review: the vanishing man

The Vanishing Man by Philip Purser-Hallard (2019)

In case you missed it, Titan Books is publishing new novels featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. The books are written by a variety of different authors, and since I’m a fan of the original stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s interesting to see how close to the originals the books in this series feel. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I have previously reviewed The Red Tower by Mark A. Latham. I have also read A Betrayal in Blood by the same author as well as The Legacy of Deeds by Nick Kyme. For any reader who loves the original stories by Conan Doyle, I highly recommend all three of these books. The Vanishing Man by Philip Purser-Hallard is the latest book in this series to capture my attention. It’s not my favorite among the group of books I’ve read so far, but it is an entertaining and engaging read. It follows many of the Sherlockian conventions and I don’t think readers will walk away disappointed. If you are on a budget, be aware that I wasn’t able to find this book in my local library and it’s not available through my Kindle Unlimited subscription. I also couldn’t find a copy in my local used bookstore, so I paid full price for my book. If you want to read one of the books in this series and make your book budget dollars count, I humbly recommend starting with A Betrayal in Blood or The Red Tower, as both of these are the best books in the series I’ve read so far and well worth your book dollars.

In The Vanishing Man, Sherlock is asked to investigate the disappearance of one Thomas Kellway by his latest client, Sir Newnham Speight. Speight is the current director of the Society for the Scientific Investigation of Psychical Phenomena. The Society has had a history of inviting individuals who believe they possess some form of psychic ability to demonstrate their abilities in a controlled environment designed to allow the scientific method to be applied during the demonstrations. There is a long-standing offer of a reward of ten thousand pounds for any individual who can demonstrate abilities that the Society can prove scientifically. Speight’s description of the rigorous methods employed by members of the Society surely appeal to Sherlock’s penchant for logic and reason, and is likely one of the reason he agrees to take on the case. Speight explains that a few nights ago, Thomas Kellway had come to Parapluvium House, where the Society convenes, to demonstrate his ability for telekinesis. He outlines the experiment for Sherlock and Watson, which called for Kellway to sit in one room which had a glass window for observation, while in the next room there was a table upon which a box sat holding a billiard ball. The experiment was to observe Kellway move the billiard ball from the closed box upon the table with nothing but the power of his mind while sitting in the adjacent room. During the experiment, however, Kellway vanishes without a trace. Speight believes Kellway’s disappearance is an elaborate hoax intended to defraud the Society and earn the ten thousand pound reward. Speight asks Sherlock to investigate and determine if, should Kellway reappear, he is in fact owed the reward money. Sherlock takes the case.

In other reviews of the Sherlock Holmes stories, whether the originals or the new additions to the canon, I have emphasized my opinion that the main character and protagonist of these stories is Dr. John Watson. Whenever I read one of these books, I always read it through that lens, and when I think about how “true” to the original the book feels, my decision always takes into consideration how Watson is portrayed and characterized in the novel. In The Vanishing Man, Watson is narrating the story from a considerable distance of time. In the Foreword he writes for the reader, he explains that he has received various pieces of correspondence from Sherlock over the years that relate to the case he’s about to tell—fragments from books or newspaper articles. Watson includes some of this material in the book as a way to fill in some of the gaps in the story that aren’t uncovered at the time the investigation takes place (and thus, it’s important for the reader to pay attention to this supplemental material and look for clues). The date on the Foreword is 1928, telling us that he is writing the story well after his marriage to Mary and well after her death. I call this out because it speaks to Watson’s mindset—a young Watson whose acquaintance with Sherlock is relatively recent and who hasn’t yet met Mary has a much different perspective than the older Watson, who has had decades to reflect on his experiences and adventures with Holmes. The most successful stories from new writers of Sherlock and Watson adventures understand this nuance, and consequently offer richer narratives. In The Vanishing Man, Purser-Hallard shows he is more than familiar with the original canon of Sherlock stories, but his focus is much more on the logical, reasoning Sherlock than the more emotional and sometimes fallible Watson. Don’t get me wrong—Watson is tonally representative of the sidekick we all know and love. In this story, he’s just missing that extra something that makes him a special, memorable, and relatable character.

On the other hand, if you’re a reader who just wants to see more of Sherlock on the page, then The Vanishing Man will meet your expectations. One of the things that always turns me off about new entries into the series is when Sherlock goes off screen for long periods of time during the narrative (yes, I know—Conan Doyle does this very thing in The Hound of the Baskervilles. I didn’t really like it there, either). That doesn’t happen in this novel. Sherlock and Holmes are much more of a unit in this book, working together to solve the mystery of the missing Thomas Kellway. Another positive is the appearance of Inspector Lestrade. Purser-Hallard gives the Scotland Yard detective more page time than I usually see in other stories, and that’s a refreshing addition to the book. There’s even an entertaining use of Sherlock’s Irregulars, the scamps and street urchins who operate as Sherlock’s own network of informants. Like I said, the novel also has many of the usual Sherlockian conventions—including the final reveal of the mystery to a room full of Society members. However, one of the most interesting aspects of The Vanishing Man is the presence of a camera obscura on the roof of Parapluvium House and the repeated references Sherlock makes to wishing he could have something similar to the technology of a camera obscura all over London. In these comments, we see Purser-Hallard thinking about the evolution of surveillance and imagining how it can be traced back to something as seemingly benign as the camera obscura, and how Sherlock could see how such technology could aid criminal investigations. He can see how it could function as a deterrent to crime as well as an invasion of privacy. It’s a nice touch that close readers of the novel will pick up on immediately and adds unique depth to the reading experience.

While The Vanishing Man isn’t my favorite installment in the series of new Sherlock and Watson stories being published by Titan Books, I have to admit that I was invested in the story the whole time I was reading, and there wasn’t a moment when I wanted to quit the novel and put the book down (I say this because there have been a couple of books in this series where I have done just that). If you enjoy Sherlock and Watson stories, then I think you’ll enjoy this book.

Have you read The Vanishing Man? What did you think?

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