Checking through the list of old posts, I see that it’s been months since I’ve reviewed a traditional Sherlock Holmes story. This isn’t because I prefer the outré in pastiche; on the contrary, a well-written, lengthy traditional Victorian story is my very favorite. But for some reason, as much of an Everyman as Sherlock Holmes is, people delight in placing him in the most fantastic of situations with the most unusual characters….
That’s why I welcomed the opportunity to move into more Doylean territory with Tim Symonds’ new book. Taken from an old manuscript found in a Gladstone bag hidden away in a rather poorly constructed hut in the Weald of Sussex, it details, in a certain doctor’s sometimes florid language, a case upon which the foundations, not only of Western civilization, but of a long-standing friendship, stood shaking and uncertain.
They don’t see it coming, of course. No one ever does. It’s a quiet day at 221B in late May of 1904. Holmes, having been out early wandering the seedier sections of London, is nodding off over an experiment while Watson is reading one of his sea stories. They’re in such a somnolent mood that even a rabbit-seller-who-is-most-definitely-NOT-a-rabbit-seller keeping watch outside the flat inspires only a “wait and see” attitude. It takes a telegram to rouse them to action.
Holmes is not exactly thrilled with this telegram; he finds it presumptuous, and it is. The prominent poet, David Siviter, has sent it reply-paid to summon Holmes and Watson to give a talk to the Kipling League at his home in Sussex that very afternoon. Travel arrangements have been made, and the sum proffered is in the “princely” range. This last, as well as the chance to meet some influential men (including the famous artist Pevensey), for Holmes to hone his lecturing skills for retirement, and to fill an empty day, eventually trump the detective’s ego, and they’re on their way to Sussex, albeit by a more circuitous route than that provided by their host. They arrive three hours ahead of schedule and spend their time with Siviter, touring the grounds, visiting the estate’s water-driven electrical generator at Park Mill (not operational due to children accidentally opening the sluice gates), and enjoying refreshments on the lawn.¹ Finally, the program begins, with a curiously small audience. The final two members, Sir Julius Wernher and Alfred Weit, arrive late and disheveled after Watson’s lengthy introduction and several minutes into Holmes’ presentation on deductive methods. No matter. The lecture is a success, boding well for Holmes’ retirement income. After a visit with Pevensey (who’s just finished two commissioned paintings in a mill-attic studio) and an Ottoman-inspired meal, it’s time to head back to Baker Street. Too bad the artist will be taking a different train; Holmes could continue to discuss painting methods with him.
Then again, if they’d taken the same train, they wouldn’t have heard the newsboy selling the late edition of the Standard. Watson would have fallen asleep with the fat packet of banknotes in his pocket, Holmes would have nattered on to a trapped Pevensey about Constable and maybe, just maybe, a client missing her emeralds would have called the next morning and the detective and his Boswell would still be friends, because they would never have learned about the dead body they’d left behind.
But they don’t, and they do, and they have a serious row about it, pages worth. Holmes is certain that it’s murder, and that he’s being played. Watson believes very strongly that his friend is committing a sin he’s often warned against:
It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. (SCAN)
But is he? Or have his nearly three decades of deduction simply honed his abilities so that he can intuit crime where others see only a drowning accident?
It’s not a spoiler to tell you Holmes is wrong; you’ll read that in the first few pages of the book. But he’s not wrong in the way Watson believes. Watson, too, is wrong. Both in the way Holmes believes…but also in another, more serious way. More on that in a moment. Let’s put a picture in to help us change gears.
One thing I’ve seen frequently, since I’ve started reading pastiche as a reviewer and not simply as a fan, are stories with “good bones” which are hampered in the execution. The Dead Boer is one of these. The plot is ingenious; unless you’re an expert in foreign affairs,² you probably won’t foresee the denouement. The dialogue and pacing are good, and while true connoisseurs of the “Watson voice” may have some reservations, I thought Symonds’ effort was decent. There are some fantastic lines and clever ideas. Holmes is in character, and while Watson is in some ways less so, I came to believe that Symonds is actually revealing an aspect of Watson’s development that is worth considering. I’ll admit to some doubts as I read the Foreword and Preface, but I came to appreciate the intricacies of the plot and Symonds’ insight into the Holmes and Watson friendship (again, more on that in a moment).
For every point I admired about the book, however, there was another that had me pulling out my hair. Some were “new novelist mistakes:” starting the book a trifle too soon, for example, or including scenes (such as Siviter’s “ghost” story) which, while interesting, did little to advance the plot.³ Physical description abounds, in keeping with Watson’s writing style. We learn what everyone is wearing, items they own, interior decorations, etc., with a large amount of historical detail. These elements set the time and place and are interesting,⁴ but too much begins to seem like clutter. This is, however, a matter of personal taste, and I realize that quite of few of you will enjoy it. Too, in Watson’s defense, his extreme eye for detail becomes useful towards the end of the book.
More problematic for me, however, were the author’s strange deviations from canon. I know, I know, we’ve had this discussion before. Still, while writers may have valid reasons for ignoring or distorting canon details to fit their plots, I had a difficult time seeing how this scenario applied here. For example, Watson tells us that David Siviter is the author of Heavy Game of the Western Himalayas. Of course, that book was written by Col. Sebastian Moran. When one learns that (spoiler!) Moran and Siviter are not the same person, it’s hard to understand why this widely-known canon fact was changed.
In a similar fashion, during his talk to the Kipling League, Holmes discusses voodoo in relation to The Hound of the Baskervilles. “What?” you rightly ask. Actually, voodoo, and the book Holmes mentions, appear in “Wisteria Lodge,” while spectral hounds are a staple of the folklore of the British Isles and are unrelated to voodoo in that context. In another example, Watson reminds Holmes of the time they hunted Sir Grimesby Roylott through the Balkans, right after mentioning “The Speckled Band,” which, as you recall, features Dr. Grimesby Roylott, and no Balkans. Because the two are mentioned in the same passage, I realize the tweaking is intentional, but do not understand the intention behind it; what is meant to be clever ends up being distracting.
But perhaps my sense of humor is lacking.⁵ I found it harder to accept some other points. Some deal with Watson’s personal history. He mentions serving in the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers when he was wounded, for example, when he was in fact serving with the Berkshires at Maiwand (having been sent to them from the 5th for some reason). He recuperates in Peshawar, rather than London, and seems to have been in no condition to then serve with the Russians combatting Sufis and conducting medical research as he claims in this book. Nor does the time frame work (as ridiculous as it may sound to talk about Watson and time frames). He doesn’t seem to have had enough time to recuperate and work again in the weeks between the time the Orontes docks (in November of 1880) and the day he meets with Stamford in the Criterion bar, then follows him to Bart’s.⁶ Apparently, too, upon leaving Afghanistan, Watson was also offered his pick of the Amir’s armory (for what, he doesn’t say), though he still prefers his service revolver. Now this could happen; there are plenty of times during his partnership with Holmes when Watson has space and time to have his own adventures, and this could make a nice story. It’s hard for me, however, to see it happening directly after Maiwand.
One can (and many probably will) put this down to “canon-itis.”⁷ In the end, however, it was Holmes’ and Watson’s discussion of Watson’s Codex which was the most problematic.
The Codex (Symonds’ invention) is a published study Watson did of the influence of temperature on rigor mortis.⁸ It actually won him a prize (the Karolinska Institute’s Order of Merit for Comparative Pathology and 1,000 kroner). He carries it with him everywhere, much as I would, were I ever to publish a book. Honestly, it’s fun to think of Watson pursuing his profession in a scientific way, and his numbers play into the solution of part of the mystery. That being said, it strained my credulity to hear him explain to Holmes how the process worked. Think about it. When Watson meets Holmes, he’s in a laboratory at St. Bart’s and has just developed a test for detecting hemoglobin. He’s known to beat corpses to study the formation of post-mortem bruises, and he tests the effects of poisons, possibly on himself. At this point, he’s nearly twenty-seven, and at the time of The Dead Boer, he’s fifty. Surely during that time, if not before, it occurred to him to study rigor mortis in a scientific fashion, time of death being crucial in many murder investigations. Nor did it make any sense to me that Watson would need to explain to Sherlock Holmes, a chemist, how to convert degrees centigrade to fahrenheit. Granted, this may have been a gimmick to educate the reader (I never remember how it works), but as the reader has no access to the Codex, she can take Watson’s statements on temperature for granted and the story can move on, no math necessary.
Of course, a reader who knows very little about Holmes and Watson will let all of this pass. Unfortunately, most of Symonds’ readers will have a strong Sherlockian background, and these details may frustrate them as much as they did me. Still, what stands out most about The Dead Boer at Scotney Castle is the interesting way Symonds portrays John Watson.
The book actually begins with Watson discussing how the case destroyed his friendship with Holmes. Later, he posits that Holmes is so humiliated by his failure that he just can’t face being around his old friend any more. This is a little disingenuous on his part. He’s seen Holmes at his best and worst–and as far as he knows, this is an ordinary failure. As for the word getting out, he’s already told us Holmes has forbidden him to publish this case, going so far as to pre-empt any attempt to do so by contacting the editors of The Strand. After this, not even Collier’s will touch it.⁹ This, in the end, is what really matters.
For a younger Watson, his friend’s appeal to loyalty would have been enough. But this is a an older man who has chaffed some under his prickly friend’s treatment, who endured the trauma of “The Dying Detective” and, of course “The Final Problem.” He’s also someone who’s been married (more than once), and who has developed his own career, as a physician and a writer. He’s his own person, and over time, his interests and goals have diverged from Holmes’. When Holmes decides that the Kipling League, comprised of some of the nation’s most rich and powerful, has something to do with that body by the pond, Watson doesn’t necessarily see evil in high places which must be defeated at all costs. He sees personal and professional ruin. Always a little more impressed by wealth and nobility than his friend, the doctor has a hard time believing that these men are even capable of crime, but the desperation which fuels his argument against investigating seems born more of fear of reprisal than a belief that his friend is wrong. Watson has something to lose.
Conversely, once Holmes realizes he’s been beaten and asks Watson to keep this one in the tin box, Watson mentally refuses. Now, he has something to gain. Although his Boswell would have us to believe otherwise in this account, Holmes hasn’t made a habit of concealing his failures and near-misses.¹⁰ It really wouldn’t hurt Watson to consign this to Cox and Co., as he had already done so many others for which the world isn’t ready. Instead of reassuring his friend, however, Watson decides that he owes his readers a true portrait of the detective, “warts and all.” He tells us he had this epiphany after viewing a portrait of Charles I; however, it seems plain that he’s loathe to lose a good story (one in which he appears the voice of reason), the attention and, presumably, the money. Watson ultimately chooses his public and his career over his friend. He then has the temerity to write the case up in a little scriptorium he fashions on Holmes’ Sussex property, working on it while he visits the detective, ostensibly in an effort to preserve their friendship. It appears that marrying yet again wasn’t Watson’s “one selfish action.” I leave it to the reader to discover how Holmes responds, and to wonder what would have happened had he never received a certain newspaper clipping.
If you’ve stayed with me through this lengthy piece, you may be wondering whether or not I recommend this book. As I said before, it’s a very clever mystery and, once I saw (or thought I saw) what Symonds was doing with the Holmes/Watson relationship, I was in for the duration. However, the criticisms I listed earlier were a definite distraction. I don’t think I would give this book to readers not well-acquainted with Doyle, for fear of confusing them with inaccuracies. For others, it depends (as it often does with pastiche) on your desire for canonicity. In the end, I believe that Sherlock Holmes and the Dead Boer at Scotney Castle is a book in which an intelligent plot and deftly rendered characters are betrayed by what seems to be too much attention to one sort of detail, and too little attention to another.
Sherlock Holmes and the Dead Boer at Scotney Castle is available from MX Publishing and the usual online bookselling suspects.
Star Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5, “Flawed, but worth a look.”
Special Acknowledgement: In sorting out some of the details regarding the troopship Orontes, I relied heavily on the historical and chronological knowledge of Vincent Wright, blogger at Historical Sherlock (http://historicalsherlock.blogspot.com/), as well as the superlative internet researching skills of my Twitter friend, Clare.
¹I only mention this so that I can tell you that the medlar jelly served reminds Watson of “Johnston’s Fluid Beef.” Yes. It is a real thing. See it here: http://17thdivision.tripod.com/rationsoftheageofempire/id5.html
²Or, you know, cheat and look at the ending. Don’t, by the way. It’s much more interesting if you learn it the way our heroes do.
³It’s highly possible that the reason I recognize these errors is that they have been pointed out in my own writing *sticks hands in pockets, looks around, whistling.*
⁴I didn’t know there was such a thing as “poshteen,” for example. Here it is: http://maiwandday.blogspot.com/2010/11/conversions.html
⁵This has been discussed in our household.
⁶See http://www.britishmedals.us/kevin/profiles/hennigan.html. The date can also be found in “Naval and Military Intelligence” in the Times, per this link http://www.holmesian.net/forums (Note: I had to remove most of the link, because, on trying to access it 3 months later, I ran into what may have been malware. Holmesian.net is fine, however–just search for Orontes using the search feature). If you can’t get to the Times archive, Vincent Wright of the Historical Sherlock blog has helpfully posted it on my FB page. It is generally accepted that Watson met Holmes at Bart’s in January of 1881. A plaque at the hospital gives the date as January 1st. Who are we to argue with a bronze plaque?
⁷For what it’s worth, one of the easiest ways to get around this that I can think of is through using footnotes or endnotes to show the reader where you’ve changed things, or to state outright in a preface that you are writing with no intention of observing canon detail. Either of these should shut people up.
⁸I did wonder about Watson’s claim that he had trouble getting bodies in England to conduct his research. The Anatomy Act of 1832 was passed to help legitimate medical researchers in that regard, and to stop murderous entrepreneurs such as Burke and Hare.
⁹Liberty, however. Now that’s another story. 😉
¹⁰A partial list would include: NORW, YELL, SCAN, DANC, RESI, and LADY.