Only a brave and talented writer would take on the daunting task of writing a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Comparisons are inevitable with the character’s original creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as with author Nicholas Meyer, who penned several well-received Holmes adventures. After working for three decades in Hollywood, as an executive and screenwriter, Bonnie MacBird is more than up to the challenge. Her second Holmes effort, Unquiet Spirits – Whisky, Ghosts, Murder, is an enjoyable, well-plotted mystery that will delight longtime fans of the famous British detective.
MacBird stays with the tradition of having Holmes’ partner in crime, Dr. John Watson, serve as narrator. She nails Watson’s conversational tone, no small feat. She also captures the complex relationship that exists between the world’s greatest detective and his sidekick. In this partnership, Holmes is the brains, but it’s Watson who often saves the day, certainly the role he plays in Unquiet Spirits.
While Holmes’ nemesis, Professor James Moriarty is absent from this adventure, other familiar faces make brief appearances, including Inspector Lestrade, Holmes’ landlord, Mrs. Hudson, and Holmes’ brother, Mycroft. There’s an intriguing femme fatale, Mrs. Isla McLaren, whose father-in-law, Sir Robert McLaren, is the lord of Braedern Castle, and a whisky baron. Isla visits 221B Baker Street seeking Holmes’ help. The castle has been plagued with a series of strange incidents, including appearances by ghosts and the disappearance of Fiona Paisley, a member of the staff. These mysterious events, Isla tells Holmes, threaten the family’s whisky business and must be dealt with.
Holmes is reluctant to take on the case. But when Mycroft asks him to investigate a phylloxera epidemic that is harming the vineyards of France, Isla’s request takes on new meaning. Three Scottish families that produce whisky are suspected of engineering the destruction of the French vineyards, ostensibly hoping to build up the customer base for their spirits. One of those families turns out to be the McLarens. Mycroft wants Holmes to travel to France to protect Paul-Édouaerd Janvier, a leading viticultural researcher who is believed to be close to conquering the disease killing the vines. Although the French have hired Jean Vidocq, a detective to protect the scientist, Janvier doesn’t like or trust him. Holmes and Watson agree, having dealt with Vidocq before.
Watson’s wife, Mary, is away, allowing the doctor to join his friend on a journey that will take them first to France and then to Scotland. Along the way, the duo (and the reader) will learn a great deal about whisky production and, along with Watson, uncover many skeletons long buried in Holmes’ closet. Unearthing those secrets come close to destroying the pair’s relationship.
Many writers have continued a popular series, often because the original author has died. We’ve seen efforts on behalf of Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice), Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy), Robert Ludlum (the Jason Bourne thrillers), to name a few. Some followups have been successful. Others, less so. There is such a hunger for more tales featuring Holmes, that even his most ardent fans are willing to give new entries a try, particularly if those creations are well done, like the BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Based on Unquiet Spirits, and the positive reception for her previous Holmes novel, Art in the Blood (which I have not read), MacBird could be in for a long run.
Unquiet Spirits – Whisky, Ghosts, Murder
Bonnie MacBird’s photo by Ray Bengston