Some decades back, I wrote a novel.
Okay, I’ve actually written several unpublished novels. Questionable Minds was my fifth. By that point I’d gained enough experience that when I looked at it a few years ago, I realized it didn’t need a massive rewrite to be usable. A fair amount of rewriting, sure, but the basic story looked solid. That inspired me to rewrite it, edit it, and as of yesterday, self-publish it.(My thanks to my friend Samantha Collins for designing such a great cover).
The inspiration for the story goes back to catching Sean Connery in The Great Train Robbery (based on the Crichton novel) in college. I started to imagine a rogue like Connery’s character conducting black ops for the Victorian government. Somewhere along the way, though, my protagonist mutated into Sir Simon Taggart, baronet, as respectable, conventional, and in the ordinary course of things stuffy as any pillar of the establishment. Then psychic powers and Sherlock Holmes entered the picture.
My original concept had been along the lines of what’s sometimes called intrusion fantasy: the world is the one we’re familiar with, the supernatural elements are an intruder. Swat them and life gets back to normal. The book I finally sat down to write was a steampunk alternate history that definitely isn’t our Victorian era.
Close to twenty years before my story starts, Edward Bulwer-Lytton discovers the existence of a subterranean, psionic race, the vril-ya. In our world Bulwer-Lytton wrote about the vril-ya in his 1871 novel, The Coming Race; in the setting of Questionable Minds, the encounter really happened. Bulwer-Lytton returned to England with the creatures’ technology for channeling the mental power known as vril. He also wrote an even more successful book than in the real world — Bulwer-Lytton’s rep has not stood the test of time, but in his own era he was wildly popular — and a viscount’s title.
A few years later, Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, received guidance from her spiritual masters (or so she claims) on how to wield vril without technology. The system she developed has revolutionized mentalist training, winning her a life peerage. Many in England assume she’s right that mentalism represents the next step in humanity’s spiritual evolution.
This belief makes Sir Simon’s unique abilities a headscratcher: his psyche is immune to mentalist attacks. Mesmerists can’t control him. Clairvoyants can’t see him. Human telegraphs can’t read his thoughts. Doesn’t this suggest that he’s been cursed — cut off from the elevation of humanity? Did he commit some unspeakable crime in the past for which he’s being punished? Simon receives about one letter a week from spiritualists offering to divine the root of his curse and lift it from his soul.
From Simon’s perspective, his mental shields are an asset. Several years ago, a mesmerist drove Simon’s wife Agnes to suicide. Simon blamed himself — he was a lousy husband — until Inspector Hudnall of Scotland Yard’s Mentalist Investigation Department proved she’d been driven to it. Why? All Simon and Hudnall know is that the Guv’nor, master “putter-up” of crimes and supreme master of the London underworld, arranged it for a price. The only way to find the one who paid for it is to find the Guv’nor.
While hunting the Guv’nor, Simon also puts his skills at the service of the MID, earning him the nickname “the Baronet Detective.” As the story starts, he’s helping the MID hunt down a blackmailer who’s acquired top-secret government documents in exchange for some compromising love letters; now the man wants to sell the documents back to the government. By comparison, a killer in Whitechapel murdering a sex worker with a slight trace of psychic ability is unimportant. Or so it seems … but in my world, Jack the Ripper is more than a psychopath, and his killings are more than just a murderous attack on unlucky women. Will Simon and Hudnall figure it out in time?
I don’t think anyone will be surprised that the Guv’nor is Professor Moriarty, even though Simon has no idea of this, or even heard of the professor (brilliant mathematicians are hardly in his social circle). Sherlock Holmes doesn’t appear in Questionable Minds — for most of the book he’s investigating the sinister affair of the Dutch steamship Friesland — but as a Holmes fan for most of my life, bringing some of his villains in seemed perfectly natural. In the earlier draft they had to have their serial numbers filed off, As most of Holmes is now out of copyright, I get the satisfaction of using them under their real names.
Holmes’ own career proceeds much as in our world, in case you were wondering. A number of people, however, think his talk of deduction and analysis is just a pose — obviously he’s using some kind of mentalist power to make his brilliant observations. That really pisses him off. Moriarty has had a much tougher time adapting to a mentalist world. Keeping his identity secret means only five men in England know who he is, and almost nobody in his organization knows who the Five are. Mentalists can’t make the Guv’nor’s people reveal what they don’t know.