The Arnifour Affair by Gregory Harris is the first book in the Colin Pendragon historical, detective mystery series (available January 28, 2014).
A genius detective and his faithful partner are sitting in their London flat having a quiet evening at home when a rich woman of a certain age arrives on their doorstep. She’s ushered in by the pair’s housekeeper and reveals that there’s been a dreadful murder that requires their personal attention.
“It’s my husband…” She hesitated. “He was murdered nearly a fortnight ago and my young niece, who was with him at the time, was savagely attacked and remains in a coma even now.”
It’s a set-up that’s been done dozens of times. And for anyone with even a passing knowledge of Sherlock Holmes, it would be easy to assume that this was another tale featuring that acerbic gentleman detective and his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson.
But this is, in fact, a new mystery series starring Colin Pendragon, the genius, and Ethan Pruitt, our narrator. And what distinguishes it from the Holmes canon Harris is clearly playing with is how he subverts the original tropes.
Pendragon may have Holmes’ sharp mind and an almost supernatural ability to winkle out clues in a case, but he’s also a brawny fellow who prefers wrestling matches and weight-lifting to genteel pursuits like playing a violin. Pruitt may be a devoted assistant, but he also has a dark past filled with murder, madness, and drug addiction. Their housekeeper is no sweet Mrs. Hudson, but is instead a rather coarse and crude curmudgeon who consistently yells at clients.
The sound of a slight scuffle came from downstairs, followed by the hurried pounding of feet barreling up. It was clearly not Mrs. Behmoth, and the trailing fury of her voice only confirmed it. “Ya got no ruddy manners. I don’t care if ya are wearin’ the old bird’s crest!”
And, perhaps most notably, Pendragon and Pruitt aren’t simply partners in detection. Harris takes what could have been another platonic friendship between Victorian gentlemen and goes one step further. This isn’t another story full of coy innuendos; Harris refuses to tease the audience with the possibility of a romantic relationship, he comes right out and makes it implicit.
It’s a refreshing twist, and makes for some interesting and emotionally charged moments. Given their living situation, Pendragon is more understanding of others who are forced to also live in secret, hiding their relationships from a society that refuses to be accepting.
And when their investigation leads them into opium dens, Pruitt has to face old demons from his past—a past Pendragon rescued him from.
Its dry, stinging odor permeated the air like creosote from a poorly venting fireplace. I could feel it squeezing my throat and nudging at my temples… None of those effects would last long as slowly, stealthily, like a hunter shadowing its prey, the drug would begin to caress the mind and lure its victim deep within its web. Even as I stood on the threshold of this vast partitioned room, I could feel it tugging at me.
The mysteries themselves—the primary plot revolves around the murder of the noble Arnifour and the secondary involves a missing girl from the notorious East End—are sordid webs of affairs, illegitimate children, squandered fortunes, and child trafficking. There are plenty of revelations to keep the audience on its toes, and details about our detectives’ pasts and relationship are doled out in small bites. There are a few thrilling scrapes and a conclusion where every clue is connected to reveal the full picture.
Harris does little to reinvent Victorian mystery, but he plays with its tropes in fun ways. The Arnifour Affair is relatively light fare, best consumed in one or two sittings, and the pace is fast enough to keep the reader engaged until the last page. For anyone who’s ever been frustrated by the suggestion—but never the confirmation—of a more intimate than usual partnership between the detective and his sidekick, this may be just what you’ve always wanted.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.