Book Review: Sherlock Holmes - The Thinking Engine by James Lovegrove

Two "thinking machines" face off in this excellent pastiche that pits Sherlock Holmes against a Victorian precursor to the computer.
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Early in the third season of Elementary, one of its episodes offered an intriguing premise: a sentient computer was suspected of killing its creator, and Holmes’ job was to perform a Turing test in order to ascertain whether said machine could really have the intelligence to intentionally kill a human. Of course, the answer was an unsurprising “no,” because the universe of a procedural just doesn’t have space for sentient machines. Nonetheless, the episode was possibly the most interesting one of the show, as it offered an intriguing and deeply relevant theme for Sherlock Holmes: that of man vs. machine.

Or, perhaps put another way, that of machine vs. machine. The idea that Holmes isn’t quite human because he places rationality over emotion is not a new one - as early as the first Holmes story, Watson called him “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has ever seen.” This idea of exploring the humanity of a machine-like human is a popular premise in pastiches. Still the idea of pitting Holmes, as a human “thinking” machine, against another possibly sentient thinking machine - a computer, an AI, or whatever one wants to call it - is an intriguing twist that no self-respecting Sherlockian can pass up.

And that’s why I picked up - and pretty much devoured James Lovegrove’s Sherlockian pastiche, The Thinking Engine. Its premise is that a mysterious Professor Quantock has constructed a Thinking Engine, an even more complex machine than Charles Babbage’s computing machines, one that might even be sentient, that can think like people do, and that can solve crimes. It can, in short, become a competitor for Holmes, or even his archnemesis. And when crimes start happening one after the other in atmospheric Oxford, it’s up to Holmes to figure out exactly what is going on with this machine, and if it’s just solving crimes - or doing something else entirely.

Granted, it’s a premise that requires the reader to put his disbelief in a box, seal it, and stuff it somewhere far away. We haven’t even created a sentient AI in the 21st century, so the idea that one might be possible in the Victorian era is patently absurd. The saving grace of this book, however, is that it uses this unbelievable premise for the sake of something greater: a kind of thought experiment. It’s pretty obvious that Quantock’s “Thinking Engine” is really just a steampunk version of the twenty-first century computer, and under the guise of the Victorian setting, the book really asks: if we sent a computer back in time to the Victorian period, how would the Victorians react to it? As a technologically advanced society that relied on trains, radios, telegraphs, and a highly advanced postal system - a society, in short, that was deeply interconnected and had various advanced networks of information and media - how would they react to something like a computer?

The Thinking Engine provides for a number of insights to those questions, using a variety of characters - press barons, detectives, journalists, and professors - to consider the implications of an interconnected world, and machines that can deal with an infinite amount of information, in a Victorian society that is, in many ways, similar to our own. In a way, then, this book is almost like the mirror opposite of Sherlock: while the BBC series transports Holmes forward in time to confront our modern technology, Lovegrove takes our technology back into the Victorian period (with its ideologies and worldviews) and similarly draws parallels between that time period and our own, its use of technology, its relationship to knowledge and information, and its media. Naturally, some of the ruminations in the book about all-knowing machines connected with each other via wires that permit information to spread anywhere, at any time (a very thinly veiled allusion to our networked society) are a bit heavyhanded, but nonetheless, the perspective on today’s digital society from the forward-thinking characters of a century ago offers an intriguing perspective that, in itself, is worth picking up the book for.

If ruminations on the implications of technology aren’t your cup of tea, however, the book also offers a good old mystery story, with the proper twists, turns, and cliffhangers. If parts of the plot are predictable, it’s no black mark against the author, for Doyle himself is guilty of a few utterly transparent plot. Though the eventual culprits are name-dropped throughout the book so that it is not difficult to discover their identity, the way in which the plot reaches its climax is is via a high-paced narrative that keeps you turning the pages. (Also, any plot involving Moriarty in any way pretty much counts as a predictable Holmes plot; nonetheless, despite those predictabilities, it’s fun enough to read).

Even more importantly, though, are the characters, which more than make up for the few predictabilities of the plot. In some mysterious way, Lovegrove manages to perfectly emulate Doyle’s (or Watson’s, if you will), style, while at the same time playing up the most important and interesting aspect of the Canon: the relationship between Holmes and Watson. Set mere years after Holmes returned from the “dead,” the book portrays them in a warm, comfortable, intimate friendship that, read through the right lens, could even hint at something more. Watson is full of admiration and loyalty to his friend, but also has that perceptiveness which allows him to read between the lines’ of Holmes words, betokening a kind of intimacy that is only possible from long acquaintance. And Holmes, while often the cold and rational man, betrays his affection for Watson several times. The two are truly partners and comrades in arms, and they more than carry the plot on their shoulders, side by side.

Additionally, the book contains a number of fun “Easter Eggs” for the avid Sherlockian, but which in no way take away from the experience of the casual reader. For example, the novel opens with an investigation by Holmes and Watson into a “haunted” exhibit, in which Harry Houdini turns out to be involved. To those who know anything of Doyle’s biography, this is a clever addition: Doyle and Houdini famously argued about spirituality, with Doyle insisting on a sphere beyond the material world while Houdini was steadfastly secular. At the same time, the walk-on appearance by the world’s greatest magician sets the tone for the novel: the idea of proving the supernatural as natural, a common theme in the original Canon, and a theme that adaptations never seem to tire of returning to (most recently in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes).

In fact, it’s clear that Lovegrove has done his research, because he gets obscure canonical details right: for example, the novel is set after Holmes’ return from the dead, but The Hound of the Baskervilles is mentioned as occurring prior to this - even though it was written after Holmes’ “death.” It rightly mentions that Watson attended the University of London, and correctly dates both Holmes’ “demise” and the death of Watson’s wife. (All these are seemingly trivial points, but in the Sherlockian world, Canonical chronology is one of those thorny subjects constantly being argued about - and a novel that gets it right shows that it did due diligence to the subject). It cleverly makes reference to some famous points of contention within the Canonical writings - is Watson’s first name John or James? (the Canon provides for both possibilities). Did he get shot in the leg or the shoulder? (Watson can’t seem to make up his mind on the matter in Canon).

And yet, on the other hand, this pastiche suffers from the downfall of many other pastiches, when the author decides to jump up and wave a “Look at me! I know all about the Sherlockian Canon!” flag, but accidentally picks up and waves the “I know a lot of clichés about Sherlock Holmes but didn’t do my research” flag. For example, Lovegrove’s Holmes complains that Watson portrays him as saying “Elementary” at every turn in his writings - a statement that nearly made me launch my book across the sundeck, because it is a point of pride among Sherlockians to know that Holmes said “Elementary” exactly once in the Canon. My reaction was similar when Watson referred to “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time” in exactly so many words - another act of name-dropping of one of those Sherlockian clichés. Then there’s those basic tidbits of information which circulate about Holmes in the popular imagination, despite being patently untrue: for example, nobody wore black armbands when Holmes “died,” popular myth to the contrary. It’s these bits, more than anything, that detracted the most from the story for me - but then again, yours truly is one of those Sherlockian aficionados.

Nonetheless, despite a few factual mistakes here and there (which are more likely to be noticed by the avid Sherlockian than the casual reader) this is a highly enjoyable text. With the flood of Holmesian pastiches out in the world these days, there’s many that are passable or not terrible, but there’s few that stand out and tell a truly Holmesian story, rather than merely a mystery with Sherlock Holmes as a character - and this novel succeeds supremely at the latter, imitating Doyle’s style, capturing our favorite Canonical relationship, and filling the pages with things to make you think. 

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