an intelligent swarm of bees inhabiting a corpse. Well, two, actually, as one rots away enough to become useless over the course of the book and she needs to acquire another.

It’s absolutely delicious.

So, yeah, while it goes without saying that this book gets one of my highest recommendations; I will admit I have some slight criticisms of the overall structure of the story. Affair starts off with five suspects for a blackmail and then has basically five sub-quests where people are progressively ruled out; it sounds weird to both say that I loved a book and that it could have been a bit shorter, but any time you build in that structure where there are Five Things to Be Accomplished, you end up with a book that sort of has the feel of a video game and by the end of it the reader kind of wants to get to the point. I combatted this by reading the book somewhat more slowly than I might have expected from something I was enjoying as much as I was; I actually dragged this one out a bit rather than devouring it at a sitting, which is my normal move.

But … God, you need to read this. I think right now it’s planned as a one-shot, which is a damned shame if it’s true, because (much like Watson) Wyndham is writing this story from the perspective of twenty years in the future, when Haas is actually dead, and there are tons of references to other mysteries and other adventures. I want to read these stories; I have got to have more of Shaharazad Haas in my life, because she is utterly fascinating as a character. Another thing I haven’t mentioned is the humor; there’s more than a little of Douglas Adams’ DNA in this book. In fact, I took this picture and sent it to a friend of mine who I was pitching the book for, and I might as well include it here as a quote:

Wyndham’s unwillingness to swear or repeat profanity in the text of the story, and his squeamishness around women, and his frequent asides to his editor are all fantastically dry humor, and I laughed out loud several times while reading the book, once loud enough that my son emerged from another room to ask me what was so funny. The boy notices nothing, so this is quite an achievement.

Anyway, yeah, you want this one. Go pick it up.

(*) I actually need to have a conversation with someone about the trans angle, because, I admit, I completely missed it on my first read, and upon seeing some references to it on Goodreads went back and reread the first chapter, where a single sentence refers to Wyndham “becoming himself for the first time,” or something very similar. I don’t think I missed a ton of references, and that sentence strikes me as something that’s going to have immediate salience for a trans reader that it might not for a cisgendered one. Then again, I read Gideon the Ninth twice and Harrowhark the Ninth once before realizing that Harrowhark was Harrowhark and not Harrowhawk, so occasionally I am absolutely a blinkered idiot.

Published by

Luther M. Siler

The author of SKYLIGHTS, THE BENEVOLENCE ARCHIVES and several other books.