I was very fortunate, in my first few months of Sherlockian fascination, to light upon some excellent pastiches. I do not doubt that they served to plunge me deeper into obsession than I otherwise might have gone. Although Doyle’s original stories and novels bear up well under repeated readings, with nuances that–as with all the best literature–appear and change with the reader’s own experience, Holmesian fiction allows writers to explore aspects of 221B of which Doyle afforded us only the barest glimpse. We get to ask, “What was it like?” “What if?” And, thanks to Watson’s notorious lack of attention to the proper details (ladies’ dresses lovingly described, dates mangled beyond recognition), we also can speculate as to what really happened.
The Veiled Detective tackles each of these questions–most particularly the last. It was perhaps the second or third pastiche I ever read, and while I’ve heard many people (rightly) list Mr. Davies’ The Tangled Skein and The Shadow of the Rat among their favorites, hardly anyone seems to recognize The Veiled Detective when I bring it up. This review will, I hope, remedy the situation.
The book starts off with a shock. To the reader. It’s Afghanistan, it’s Maiwand, and here’s British Army surgeon, John Walker, emerging from his tent, exhausted and traumatized by all of the…
Yes. I said “Walker.”
Even at that early stage of my acquaintance with Holmes’ Boswell, I read that–and no doubt re-read it–with a sense of indignation. “That’s not his name. Honestly, people, get it right, it’s….” You get the picture.
But I read on, and guess what? That is his name. Or was, and it’s the name his Captain calls him when he rouses him from the drunken stupor he’s lying in, under the dead tree which gives him refuge from the dying men he can no longer face. Brandy is the best medicine for guilt, he thinks, but it also turns out to be the liquid road to court martial, and—
That’s right. Court martial. Drunk on duty. No jezail bullet, anywhere. Three months in a Kandahar gaol, no enteric fever. Drummed out. No army pension. Still no kith nor kin in England, though. Absolutely nothing at all.
No worries about Holmes, though. Holmes is the same. He’s younger, living on Montague Street, trying to make a go of the whole “consulting detective” thing. Here he is, foiling a safe-cracking team by tricking them into hiring him as a “lookout.” Alert them to the police, alert the police to them–just semantics, in the end. Scotland Yard doesn’t pay, unfortunately, nor is he getting the challenges his mind requires, but at least he’s got enough for the cocaine bottle. He suggests to Lestrade that the criminals he’s bringing in are just minor operatives in a larger enterprise, but Lestrade doesn’t believe him. He believes him even less when Holmes says he suspects someone is toying with him, testing him, targeting him in particular. It makes the detective’s work more interesting, however, and he’s excited to (finally!) find the occasional case which stretches his skills. The letter-writer takes snuff and wears a large ring, he tells his client. He is a much better cracksman than one might think.
Moriarty appreciates that skill, and the note. In return, he gives Holmes a new flat, complete with landlady and flatmate.
Alone on the steamship Orontes,** John Walker finds his court-martial has made the papers and everyone seems to know who he is and what he has done. They treat him accordingly. He contemplates going overboard more than once, and is only saved by the appearance of the well-dressed, sympathetic Alexander Reed, who confides to Walker that he, too, was once in the exact same position, but now has a happy, prosperous life. This, and (again) brandy, is all it takes for Walker to unburden himself to the former Captain for hours in the ship’s bar, and by the time the Orontes docks, the doctor hopes his confidante might help him secure employment. Reed does occasional “recruiting;” there just might be a special position for Walker within his firm.
Reed’s boss agrees. He’s been looking for a man like Walker, so he offers him a simple proposition: take the job, stay alive.
So it is that Walker, cloaked in a new name and heroic backstory, finds himself at the Criterion Bar, meeting an old Bart’s colleague, Stamford, who will be able to pay off his most recent gambling debts after he introduces Walker/Watson to the odd duck who beats corpses and devises tests for haemoglobin in the lab. The man should be looking for lodgings instead, seeing as his Montague street landlord has unaccountably evicted him.*** Holmes’ situation is desperate enough that he’s happy to take the rooms Stamford suggested, with the wounded veteran the suddenly handy Stamford just happened to run into; after all, the man has normal bachelor vices and is all right with the violin, as long as it isn’t played badly. Now he has a nice set of rooms, a sounding-board, and Watson…well, Watson has someone fascinating to observe and follow around on cases and write about….
In detailed reports, which he posts regularly to Professor James Moriarty, in consideration of which he receives £100 per month, and his heartbeat.†
The lonely genius Moriarty, for his part, now has both a worthy opponent and someone in the enemy camp. With the right jerks on the strings, he can even make Watson perform acts of sabotage and (further) betrayal if necessary. It’s the perfect arrangement, really. What could possibly go wrong?
As you can see, David Stuart Davies has taken the stories we know so well and turned them, displaying them from another, slightly skewed, angle. Or is it? Davies presents theses “true” versions of Watson’s stories†† so tightly that I really couldn’t find any holes. If anything, The Veiled Detective answers the question of how some of the most confusing problems with Watson’s writings came about. During SIGN, for instance, the doctor admits that
..many of the details of this case escaped me, as most of my thoughts were full of Mary. The published version of this investigation…had perhaps more inaccurate passages and invented moments than nearly any other bearing my name.
Other stories, Watson says, were embellished to make them longer and more interesting. All that Alkali plains drama, for instance. Another, in particular, was changed to protect Holmes from prosecution for something rather more complex than breaking and entering. The detective’s willingness to overstep the law in search of justice, we find, was always a part of his makeup.
Davies does a wonderful job of reimagining Holmes’ and Watson’s adventures in this slightly bent world, but he does an even more masterful job with the people in it. Moriarty, Moran, Reed, and the redoubtable Scoular (with whom Holmes actually has the brilliant exchange Watson gives Moriarty in FINA) are fascinating, in the way of all poisonous snakes. You won’t be able to look away. Minor characters, such as Mrs. Hudson (who is not exactly as you remember her), Mary, Stamford, and Lestrade are handled with depth, sensitivity, and occasional humor, yet are not permitted to clutter the stage.
As for Holmes and Watson themselves…. Where Doyle only allows hints of their inner lives to show through, Davies pokes at these hidden fires, making them blaze brilliantly through the grate. The Veiled Detective is written as an omniscient third-person/Walker’s journal combination, which allows the author to compensate for the doctor’s narrative deficiencies, and the fact that he cannot be in two places at once. Watson is the loyal, responsible, emotional romantic we love from canon, albeit a little more perceptive and less admiring than he portrays himself in the stories. For example, while he is still quick to take offense at some of Holmes’ more condescending pronouncements, he is eventually able to see the intent behind them, and to take his share of the blame in their disagreements. Unfortunately, the same virtues which make him the most faithful friend in literature also lead him to a moment of moral failure which ultimately so compromises him that he cannot even live under his own name. Yet where a weaker man (say, Reed) might throw up his hands and exclaim, “All right, then I’ll go to Hell!”††† Walker never allows his circumstances to change his core decency. If, at the end of the book, he feels transformed, the reader knows that he’s really just been refined.
Readers who love a glimpse of the younger Sherlock Holmes will appreciate Davies’ portrayal. In his late twenties, Holmes is on the threshold, just coming into his own. He’s not always aware of how he appears or sounds to others. He goes to extremes in his efforts to achieve total self-control. While he’s confident in his deductive powers, almost to the point of arrogance, he’s actually a man who makes snap character judgments and lets those judgments steer his actions–again, to extremes. In Davies’ retelling of STUD, for instance, Holmes doesn’t yet have the experience to see how Jefferson Hope’s bitterness has led him into madness. As a result, the young detective allows his sense of right and mission to weight the scales of justice in way which (although he swears to Watson he will eventually be easy with it) he will never do again. In fact, he’ll do the exact opposite, more than once. Another snap judgment, however, this one on the character of the apparently uninjured “invalided” Army doctor standing before him amidst the test tubes, leads him to a friend who, indeed, “sticks closer than a brother.” ‡
As I flip back through my notes and my now-completely inked-up copy of this book, checking to see if there’s something I’ve missed, I’m struck again by how layered this story is, and how much more I got out of a second reading than I did the first. It takes skill to take a conceit that changes a familiar, much-loved world–“what if John Watson were not who he claimed to be?”–and then to use that statement, with all that logically follows, to illuminate that world instead. You need to lift the veil and take a look.
So, have I convinced you? Or not? First commenter wins a copy!
The Veiled Detective is available both online (print and e-book) and in traditional bricks-and-mortar bookshops. David Stuart Davies is a well-known and well-respected Holmesian who has written several well-received novels featuring the Great Detective, as well as a play (“Sherlock Holmes: The Last Act”), and two books on Jeremy Brett and the Granada Holmes series, Bending the Willow and Starring Sherlock Holmes. I could not find an author’s website for him, but he is on Twitter.
Star Rating: 5 out of 5 “This is a wonderful book that gets it right.”
* This version of The Veiled Detective is part of Titan Books’ growing collection, “The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” which is happily reprinting some of the better pastiche/Sherlockian fiction out there. Veiled was previously published in 2004.
**Of course, we all know that at this point in time, the Orontes was serving as a troopship, but Walker, being cashiered, would not be sailing on one of those, so the ship’s purpose is transformed. Others may question Holmes and Watson meeting in March in this book, when tradition (and a Plaque) have them meeting in January of 1881. STUD dates from March of that year, however, and since it was their first case together, the March date is not an unreasonable assumption. The only problem date I found was that the Battle of Maiwand is said to have occurred on June 27, 1880, when it actually took place on July 27th of that year. Because Davies’ other details are so scrupulously handled, I have to wonder if this is just a typographical error.
***Well, 12 sovereigns may have been involved. And if he hadn’t taken them, I’m sure he could have been otherwise persuaded.
†Sound familiar, BBC Sherlock fans? I swear, when I saw Mycroft in the warehouse scene, offering John money to spy on Sherlock, I was as sure as anyone that he was Moriarty, and that Moffatt and Gattiss were referencing this book. I may have squealed some.
†† Primarily “A Study in Scarlet,” and “The Final Problem,” although others, such as “The Sign of the Four” and “The Greek Interpreter” are alluded to.
†††Free book if you can tell me where that quote comes from, and its context. (“Now we’ll see who reads the footnotes!” she cackles.)
‡Proverbs 18:24. It applies very well in this instance, actually.