Late at night and easing your way through a bottle, have you ever been blessed by a flash of literary genius? Perhaps an idea for a novel, let’s say, a Sherlock Holmes story set in Asia? Alas, you’re hardly halfway through the celebratory follow-up bottle when a few cursory internet searches reveal your beautiful virgin of an idea to be a floozy who has already been taken by a good few gentlemen.
Pastiches of Sherlock Holmes set in Asia fall into two main categories. First we have “Great Hiatus” novels. The Great Hiatus is what Sherlockians call the period of missing years in the Sherlock story. Wanting to concentrate on what he considered more serious writing, Arthur Conan Doyle killed off his beloved character in The Final Problem, but was pressured by the reading public into resurrecting him. Between Sherlock Holmes’ “death” at the Reichenbach Falls on May 4, 1891 and his reappearance in The Adventure of the Empty House set in 1894, writers have several missing years to play with. It’s not a completely blank canvas, though. According to Holmes’ own explanation in The Adventure of the Empty House, he spent most of this time in Tibet.
I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa, and spending some days with the head lama. You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend. I then passed through Persia, looked in at Mecca, and paid a short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum the results of which I have communicated to the Foreign Office.
Great Hiatus novels include The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu, which chronicles Holmes’ adventures in India and Tibet as Norwegian explorer Sigerson, and Dave Furutani’s The Curious Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in Japan. The major challenge with this kind of novel is the absence of Watson. An obvious solution is to provide a local substitute. In “The Mandala” our narrator is Huree Chunder Mookerjee (aka the Babu), the Bengali spy from Rudyard Kipling’s magnificent Kim. With the Japan novel, a local Japanese doctor narrates.
The other kind of Sherlock Holmes pastiche retains Watson as narrator and sets the story outside the missing years, often post-retirement (i.e. 1904 or later, as this is when Holmes’ retired to the Sussex Downs and took up beekeeping). Although retired, seeing as Holmes was born around 1854, he’s still relatively young and there’s nothing awkward about him undertaking adventures in far-flung corners.
Sherlock Holmes and the Nine-Dragon Sigil is of the second kind; it’s set in 1906– 1907 and Watson is our trusty narrator. In case you’re wondering, a “sigil” (pronounced ‘sijil’) is an inscribed or painted symbol or occult sign considered to have magical power.
Watson is invited to Peking by General Yuan Shikai, one of the most powerful men in China, to help form a National Medical Corps. As part of a secondary mission he travels to Peking overland through Asia and across China, making notes along the way on the country’s defences and military preparedness. In China he meets Holmes, there to investigate and thwart an assassination of either the Empress Dowager Cixi or the Guangxu Emperor. Yuan Shikai fears that the murder could trigger a civil war and the intervention of foreign powers into China.
Taking up residence in the Forbidden City, Holmes and Watson soon find themselves enmeshed in a tense atmosphere of political intrigue. The Imperial Qing Court, clearly on its last legs, is divided between progressives under the leadership of the Guangxu Emperor and conservatives under the Empress Dowager Cixi.
There is a mysterious attack on the young emperor, and it is the bizarre details of this attack that hold the key to the planned assassination. The resolution is exciting and mostly satisfying; this is no easy task given that the three main Chinese characters in the novel – Yuan Shikai, the Guangxu Emperor, and Empress Dowager Cixi – are all real people from that time. As such, any student of Chinese history already knows much of the ending; Symonds not only has to give us a nice mystery, but he has to do so with factual constraints.
I found Sherlock Holmes and the Nine-Dragon Sigil a very enjoyable read. It won’t be for everyone, though. I love the detail in list-like sentences such as this one describing a package Watson has received from the War Department:
It contained a T-square, a pair of dividers, a military protractor, a calliper-gauge, a supply of cartridge paper, and a fine Gibbin’s horseman’s folding Combination knife with saw blade, corkscrew, a hoof pick, a pair of tweezers and a pin.
The book is full of engrossing period detail, often prompting post-reading visits to Wikipedia to learn more. So, as well as being escapist fun, the book is also educational. One such example concerns the prototype of a hand-held film camera given to Watson to test on his trip:
Before considering ordering some hundreds of Aeroscopes the War Office wanted it tried out in precisely the harsh conditions I would meet on my journey to Peking. The device came with several 400-foot reels of 35mm film and a small bicycle pump to compress the air. It was, Mycroft advised me in parenthesis, the only Aeroscope at present in existence. I placed the device in my tin-box alongside my favourite camera, the Lizars 1/4 Plate Challenge Model E.
If you’re without internet access, you could actually turn to the glossary at the back of the book and find this entry:
Aeroscope film camera. Patented in England in 1910 by the Polish inventor Kazimierz Prószyński, the Aeroscope was the first successful hand-held operated film camera. It was powered by compressed air pumped into the camera with a simple hand pump, similar to the one used for bicycle tyres. This made it possible to film hand-held in most difficult circumstances, notably from early airplanes.
The camera came into its own on the battlefield during the Great War. Several cameramen died filming from the front lines and because of this the innocent Aeroscope got the nickname ‘camera of death’.
The pacing of the novel is slow. For a Sherlock fan like myself, it’s always a pleasure to spend time with Holmes and Watson so I’m not in too much of a hurry. Watson’s long account of his overland journey will drag for many readers and author Tim Symonds certainly takes his time getting to the detective work. And while the core mystery is a good one, I would have liked Holmes solving minor mysteries along the way rather than having to wait until the end for the big reveal.
A great strength of Sherlock Holmes and the Nine-Dragon Sigil is Watson’s authentic and consistent narration. The spell is not broken by jarring modernisms and we drift back effortlessly into the early years of the last century. Nailing the “voice” is harder than you’d think, and it’s not a surprise to learn that Tim Symonds has written four other Sherlock Holmes titles.
To learn more about the author and his books, you can visit his website.