The fiery clutches of the Red Demon—that’s a newspaper term for the conflagrations that periodically wiped away vast expanses of the 19th-century American landscape—metaphorically grab Sherlock Holmes when an agent for the railway baron James J. Hill visits him in London and asks him to investigate threats of arson in the timberlands of northern Minnesota. Already, another inquiry agent has disappeared, leaving behind not so much as a puff of smoke. Holmes, taking up the challenge, travels to the logging and rail center of Hinckley during the scorching summer of 1894, and there he follows the literally hot trail of a fiend who has adopted “the Red Demon” as his nom de feu.
Millett‘s yarn, while it certainly doesn’t lack for clues, resembles a Western more than it does a detective story. Peopling Hinckley are a corrupt local lawman, a station master who fancies himself an exemplar of Christian civilization, a rough-hewn lumber thief who practices his criminal trade on the model of a cattle rustler, and a cathouse madam who leaves in her wake the smell of expensive perfume and an air of tragic refinement. The famous sleuth and his equally illustrious companion, Dr. Watson, set up shop in the town’s lone hotel and then make the rounds to several other archetypal locales of the Old West: a seedy saloon, an abandoned quarry, a gaudy bordello. At one point, the pair fall prey to an ambush and survive only with the aid of a mountain man whom Holmes likens to a James Fenimore Cooper hero.
Holmes, in the end, rids the northland of the evil that has plagued it—but only after risking his life in a violent struggle on a railway trestle, and not before 400 people die in an epic (and historically real) holocaust. He and Watson, quite clearly, are not in Baker Street anymore. Watson’s narrative, however, retains the straight-laced, high Victorian diction that we know from the canonical Doyle stories, and Millett artfully dresses it with mock-scholarly footnotes and other Sherlockian paraphernalia.