The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, by Alexis Hall, is a mashup and mixup of Sherlock Holmes fiction and Weird fiction. The reserved expatriate ex-solider John Wyndham takes rooms with the profligate sorceress Shaharazad Haas. Shortly thereafter, one of Ms. Haas’s former lovers comes to her demanding Shaharazad find out who’s blackmailing her.
Told in the first person as the reminiscences of John Wyndham, this is the tale of his and Shaharazad’s first adventures together. Miss Eirene Viola comes to Shaharazad believing it to be she who’s sending Eirene notes threatening to expose her past to her fiancé, Miss Cora Beck, thus ending their engagement. When convinced Shharazad has nothing to do with it, Eirene plies her former lover to help. Mostly out of boredom, Shaharazad agrees. Thus does John find himself dragged all over the city of Khelathra-Ven and beyond.
I guessed who the blackmailer was before the big reveal, though not too far ahead, but I didn’t guess why, so the reveal was still fun and interesting. Though initially seeming a bit episodic, the early ventures to discover the identity of the blackmailer all contain clues to the mystery.
2—The Weird Worlds
The joint cities of Khel, Athra, and Ven are described in various passages throughout the book, John having been advised by his editor that people don’t like to stop their reading of a piece in order to go read another one just to find out the basics of a place. I enjoyed these brief histories, even if it meant putting off the encounter with a shark until the next chapter—Ven is under water. Besides the various levels of society we see in Khelathra-Ven—there’s a ball crashed and a necromancer battled, as well as poetry and encounters with the Myrmidons, who are the local law enforcement—we also visit a fairytale city and meet an old witch and former mentor of Shaharazad’s, take a trip in a flying machine and on the Austral Express, and go to post-revolution Carcosa, a city that’s half dream.
3—John and Shaharazad
John Wyndham, who will never be the daughter his father wished he would be, grew up in Ey during a revolution against the Witch King Iustinian, which left both his country and himself rather somber. John dresses without frivolity or luxury, even when he can afford it, and his first encounter with the theater is eye-opening. After university in Khelathra-Ven, he went into military/mercenary service with the Company of Strangers against the Empress of Nothing. After suffering a temporal wound, thus rendering him unfit for further service, he returned to Khelathra-Ven and took up rooms with Shaharazad.
We don’t know a lot about Shaharazad’s past, except that she was apprenticed under a witch for some time and has learned a lot of forbidden sorcery—which she’s very casual about using—has lost several former roommates, and is both brilliant and easily bored. Constantly seeking out cures for said boredom, from the chemical to the mental, she takes on storm-pirates, vampiresses, and mad gods with equal abandon. She is loyal to her friends, such as they are, and endeavors to keep John from meeting the same end as her previous roommates.
The Affair of the Mysterious Letter was a blast. I got some of the references, and know I missed others, but that latter didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the book. I found John’s tendency to replace the less savory words uttered by others with less offensive ones, and then informing you he’d done so, charming rather than annoying, but your mileage may vary. I hope there’s a sequel but it would appear the book is standalone.