A Case of Royal Blackmail by Sherlock Holmes
So it would appear that Sherlock Holmes wrote down an account of his first cases from before even Dr John Watson was on the scene. This lively account of various, and possibly intertwined, cases is a fast moving story narrated by the great man himself, combining his developing detection skills, his rapidly widening knowledge of the Artistic London set, and his already exhaustive knowledge of the highways and byways of late Victorian life. This is not the semi recumbent Holmes who is capable of long days of thought and addictive haze as enshrined in the Watson narratives but a young man of twenty-four eager to increase his knowledge of the world and definitely able to look after himself in nearly every variety of physical encounter. This is a man who is adopting disguises, handing his card over to potential sources of information and more, and making imaginative leaps of deduction. Fingerprint technology is in its infancy and graphology, or the study of handwriting, is still a novelty. This is a book of mysteries without gory murders or serious crime in the obvious sense, and the royal involvement is well handled.
I really enjoyed this book which in some ways barely pauses for breath in its headlong pursuit of truth or at least an expedient answer. London in 1879 is a fascinating place in this book with more than its fair share of street criminals, but it is paced out in neat minutes, dangers and a variety of atmospheres. There are some amazing characters, from aristocracy, independent women and even an endearing street urchin immediately named Wiggins by a benevolent Holmes. Much faster moving and somehow lighter than many canonical Sherlock stories, this is a real gem of a book which I was delighted to have the opportunity to read and review.
The book opens with Sherlock recalling from a distance of five months the beginning of a month-long case on the first day of a sweltering hot July in London. As he goes through a London park he notices a crowd drawn by Frank Connell, “a well-known confidence trickster and illegal bookmaker” who is whipping up a crowd with anti-monarchy rhetoric. Seizing the megaphone Holmes greets the aggressive crowd with “Good anarchists of Marylebone, you have been misled.” This Sherlock knows how to handle a crowd, as well as the aggressive individuals in the vicinity. He is hastening back to his lodging with his sort of Cousin Sara, because he has appointment to host no less than the young Oscar Wilde, whose loss of a heirloom tie pin grants Sherlock not only a tidy guinea a day employment but also introductions into the artistic community of painters, actors and others who will help with the main case that Sherlock is engaged in at the same time. The narrative often digresses into a study of London, its noises, smells and sights which permeate the story. This is a London of horses, pickpockets, dark alleys where it is unwise to tread, as wealthy people of slender reputation and questionable morals. Sherlock is consulted by a royal solicitor, George Lewis, whose chief client is Edward, Prince of Wales, known as Bertie and infamous for his many affairs. A blackmail letter sets Sherlock on the trail of handwriting, stationary and the “scandal press” in the hunt for a mysterious correspondent.
I really appreciated the level of research that has gone into this novel, which is apparently endorsed by the Conan Doyle Estate. The small details of London life are well explored which speaks of enormous research which is never intrusive. The spirit of the original stories is preserved well, with the bonus of an energy that is quite irresistible. The characters, ranging from actresses and models, journalists and gossip collectors, to brother Mycroft in his club are all well introduced and described. I recommend this book to Sherlock enthusiasts who will appreciate its clever narrative and the hints of what is to come in the Sherlock stories.