review: the thinking engine

The Thinking Engine by James Lovegrove (2015)

If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, I have a book for you to add to your reading list. The Thinking Engine by James Lovegrove is a compelling, well-written read from start to finish, and Lovegrove has joined my list of writers to watch for new installments in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries currently being published by Titan Books (the other writer on that list is Mark A. Latham). Like Latham, Lovegrove has a strong understanding of Holmes and Watson as characters as well as the original Holmes canon by A. Conan Doyle. Lovegrove masterfully delivers an intricate mystery complete with enough foreshadowing to help readers unravel parts of the puzzle but not enough clues to let them guess the whole puzzle before Sherlock makes his grand reveal. Lovegrove situates the story within a larger thematic context that makes the events of The Thinking Engine relevant to modern 21st century readers, all while offering a fascinating portrait of Holmes, Watson, and their friendship that has an incredible depth of insight. For those readers with a book budget, here’s what you need to know: the book is not available through the Kindle Unlimited library and it also wasn’t available through my local library, either in print or ebook format. If you want to read The Thinking Engine, you’ll have to buy it. This is one of my recommended reads (so far the list this year is short!) and in my opinion, it’s absolutely worth your book dollars, especially if you’re a fan of Sherlock and Watson.

First, a short summary that will hopefully give you a better idea of the story you can expect to read (for me, the back cover copy on this book is less than helpful in that regard). The opening chapter of the novel (you could in fact call it a prelude to the rest of the story and not be off the mark) finds Sherlock and Watson visiting the British Museum after hours, where an exhibit of artifacts from Egypt—including the sarcophagus and mummy of a pharaoh—is on exhibit. The duo has been asked to debunk stories that the pharaoh is not truly dead, and that his living mummy walks the halls of the museum during the night. Holmes successfully solves the case, and in the next chapter, the primary mystery that will occupy the great sleuth is introduced. While reading the newspaper, Holmes comes across a story announcing a demonstration of a thinking engine—designed by an Oxford don and reportedly capable of solving crimes using the same level of intellect of the greatest geniuses to have lived. The story goes on to say that the thinking engine will prove its abilities by solving the case of three gruesome murders that recently occurred in Oxford. In addition, Lord Knaresfield wagers five hundred pounds that the thinking engine will equally match wits with Sherlock and correctly identify the murderer. Feeling insulted and unable to walk away from such a challenge, Holmes and Watson make their way to Oxford. What follows is an intricate battle of wits between Sherlock and the thinking engine that sees more murders take place in the university town before the true mastermind behind the crimes is revealed.

You can, of course, read The Thinking Engine on a surface level. But why would you want to, when the thematic level of the novel is so rich and thought-provoking? Lovegrove invites readers to consider the implications of the rapid proliferation and accessibility of computers and what appears to be the next step in technological evolution—artificial intelligence—all while couching the central thematic questions within the historical context of Victorian London. Not only does the success of the thinking engine in battling wits with Sherlock Holmes lead to the characters wondering if the engine will make Sherlock obsolete, but it also pushes readers to question how the existence and rush toward technological evolution is changing what it means to be human. Lovegrove puts in opposition the zeal of the academic (and in this particular case, the interest of governments and law enforcement in being able to acquire and save large amounts of data and access it quickly), the skepticism of a rationalist, and the spiritualism of a man of faith, with each man viewing the problem and existence of the thinking engine from different perspectives. Professor Quantock sees the possibilities of such a technology and strives to turn those possibilities into realities; Sherlock questions the superiority of the technology and whether it is truly capable of supplanting human reason and logic; Inspector Tomlinson questions whether such technology should exist and how it might change our understanding of the human soul. Then Lovegrove takes these questions a step further by giving us an antagonist whose motivation is to create truth and thereby see all and rule all. It’s been a while since the summer I taught a literature class focused on 20th century detective fiction, but if I were ever to teach another, this book would make the reading list. There is so much to explore and think about in The Thinking Engine, and if you’re a reader who likes smart books, you will enjoy this one immensely.

If, however, you have no interest in the novel’s thematic context, then the other compelling aspect of the story is the way it delves into the friendship between Sherlock and Watson and perhaps most importantly, Watson’s own observations of Sherlock and portrayal of him. For those of you who have read other reviews of Holmes and Watson stories on my blog, you’ll know it is my opinion that observant readers understand that it is John Watson (not Sherlock) who is the main character of the story and that it’s through his portrayal of Sherlock that we come to truly know Watson. In the Foreword, Watson tells us he’s writing this story in the year 1927, more than thirty years after the events took place. We, of course, know one of the reasons he’s just now writing and publishing the story—before now, he has not wanted to portray Holmes in a negative light. He has waited so long to tell this story because the distance of time allows him to tell the story honestly (which should make readers question if he’s been a dishonest or unreliable narrator in other stories). Watson writes in the Foreword that during this particular case “Holmes was driven to his breaking point and very nearly broken” and that the same is true of their friendship, “which was tested to its limits”. With this in mind, Watson’s observations of Holmes—his actions and behaviors—throughout the novel, as well as his own responses, are pivotal to understanding what he’s trying to convey in the Foreword. There’s a moment in the story when Watson questions what it would mean if the thinking engine is able to demonstrate an intellect that is equal to, or perhaps greater than, the greatest of intellects humans have ever known (i.e., the intellect of Sherlock Holmes). This isn’t merely a philosophical question, but it’s also a meditation on what it would mean for Watson if a machine’s intellect is greater than Sherlock’s. Would the years he has spent depicting their adventures and revering Sherlock’s reason and skills of deduction be for nothing? While Watson spends a lot of time in the novel giving readers insight into what he sees as Sherlock unravelling, we must also consider how Watson reacts to his friend unravelling and why this case put such stress on their friendship. For Watson to lose his faith in Sherlock would be disastrous for him. He needs the belief and faith he has had in Sherlock for so many years to be maintained—vindicated even. And so while he writes about Holmes’ crisis of self-confidence and emotional torpor, he is in a very real way writing about the same in himself. Lovegrove’s deft handling of Watson in this novel is commendable, and it makes what on the surface seems to be too much navel-gazing and not enough action an elegant, extended contemplation of how our own identities can be shaped and dependent upon those closest to us.

The Thinking Engine easily earns a place on my list of recommended reads. Writing this review has made me realize just how much I loved this book and how it engaged my mind on several different levels. Also, I can’t help drawing a parallel between this novel and the BBC series Sherlock. If you’ve completed series four of the show, you’ll have watched the episode titled “The Lying Detective”. The Thinking Engine reminds me a lot of that episode, but because I don’t want to spoil either one I’ll say nothing else about it other than I loved that episode as much as I loved this book.

Have you read The Thinking Engine? What did you think?

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