One of the writing credits I cherish more than any of the others since I first started to actually sell stories back in the 1990s is that I’ve been allowed to add to the published adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
I daresay I probably put more weight on this than it’s worth, considering the staggering number of Sherlockian pastiches that get churned out every year; even before the advent of the internet and e-books, new Holmes adventures had become their own subset of the mystery genre.
It’s been going on since the early 1900s but the floodgates really opened when The Seven Per Cent Solution became such a best seller in the seventies. So it’s not like this is some sort of unique honor. Nevertheless, just getting to do it pleases me.
To date, most of mine have appeared in the Airship 27 series of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective paperbacks.
And recently I was invited to contribute to the MX series of benefit anthologies, which makes my first hardcover publication anywhere. (My story “The Adventure of the Vanishing Diplomat” will be in the second volume of this two-volume set.)
Now, I’m not telling you all this to brag– well, okay, maybe I am, a little. But this is all preamble to the fact that my favorite Holmes I’ve ever written is coming out in about a month.
This one started when we were watching a rerun of the television series Gotham; the episode wherein the future Riddler, Edward Nygma, executes his first real foray into crime. He commits a bank robbery and leaves clues cleverly designed to lead the young Lieutenant James Gordon into a trap.
It was a much better episode than one usually gets of this show, really twisty and wonderfully plotted. As my wife and I were watching this labyrinthine, malevolent puzzle unfold I said idly to her, “You know, the ideal opponent for the Riddler isn’t Batman. It’s Sherlock Holmes.”
Then I realized what I’d said. “Oh, man. I’m totally going to do that story.”
A few minutes’ thought and the plot appeared in my head as if by magic. I hastened to the computer and banged out an email suggesting what I had in mind to Cap’n Ron at Airship 27, praying that none of my colleagues had come up with something similar. He said sure, go for it, and here we are.
It’s not the first time the worlds of Sherlock Holmes and Batman have intersected. In the comic books, Holmes has actually met both Batman….
… and his arch-nemesis, the Joker.
And Holmes showed up on the animated Brave and the Bold, as well.
So there was precedent of a sort. And I got to scratch another itch as well.
One of the things I like to do is to try to fill in gaps in the original Holmes saga, and one of those gaps that has always stood out to me is that there is a dearth of truly challenging villains in the Sherlock Holmes stories. The only actual evil genius described as being equal to Holmes himself was Professor Moriarty… and he only showed up in one story, is briefly mentioned as playing a role in another, and both appearances were mostly offstage.
I wanted a real honest-to-God supervillain that was worthy of the world’s greatest detective, and I wanted to see him confront Holmes and Watson directly in a battle royale. Reverse-engineering that idea, along with the initial notion of “Sherlock versus the Riddler,” gave me the key to the Conundrum King, a vicious and amoral killer obsessed with proving he is smarter than Sherlock Holmes. Copyrights and trademarks being what they are, naturally I couldn’t actually have Holmes genuinely go up against Edward Nygma, but that character is where the Conundrum King found his inspiration. And I have to admit that writing it, I was picturing him speaking in the voice of Frank Gorshin.
This particular story is, without question, the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything. I should add that our own John Trumbull, no slouch of a Sherlockian himself, consulted on this and his suggestions made the final version much, much stronger than it would have been without his input.
Here is the opening scene. The book itself will be out in a month or so.
“I wonder that you did not bring this to me sooner, Lestrade.” Sherlock Holmes frowned at the paper he held in his hand. “It is, after all, addressed to me.”
“Well, it’s all very well to say that now that a man is actually dead, Mr. Holmes.” The police inspector’s ratlike features were even more pinched than usual—with embarrassment, I wagered. “But at the time it was one more crank letter among the hundred or so we receive every week. Since it came to us at the Yard we thought it was just another lunatic, and apart from all that we know how you feel about being confused with the official police.”
Holmes sniffed. “Little chance of that.” Lestrade looked stung and Holmes added, with a gentleness he rarely displayed to any representative of Scotland Yard, “I only meant that I am the only one in my singular profession; that of free-lance consulting detective. Very well then, let us consult.” He returned to his examination of the letter the policeman had brought.
I found myself sympathizing somewhat with Lestrade. Holmes could be a daunting presence, especially with intellects he considered lesser than his own. It was not at all incomprehensible that the Scotland Yard detective would have preferred not to involve my friend in a matter that initially must have seemed trivial. Doubtless Lestrade had thought that it would only have been yet another occasion for Sherlock Holmes to amuse himself at his expense, which, in all fairness, was a pastime in which Holmes frequently indulged. Having occasionally been on the receiving end of Holmes’ gibes myself I could not blame Lestrade for attempting to avoid such if at all possible.
For my part, I was glad of the distraction. It was late August, and the heat in London was unbearable. Every window in the Baker Street rooms I shared with Holmes was thrown open, and I had decided that even custom must bow to circumstance and spent the day collarless and in shirt-sleeves. Holmes, of course, took no notice of such mundane discomforts and his only concession to the heat had been, at my desperate urging, to eschew his planned chemical experiments and instead content himself with indexing his case records. This usually was more than enough to occupy him, but today he had been out of sorts and complained repeatedly that his talents were being wasted and he craved a genuine challenge. It was an old song with him. I hoped that Lestrade’s visit was the harbinger of such a challenge, for our rooms were still barely tolerable even at ten in the evening, and the heat wave showed no sign of abating. Any excuse to get Holmes out and about upon the morrow would be welcome.
Holmes was lost in his examination. Abruptly he strode to his desk, retrieved his magnifying glass, and moved closer to the gas-lamp to get a better look at the missive. To fill what was rapidly becoming an awkward and embarrassed silence, I asked Lestrade, “How did the letter arrive? Was there any sort of postmark or anything else that might prove helpful?”
Holmes snorted briefly, which may or may not have been commentary.
Lestrade ignored it. “No, Doctor Watson, that’s the devil of the thing. It appeared in a pile of other crank letters—we do examine each one with an eye towards detecting genuine threats, but it’s a low priority. Usually it’s a junior officer sorting through them with standing orders to report anything that may require us to act. But he didn’t see this come in, nor did anyone else. No one remembers receiving this one or opening it, it was just suddenly there in the pile, as if by magic.”
“Tcha!” Holmes shook his head. “Not magic. Theatrics. The delivery is part of the message itself; it was done that way to create just such an air of inexplicable mystery. This is calculated to provoke a response as surely as is a stage magician’s pulling of a rabbit from a hat. Listen to this—
“To Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
Here now, my challenge, O Great Detective!
“Once a year it came with no giver in sight
Lovely and round it shone with pale light,
Grown in the darkness, a lady’s delight.
“He gave this treasure to one
who always runs but never walks,
often murmurs, never talks,
has a bed but never sleeps,
has a mouth but never eats.
Name the thief and save his life.”
I raised an eyebrow. “But that is just nonsense, Holmes. A child’s riddle. How can you chastise Lestrade for not thinking it anything other than a poor joke?”
“Exactly!” Lestrade looked gratefully at me.
“Except it was no joke,” Holmes said. “Because now the man is dead. It was Small?”
For a moment I thought dazedly that Holmes meant the murder itself was miniscule, but Lestrade understood. “Yes indeed, Mr. Holmes. Jonathan Small, the man that stole the Agra treasure, found poisoned in his cell at Dartmoor this morning. But how in heaven’s name did you…?”
“Meretricious.” Holmes waved the letter at him. “He tells us himself. The treasure sent ‘once a year’ and ‘grown in darkness,’ that was the chaplet of gray pearls, the ones detached and posted one-by-one to Mary Morstan each year, by the guilt-ridden Thaddeus Sholto. I daresay that you probably did not know all the details, Lestrade—it was not your case, though the doctor here published a full account of the matter several years ago.”
Lestrade reddened a little and muttered something about not being much of a reader. I knew that my accounts of Holmes’ cases were something of a sore spot with Scotland Yard, as many officers felt that they were unfairly slanted and cast law enforcement in a poor light. In my defense, I can only say that I have done my best to present these narratives as I myself witnessed them over the years. The plain truth is that everyone in the presence of Sherlock Holmes tended to seem intellectually lacking in comparison, including myself, and I have always striven to make that clear in these writings.
This phenomenon was exemplified by Holmes’ next words. “Lestrade I can excuse,” he said with a wry smile. He turned to me. “But I’m surprised at you, Watson. I would have expected you to recognize the reference. You did, after all, marry Miss Morstan.”
“’Grown in darkness’ is a deucedly obscure reference to pearls,” I protested. “Anyhow, what made you so sure it was those pearls?”
“Apart from the line about ‘once a year’?” Holmes smiled. “Again, he tells us himself, in the next stanza. The reference is to a river. A river runs, it has a bed, it murmurs, it has a mouth. Pearls sent once a year? And dumped in a river by a thief? Who else could it be? Jonathan Small, you will recall, poured the entirety of the Agra treasure into the Thames rather than let it be claimed by any heir to Morstan or Sholto. He was a driven, fanatical man.”
“Yes.” I remembered Small’s words. “You were not with us, Lestrade, so I do not know how much of this is noted in the official record of the murder of Bartholomew Sholto, which was how the Yard became involved. ‘The sign of four’ was Small’s refrain. Jonathan Small had persuaded himself he was redressing an injustice, despite the fact that he and his three confederates had stolen the treasure themselves in the first place—to say nothing of the murders of several innocents committed during the course of that original theft.”
I sighed. “Certainly, Holmes, when you explain it, it is absurdly simple. Once again.” I spread my hands helplessly. “But why now? Why Small? The treasure is gone, the Sholtos are both dead—Bartholomew’s brother Thaddeus succumbed to heart failure three years ago,” I added in an aside to Lestrade. “It was why I finally went ahead and published the account. And, of course, my own dear Mary passed some time ago as well.”
I did not add that writing of the events that first drew Mary and I together, despite the death and horror that had accompanied them, had nevertheless helped soften the blow of losing her; for I still missed her keenly. Though I suspected Holmes knew— normally he had many acerbic remarks to make regarding my efforts to record his exploits in print, but this time he had not even objected to my mention of his cocaine use in the narrative I called The Sign of Four, though that vile practice was long behind him now. Perhaps one day I shall set down how that came to be, but not until certain august persons I cannot name will no longer be endangered by my doing so.
“So the man writing these silly riddles had some enmity toward Jonathan Small,” Lestrade ventured.
“A possibility.” Holmes did not sound convinced. “But unlikely. Who is left to hold such a grudge? His confederates are dead, as are the ones he felt wronged him. He made a full confession of the killings, the ones he committed in London and in Agra. He was himself resigned to spending the rest of his days doing hard labor in Dartmoor prison. No, I think Small’s death was merely an opening gambit, a first move in a much deeper game.”
“But who would be the target? Doctor Watson is correct, there is no one left connected with the case. Even the detective assigned to it is dead now.” Lestrade was growing impatient.
“Really?” I was surprised. “But that seems inconceivable, at his age. Jones was so …energetic. Was it in the line of duty?”
“Ah. Well.” Now Lestrade looked uncomfortable. “That would almost have been less tragic. I’m afraid the man was prey to drink, doctor. Anyway, the point is that he has passed on as well, some weeks ago. I should prefer not to speak of it further.”
“Athelney Jones never needed alcohol to demonstrate poor judgement.” Holmes made the remark casually but it still caused Lestrade to raise an eyebrow. I knew better than to remonstrate with my friend: as with most societal conventions, Holmes had no time for demonstrating obligatory respect for the dead, especially towards one for whom he had little respect during his lifetime. Holmes went on, “But it seems rather obvious who the target is. The letter, after all, was addressed to me, and the victim was connected to a case Watson has made famous. It is a direct challenge, gentlemen. A duel of wits with Sherlock Holmes is what this fellow craves.”
“But why?” I asked. “Why you? Why now?”
“Therein lays the challenge.” Holmes rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “Tell me more about Small, Lestrade. How was the body found? There must have been another note, yes?”
Lestrade let out a mild huff of indignation. “I wish you’d just let me tell it instead of guessing. But yes, there was a note. I didn’t remove it because it’s evidence, but I copied down what the officer told me.”
Normally Holmes would have chided the inspector for using the word guessing, but he was too interested in the note itself. He leaned forward as Lestrade pulled out another sheet of paper and read:
“You failed to heed my warning and now another has paid the price.
Can you save this one?
The Jew who rides the dawn DIES
Before you see your next!
Name him in time and save his life.
Your clue, as before, is through his wife.”
He handed the note to Holmes and finished, “I came straight here. I am all at sea. I cannot think—“
Before Holmes could insert a cutting remark, I put in, “Holmes, if it is in connection with a past case—should we look in the index…?”
Holmes smiled and shook his head. “No need. Our man is not terribly subtle. We are still dealing with the Small affair. Think, gentlemen,” he added. “The name of the motor launch Small used to escape with the treasure?”
“Of course!” I knew at once, though Lestrade just shook his head. I added, “The Aurora, Lestrade. Captained by Mordechai Smith.”
“I still don’t—“
“Aurora. Dawn. Mordechai. Jew.” Holmes’ tone was clipped as he stood. “And as it is close on eleven, we must hurry. The threat was to be made good before we see our next dawn, remember. We have until sunrise.”
To be continued! “The Adventure of the Conundrum King” will be found in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective volume eleven, coming soon.
Back next week with something cool.