Category Archives: The Great War

Symonds, Tim. Sherlock Holmes and the Dead Boer at Scotney Castle. London: MX, 2012

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….

One of Holmes’ and Watson’s more pedestrian adventures: an open-and-shut domestic.

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.

One of Pevensey’s paintings is done in the style of this one, The Hay Wain, by Romantic painter John Constable. Look at the dog. It’s a good dog. Remember it.

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.

It’s not this kind of fight, but it probably felt like it.

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.

Let’s shift gears again, shall we?

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 (, 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:

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:

⁵This has been discussed in our household.

⁶See The date can also be found in “Naval and Military Intelligence” in the Times, per this link (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. 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.

Liberty, however. Now that’s another story. 😉

¹⁰A partial list would include: NORW, YELL, SCAN, DANC, RESI, and LADY.

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Filed under Holmes and Watson Friendship, International relations, MX Publishing, Real Historical Personages, The Great War, Three-star reviews, Tim Symonds, Traditional

Duncan, Alistair. An Entirely New Country: Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw, and the Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes. London: MX, 2011

The Conan Doyle children, Mary and Kingsley, at Undershaw, c.1900

In late 1893, Sherlock Holmes’ legions of fans received a terrible shock. Unbeknownst to them, their hero had perished at Reichenbach Falls nearly three years previously.  It took time, and the scurrilous insinuations published by Colonel James Moriarty, the Professor’s brother, to persuade his grieving Boswell to write an account of May 4, 1891, but write it he did, effectively blasting the expectations of readers who had become accustomed to following Holmes and Watson on their adventures,  to the point that many actually believed the two men to be real. Still, after a few bad moments or vacant days (for the most obsessed), those readers went back to their normal lives. There were, after all, other detectives.*

While young City men reportedly wore black armbands for someone who never lived, his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, was reeling from horrible news of his own. That October, his wife Louise (affectionately known to her family as “Touie”) had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. Her case was advanced, and it was terminal. Whatever future they had envisioned for themselves and their young family was now irrevocably changed. There would not be, after all, another Louise.

One common 19th century treatment sought by tubercular patients who could afford it was a move to higher altitude, in the belief that the lower air pressure would allow the heart to work more effectively and therefore help to clear the lungs.** Following this line of thought, Conan Doyle spent the next few years moving his family to Switzerland and Egypt in hopes of improving his wife’s health. While it seemed to bring results, all of the moving and living in hotels was expensive and disruptive to the couple’s children, Mary and Kinglsey. Fortunately, in 1895, a family friend and tuberculosis sufferer, Grant Allen, told Conan Doyle that Hindhead, in Surrey, was elevated enough to have a beneficial climate. Never a man to waste time, the author bought a piece of land and in October of 1897, the family moved into their new home, Undershaw.

Alistair Duncan, who has previously described Conan Doyle’s years in Norwood and traced his (and Holmes’) connections to places in London, now turns his knack for painstaking research to  Undershaw. He combines great events with small to give the reader a detailed picture of the author’s life over the next decade, one of tremendous change for him, both personally and professionally.

One of the most important events in Conan Doyle’s life, and that of his family, occurred while Undershaw was still being built. On March 15th of 1897, he met 23 year-old Jean Leckie. Although still married, he fell hard for the aspiring opera singer and began an intense platonic relationship (a courtship, really) with her that would last throughout his time at Undershaw and would ultimately be the cause of his leaving it.

Professionally, Conan Doyle still found himself tied to the man who had given him a career. Holmes may have been gone, but he was definitely not forgotten. Shortly after the family moved, the Sherlock Holmes play which had consisted solely of rumors became reality. Duncan details the negotiations, pitfalls (including a rewrite necessitated when the only copy was destroyed in a hotel fire), and the play’s ultimate success–provided that the audience could actually hear the actors. It was this project that lead Conan Doyle to write the frustrated exclamation beloved and used by pastiche writers everywhere, “You may marry or murder or do what you like with him!”*** Interestingly enough, he wasn’t quite serious about this; Duncan writes that one issue Conan Doyle particularly wanted to discuss with Gillette when they met in May of 1899 was the actor/writer’s plan to give Holmes a romantic interest. We know he did, of course, but apparently there were boundaries to the character that his creator was not willing to cross.

Never one to hide away in his study, Conan Doyle was quick to get involved in local, national, and international affairs. His concern with British politics led him to write letters, articles, and occasionally run for office. It also led him to serve in the 2nd Boer War as a medical officer. In February 1900 he sailed to South Africa, where he served as Secretary/Registrar for the Langman Military Hospital in Blomfontein. He wasn’t there long, but by the time he left, in July of that year, he had written articles, a decent portion of his definitive book on the war and, on the steam ship home, met a young journalist, Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who would, although he didn’t realize it, be instrumental in bringing Sherlock Holmes up out of that chasm and making him eternal.

I have always admired people who set out to write biography. When you write fiction, you’re in charge. Of course you write what you see, what you know, what your characters tell you to write…but ultimately, your book is yours to make up as you go along. Historians have to deal with facts (or at least they should), but typically they have a multitude of events, people, and sources to work with. Don’t have the material for one angle? Choose another. Do the Boston Massacre witness accounts conflict?✝  That’s all right–you have room, and you can even make that your thesis. A biographer, however, is limited to the facts that exist about one person in particular. If the source material isn’t there, it’s just not. He can’t make up the facts. He can’t make the person into someone he wasn’t. And when the biographer chooses a limited time in his subject’s life to examine, it can be difficult to piece all of the events from that briefer period together into a cohesive whole, particularly when some years are more eventful than others.

In An Entirely New Country, Duncan achieves this admirably, and the result is a valuable resource, or a nice introduction for anyone who has yet to read a complete biography of Arthur Conan Doyle.  We get a full view of Conan Doyle’s Undershaw years, almost as if we were his nosy next-door neighbor. He’s playing golf again–when will that Hindhead Golf Club be successful? Is that a new car? He surely is a speed-demon. Did you read about his first-class wicket against W.G. Grace? The Rifle Club’s shooting at the range over at Undershaw, perhaps you should join. Who’s that with him now–is it that woman? I wonder what Louise thinks about her. Is it true he’s writing about Sherlock Holmes again? This time, however, the nosy neighbors have plenty of photographs, a bibliography, helpful footnotes and supplemental information about the people in Conan Doyle’s life, such as Charles Frohman and George Edalji. Particularly enjoyable are Duncan’s own, often wry, observations. He looks at his subject with a clear eye. When Conan Doyle comments on a fellow medical officer’s weight (he appears to have disliked the man), for example, Duncan points out that in photographs, the gentleman looks to have had the same type build as Conan Doyle himself.  He provides interesting speculations on individuals’ feelings, motives, and events, and is careful to identify them as such.✝✝ What, for instance, did Strand editor Herbert Greenhough Smith think when he realized that Collier’s Norman Hapgood managed to get the stories he’d been angling for for years? Was it printable?  Duncan also doesn’t succumb to the biographer’s temptation to take his subject’s side in every matter. Everyone can acknowledge that it had to have been very difficult to live with the changes tuberculosis forced upon his family life, but not all of Conan Doyle’s coping strategies were beyond reproach and, as Duncan points out, some of his actions caused pain (to which he seemed oblivious) for both his immediate and extended family. Duncan is also perceptive in pointing out that, while Doyle’s marriage to Miss Leckie, after the period of mourning for his wife had been fulfilled, brought him happiness and a new beginning, it did not do the same for his children. Because life, after all, is not a story, and we don’t get an Empty House.

Don’t faint again, Watson, but Undershaw is in danger, and we’ll need more than brandy!

That being said, An Entirely New Country was written with a resurrection in mind. As most of you no doubt know, Undershaw, now the only extant home of Conan Doyle, has fallen into a state of terrible disrepair and is now in danger of being broken up into flats. The Undershaw Preservation Trust has been working tirelessly to prevent this, and to find a way to preserve Undershaw as a single dwelling. For more information on the Trust, its goals, the legal battle it faces against development, and ways in which you can support its efforts, please see  Alistair Duncan has also pledged that 50% of the net royalties of An Entirely New Country should go to the efforts to save Undershaw.

In my own efforts to support the UPT and fill your bookshelves, I’ll send a copy of An Entirely New Country to the first two commenters. Already have a copy? You can have your choice of one of Duncan’s other books, or an item from the UPT shop of equivalent value. An Entirely New Country is available on the Baker Street Babes and MX websites, the Save Undershaw shop (on the Trust’s website) and, of course, your usual online booksellers.

Star Rating: 5 out of 5 “This is a wonderful book that gets it right.” 


*As we mentioned in the last review, Sherlock Holmes had quite a few imitators, and some predecessors. Fans could get their deduction fixes from Poe’s Dupin, Gaboriau’s Lecoq, Barr’s Eugene Valmont, Grant Allen’s Miss Cayley, and many, many others.

**First promoted by German physician Hermann Brehmer in mid-century. The family’s efforts to prolong Louise’s life were successful; however, she eventually succumbed to the disease on July 4, 1906.

***Honestly, some of us should have that embroidered on a pillow and displayed prominently in our sitting rooms.

✝Ohhhh, they do. To an insane degree.

✝✝One thing he does not speculate on is some kind of murder conspiracy or any ill-will between Conan Doyle and Bertram Fletcher Robinson. Duncan’s evidence that the men remained on good terms throughout their friendship is conclusive.


Filed under Alistair Duncan, Bertram Fletcher Robinson, Boer War, Doyle Family, Five-star reviews, Holmes in Theatre, MX Publishing, Non-fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Spiritualism, The Great War, Undershaw