He's the world's most famous detective, instantly recognizable in his deerstalker cap and known for his brilliant use of logic, forensic science and disguise to solve baffling crimes.
His name is, of course, Sherlock Holmes. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a Scottish author and physician, Holmes first made his appearance in 1887 in "A Study in Scarlet." All told, Doyle wrote four novels and 55 other stories about Holmes.
Over the decades, the fictional sleuth has become a cultural icon and inspired a slew of other authors, who have created new stories about Holmes. Some books, like the classic novel "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" by Nicholas Meyer, attempt to fill in holes in the chronology of Holmes' cases. The popular "Mary Russell" series by Laurie King, meanwhile, presents a portrait of Holmes that begins where Doyle left off, as King gives the detective an entirely new -- and fascinating -- life after he "retires" from detective work.
Despite the public's enduring fascination with Holmes, however, there's little known about his early years, as Doyle gave tantalizingly few facts about Holmes' childhood and teen years. As a result, British author Andrew Lane has plenty of creative room in which to maneuver as he launches a new series -- "Sherlock Holmes: The Legend Begins" -- that explores Holmes' teenage years.
In the just-published first book in the series, "Death Cloud" (FSG, $16.99, ages 10-14), we meet Holmes as a 14-year-old, already demonstrating flashes of his future intellectual acuity.
As the book opens in 1868, Holmes is looking forward to heading home from his hated boarding school for the summer break. But Holmes' older brother, Mycroft, meets him at the school with bad news: their father, who is in the military, has been called overseas for a months-long assignment, and their mother is too unwell to have Holmes at home.
So, Holmes finds himself consigned to spend the vacation in the home of an aunt and uncle he's never met, and who have no real interest in hosting him. Fortunately, Holmes soon makes an unlikely friend -- a streetwise teen named Matty -- and together the two set out to solve the mysterious deaths of two men, both of whom seemed surrounded by a "death cloud" as their life ebbed away.
Holmes and Matty's investigation is aided by a sharp-witted American named Amyus Crowe and his teenage daughter, Virginia. Mycroft Holmes has engaged Crowe as a summer tutor for his younger brother, and Crowe's years of experience as a "tracker" in the American West come in handy as Holmes and Matty uncover a deadly -- and ingenious -- plot to kill off the British military.
After some slower opening chapters to introduce readers to the teenage Holmes and set the scene, "Death Cloud" quickly becomes a true page-turner as Holmes and Matty have to fight for their lives against a maniacal foe. There's plenty of action, and even a bit of romance in "Death Cloud," as Holmes falls under the spell of the beautiful and fearless Virginia Crowe. And, of course, plenty of story ends are left undone, ensuring that readers will clamor for the next book in the series.
Purists may complain that the teenage Holmes is much more human than the cold, calculating man originally created by Doyle. But young readers will find Holmes an engaging protagonist whose struggles against authority will readily ring true. Adult fans of the detective also will enjoy this speculative look at what Holmes might have been like as a teenager.
Lane's new series is endorsed by Doyle's estate, as is a highly touted new novel about Holmes for adults -- written by "Alex Rider" author Anthony Horowitz -- set to be published in the fall.
Young readers who enjoy "Death Cloud" will definitely want to check out Doyle's original stories about Holmes, if they haven't done so already. In addition, there are several other Holmes-related children's books they might enjoy:
-- "The Case of the Baker Street Irregular" by Robert Newman (Aladdin, out of print, but available from used-book sellers for varied prices, ages 8-12).
In this classic children's novel, Newman explores the idea of the Baker Street Irregulars, a group of street urchins who help Holmes in several of Doyle's stories.
-- The "Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI)" series by Tracy Mack and Michael Citrin (Orchard/Scholastic, $6.99 each, ages 8-12).
Mack and Citrin update and expand the idea of Holmes' Baker Street Irregulars in this fast-paced series.
-- The "Enola Holmes" series by Nancy Springer (Puffin, $6.99 each, ages 8-12).
Springer creates an intensely action-packed life for Holmes' younger sister, Enola, who is just a teenager when she creates her own detective agency in Victorian London.
-- Graphic-novel fans will enjoy seeing the way three stories about Holmes have been adapted for that format by writer Ian Edington and artist I.N.J. Culbard. Look for "The Hound of the Baskervilles," "A Study in Scarlet" and "The Sign of the Four" in this series (Sterling, $14.95