This delightful little book hardly can be called a novel—the story is spun out of very thin material with no great dramatic conflicts, in fact no conflict at all.
Yet Gissing has managed to fashion an interesting tale out of quite ordinary circumstances—a struggling writer whose hard life is made soft near its end by an unexpected inheritance. Thus it is the story of an escape from hardship and pain into a safe harbor.
Anyone inclined to reclusive quiet will find this a charming and comforting book, but those looking for sex, violence, drama, and emotional turmoil won't have the slightest chance of understanding its appeal and should pass it by until life has dealt them some harsh blows.
Ashton-Kirk is a frank imitation of Sherlock Holmes, but not without interest. Like Holmes he has an interest in arcane subjects and the finer things of life and like Holmes he is a "gifted amateur" at solving mysteries, and well-known to both the public and the police for his "powers." His Watson is his friend, Pendleton, who stands ready to be amazed by his deductions and to applaud his success.
What is missing here is the atmosphere of the Holmes stories. The puzzle is fine enough, but there is no London fog.
Fletcher's story is well-paced and the writing is good, but he relies on gimmicks which no mystery writer today would dare use. His coincidences are far-fetched and a bit too convenient to be credible.
Not much is to be gained today by study of these dusty tomes devoted to the war between science and theology since both fields have advanced in the last century. This one may be better than most.
Drummond knew and taught both science and religion and was therefore well placed to address controversial issues between them when the battle heated up in the latter part of the nineteenth century in the wake of Darwin and the discoveries of physics.
In 1874 John Tyndal, President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, created a row with his assertion that where science and religion were in conflict, religion must give way. Immediately two prominent scientists, Balfour Stewart and P.G. Tait rushed into print an anonymous book, The Unseen Universe which argued the existence of an invisible world and an afterlife on the basis of conservation of energy and a principle of continuity. It proved immensely popular ten editions in eight years despite obvious flaws in science and theology.
In the wake of the success of The Unseen Universe several other attempts were made to provide theology with scientific justification. Drummond's book rests on the same Law of Continuity and makes points similar to The Unseen Universe but makes them far more cogently and elegantly. As he puts it:
The position we have been led to take up is not that the Spiritual Laws are analogous to the Natural Laws, but that they are the same Laws. It is not a question of analogy but of Identity.
Drummond saves a niche for mystery:
How much of the Spiritual World is covered by Natural law we do not propose at present to inquire. It is certain, at least, that the whole is not covered. And nothing more lends confidence to the method than this. For one thing, room is still left for mystery. Had no place remained for mystery it had proved itself both unscientific and irreligious. A Science without mystery is unknown ; a Religion without mystery is absurd.
Except for those interested in the history of the conflict between science and religion I would think works of this type are not worth the time.