RogerBW's Blog

Irene at Large, Carole Nelson Douglas 12 March 2016

1992 mystery, third of Douglas's novels about Irene Adler. In Paris in 1888, a stranger in Oriental garb falls poisoned at the feet of Irene's narrator, Nell Huxleigh. But why does he claim to know her? (Retitled A Soul of Steel in recent reissue.)

The man turns out to have been a British spy in Afghanistan, at the time of the disastrous battle of Maiwand and the retreat of British forces to Kandahar. And, of course, one Doctor Watson turns out to be in danger as someone tries to get rid of anyone who might have inconvenient recollections.

This book ties itself rather more closely to the Holmes canon than the previous one, and I think it's an improvement. Rather than a fresh tranche of historical figures, we get a smaller number of invented ones, and they're rather more lively. The curious double wounding of Dr Watson becomes a central point, Colonel Sebastian Moran plays a significant role, and sections of this book wrap round The Adventure of the Naval Treaty.

But mostly it's detective adventure of the "what fun" school, with someone using cobras as a (remarkably ineffective) murder weapon, Irene's taste for doing the dramatic thing especially when it's not the sensible thing, and her endless disguises.

"If I am to shoot a cobra, which I really do not wish to do unless it is a matter of self-defense, I certainly would not want to do it in a drawing room. No. A garret in Montmartre provides the proper artistic ambience.

There's also a romance of sorts for Nell, though clearly neither party is going to do anything about it unless pushed hard.

"Do you mean to say that you two ladies were alone in my Montmartre quarters with a cobra and a dying man?"

"He was dead by the time we arrived, Quentin," I assured him. "It was perfectly proper."

Sherlock Holmes comes into the story, but more as a force of nature than as a character (which is fair enough, since that's how Doyle usually wrote him); it's Watson who gets some expansion from his usual simple role as uncomprehending foil. He is both a doctor and an old soldier, and both of those attributes are significant here in a way they often aren't in Doyle's own work.

This is definitely a step up from the second volume, with a renewed vigour and sense of enjoyment. Followed by Irene's Last Waltz.

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