For a man who dedicated his life to solving mysteries, Sherlock Holmes certainly didn’t mind creating them.There’s the mystery of where he actually attended university. The mystery of his parentage and childhood. The mystery of how, precisely, he began working for Scotland Yard, and the mystery of how he became acquainted with cocaine. There are others, great and small, but perhaps the three most pondered, at least in the world of pastiche, are these:
- Did Sherlock Holmes investigate Jack the Ripper? And if so, did he catch him?
- How did Holmes really feel about “The Woman”?
- And what did Holmes do on that three-year Hiatus anyway?
Each of these questions has produced dozens, if not actual hundreds, of newly-discovered dispatch box accounts, some more authentic-sounding than others, and will no doubt continue to do so as long as it is always 1895. Today’s review book is the first in a series exploring that final question. Not content to accept Holmes’s own account of his activities as related in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Mr. Murthy has done a little digging and found a long-forgotten fifth novel, in which Dr. Watson elaborates on what, exactly, Holmes was up to after the Reichenbach so completely and conveniently obscured him from public view.
This is good, honestly, because if one simply goes by the Canon, it’s easy to get the impression that the Great Detective was simply feeling burnt out, and used his miraculous survival as an excuse to take a prolonged sabbatical, dispatches to the Foreign Office notwithstanding. As it turns out, Holmes had a lot more on his mind than coal-tar derivatives.
Many authors who explore the events of the Great Hiatus give us Holmes on his own–which only makes sense, because that’s the way it’s portrayed in the Canon; Sherlock Holmes is off traipsing around the globe for three years, then suddenly reappears in London, causing his best friend to faint dead away. Going by this most recent account, however, it appears that Dr. Watson’s version of their reunion may have been…misrepresented. Rather than all of the hubbub and disguises and British Birds, his erstwhile flatmate announced his return from the dead via this simple message, accompanied by a first-class steamer ticket to Yokohama:
“Watson, I need you. My violin, please.”
The handwriting and a faint whiff of tobacco leave Watson with no doubt that the note is genuine, and Mary, as always, does not hesitate to send him on his way. “He needs you now more than I do,” she tells her husband, leaving us with the impression that perhaps she had gotten tired of him moping about the house. *
So, the good doctor embarks, headed for adventure. Of course, as we have come to expect, adventure finds him first, in the form of a murdered cabin-mate, a man overboard, some odd fellow passengers, and one formerly dead detective, who was not waiting for him in Japan, after all. What Watson asssumed would be a standard steamship voyage turns into a chase across Asia, complete with more mysterious deaths, snakes, falling boulders, attempted stabbings, poisonings, and many other hazards Cook’s failed to warn him about. If, as Holmes listened to the dark waters of Reichenbach drown out the last gurglings of his mortal enemy, he even briefly imagined a research holiday, he is quite mistaken: the man can’t even escape death without tumbling into a plot more nefarious and broader in scope than any he has yet encountered. Is it simply an expansion of Japanese organized crime–or a bid for world domination? And will our heroes stay alive long enough to stop the brilliant mastermind behind it?
Well, ok, sometimes the Canon is its own spoiler. Still, Mr. Murthy does an excellent job of keeping up the suspense. While we may have a reasonable expectation that Holmes and Watson will survive this adventure, what’s not so clear is precisely how they will achieve this, and whether the many characters surrounding them are friends, or foes, or even detectives. I particularly appreciated how even Holmes didn’t quite understand the extreme deviousness of the plot he was working so hard to uncover–to the point of becoming bit of a criminal himself–until the very end.
As you can no doubt gather from my very vague summary, it’s actually hard to cover this particular book without totally giving away the surprises the author has set up throughout, so let’s look at a few other points instead, beginning with characterization. All in all, I think Mr. Murthy has done an acceptable job with both main characters. Holmes is recognizably himself. His iron constitution makes an appearance, as he no doubt would have died of exposure after plummeting into the falls. There are a few problems, though. In a case in which disguises are essential, he seems occasionally too ready to reveal his identity. In one case in particular, he places his trust in a former member of the Yakuza (a Japanese gang) turned Buddhist monk, and while Holmes tells Watson he believes (correctly) that the man has reformed, it seems to me that he might still be cautious about revealing too much to a man who has no problem giving up the machinations of his former colleagues. It is hard to imagine, too, the man who would poison a dog in “The Sussex Vampire,” and had no issues with testing another substance on himself and his best friend would lament doing so with a pigeon, particularly when it may well have saved their lives. In general, however, the deductions are strong, the quirks of character are in place, and the reader has no doubt that he is in the presence of the once and future denizen of Baker Street.
Murthy does a much better job, I think, with Watson. It’s possible, when attempting to do a “Watson voice” in pastiche, to focus so completely on mimicry that one forgets that he is also handling a character. I am probably not the best judge of a “Watson voice,” but it seems to me that Murthy acquits himself well in this regard. What he does even better, however, is bringing Watson alive for us. The doctor isn’t just the narrator, or Holmes’s straight man. He’s the bewildered traveller who doesn’t share Holmes’s affinity for Indian music, but devours an entire plate of rasgulla.** He’s the devoted married man who sends his wife letters at every stop, yet still has an eye for an attractive fellow passenger, even when she may have poisoned his tea. And throughout the book he has two recurring (yet hilarious) frustrations: one with Holmes and his “mania for monographs,” and the other with his new, young, female editor, who, we are told, demands that he spice up his True and Accurate Chronicle for the “modern reader.” He is miffed enough with her that the book actually begins with a formal complaint to the Publisher’s Guild about her, and casts little asides her way throughout the book, like this one, purportedly a quote from Sherlock Holmes himself:
You seem to resemble, in certain ways, precisely the same kind of reader whose flippant attitude you have deplored on countless occasions. I can see that you hope to chronicle this adventure someday, in the event we survive, and you wish to…provide a sense of restless action, desiring perhaps that the average citizen in Birmingham…has a jolly time. We do not live in a book, Watson!
Unfortunately, Watson–who has been griping that they’re taking in too many picturesque temples and ruins on their way to Japan–has a point. It is the book’s greatest weakness, and in some ways an unavoidable once one decides to use Holmes’s Boswell as narrator. The fact is, even in canon, Watson can’t be everywhere at once. Therefore, he either has to be present at the scene of the action, or must receive accounts of it through other sources. Typically, this is Holmes or another individual, and comes in the form of a lengthy confession (STUD, SIGN), a document (HOUN), a conversation (GLOR) or some odd conglomeration of the above (VALL). With the exception, perhaps, of stories like GLOR or MUSG, where the reminiscence is pretty much the adventure, these little jaunts into the past–or anywhere where Watson has not been–serve to interrupt the flow of the narrative, either jolting the reader, or confusing her entirely.*** Japan includes many scenes to which Watson was not privy, and while he tries to make it up to the reader by providing sometimes lengthy snippets of police records, memoirs, secret files–coupled with accounts from Holmes himself–this method can, unfortunately, seem a little “clunky.”
When I review a book, I try never to make a criticism without offering a solution, and this particular issue is a very common difficulty in pastiche. Such asides are canonical–and can even be seen as an homage–so I don’t believe they need to be eliminated altogether. Instead, I think it is probably wise that the author use as few as possible, and keeps them brief. In Japan, for example, although using interview summaries from confidential secretary Masako Nohara makes sense, it probably isn’t necessary to include her personal backstory. In fact, as she is in a very unlikely position for a 19th century Japanese woman, even in the Meiji restoration, providing limited detail gives certain curious reviewers fewer points to research and dispute. And speaking of historical details: while Dr. Watson insists that he wishes to chronicle the adventure as it happened, it might have been better had he trimmed some of the details of their visit with Rabindranath Tagore and Jagadish Chandra Bose. Although his account illuminates some of the scientific thought of the time, and has some entertaining moments, it does distract a bit from the flow of the story.† I think it’s important to note, however, that while on his mission for the Japanese government, Holmes encounters and solves another murder. Not a surprise, really, as he is traveling with the “stormy petrel of crime.”†† Although this little excursion could also have become an interruption, I found it an exquisite look into the darker depths of the human heart, although I wish it had been told by Watson himself, rather than supplied through notes.
For those readers interested in the book’s canonicity, Mr. Murthy seems to have done his research. There are nice canon asides, such as a riff on Watson’s fainting and Holmes’s apology, the use of brandy as a medicine, and a character dismissing Holmes’s deductions as “child’s play” once they are explained to him. I was unsure about two canon references, however. In one conversation with Watson, Holmes mentions both Charles Augustus Milverton and Baron Gruner. Remember, this story takes place in 1893, even if Watson is writing it in 1909. Because the esteemed chronologist Ernest Bloomfield Zeisler places “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” in 1886 (Baring-Gould dates it 1899), Murthy is in the clear. However, as “The Illustrious Client” takes place in 1902–and its internal dating is roundly accepted (at least as far as the year goes)–Holmes needs to have been discussing a younger Baron. As he is described as a “philanderer,” and not an (alleged) murderer, it is probably safe to assume this, but it’s not precisely evident from the text.
So–what’s the final verdict? I believe that in Sherlock Holmes, The Missing Years: Japan, Vasudev Murthy has a solid pastiche, and a believable adventure. Honestly, I always feel a bit bereft when reading stories set between May 1891 and the spring of 1894; when Holmes and Watson aren’t together, something vital is missing. It’s great to have the Detective and his Boswell on the case again, and I look forward to seeing what else the Great Hiatus has in store for them.
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
*Later, Watson remarks that Mary seems happier to see Holmes than she does him. This also makes us wonder–about many interesting possibilities.
**A sweet dumpling. Here’s a recipe: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/210639/rasgullas/
***Yeah, I know, it’s really funny to laugh at the Goodreads and Amazon reviewers who can’t figure out the Mormon bits in A Study in Scarlet, but is that anyone’s favorite part?
†Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for Gitanjali–Song Offerings. Bose was a scientist noted for his research with microwaves, and in the fields of radio and botany. He is not, as far I as can tell, related to the founder of the Bose Corporation. In fact, despite his many inventions, he didn’t really believe in patents.
††Holmes calls Watson “the stormy petrel of crime” when the latter brings him a letter from Percy Phelps, kickstarting “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty.”