Sherlock Holmes and the Dead Boer at Scotney Castle
Having reviewed an academically-focused Sherlockian title in the shape of A Professor Reflects on Sherlock Holmes by Marino C. Alvarez, and then a triptych of fiction in the form of Sherlock Holmes and the Murder at Lodore Falls, a novella and two accompanying short stories by Charlotte Smith, for my third review of the titles sent to me by MX Publishing I decided to turn to the full-length novel included in the publisher’s package, Tim Symonds’ Sherlock Holmes and the Dead Boer at Scotney Castle. While an initial, superficial glance might make a reader (such as myself) assume this is a straight pastiche of Conan Doyle’s works, as I delved further into the novel it became apparent that this was so much more than a mere attempt at imitation. Indeed, the more that I read of Symonds’ novel, the more I became convinced that I was in the company of an author who had achieved something quite unique.
From the Sherlockian fiction I’ve read previously, and the titles sent to me by MX Publishing, the fictional adventures of Sherlock Holmes seem to fall into two broad yet sharply defined categories. The first are titles such as the multiple volumes of the MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories, which hew as close as possible to Conan Doyle’s style of writing, and also the pre-existing Canon. The second are titles that treat the Canon in a far more flexible manner, taking only the parts that interest their authors, and blending them with various other fictional settings and characters; these can range from more ‘grounded’ elements like other fictional detectives written contemporaneously with Holmes, to fantasy or steampunk elements, or even integrate with wildly different genres, such as the Lovecraftian Mythos. Until I started reading Sherlock Holmes and the Dead Boer at Scotney Castle, I had never encountered an author who had been able to somehow reconcile both camps at once. I discovered that Symonds had managed to merge together an innate understanding of the Holmes Canon; an ability to replicate Conan Doyle’s writing voice near-flawlessly; and also an original and engaging plot that expands upon the Holmes setting while not becoming implausible, or including fantastical or mythological elements. It really is a most remarkable achievement, and has resulted in a thoroughly original and enjoyable novel.
Intriguingly, the novel does not immediately open with Watson’s recounting of his and Holmes’s encounter with Scotney Castle and the unfortunate Boer in question. Instead we are given a tantalising (and mysterious) prologue that makes it clear that Watson’s determination to publish the case nearly destroyed his relationship with Holmes, who demanded that Watson destroy his notes about the extraordinary events involving Scotney Castle and the members of the powerful Kipling League. It’s a deeply compelling opening, one that grips you by the collar and refuses to let you go. We then move into the manuscript itself, opening in the familiar confines of 221b Baker Street, where Holmes and Watson are resting between cases. While observing a stranger lurking in a doorway somewhat opposite their lodgings and discussing his motives, a telegram arrives requesting Holmes’ presence at a meeting of the Kipling League. While Holmes is contemptuous of the request, of the attitude that he is being summoned as little more than entertainment for bored dilettantes, Watson convinces him to attend, if only as preparation for a future series of lectures by the detective.
Their journey down to Sussex enlightens the duo – and the reader – to the conservative and imperialist nature of the League and its members, but little to enlighten them as to why they have been summoned so abruptly and at such short notice. Their host, David Joseph Siviter, is polite and talkative, to the extent of garrulousness, but it slowly becomes apparent that there are sinister matters underway, and that their summons to Crick’s End was not purely due to the literary merits of their prepared lectures. A dead man, supposedly an itinerant tramp but in fact someone of far greater importance than a mere anonymous drop-out from society, appearing in the grounds of Crick’s End leads to Holmes and Watson finding themselves confronted by foes they have not faced before, at least not in this manner – for they wield the immense power, wealth and influence of colonialism and imperialism. As the plot progresses, Symonds unveils a delightfully and fiendishly clever plot rife with twists and turns, all the more remarkable for fitting so naturally within both the Holmes Canon and the contemporary issues of the early 20th Century. Events occurring at Cricks End become clear signals to powers far away from England, and become enmeshed in contemporary affairs of the time in regards to the British Empire and its South African holdings. It is utterly fascinating to have Holmes confronted by a source of power that is the complete opposite of him the genteel monarchies and blackmailers he faced in the Canon stories; and yet are completely contemporary to the time period, just not something Conan Doyle would have considered.
The plot of the novel is absolutely first-rate, but to merely confine my comments to the narrative that Symonds deftly builds up would do an injustice both to book and author, for there is so much more to consider in a title that genuinely gripped me from beginning to end. As I mentioned above, Symonds seems to possess an unerring ability to write in the style of Conan Doyle without ever becoming slavish or unoriginal, merging the writing style with his fresh ideas and easily making the novel seem like an unreleased original title from the master. The same follows with the central characters, Holmes and Watson – while still remaining faithful to Conan Doyle’s interpretation of the two men, Symonds manages to imbue them both with far greater depth, emotion and pathos than found in the original stories.
Indeed, never before have I encountered an author so willing to give Dr John Watson a unique and independent voice away from Sherlock Holmes, and subsequently give him an agency so often lacking in the Canon stories. This is a Watson who harks back to the original Watson found in the earliest of Conan Doyle’s stories, before becoming the near-mindless and dog-like character that populates the later short stories. As the relationship between the two men – always mercurial even in the original tales – begins to fray as the labyrinthine plot of the Kipling League is unveiled, Symonds gives us a Watson who repeatedly stands up to Holmes and his often ill-tempered theories and conclusions; it is deeply satisfying to see a version of Watson that retains the original, free-thinking energy of Conan Doyle’s early creation. In addition, Symonds delves far more deeply into the relationship between the two men, interweaving his own canonical tales with an examination of what binds the two men together so relentlessly. Speeches by Holmes and Watson to the Kipling League near to the start of the novel afford Symonds an opportunity to adopt both men’s personas in turn, and he does them both justice, giving us keen and thought-provoking insights into their inner workings. It results in an often adversarial tone that is controversial perhaps, given the Canon, but something I can wholeheartedly endorse as good for both characters, and the reader’s experience as a whole
Near-flawlessly written, with a keen eye for contemporary detail and surroundings – both the slums of London and the beguiling aristocratic surroundings of Cricks End are imaginatively and memorably evoked – and an innate understanding of Holmes and Watson that allows him to give them far greater depth of character than any other writer I have come across save Conan Doyle himself, Sherlock Holmes and the Dead Boer at Scotney Castle is nothing less than a triumph for Tim Symonds. It is enthralling, entertaining and often deeply affecting for the reader, and manages to effortlessly bridge the gap between the two spheres pastiche and ‘flexible’ fiction that I outlined in my introduction to this review. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, far more than any other Sherlockian fiction I have read for a very long time, and I am beyond eager to read more of Symonds’ takes on the Great Detective and his loyal but fiery companion.
[Sherlock Holmes and the Dead Boer at Scotney Castle by Tim Symonds is available from MX Publishing and can be purchased from their website at the this link]
I love your style of reviewing. You make the reader want to read it for themselves, rather than telling us the plot. Brilliant. Thank you. Must check the books out.