Title: The Amazing Dr Darwin
Genre: Historical Fantasy/Detective
Published: Baen 2003
Purchased: Borders, Cambridge, 2004-01-24, £6.99
This is an odd little book. Sheffield (who sadly died in November 2002) was most usually a Science Fiction writer, writing in the same area as Arthur C Clarke. But in this set of short stories, he decided to emulate Conan Doyle and write of a detective solving problems using intellect when surrounded by superstition.
Unlike Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Sheffield's Dr Darwin was an actual historical figure - Dr Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), and probably one of the most interesting figures of the late 18th century, up there with Ben Franklin as a multi-faceted all-round bright guy. So Sheffield has certain limits on what he can actually do. On the other hand, this does mean that he can introduce all sorts of other famous figures, safe in the knowledge that these people did all associate (though he does wimp out and rename Franklin himself!). Also, unlike Holmes, in this case the detective is primarily a medical doctor. On the gripping hand, he does have a side kick who has spent a lot of time abroad, though Colonel Pole is much less of a cipher than Watson usually is.
Being written two centuries down the line, Sheffield can make use of knowledge that wouldn't have been widespread at the time, and this may be a problem, since there is a bit of a tendency for a modern reader to second-guess what's actually going on.
In total, there are six stories, written over a period of twenty years. It's slightly annoying that they're not ordered by date of writing, since there is a certain sense of dislocation when jumping from a late tale to an earlier one - the characterisation doesn't always hold up. And Sheffield isn't always the best writer of characters anyway (though far from the worst around). But all in all, it's quite fun, nothing to be ashamed of reading, and the appendix where he talks about what actually is fiction and what fact is educational.