Larry Millett, The Disappearance of Sherlock Holmes
(A Mystery Featuring Shadwell Rafferty) (Penguin, 2003)
Sherlock Holmes, the great literary creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, has become something of a cottage industry since Doyle's death. Many authors have used Holmes and Watson in their own novels and short stories; numerous stage plays and films featuring the great detective and his constant companion, Dr. John Watson, have been produced. Holmes's London residence may be the most famous literary address in the world: 221B Baker Street, the name of which has long since been appropriated to refer to Holmes's legions of fans worldwide, the "Baker Street Irregulars."
Holmes is such a popular character that he is often removed from his usual London haunts: Holmes figured strongly in episodes of TV shows as disparate as Magnum, PI and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Of course, those stories didn't exactly feature Holmes himself, but the same general idea applies to Larry Millett's series of Holmes mysteries, which send the sleuth from London to the United States to investigate all manner of crimes with the assistance of an amateur from Minnesota named Shadwell Rafferty.
The current novel opens with an in medias res prologue, in which Holmes is executing some kind of rendezvous with a ruthless kidnapper at a church in 1900 New York City, during which he hopes to get the drop on the criminal mastermind he has been tracking with the help of allies in the New York Police Department. Holmes's opponent arrives, words are exchanged, Holmes blows his whistle to signal to the "coppers" to come running and the next morning, the New York Post runs the headline: "Sherlock Holmes Disappears; Police Suspect Famed Detective in Kidnapping and Murder."
The story then goes back to the beginning, as Holmes and Watson receive a letter written in some strange cipher that relates to an old case involving a woman named Elsie Cubitt, with whom Holmes has exchanged warm correspondence since the earlier case. Holmes captured the murderer of Elsie's husband, a brutal man named Abe Slaney, who was thought to have died in a jailbreak attempt, but who now turns out to have possibly not only survived but now kidnapped Elsie. Holmes and Watson travel first to Elsie's home, where they learn that she has become involved with a strange woman claiming psychic powers. As they uncover more and more evidence of a large and sinister plot to draw Holmes along, from one set of clues to the next, the two detectives track Elsie's kidnappers to New York City, where after some more detection Holmes himself disappears, and their American ally, Shadwell Rafferty, eventually becomes involved. I'm trying to be as sketchy as possible in describing the novel's plot, because part of its charms involve the way the plot is fairly constantly twisting and turning, especially in the first half of the story.
The Disappearance of Sherlock Holmes is one of those mystery stories in which carriages rattle along cobblestone streets, fog swirls about in gaslit darkness, and every location takes on a fairly sinister feel, even such innocuous locales as the various hotels in which Holmes and Watson lodge. Millett's skill at creating atmosphere is excellent, and the book's best chapters are the ones set in New York City, where one gets a distinct feel for the city's sprawling growth and the political corruption Holmes and Watson face there. (The novel is set during the height of Tammany Hall's dominance of New York politics, with all the crookedness that involved.) Millett is so intent on historical accuracy that he actually provides extensive endnotes to further describe sources for the settings and backgrounds to the locations. I found the endnotes occasionally a bit overdone, though, as I am the kind of reader who follows each endnote as it comes.
The endnotes point to a problem I had with the book's "flow." Much of it is cast as excerpts from Dr. Watson's personal diaries, but occasionally Millett shifts to another character's point-of-view entirely, including Holmes after the "disappearance" of the title, depicted in the prologue. The narrative takes on something of a "jerky" feel, and the book itself doesn't seem to live up to the billing of the title. I expected a story in which Holmes disappears entirely, to be sought out by this Shadwell Rafferty character (of whose earlier exploits I have not read), but that's not really the case. The cover boldly states, "A Mystery Featuring Shadwell Rafferty," but Rafferty is not "featured". He is, rather, a supporting character along the way. It was as if The Lord of the Rings was subtitled, "A Fantasy Featuring Gimli Son of Gloin." Holmes never actually disappears from the book; he merely disappears from his friends, which is frankly not what the title seems to promise.
Another difficulty is in the nature of the mystery itself. Holmes deduces quite early on that he and Watson are up against a particularly fiendish criminal who has purposely left clues behind to draw them along on a predetermined course. After a while, though, this device starts to feel like nothing more than plot-wheels in motion; Holmes is continually saying things like "We shall have to wait and see what our opponent has in store for us next," and at one point Watson is led on a long wild goose chase around 1900 Manhattan, whose thrilling nature is undermined by the sense of everyone merely acting out roles in predetermined drama. And finally, although I'm not exactly well-read in Holmes-lore and perhaps not qualified to comment on this, Holmes himself doesn't come off quite as I suspect he should, as a great deductive detective. His insights, when they come, seem to have more of a sense of inspiration and intuition than the deduction for which Holmes is so famous, and in the second half of the book Holmes actually becomes something of an action hero, at one point going so far as to attempt an escape aboard a moving train.
So, The Disappearance of Sherlock Holmes is for me a bit of a mixed bag. It was an entertaining read, and I enjoyed it, but I found the ending disappointing and the plot machinery a tad too obvious. And while I did enjoy the story, I'm not certain how good a Sherlock Holmes story it is.