As one reads through the canon, it’s easy to believe, along with Watson, that Sherlock Holmes is “an isolated phenomenon,” that he simply sprang forth a wholly-formed adult from…well, somewhere. And even after we’ve gone to the Diogenes and met Mycroft in “The Greek Interpreter,”* and learned the few facts Holmes provides about his family and youth, we really don’t know that much more about them. “My ancestors were country squires,” he says, “who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class.” To spice things up a bit, he then tells Watson that his grandmother was a sister of the French artist, Vernet,** and that, “art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.” And that’s pretty much all Watson ever tells us, thereby whetting the imaginations of pastiche writers everywhere.
Because, of course, Sherlock Holmes didn’t just appear one day. He has a family, a childhood, an adolescence, all three of which have inspired plenty of creative speculations in both film and print. In today’s book, The Crack in the Lens, Darlene Cypser takes her turn, taking us back to the year 1871, when Sherlock, then 17, faces two critical events which force him to learn hard lessons about the darker side of human nature, loss, and resilience.
Of course he has no idea what’s coming. He’s just returned to his native Yorkshire with his parents, Squire Siger*** and his wife, from a two-year sojourn among his maternal relatives in the south of France, where they travelled in hopes of improving Sherlock’s delicate health. He has a tendency towards serious lung problems and, to his ex-cavalry officer father’s consternation, has been labelled “delicate” by the family physician. Despite this, he’s an active, intelligent young man, who can’t wait to take his horse and dog out for a ride on the moors around the manor house to explore his old childhood haunts, like an old stone hut. But the Holmes family is in transition, now. Sherlock’s oldest brother, Sherrinford✝ is about to be married and is taking on many of the duties that will one day be his as squire, while Mycroft is living and working in London as a government accountant. The squire is in the process of hiring a tutor in hopes of preparing Sherlock to gain admittance to university, where, he hopes, his youngest son will study engineering and find gainful employment in the rapidly expanding British Empire. This won’t be the only change in Sherlock’s life this year; on this, his first ride out onto the springtime moors, he encounters Violet Rushdale, the daughter of one of the Holmes’ tenant farmers.
She’s shot a hare, and her hands bear evidence of hard work, which makes no sense to him, as his father’s tenant farmers tend to be fairly prosperous. She claims that poor harvests have caused everyone hardship, but he doesn’t quite believe her. From Sherrinford, who took care of manor business while the squire was away, he learns that Violet’s mother died of cholera a couple of years before, and her father took to drink in response. Godfrey Rushdale is now barely functional, and it’s fallen to Violet to try to keep their lives together. When Sherlock visits the now-ruined farm himself, he learns that she’s done so by gathering herbs for some village women, and selling off livestock and family belongings–now in short supply. He helps her take some furniture to town, and to get a good price for the Rushdale wagon, thus beginning a friendship which deepens as weeks pass.
He is, in fact, much more interested in Violet than he is in the Greek, Latin, mathematics and astronomy lessons presented by his new tutor, James Moriarty (who has this strange, oscillating tic). Still in his twenties, Moriarty has already gained academic acclaim for his papers on the binomial theorem and asteroidal dynamics. Sherlock wonders why the professor resigned his chair at Westgate University, apparently giving up on a promising career to become a tutor. He has an almost instant, intuitive distrust of the man, which he can’t explain; Moriarty seems nice enough, and works hard to curry favor with the family. When Sherlock begins to suspect Moriarty of subtly cruel manipulations, such as making it impossible for him to finish his work, then complaining to the Squire that he is lazy–or worse, altering the work itself– no one believes him. For his part, Moriarty wonders why, exactly, Sherlock is so eager to have his afternoons free, why he wants to go out riding on the moors so often.
The answer, of course, is Violet. Sherlock finds her fascinating enough all by herself, but he also relishes the freedom and time away from his cold, demanding father, mentally absent mother and the reptilian Moriarty. One thing leads to another, with the predictable result and its predictable consequences. What could have just been a small family scandal, however, with Moriarty’s cruelty added to the mix, becomes a tragedy that threatens four lives and forces Sherlock out of childhood towards the man he will become.
In The Crack in the Lens, Ms. Cypser, long-time Sherlockian and current president of the Denver scion society, “Dr. Watson’s Neglected Patients,” has written a book which should appeal to both newbies and seasoned fans. There are plenty of nods to both canon and William S. Baring-Gould’s biography of Holmes (although she does not follow the latter slavishly), but one does not need to have either memorized to follow the plot. As a young man, Sherlock has many characteristics of the Great Detective already in place: he’s observant, for instance, and he and Mycroft play a little game of deduction which Sherrinford is not very good at. Cypser works glimpses of these traits into “slice of life” episodes, such as a visit to the Lammas Day Fair in Yorkshire, where Sherlock, serving as his sister-in-law’s escort, makes a fool of a thimblerig con and, through his kindness in discouraging some young purse-snatchers, ends up inspiring their loyalty later in the day. It’s during this trip that Sherrinford points out that his younger brother has a morbid streak–a fascination with the Newgate Calendar.✝✝ Some readers may find that these sections move a little slowly, but it’s interesting to imagine the Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street ribbing his brother about his wedding jitters, complaining about his annoying little cousin, George Challenger; shooting grouse, teaching a dale boy to fence, looking for fossils, or working in area fields during the harvest.
This last, of course, isn’t what a country squire’s son would normally be doing. In fact, he’s sent there as a punishment for what Moriarty leads Siger Holmes to believe is laziness. One gets a sense of why Holmes doesn’t speak fondly of his parents in later life; with both father and mother too caught up in their own interests and duties, the young Sherlock gets his only real familial affection from his brothers, and it shows in their interactions. While the scenes between Sherlock and Violet are sweet and natural, those involving either the Squire or the Professor are unpleasantly electric, particularly as the conflict escalates. Sherlock is keenly aware that he will never be able to please his father; it doesn’t help that Moriarty is not a villain with comprehensible motives, but a different creature entirely. Each time Sherlock brings an accusation against his tutor, the reader is bound to ask, along with Mycroft, Sherrinford, and their father, “Why? Why in the world would anyone do that?” The answer, of course, is one that gradually becomes clear to Sherlock and, unfortunately, to many of us in our own lives: he does it because he can. Because some people are simply evil.
Some readers may be surprised to find that, in the final chapters, Sherlock Holmes is not the calmly cerebral person they envision from Watson’s stories. I thought that myself, the first time I read it–at least, I thought he was a little over-dramatic. Then, however, I thought back a few decades to my own adolescence. To my own very emotional reactions to events both small and traumatic, and to those of friends and classmates. It’s easy, as an adult, to forget how it felt to be dependent on parental actions and support, to not have the confidence earned through experience, or the sad yet resilient assurance that the sun will shine tomorrow, and we’d best get on with it. No one is born with this knowledge; it’s gained through living, and living much longer than 17 years. And at any rate, as his friend continually points out, Watson sees, but does not observe, and those “hidden fires” are never so secret as he imagines they are.
The Crack in the Lens is exciting and enjoyable, highly recommended for anyone who doesn’t mind extra-canonical speculation in their pastiches. And if that’s what you particularly enjoy, you’ll be pleased to know that a sequel, which follows Holmes to university, is due to be released this spring. I, for one, am looking forward to it. And I would love to know what happened to Professor Hastings.
Well, this ends our February exploration of Sherlockian romance. There will be more later, never fear! But for now, the first to comment on this post wins a copy of The Crack in the Lens, or if you already own it, its sequel when available (most likely in March). So don’t be shy–let me know what you think!
The Crack in the Lens is available from Amazon and other major online booksellers, as either a print or e-book. For more information, including a list of sources, see www.thecrackinthelens.com
Star Rating: 4 out of 5: “Highly enjoyable; worth your time and money.”
*Sherlockian convention dictates that, for brevity’s sake, each story be generally referred to by an abbreviation of its first four letters. “The Greek Interpreter,” for example, is therefore written as GREE.
**Typically, he does not tell us which Vernet. Baring-Gould picks Antoine C.H., aka Carle, 1758-1835.
***Baring-Gould got the name “Siger” from the alias Holmes uses during the Great Hiatus, “Sigerson,” which, in the Norwegian it was purported to be, means “Siger’s Son.”
✝ Baring-Gould invented Sherrinford to explain why Mycroft and Sherlock, sons of a country squire, were not actually living in the country. As the eldest, Sherrinford would inherit, and his brothers would need to find other occupations.
✝✝ This used to be a monthly record of executions in Newgate Prison. By Sherlock’s time, it was a collection of moral stories, rather dramatic, based on the misdeeds and sorry deaths of famous historical criminals, and apparently a common book in English homes.