In one of Sherlock Holmes’ most famous moments, the private detective declares to Watson, “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” This may be the case in a universe founded on ideas of rational and inviolable truth, but how does this declaration fare in a world so queer that nothing is quite impossible, only extraordinary?
This is the question that forms the basis for Alexis Hall’s hilarious and fantastically queer retelling of Sherlock Holmes, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter. In this newest novel, Hall tells the story of the eccentric and infamous sorceress/detective Shaharazad Haas from the perspective of her kind-hearted housemate and reluctant partner-in-crime, Captain John Wyndham. Although a little out of his normal genre of queer romance, Hall brings his typical wit and empathy to this refreshing and entirely enjoyable endeavor.
The novel begins as Wyndham –– recently returned from interdimensional war after being hit with an extratemporal bullet –– looks for an affordable room in the metropolis of Khelathra-Ven. In search of a place to stay, he follows a newspaper advertisement to the door of 221b Martyr’s Walk. Upon entering this strange home, Wyndham is greeted by a firmly pointed pistol in the hand of the heavily intoxicated sorceress Shaharazad Haas, who slurs, “If you have come to rob me… you will find that I have nothing worth taking. If you have come to murder me, you will find that I am dead already.”
Wyndham is able to navigate this initial misunderstanding to secure a room in the apartment, a home that Ms. Haas rents from a swarm of sentient wasps who go by the name of Ms. Hive. Although initially only a housemate, Wyndham is quickly drawn in to Haas’ orbit, becoming a partner to her investigations. The first of the cases Wyndham tackles with Ms. Haas is a mysterious case of blackmail aimed at breaking up the engagement of Ms. Haas’s former lover, Miss Eirene Viola, with a prominent business women, Cora Weiss.
The list of suspects for this blackmailing is drawn from Viola’s indecorous past and includes a vampire, a playwright for the mad gods, an aquatic gang boss, a slighted socialite, and a secret service agent from the Lovecraftian republic of the Yellow King. In order to pursue the many suspects, Wyndham and Ms. Haas are forced to travel across multiple dimensions and through many periods of time, finding with each new discovery that their case is far more impossible than it initially appeared.
The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is an exciting romp through a truly imaginative universe (or, more accurately, multi-verse). Ms. Haas is a hilarious protagonist, exuding the sort of nihilism that comes from having seen too much. When confronted with issues she considers pedantic, such as timeliness, she is apt to respond with something along the lines of: “I have danced with the gods at the dawn of creation and watched the seas swallow all worlds at the end of all things. My perspective on time is very different from yours.” Paired with her humor and drug dependencies, this attitude makes her reminiscent of a queer Rick from the cartoon “Rich and Morty,” and she is well paired with the clever, but grounded Captain Wyndham.
Perhaps the only real drawback to Hall’s newest novel is that it draws Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes not only as an inspiration for its main characters, but as a stylistic model as well. Although enjoyable at first, this style becomes burdensome to the narrative, as certain phrases are endlessly repeated throughout the book. Luckily, this stylistic flaw is easily forgotten among the witty conversations and fast-paced plot.
The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is a wonderful novel for summer reading. Over the past few weeks I found myself flipping happily through its pages as I sat on my porch and welcomed in the warm months. If you are looking for a funny, light-hearted, and queer novel to read this pride month, you could hardly choose a better text. My only hope is that Hall plans on writing more stories based in this universe soon.
The Affair of the Mysterious Letter
By Alexis Hall
Published June 18, 2019