THE ADVENTURE OF THE LOCKED ROOM

On September 3rd Simon & Schuster will publish The Case of the Six Watsons (see http://tinyurl.com/pcouonn) as a free Kindle book. In it are five variations of non-canonical Arthur Conan Doyle Stories (such as The Lost Special), re-cast to include Holmes and (mainly) Watson. The sixth tale is entirely new and set in Cairo in 1915.

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But there is a seventh story, based on The Adventure of the Sealed Room by ACD. I did not include it in the anthology because I thought Watson (and the original narrator) too passive. He merely observes, rather than deduces. Nevertheless, it is quite a fun tale and I am including a PDF below for anyone interested in the style of the Six Watsons. The illustrations are by Claude A Shepperson.

An original illustration from The Sealed Room

An original illustration from The Sealed Room

The re-imagined story begins…

THE LOCKED ROOM
A widower doctor of active habits with a busy practice must take what exercise he can in the evenings. Hence it was that I was in the habit of indulging in very long nocturnal excursions from my rooms in Mortimer Street, up towards Regent’s Park and, on occasion, to Baker Street itself. This was during those years when my friend was missing, thought dead, and that street and our old address always brought on an attack of melancholia. So, where possible, to preserve my sanity, I stayed to the east of the park. It was in the course of one of these rambles that I first met Felix Stanniford, and so embarked upon what has been the most extraordinary adventure of those lost years which many now call The Great Hiatus.

Read On:

THE LOCKED ROOM

SPY STORY

I had lunch with a spy last week. A real one. It was part of my research for an article on the history of SIS/MI6 for OMEGA Lifetime magazine. I had heard many of his stories before, but I always liked this one. Unfortunately, when I came to look at the finished article it was almost 4,000 words long. SIS has a lot of history. Just to do justice to the grim Philby era eats up the words. So this story had to go but I thought it worth posting here as an example of the men who fought on the frontline of the real Cold War.  

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The winter of 1947-8 in Berlin is particularly bleak. The city, under the combined occupation of Russia, France, America and Great Britain, still mostly consists of piles of rubble. Food and fuel are in short supply. The surviving occupants are scarred, physically and mentally, by the brutality shown by the Russian forces when they swept through the city. Now, it’s a wind from the East that is knifing down the wide streets and bringing misery. The bitter cold it delivers is killing the old and the weak. People are selling whatever they can to stay alive – their last possessions, their bodies and above all, information, for Berlin had been plunged straight into the front line of a new war, a clandestine conflict between the Soviet Bloc and the West. The front line of this battle runs right through the former capital (and, a city in a similar plight, Vienna). And the commodity everyone wants most is intelligence about what the other side is up to. James Fraser, not yet thirty but already a veteran of Britain’s various secrets services, is one of the warriors in this Cold War. He is sitting in a shabby café, overcoat and gloves on, his breath clouding the chill air as he sips an acrid cup of adulterated coffee and peers out into the street. Across the road is the Russian sector, marked at this juncture only by a virtual border – no wall, no barbed wire, just the agreed concept that one side of the street is the Red of oppression, the other, Fraser’s side, is the Red, White and Blue of liberty.

Some years later, after The Wall went up. But the job was the same.

Some years later, after The Wall went up. But the job was the same.

Fraser is, ostensibly, an administration officer with the Control Commission for Germany. In reality, he is a member of SIS, the Secret Intelligence Agency, sometimes known as MI6. And he is waiting for Otto, one of his ‘assets’ or agents in the east. As case officer, he is like father and brother to this young man, who is charged with watching train movements to and from the uranium mines of the SAG/SDAG Wismut mining company in Erzgebirge and Vogtland. A mundane job, but vital. The frequency of trains will tell someone, somewhere back in England, just how Russia’s nuclear programme is progressing. It is one of the tiny scraps of information that SIS uses to build a picture of what is happening in the East. Fraser has the madams of several high-end brothels over there in his pay, listening for pillow talk from Russian offers, and other assets working in the Red Army’s kitchens, for Napoleon was right, an army does march on its stomach, and if there is sudden increase in the amount of provisions ordered, it could be a sign that Soviet soldiers are about to move. Into the West, perhaps. Fraser lights a cigarette and checks his watch. Leo is late. That’s not necessarily a cause for concern. He has had to travel across an occupied country where military traffic always has priority. Across the road, a shadowy figure detaches from a doorway. Fraser is careful not to react. Like any good spy coming in from the cold, Otto has been observing the rendezvous, scanning for signs that the meet is compromised. As his prodigal son hurries towards the café, Fraser orders a second coffee for him from the owner. As he turns back, he catches an unexpected movement in the street from the corner of his eye.

*

Almost seven decades later and it is me sharing a beverage – tea, this time – with James Fraser at the Caxton Grill at St Ermin’s Hotel in London, not far from Broadway Buildings, once the home of his old ‘firm’. In fact, St Ermin’s is something of a ‘spy’s hotel’  – plenty of MI6 men used it and  it was once a favoured watering hole of Ian Fleming, who, of course, spent WW2 in Room 39 at the Admiralty as Personal Assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence. During the war SIS and the Admiralty would have informal meetings at the Caxton, probabaly complaining about that noisy upstart, the Special Operations Executive.

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Fraser, long retired but still sharp as a tack and with the impeccable manners of a trained diplomat (which is what he pretended to be for so many years), worked for SIS, and before that its sibling Special Operations Executive (SOE), from 1939 until the early 1990s. I have asked him to tell me the story of SIS from his perspective, given he dedicated so much of his life to the organization. He agrees, but with a number of provisos. He will not name names, unless that person is on public record as having been a member of SIS, and he will give no details of operations he was personally involved in (Otto is an exception, as he used him to make a more general point about the nature of intelligence gathering) or which remain sensitive in any way. What he did in postings to Asia, Europe and the USA must remain off the record. This is, he makes clear, deep background only. I agree. And so much of what follows comes from him.

[You can read this missing section in the next issue of OMEGA Lifetime]

Back at the Caxton Grill, James Fraser agrees that the world of spying has moved on since his day. And not always for the better. He misses the world of dead letter drops and seedy cafes. He isn’t alone – how else does one explain the remake of the Smiley books with Gary Oldman and the BBC’s recent The Game series, set in the 1970s, all muted browns and beiges and with more moles than Wind in the Willows? What about Otto? I ask as we finish up. Last seen heading for a cafe in West Berlin? A car pulled up, Fraser explains, a new Moskvitch 400 with Soviet Embassy plates. Otto was bundled inside by some hoods and driven off. A few days later, his belongings were delivered to the SIS HQ at the Olympic Stadium (the very same one where Jesse Owens triumphed in 1936) as a message. Otto was dead. Fraser blinks, drinks his tea and rises to go. He pauses. ‘You know’, he says wistfully, ‘despite computers, satellites and drones, I bet somewhere in the world, right now, there is an SIS agent sitting in a bar or café waiting for his contact to show.’ And somehow, like me, he clearly finds that thought oddly comforting.

POLES APART

The Polish Embassy (@PolishEmbassyUk) has begun a Twitter campaign to raise awareness of the role played by Polish pilots in WW2’s Battle of Britain. Using the hashtags BoBPoles and BoB75 (it is the 75th anniversary of the battle) it will publish daily images and info celebrating their contribution to a battle every bit as decisive as Waterloo.

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      For the past two years I have been working on a script, with an Anglo-Polish production company, about Jan Zumbach, one of the pilots who flew with the most well known outfit (mainly because it was the first made operational; there were sixteen in all), 303 Squadron, which operated out of RAF Northolt, not far from the Polish War Memorial. Below is part of an early funding submission.

   Like Agincourt, Waterloo and Trafalgar, The Battle of Britain has become part of Great Britain’s modern creation myth. But like all such legendary tales of derring-do, time (and a few obfuscations and exaggerations) has knocked off some of the rougher edges of the story, leaving a smooth, one-sided narrative, an easily digested piece of jingoism. The truth, as is often the case, is messier and more compelling than the usual tale of British, blue-eyed, blond public schoolboys in Spitfires fighting Nazis in the skies over Southern England (with a little help from the British Empire in the form of Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians and South Africans). Because the Battle of Britain was also the Battle for Europe, as many of the pilots were fighting for their own homelands, trying to defeat Germany so that France, Holland, Czechoslovakia and Poland could be free.

         The members of 303 Squadron had fought over their own country, and in France before it was overrun, and then made a last stand with the RAF. Older and more experienced than most of the pilots that the host country could provide, they were fighting on several fronts at once – against the Luftwaffe, against unfamiliar planes (the controls were reversed; they were not used to using R/T) and protocols, and against the British prejudice that saw them as demoralized and defeated at best, uncivilised savages at worst. They were also lonely and homesick, as well as constantly worried about what was happening to their families back in Poland. They overcame all those adversities to become the highest scoring squadron in the Battle of Britain, even though the RAF’s reticence to deploy them meant they entered the fray relatively late.  And they did this not in the sleek, graceful Spitfire, but the more quotidian Hurricane, the Shire horse to the Spit’s thoroughbred.

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       Like all the Polish squadrons, 303 initially had RAF commanders – ex-stockbroker Ronald Kellett was Squadron Leader – he famously who fitted the men out with uniforms from his Savile Row tailor and paid their wages when the government didn’t – and under him Flight Lieutenants Johnny Kent and Athol Forbes. To make matters even more complicated, the highest scorer in the squadron was not a Pole, but a Czech, Sgt Josef František. He ended his career with 15 kills, but died just as 303 was stood down for rest and re-equipment in October 1940, ploughing his plane into a hillside for no apparent reason. It is possible he was suffering from the sort of combat stress Geoffrey Wellum described so well in his memoir ‘First Light’.

Lotnictwo Polski na Zachodzie. Piloci z dywizjonu 303 .

        The squadron was stuffed with interesting characters, but I decided to concentrate on Jan Zumbach, because he began the war as an idealist with an adventurous streak and ended it as a cynic, with mercenary tendencies (he was a gunrunner, diamond smuggler, and one-man airforce for various African rebel groups). It was an understandable arc for a man who felt the contribution of his countrymen was undervalued and who, after all the fighting for its liberation from Germany and Russia, saw his country ‘gifted’ to Stalin at the end of the war.

Jan Zumbach, who went on to become 303's Squadron Leader later in the war and later the one-man Biafran Airforce.

Jan Zumbach, who went on to become 303’s Squadron Leader later in the war and later the one-man Biafran Airforce.

          The story of 303 also has a powerful contemporary resonance, in that, as “immigrants”, the Polish pilots were faced with prejudice on arrival in the UK, followed by, eventually, acceptance when it transpired they were simply people, with the same hopes and fears as the Brits, who happened to be very good at shooting down Germans. Yet when the economic and political circumstance changed at the end of the war, as outsiders they become convenient scapegoats once more (and accused, in all-too-familiar rhetoric of “taking our boys’ jobs”).  The tale of Britain’s treatment of the Poles who served and of those who came as refugees during and after the war is not very edifying. We didn’t even thank them properly before pushing them off to Canada or Rhodesia or Poland or corralling them into camps.

The script opens with a radio announcer commentating on the Victory Parade that took place in London in June, 1946. It is taken almost verbatim from the broadcast at the time:

“I can see the Allied marching columns approaching now and what a sight! A two-mile procession made up of units from every corner of the globe, of every colour, race and creed, over 21,000 fighting men and women. The representatives of Allied forces are led by the United States, whose contingent includes the Marine Corps. After the American contingent come the troops of China and behind them a bewildering variety of flags and uniforms – France, Belgium, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Luxembourg, Mexico, Nepal, Netherlands, Norway and Transjordan. “

But no Poland. The reason being, Stalin was busy subjugating the East and did not want ‘Free’ Polish forces celebrated and he put pressure on the British to make sure they were not represented. I think I am right in saying that the RAF Polish squadrons were invited to take part, but declined once they realised the other Polish services were forbidden from participating. 

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           This is the ‘card’ (or end caption) that finishess the script.

The 147 Polish pilots who served in the Battle of Britain claimed 201 aircraft shot down, around 20% of all Luftwaffe bombers and fighters destroyed.

      After the war an opinion poll showed that 56% of the British public thought the Poles should repatriated.

      Many of those who did return were persecuted, executed, imprisoned or deported to work camps.

       Not until 1992 was the contribution of the Poles serving with western forces recognised in their home country.

 

STAR TURN

STAR TURN

One of my finest sources of background information when researching my WW2 books (especially Early One Morning, The Last Sunrise and Dying Day)  was John Debenham-Taylor who, over the years, has become a friend. This week I learned that he has just been awarded a medal, 75 years after the event. In fact, he now has two medals gained during the war and two awarded afterwards. Both of the post-war medals concern the Winter War in Finland when, in November 1939, Russia invaded.

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The Arctic Star

 This conflict is little remembered now in this country, but at the time (during the so-called ‘Phony War’) it was front-page news. Martha Gellhorn sent brilliant dispatches from a bombed Helsinki. An International Brigade, of the sort that fought in the Spanish Civil War, was raised across Europe, with some 12,000 volunteers, including the recently deceased Christopher Lee. Around 50 of these died, a low figure because the Finns (probably wisely) kept most of them from the front line. The Finns were fighting a new kind of war – hopelessly outnumbered, they opted for guerilla tactics. They were the first to mass-produce Molotov cocktails for use against tanks and their lethal, well-camouflaged skiers/snipers became a source of fear among Russian troops. Farmer and hunter Simo “Simuna” Häyhä, known as ‘White Death’ because of his snow camouflage suit, killed more than 500 Red Army Troops with a Mosin-Nagant rifle.

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The British tried to help. It secretly sent obsolete WW1 guns to Finland, although there were no instruction manuals. Which is where John Debenham-Taylor, who was with the Royal Artillery, came in. I already knew his story but digging a little deeper I found an obit of a British pilot who had ferried Blenheim bombers, donated by the British, to the country and had been awarded the Talvisodan muistomitali (the Winter War commemorative medal). Surely John deserved recognition for his service there? So I wrote to the Finnish Embassy:

John was just 19 and was a very good gunner of ‘instructor quality’ and a 2nd Lt. When asked if he would volunteer to help ‘a friendly nation’ under attack (he guessed Finland) he volunteered and along with seven others he was taken out of uniform and sent to Finland in civilian clothes via Sweden.

       He stayed there for months, writing manuals for the guns that SOE had smuggled up (mainly 3 inch anti-aircraft guns). Then, with the diplomatic bag consisting of a briefcase plus great crates of Russian guns and bombs for the British to analyse, he went north to the Artic circle and caught a trawler back to Liverpool

       The whole story is quite an adventure, and although he did not fight, his commitment to the Finns and his love of them and his time in Helsinki and the countryside shines through to this day. (He even introduced one fellow officer to his future Finnish wife). Because it was a secret mission and because he later became a full-blown SOE operative the story never came out. He believes that, as he was the youngest of the group, he is the sole survivor.”

The Finns acted with admirable speed. A new Winter War medal was struck and John was invited to the London Embassy to receive it from the Finnish Military Attaché.

Winter War medal

Winter War medal

But the story didn’t end there. John’s son-in-law discovered that anyone who had served north of the Arctic Circle was entitled to the Artic Star. John had commandeered that trawler, loaded with captured weapons, and sailed in it from the far north of Finland. He even passed Norway while it was being invaded by the Germans. I asked if he had witnessed any of it and, as laconic as ever, he said: ‘Actually, no. I was below. I was suffering from terrible constipation – living on reindeer for six months rather blocks you up, or so I found.’

And so, last week, the Arctic Star arrived through the post, almost 75 years to the day after that escape from Finland. Well deserved, and better late (John is 95 this year) than never.

THE CASE OF THE NEW WATSONS

Coming in September, a free Kindle anthology of six “new” stories featuring Dr Watson. In writing these I have drawn upon Arthur Conan Doyle’s non-Holmess short stories, as I did in the tale that concluded A Study in Murder. There is also a seventh story, which didn’t make the cut, called The Locked Room (based on ACD’s The Sealed Room). It will probably appear here sometime soon. Meanwhile, the cover of the new collection looks like this.51wJMmWonbL._AA324_PIkin4,BottomRight,-56,22_AA346_SH20_OU02_

CANON FODDER: A “NEW” SHERLOCK HOLMES STORY

In the newly released Dr Watson Book 3, A Study in Murder, the poor doctor is incarcerated in the most feared POW camp in Germany. During his incarceration, he is asked to contribute to the camp magazine. During the process of writing the book, I decided that snippets of the story he creates should be interspersed throughout the novel. But which Holmes story to choose? Even casual fans are familiar with the Sherlock canon, so I decided against incorporating one of the 56 oft-told tales. I could have created a pastiche in the style of Conan Doyle, but I have always tried to avoid that pitfall (it is not as easy as it seems at first glance). My Watson books are, after all, styled after the simpler third-person narration of His Last Bow.

 

Illustration from The Lost Special in The Strand magazine

Illustration by Max Cowper for The Lost Special in The Strand magazine

In the end I decided to look beyond the canon and at the short stories which function as Apocrypha to the main body of work, where an unnamed ” amateur reasoner of some celebrity” appears. The stories are The Man With The Watches and The Lost Special, both of which appeared in The Strand Magazine and are sometimes included in collections of Sherlock Holmes stories compiled outside the UK (most French compendia include them). If I were to adapt one of those, I thought, using as much of Conan Doyle’s language as possible, I might have something that was only part pastiche – a New/Old Sherlock Holmes tale, unfamiliar to most readers.

Illustration by Frank Craig for The Man With The Watches from The Strand Magazine.

Illustration by Frank Craig for The Man With The Watches from The Strand Magazine.

So, I set about taking The Man With The Watches and turning it into a full-blown Sherlock Holmes story, albeit one where (as in A Study in Scarlet) much of the action takes place away from Baker St. Although I used only excerpts in the body of the the novel, the entire exercise is printed as an appendix in A Study in Murder. Conan Doyle’s story begins:

“There are many who will still bear in mind the singular circumstances which, under the heading of the Rugby Mystery, filled many columns of the daily Press in the spring of the year 1892. Coming as it did at a period of exceptional dullness, it attracted perhaps rather more attention than it deserved, but it offered to the public that mixture of the whimsical and the tragic which is most stimulating to the popular imagination. Interest drooped, however, when, after weeks of fruitless investigation, it was found that no final explanation of the facts was forthcoming, and the tragedy seemed from that time to the present to have finally taken its place in the dark catalogue of inexplicable and unexpiated crimes.”

One of the first things I had to do was change the date, for The Final Problem, in which Holmes goes over the Reichenbach Falls with Moriarty, was set in 1891. This was the beginning of the ‘Great Hiatus’, the years when Watson thought Holmes dead. I also borrowed some lines from other Sherlock stories to set the scene.

“It was April 1890 (and not 1892 as some accounts would have it), as the debilitating bone chill of a lengthy winter had finally begun to relax its grip on the metropolis, when my friend Sherlock Holmes turned his attention to what the daily press were the calling The Rugby Mystery and some others The Girl and the Gold Watches. Holmes had recently completed his investigation into a most gruesome business, involving jealousy and murder. The solution to the case had put him in a rather sombre mood. ‘What is the meaning of it, Watson?’ he had exclaimed, not for the first time. Peering into the darkest corners of the human soul often caused him to recoil in revulsion at the depravity of his fellow man. ‘What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever?’

Illustration for The Man With The Watches by Frank Craig.

Illustration for The Man With The Watches by Frank Craig.

That resultant brown study, a cloud of melancholia that wrapped itself around him like a winter fog, persisted for some weeks, to the point where I feared he might reach for solace once more in the seven per cent solution. I sought permission – freely granted – from my wife to move back to our rooms in Baker Street that I might keep an eye on him until the black dog was driven away. And sure enough, as the thermometer rose on a certain bright Monday morning, Holmes stirred himself from his regular position, curled on the sofa with a newspaper, and began to pace the floor of our Baker Street lodgings, a practice I knew sometimes drove Mrs Hudson on the floor below us to distraction, for it could last many hours.
I lowered my own newspaper – I was studying an article about the recent rash of card-sharping incidents across the city and the methods the fraudsters preferred – and peered at him. He looked like a freshly coiled spring and something burned in his eyes. I knew that look of old and it warmed my heart. ‘Yes, Watson, you are thinking that my hibernation is at an end.’
I felt a surge of relief course through me. ‘You don’t have to be the world’s only Consulting Detective to deduce that, Holmes.’
‘Quite so. But, as your faculties are in such good order, you’ll be well aware that we are about to have a visitor.’”

The visitor then proceeds to narrate the story (essentially a ‘locked room’ mystery set on a train) and the narrative follows Arthur Conan Doyle as closely as I could manage, using as many of his own words as possible. It is hoped my publishers Simon & Schuster will put the entire thing online as an e-story sometime this year.

A Study in Murder is out in hardback now.

CASSAVETES: THE JAZZ DETECTIVE

When Guy Barker and I were sketching out the idea for a piece called dZf – The Magic Flute relocated to Greenwich Village – one of our touchstones was a TV series called Johnny Staccato, which aired in the US from 1959-60. Starring John Cassavetes as a “jazz detective”, it was set in a Village jazz club called Waldo’s, and the title character was a pianist who moonlighted as a gumshoe. Or vice-versa.Unknown

The club setting (and the music played there) was crucial to us, but the only episode we managed to track down was one where the nightclub was temporarily shut down. Disappointing, to say the least. Now, though, if you have a multi-region DVD player you can enjoy all 27 episodes in the US re-issue below. And what a treat it is, from the opening credits on.

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The theme music is by Elmer Bernstein (‘The Magnificent Seven’), a punchy, braying wail of brass, a supercharged version of his work on The Sweet Smell of Success. The musicians playing at Waldo’s included Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, Red Norvo, and pianist Johnny Williams (later John Williams, responsible for Star Wars, Jaws etc). Although set in the Village, nearly all the players were from the West Coast school of jazz, because, apart from a few exteriors, the series was actually filmed in LA.

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So how does it stand up? Well the scripts aren’t its strong point, but Cassavetes with his razor-sharp suits and matching cheek bones is excellent and there is something to savour in most episodes, not least Elizabeth Montgomery – Samantha in Bewitched – playing against type as a sexy femme fatale in Tempted. And the music is always great – Bernstein used three different ensembles- a big band of 25, a Birth of the Cool-sized 12-piece and an ensemble of six players  with vibes and trumpet to the fore. Listen out for a riff that sounds as if it could be a sketch for Lalo Schifrin’s later Mission Impossible theme.

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If you want to skip the visuals, the soundtrack is available on an 8-CD compilation called Jazz on Film: Crime Jazz, which also includes Lee Marvin’s M Squad, the Untouchables and, best of all, two CDs of Henry Mancini’s music from Peter Gunn.

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