When I saw that Vasudev Murthy’s newest book on the Great Detective’s Great Hiatus was going to take place on the African continent, I was pretty excited–after all, pastiche authors take Holmes into Asia all the time but, despite his admission to Watson that he’d spent some time with the Khalifa in the Sudan, I don’t think I’ve yet seen another story set in an African country. I did wonder how, exactly, Murthy would pull this off, however–it seemed pretty obvious from the end of Japan that Holmes and Watson headed straight back to Liverpool, with no other stops along the way. Although I try to be flexible, particularly when I know a story is (necessarily in the case of Hiatus tales) going to be AU, I do tend to be a bit of a stickler, so when I saw that the main action in Timbuktu begins in May, 1893–a month or so before that in Japan, I scribbled in the margins for a minute…before I figured it out. Sherlock Holmes, The Missing Years, is not, precisely, a series–that is, it’s not a group of books that takes us from May 4, 1891 (or thereabouts) up to April-ish, 1894. It is, instead, a series of imaginings–in which, for every book, Murthy wipes the slate clean and asks yet another “What if….?”
I like that. I like it very much.
In each of his books thus far, Murthy treats a different type of Canon case. Japan, with its emphasis on international relations and crime, is a story more along the lines of “The Naval Treaty” or “The Bruce-Partington Plans.” Timbuktu, however, Watson quickly informs us, involves questions of “life and death.” Well,you might argue, quite a few of Holmes’ cases do that, but Watson means something quite different than, say, the race to save Lady Frances Carfax. Instead, he tells us, as much as he believes in science and the “products of scrupulous scientific inquiry,” he begs that the reader realize,
It can also be argued that what we know today may be a fraction of all that really exists, and therefore, when confronted with entirely new situations, we may not have a ready explanation that science accepts. [….] While the entire principle of telephony is based on scientific logic involving magnetism and electricity, perhaps a hundred years ago we might have summarily dismissed the possibility of speaking to another person…through copper wires. In fact, had some one even suggested this, execution might have followed in certain countries where allegations of witchcraft invariably end badly….*
Do you catch a hint of Conan Doyle’s spiritualism there, dear reader? Yeah, me too.
So, here we have another type of Canon story–the “supernatural” adventure, following in the gigantic footprints of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Watson is quick to reassure the reader, however, that (spoilers!) just as in the moors of Devon, “this story is not about magic.” The reader may come to quibble with that, “entirely new situations” notwithstanding.
I stated earlier that Timbuktu begins in 1893–but that is not precisely true. The foundation of the adventure is actually laid in 1891, before the events in “The Final Problem.” As is often the case, we find Holmes and Watson in the sitting room of 221B. Watson, married and “in harness,” has stopped by to visit his friend, whom he hasn’t seen in awhile. Holmes is flipping through his copy of Debrett’s and lying on the settee while they gossip and reminisce. As always, Watson’s time is impeccable; he’s arrived on the very day Holmes is expecting an unusual client–one Signor Rozzi, chief conservator at the Venice Museum–with an unusual problem: he needs Holmes to discover the significance of half of an ancient parchment manuscript.
What Rozzi shows him, Holmes quickly realizes, is actually a copy, written in Meroitic, an an early Nile valley language.
Rozzi tells Holmes that it came into the museum’s possession after the death of Marco Polo, as part of his papers. Because of this, it was located in the Chinese section, and might have crumbled to dust there unread, had it not been for a series of threatening letters and then a break-in. The apparent significance of the parchment has Rozzi determined to have it translated; besides Holmes, he’s also consulted James Conway of the British Museum, and given him a copy to work with. He leaves the “original” with Holmes, after obtaining permission from the Pope (“Why is the Pope interested, I wonder,” muses Holmes. Why, indeed?).** Given that the translation could take awhile, Rozzi returns to Italy after making plans to pay another visit to London in April–“Say, the twentieth?”**
Do you recognize the significance of the date? I believe you do.
Rozzi won’t make it back to London. Conway will be badly beaten. Professor Moriarty will make a dramatic appearance, and Holmes will go over the falls at Reichenbach.
Or so it seems. What he’s really doing is buying time–time to pursue the other half of the manuscript before it can fall into unscrupulous hands for, as Watson repeats several times throughout the book, Sherlock Holmes’ greatest accomplishments came, not from apprehending criminals after the commission of the crime, but from averting the crime altogether–not that the general blood-thirsty, sensation-craving masses of his readership would appreciate this.*** Holmes spends the next two years undercover, mostly in Tangiers, where he plays the part of a Polish priest, Father Andrzej Bakiewicz, sent by Rome to manage accounts–a simple job which leaves plenty of time for detecting. By April of 1893, he is ready to send for Watson, whose wife (as always) gives him up without a fuss.
Meanwhile, in Malabar….
Thalassery Vatoot Mohammad Koya’s father, a spice trader, has just died, and his son is sorting through his things. Among the account books, shells, and dust, he finds a cache of gold coins–and a letter.
This letter is from his ancestor–the famous ibn Batuta, a renowned traveler and writer whose most important work, Al-Rihla, has inspired tremendous devotion–both in Murthy’s fictional world, and in our own.†
In the letter, addressed to one of his sons, the explorer writes that, even though he met the boy only once, as an infant, he wishes to leave him “a great inheritance.” We know from a previous chapter that he believes this to be a treasure map–or at least half of one–which has come to him, in a slightly convoluted fashion, from Marco Polo via the current Zamorin of Calicut, who tells him that the other half can be found in Polo’s native Venice. Beset with illness and danger on his journey home, ibn Batuta is forced to leave his papers–the manuscript among them–at the Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu. Aware that he needs to safeguard this clue to “riches beyond his wildest dreams,” he doesn’t provide its location in the letter he sends his son; instead, he writes another missive which he entrusts to two families, whom he pays to keep it until it’s claimed–however long that might be. It is these “Guardians of the Letter” ibn Batuta tells his descendant to find–in Tangiers.
Confused? It is rather complicated, and much easier to read than it is to explain. But the important thing to understand is that Koya does not know, initially, what this inheritance is, and that Marco Polo’s manuscript is in two halves–one in Venice (which Holmes has), and one in Timbuktu. Thanks to time, chance, and some degree of illiteracy, ibn Batuta’s legacy has gone unclaimed, the “Guardians of the Letter” have become a sort of cult waiting for their “master” and, more recently, one Professor Moriarty has not only become aware of the entire thing–he also knows what the “treasure” actually is….
As does Sherlock Holmes. The stage is now set for a race across northern Africa, from Morocco to Mali to Sudan, including a trek across the Sahara. Holmes, Watson, and their Tuareg guides, vie against Koya and the Guardians, with Professor Moriarty and his own allies providing yet a third band of rivals. Add to this the continual interplay of British, French, and Italian colonial interests; ethnic, religious, and tribal conflicts; disease, and the dangers of the desert, it’s a wonder that anyone gets out of this one alive, much less….
Well, that would be telling.
It’s always interesting to review different books by the same author–to get to know their style, to see the things they consistently do well, the things that still need tweaking, and the way their writing changes over time. I liked Murthy’s first book, Japan, but I do think that Timbuktu is a better one, and here’s why….
First, as I mentioned before, the locale is an unusual one for a Sherlockian adventure, and one which makes sense, given what we know about the detective’s movements during the Great Hiatus. In reading the Canon, we often, if we’re paying attention, get a glimpse of the tremendous expanse of British colonialism, but it’s seen through the eyes of an author who, while a very open and liberal person in many respects, was also a man of his time. Reading about “Lascars” and “Pandies,” for example, can be a trifle uncomfortable for us now, but in pastiches, it’s possible for authors to explore 19th century international relations and intercultural attitudes both more thoroughly and more honestly. Murthy does an excellent job of this without, as far as I can tell, being anachronistic.
Another area in which Murthy excels is in his evocation of settings. I have never been to a desert, much less the Sahara and, after reading his descriptions of the discomforts and hazards of crossing one, I have absolutely no desire to go. As Watson tells it:
The baking heat was beyond belief. It hit us relentlessly from all sides. For someone like me, who had seen action in Afghanistan and still had a Jezail bullet throbbing within, pain and suffering were no strangers. Yet the tropical heat I had experienced in the land of the Balochs and in Sind were nothing compared to the unrelenting waves of hot air, the pinpricks of heated sand, and the uncomfortable jerking of my camel….
I have only a bare recollection of how the day ended. I was barely conscious.††
As in Japan, Watson gives us a bit of a huffy justification for including “the details of a memorable trip through the Sahara,” rather than the grisly descriptions of crime he assumes his readers are looking for. I do have to say that, occasionally, that first book did read a little bit like a travelogue, but in Timbuktu, the setting details are more fully integrated into the adventure.
Another way in which I believe Timbuktu surpasses its predecessor is in Murthy’s more restrained use of extra documents and lengthy flashbacks to fill the holes in Watson’s narrative. As we’ve discussed before, one of the problems with using Watson as your sole narrator is that fact that he cannot be everywhere at once, and one way to get around this is to insert other points of view via “documents” or lengthy reminiscences; we have Canon precedents for both. Still, this technique can be unwieldy and distracting, and in Timbuktu, Murthy keeps these digressions to a minimum–or perhaps I just found these more interesting. I have to say, I got caught up in the story of Koya, so much so that I actually wished for a little more about his Saharan journey, rather than the quick wrap-up he receives towards the end of the book. To write a more parallel account, however, would likely require that the author step away from Watson and use the third person, as we have in “The Mazarin Stone.”
Just as he did in his first novel, Murthy handles his characters reasonably well. Watson is a little less humorously drawn here; we have the little asides about Holmes’ monographs and some petulance about publishers and readers, but in this outing, he seems a little subdued. He forgets, too, once they reach Khartoum, that he is in the place where his hero, General Gordon, met his death. Perhaps it’s just the heat and fatigue of his journey, but it might also stem from his relationship with Holmes. The Sherlock Holmes of Timbuktu bears some resemblance to the one in Japan: he needs Watson’s help, he is enamored of the new types of music he finds in their travels, he plans monographs, and he is able to mesh well with the new cultures he encounters–unlike his friend, who has some trouble with smells and sounds and food. Still, this Holmes seemed distant to me–and no doubt to Watson, to whom he was occasionally even cruel. In one scene, for example, Holmes poses as Uzbek trader Yaqub Beg Batuta, and takes Watson along as his deaf and mute “slave.” It is probably a reasonable disguise, and allows Watson to remain silent the entire time, but it’s also an uncomfortable and humiliating experience for the doctor, It even turns nerve-wracking at one point, when the Imam of the Sankore Mosque asks “Yaqub” to leave his slave behind as “payment” for the box of manuscripts he will be taking with him. Holmes wriggles out of this one, but Watson is a little worried. In other parts of the book, the Great Detective seems more interested in his new companions and surroundings than he does in his old friend. Some of Holmes’ behavior–not giving Watson important information, supposedly for his own good, for example–is true to Canon, but I often got the feeling that, in this adventure, Watson was Holmes’ helpmeet, but not his partner. There is a Rathbone/Bruce vibe to their relationship, and it seems to culminate, in the end, with Holmes denying Watson a tremendous gift–possibly not intentionally, and due only to his impulsive curiosity –but, unless I missed something, his actions left me feeling sad and a bit…disappointed.
And the supernatural element? Oh yes, it exists, and plays a major part in the book. If you are a Sherlockian who is only interested in rational explanations, you may find yourself frustrated by Timbuktu. But those readers who like the thrill of the mystical will find that Murthy is able to handle the unexplained and the spiritual with a subtle hand, deftly balancing it against the heroes and villains of the physical world.
In closing, I have a confession to make: this review, taken from an ARC kindly supplied by Poisoned Pen, was supposed to be up during the first week or so of January. Unfortunately, that was also when we were caught up in packing, house renovations, and moving to a new city several hours away. It took awhile before my brain was ready to handle the sustained thought and effort that a book review requires. But with Spring Break season in full swing, who’s to say the timing isn’t fortuitous after all? You know you need a new book for the plane, the beach, for hiding in the bathroom from your kids…. Even if you’re stuck at the same old job in the same old place, enjoy the warmer weather, and plan an escape to Timbuktu.
Vasudev Murthy lives in Bangalore, India, where, as his day job, he runs a consulting firm. His other books include The Time Merchants and Other Strange Tales; What the Raags Told Me; How Organizations Really Work; and Effective Proposal Writing. He is a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of India. Mr. Murthy can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads. He has an author page at http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/Vasudev-Murthy. Sherlock Holmes, The Missing Years: Japan is available on all large online booksellers in both trade paperback and ebook form, as well as in traditional brick-and-mortar shops. You can also order a copy online from Poisoned Pen Press.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5–“Well worth your time and money”
Canon Rating: 4 out of 5–A few questions, but no serious violations; those of you who do not appreciate the supernatural in your stories may wish to lower this rating to 3.
*pp. 1 and 2 of the ARC
**Remember, the document left with Holmes is also a copy. Quote is from p. 20 of the ARC.
***I know. I felt rather insulted, myself.
†You can follow ibn Batuta’s travels here….http://ibnbattuta.berkeley.edu, and read it here….https://archive.org/stream/TheRehlaOfIbnBattuta/231448482-The-Rehla-of-Ibn-Battuta_djvu.txt
††pp. 128-129 of the ARC