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.
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.
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?’
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.