In a sappingly hot Indian Summer in central London, Dr John Watson is sent – by a relative he hardly remembers – a mysterious tin box which has no key, and no apparent means by which it can be opened. Watson and his companion Sherlock Holmes have become temporarily estranged, not because of any particular antipathy, but more because the investigations which have brought them so memorably together have dwindled to a big fat zero.
But then, in the space of a few hours, Watson shows his mysterious box to his house-mate, and the door of 221B Baker Street opens to admit two very different visitors. One is a young Roman Catholic novice priest from Cambridge who is worried about the disappearance of a young woman he has an interest in, and the second is a voluptuous conjuror’s assistant with a very intriguing tale to tell. The conjuror’s assistant, Madam Ilaria Borelli is married to one stage magician, Dario ‘The Great’ Borelli, but is the former lover of his bitter rival, Santo Colangelo. Are the two showmen trying to kill each other for the love of Ilaria? Have they doctored each other’s stage apparatus to bring about disastrous conclusions to their separate performances?
As for the missing young woman, Odile ‘Dilly’ Wyndham, she is only ‘missing’ because she has a pied-à-terre, unknown to her parents, where she can flirt with her admirers to her heart’s content, and it transpires that the thoughts of the young priest-in-waiting are not wholly as pure as the waft of incense. Was he responsible for the doll found on Jesus Lock footbridge, dressed to look like Dilly, but with its arm wrenched off?
As an aside, this tale has Holmes and Watson as younger men, perhaps in their thirties. MacBird includes all the standard tropes – Watson’s bemused geniality and stiff upper lip, Holmes’s mood swings and reliance on cocaine when life becomes too dull, and even the stern but maternal presence of Mrs Hudson.
Much of the action takes place in Cambridge, and it is there that the murder which occupies much of the book is committed. MacBird does a fine job of keeping the two strands of the plot – the warring conjurors, and the love life of Dilly Wyndham – running together side-by-side, and she shows us some magic of her own by bringing them together by the end . Watson’s mysterious box? It does get opened eventually, and what it reveals is rather moving. Fans of the great detective will not be disappointed by The Three Locks – it has enough twists and surprises to satisfy even the sternest Holmesian.
Is ‘pastiche’ the right word for this book? Maybe ‘re-imagining’, or ‘tribute’ might be kinder. Whichever word we use, the central problem facing modern writers of Sherlock Holmes stories is that of length. Even the four full length canonical novels – A Study In Scarlet, The Sign of The Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear – are very short compared to modern books. The bulk of the Holmes canon are the short stories, which spark and fizz brilliantly for a few thousand words, and then are gone. Yes, short story writing is an art in itself (which very few have mastered) but maintaining pace and narrative drive for four hundred or more pages is a different challenge. A writer of a Holmes and Watson homage has to spin out every gesture, comment and impression which, in the originals, crackle and then are gone in a moment. I haven’t read the previous three MacBird Holmes novels, but The Three Locks works as well as most other novels in the genre, and certainly better than some. It is published by Collins Crime Club and is out on 1st April. If you click on the image below, it will take you to Bonnie MacBird’s website, and a very entertaining set of annotations linked to the novel.