Written by Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost, The List of Seven is an occult tale which takes historical fact and bends it to a distinctly gung-ho, eh-what end. It’s a Victorian tale peopled with notable figures from the time, but shot through with the sort of supreme radio-serial ridiculousness that lends the Indiana Jones series of movies their verve.
Arthur Conan Doyle himself is the major figure of the story, though he’s not the only notable personage who makes an appearance. Royalty and showbiz names crop up, and Frost throws in enough elements of their life and works – Hey! It’s Bram Stoker! In Whitby! – to elicit bookish smiles of recognition. Doyle is presented as somewhat Watsonian in his approach, and the reader (knowing fully his role in birthing Sherlock Holmes) takes the tale of derring-do and waxed moustaches as so much grist for the detective mill. There’s opposing brothers, an ur-Holmes and a bunch of shoehorned-in rhyming slang and Cockney cant that it almost feels too much – but it stops just short of complete ridiculousness, happily redlining.
If you’ve read Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell you’ll certainly recognise the setting: Spiritualism, Freemasonry, Jack the Ripper. Conspiracies involving the Royals, the pernicious influence of cabals (and William Gull in particular). It’s all there, with a bit of Lovecraft/Hodgson thrown in for good measure. Obviously, eviscerating maniacs and gnarled family trees could use a little oomph that only the Cthulhu mythos could provide.
It’s all very penny dreadful, but that’s the point – Frost knows he’s writing pastiche and gives himself over to it completely. The story unwinds as you think it will, but it remains enjoyable because it doesn’t really falter – there’s plenty of puff for the most part. The novel ends somewhat disappointingly – after the main cosmic conspiracy is dealt with, it seems Frost loses steam. However, there’s an excellent epilogue which must under no circumstances be missed, as it’s up there with some of film’s best post-credits stingers.
There’s plenty of callbacks to the Holmes writings, here, as you’d imagine. Figures and locations from different Sherlock stories are peppered throughout. There’s plenty of knowing smiles to fans of the deerstalker detective, as well as the London habitue.
(It just occurred to me: there’s lots of elements here that have been lifted for the Guy Ritchie Holmes films; the VR target-practice scene being one of the most notable.)
This isn’t great literature, no. But it’s well-written popcorn, and in the right circumstances that’s just as good. A loving, honest tribute with space-monsters and evil bastardry as well as supreme attention to detail? Why not, indeed.