Reviews

Possibilities of Originality and Constraints of the Original in “The Angel of the Crows”

A review of Katherine Addison’s new novel, The Angel of the Crows.

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most adapted stories of all time—per Guinness, Dracula is the only character portrayed more frequently in film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Sherlock has the lead for prose adaptations. The detective is no stranger to genre science fiction and fantasy either, with award-winning stories like Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” or Aliette de Bodard’s The Tea Master and the Detective transposing Baker Street to the Cthulu mythos or far-future space-opera, respectively. With any adaptation, there are trade-offs between faithfulness and deviance from the text; in Katherine Addison’s The Angel of the Crows, in which a literally angelic Sherlock hunts for Jack the Ripper, we find a strange mix of outlandish invention and high fidelity to the original tales. The novel, Addison acknowledges, began as “wingfic,” a subset of fanfic. Despite some interesting ideas and an original take on the Watson and Sherlock relationship, The Angel of the Crows ultimately suffers from a palpable tension between imitation and originality.

Set in a version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s world that includes various magical elements, the novel retells several of the more recognizable Sherlock Holmes mysteries, including A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Addison’s Sherlock just so happens to be an angel named Crow, and this Watson happens to occasionally transform into a hell-hound, a side-effect of a supernatural war-injury in Afghanistan. Victorian England with a smattering of steampunk and supernatural elements is a fairly well-trod speculative setting that accommodates Sherlock quite readily. Crow’s attempt to solve the infamous Whitechapel murders serves as the overarching plot to the novel; the duo’s relationship and their struggle to come to terms with each other serves as the real heart of the novel.

While the bulk of the story is a series of mysteries, based heavily on the original cases and embroidered with vampires and other fantastic elements, the novel really shines in its quieter, interpersonal moments—not surprising given Addison’s last novel, the excellent and introspective The Goblin Emperor.

Many versions of Sherlock discard his humane side. Benedict Cumberbatch’s character in the BBC’s Sherlock and Hugh Laurie’s Sherlock-based House, M.D. both demonstrate the tendency to link the detective’s intelligence with egocentrism and casual cruelty. Addison, by contrast, has retained and emphasized the original Sherlock’s gentleness and curiosity in her angel Crow. And yet, he’s still not human, literally so in this incarnation, a feature Addison plays well against the reticence and repression of his acquaintances.

Doyle’s Watson is, famously, a cypher—the straight man, an excuse for Sherlock to explain things, the near-absent chronicler and reader-proxy. Modern adaptations, though, have often focused on filling in the character and portraying his intense bond with Sherlock. Addison has done so here too, making her Watson—confusingly renamed J.H. Doyle—the real protagonist of The Angel of the Crows, with much more agency and personality than the original. While many of the adventures feature relatively superficial changes, The Hound of the Baskervilles, as adapted here, sees Doyle tackling the case almost single-handedly, with Crow remaining behind in London. In Baskervilles and elsewhere, Doyle’s reckoning with his own identity feels far more vital than the details of the weekly whodunit.

Without breaking the quasi-historical setting, Addison does a lovely job using her Sherlock and Watson proxies to explore queer and trans identities in a world that mostly lacks the vocabulary to talk about them. The fantastic elements allow a unique vantage on Crow and Doyle’s relationship—not sexual, perhaps not romantic, but unquestionably intense. Crow pushing Doyle to seek treatment for his injury, promising to come with him, is perhaps the most affecting scene in the book, displaying a kind of care and vulnerability beyond the scope of most Sherlock adaptations: “it was childish, but what made the difference was the word ‘we.’” I suspect that their relationship most clearly and most laudably demonstrates the novel’s fanfic origins—their moments of awkward tenderness, their real disagreements, their ineloquent honesty with each other.

The individual cases themselves are entertaining, although readers familiar with the originals may find it a strange experience: it’s less a matter of spotting clever allusions than it is of waiting for anything notably different to happen, and most of the more intriguing and original departures—the Moriarty vampires, the glimpses of angelic politics—don’t lead very far. The novel is more willing to give social context and criticism than Doyle’s tales, however: using a biracial marriage as the impetus for this version of The Case of the Copper Beeches, for example, and more pointedly deploring Britain’s plunder of India in this version of The Sign of the Four. On the level of pure entertainment, it’s very satisfying that someone finally threw a mongoose into The Case of the Speckled Band.

Still, there’s something unsettling about The Angel of the Crows’ generic status. At every point in the novel, it’s difficult to decide whether it’s pastiche, a highly original adaptation, or fanfic—meaning no disrespect to the latter, but a key element in fanfic is that it is essentially derivative. There are worlds of possibilities in how Addison has reimagined these characters, and a Victorian world enriched with supernatural beings and steampunk technology begs for some different stories to be told—but any deep re-imaginings or re-tellings are completely closed off by the depth of faithfulness to the original text. There are some differences in these versions of the cases, but they are, by and large, cosmetic. The majority of the characters outside of Sherlock and Watson retain their original names, the cases are not substantively different in how they play out, and the “Jack the Ripper” plotline is the weakest element of the whole story.

In such a faithful adaptation at the plot level, the speculative elements are sometimes jarring. Much of the delight of Sherlock Holmes lies in watching the use of deduction and rational inquiry, often in the face of lazy thinking or superstition; every time that The Angel of the Crows employs magic to turn up a clue it undercuts the whole enterprise. At the same time, its failure to extrapolate widely reinforces the feeling that the fantastic elements are just tacked on. If angels are real and available for everyday conversation, if werewolves and vampires openly walk among us, if spiritualists can talk to the dead and steampunk robots are available for labor—it becomes increasingly difficult to accept that this London circa 1888 is essentially identical to our own, that none of these elements led to any significant change in the political or material reality of the setting, and most especially that, given these fantastical elements, there are not more fascinating cases for Crow to turn his attention to.

This tension between the possibilities of originality and the constraints of the original are perfectly encapsulated in the strange matter of Crow’s parole: not entirely trusted by the other angels of London, Crow consents to periodically have his wings clipped. This in a novel, full of angels, that makes no investigation of religion or theology; a version of the great consulting detective with supernatural senses and allies, who solves the same petty cases as his mortal inspiration. The entire premise is giving Sherlock wings—it’s a baffling decision to refuse to let him fly.

Fantasy-Historical
The Angel of the Crows
By Katherine Addison
Tor Books
June 23, 2020

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