Sherlock Holmes pastiches, if not a growth industry, provide regular and steady employment for many writers. There is an erudite and entertaining feature on Holmes impersonations by Stuart Radmore here, but now we have a new entrant to the lists. It is written by none other than the great man himself (of which more later) and the 24 year-old sleuth has stolen some of his future companion’s thunder by recounting the case in his own words.
We are in London in the summer of 1879, and young Holmes has yet to meet the man who will write up his greatest cases. Holmes works for a guinea a day, and is striving to build his reputation. Within the first few pages, he has been hired to investigate two cases on behalf of a man who was already a celebrity, and another who would become infamous in his lifetime, but revered and admired after his death. The celebrity is Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, a notorious Lothario whose battleground has been country houses and mansions the length and breadth of the country, the vanquished being a long list of cuckolded husbands. It seems that the heir to the throne has been in the habit of entering his sexual achievements in a diary – a kind of fornicator’s Bradshaw, if you will – but it has gone missing, and Holmes is charged with recovering it.
The second case is a strange request by a 25 year-old Irish aesthete and writer – one Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, who has lost – of all things – an amethyst tie-pin, a gift from his mother, the formidable Jane Francesca Agnes, Lady Wilde, and is desperate for Holmes to find it before an impending visit from Wilde mère.
One hundred pages in, and it is clear that the author is enjoying a glorious exercise in name-dropping. James McNeill Whistler, Lillie Langtry, Francis Knollys, Patsy Cornwallis-West, Frank Miles, Sarah Bernhardt, John Everett Millais and Rosa Corder (right) are just a few of the real life characters who make an appearance, and it is clear that ‘Sherlock Holmes’ moves in very elegant circles.
In the course of his investigations our man presages some of the talents for which he will later became famous when the as-yet-unmet Dr John Watson takes over the narrative. He disguises himself as a waiter at a royal banquet on one occasion, and manages to impress his clients with his uncanny observational skills. The case is complicated when Holmes becomes inadvertently involved with the attempt by scandal-sheets to sell papers off the back of the very public rift between Lillie Langtry and her husband Ned. The case of Oscar’s missing tie pin rather goes on the back-burner as the hunt for the royal blackmailer intensifies, but it is resolved at the very end of the book with a rather delicious twist.
So just who, exactly, is this particular Sherlock Holmes? The last five words of the book reveal the true identity of the author, but I won’t do all the work for you. A little clue that you can Google – this person is a peer of the realm, an old Etonian, and wrote the biography Never Fear: Reliving the Life of Sir Francis Chichester.
The worst that can be said of A Case of Royal Blackmail is that is a little over-egged with the cast of celebrity names, but once in a while we all need a few hours of enjoyable escapism, and this well-researched and cleverly plotted homage fits the bill perfectly. It is published by Affable Media, and is available now.