Finlay debuts with a tale built on a wonderful premise: a downscale Sherlock Holmes for the rest of us.
Just like everyone else in 1895 London, French photographer Caroline Cousture would love to hire Holmes to investigate the disappearance of her brother, a pastry cook who’s gone missing from the Barrel of Beef, the chophouse where he found employment. But, unable to afford Holmes’ presumably stratospheric prices—though his clients are rarely shown actually paying him—she has to settle for ex-journalist William Arrowood. In some ways it’s an excellent choice. Arrowood is obsessed with his great rival; he can expound on every limitation and logical fallacy in A Study in Scarlet and “A Scandal in Bohemia.” In other ways, Caroline’s choice is less fortunate. Arrowood, who declares to his client and his amanuensis, Norman Barnett, that he’s “an emotional agent, not a deductive agent,” isn’t much of a detective at all. His first interview, with a barmaid Thierry Cousture had befriended at the Barrel of Beef, gets the poor girl killed, and Neddy, the likable neighborhood 10-year-old who does his legwork, gets kidnapped twice, the second time from under Barnett’s nose. Even worse, Arrowood’s sleuthing skills, at least in this first recorded case, seem limited to antagonizing Inspector Petleigh, repeatedly butting heads with Stanley Cream, who owns the Barrel of Beef, and calling in an expert to identify the bullet the dead barmaid was clutching in her hand. But Finlay has a fine time recasting the friendship between Holmes and Watson, as Arrowood and Barnett repeatedly quarrel, swap obscenities and threats, and pummel each other.
A great concept worked out with more grit than inspiration. The inevitable franchise has already been optioned for television, a medium you can only hope will hang on to the best bits here and toss out the rest.