So, as a self-professed crime fiction obsessive, you might assume that I’ve already read this one, but as followers of my Sherlockian Shorts will know, I’m rather under-read on Sherlock Holmes, never having read the novels. But as I’m having a Golden Age month, I thought I’d break that theme and go to an era before the Golden Age, namely 1887 and the debut of the great detective.
Dr John Watson, looking for affordable rooms, comes across one Sherlock Holmes. As they set up rooms together, he becomes more and more fascinated with Holmes’ work until he accompanies him to the scene of an apparent murder – a man lies dead without a mark on his body, the word RACHE written in blood on the wall. As another body turns up, it falls to Holmes to piece together the mystery. But things take a very odd turn about halfway through…
Halfway through the book, that is. I try and keep spoilers out of my posts, and try not to discuss anything that happens more than a third of the way through in any detail at all. I might have to bend the rules for this one, as the second half of the book is one of the most bizarre changes of direction I’ve ever seen.
We’ll come to that in a bit though. Let’s take the book on its merits. It’s a great read, things rolling along at a good pace with some interesting twists and turns. It’s not a play-along mystery, but it’s closer to it than other entries into the Holmes canon – there’s still bits where you are told that there are lots of footprints on a path, say, but Holmes can interpret what they mean as he’s seen them, whereas all you know is that they are there. It’s not a criticism, simply the way that Doyle structured his stories. I’m not sure I want a detailed description of a muddy path, to be honest.
I wonder – what exactly did Doyle have against the Mormons? It’s said (admittedly on Wikipedia) that the basis of the backstory that appears in the latter half of the book was a book that Doyle had read on the Mormons that he had taken as gospel (sorry) but was in fact far from the truth. But you wonder why on earth does Doyle spend so long having a pop at them, including Brigham Young, who’d only been dead for about 10 years. There was a lot of scandal concerning the Mormons at this point in history – people were still talking about the Mountain Meadows massacre, for example, but the second half of the book does feel like Doyle has a bit of a grievance that he wants to air.
What surprised me was that the odd second half, once I’d got over my surprise, worked really well, and the whole book was an entertaining read. A bit rubbish as a mystery – far too much that the reader can’t work out – but reading this, you can see why Sherlock took off. Recommended.