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Sunday, October 1, 2023
Oct. 1, 2023

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Sherlock Holmes can never die, and new books about the great sleuth are making sure of it

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The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols
The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols Photo Gallery

In his sonnet “221B,” Vincent Starrett describes Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson as two men “who never lived and so can never die.” Certainly the great sleuth and his chronicler are among the most vividly realized fictional characters of all time.

There’s a passage in Laurie R. King’s “The Game”– one of her Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes novels — that charmingly shows this. Sherlock and Mary have been summoned by the detective’s older brother Mycroft, the sedentary denizen of the Diogenes Club who “sometimes is the British government.” One of the spymaster’s best agents, Kimball O’Hara, has gone missing in India. Mary — suddenly remembering “Kim” and its hero’s full name — exclaims, “He’s real then? Kipling’s boy?” To which Sherlock replies, “As real as I am.”

The detective and his chronicler Dr. Watson seem very real in “The Devil’s Due,” the third in Bonnie MacBird’s ongoing series of Sherlockian mysteries, following hard upon “Art in the Blood” and “Unquiet Spirits.” In this latest, Holmes and Watson must discover why some of London’s most notable philanthropists are being killed in macabre ways. A shipbuilding magnate named Anson is found drowned — in his bed. A fabric manufacturer named Benjamin hangs himself with a twisted strip from a bolt of cloth. A famous opera baritone, known for his immense lung power, succumbs to an exotic poison that prevents him from breathing.

Early on, Sherlock realizes — shades of Agatha Christie’s “The A.B.C. Murders”! — that the victims are being dispatched in alphabetical order. He also learns that all of them belonged to an exclusive society called the Luminarians, founded by two brothers, the dandiacal James and Andrew Goodwin. Might membership in the Luminarians be the key to the mystery?

While solving the Alphabet Murders provides the main thrust of “The Devil’s Due,” MacBird adds plenty of subsidiary action: Anarchist bomb threats, a newspaper smear campaign in which Holmes is vilified as the Devil incarnate, a knife attack on a former prostitute in the care of the beautiful Lady Eleanor Gainsborough and increasing police brutality by Scotland Yard’s sadistic Titus Billings. Everything is seamlessly tied together in a double-whammy climax.

Mystery story addicts, though, may have guessed the secret behind the killings even before that climax. Still, MacBird’s artistry will keep even those readers eagerly turning the pages just to see how she orchestrates the big reveal. All in all, “The Devil’s Due” strikes me as one of the best Sherlock Holmes novels of recent memory, at least as entertaining as Anthony Horowitz’s “The House of Silk.” In her future books, I hope MacBird lets us see even more of Holmes’ female Baker Street Irregular, the street-smart, half-Irish, half-Jewish cockney Hephzibah O’Malley. The teenage Heffie steals every scene she’s in.

Back in 1974, Nicholas Meyer’s “The Seven Per-Cent Solution” sent Holmes and Watson hurrying to Vienna for a consultation with Dr. Sigmund Freud. That book was tremendously successful and two sequels followed, “The West End Horror” in 1976 and “The Canary Trainer” in 1993. But after scripting the big-screen version of “The Seven Per-Cent Solution,” Meyer largely turned his energies to writing and directing films, notably several in the Star Trek franchise, starting with 1982’s “The Wrath of Khan.”

Now, after a great hiatus, Meyer returns with “The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols.” Note that otherwise bland title’s distinctly ominous last word: In the novel Holmes and Watson must discover the perpetrator of an infamous anti-Semitic screed, the notorious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Initially, readers will feel right at home with this Holmes. When the detective and Watson are dining at a fancy restaurant, Mycroft waddles over and, after quickly surveying the table, declares, “What a pity your waiter’s wife has abandoned him and their two children in favor of a groom in the stables of the Life Guards.” To which Sherlock immediately counters, “Household Cavalry,” then adds, “And she only left after he joined the ranks of Italian anarchists.”

As is his practice, Meyer introduces several real-life characters into the story — Russian translator Constance Garnett, the chemist and Zionist Chaim Weizmann, writer Israel Zangwill (then famous for his books about London Jewish life but now best known for his locked-room classic, “The Big Bow Mystery”) and free-spirited Anna Strunsky Walling, one of the co-founders of the NAACP.

The search for the author of the “Protocols” eventually takes Holmes, Watson and Walling on a railway journey into czarist Russia, the land of pogroms and secret police. Apart from some fine Sherlockian flourishes, though, the novel often feels talky and perhaps unavoidably somber and portentous, its action slowed by infodumps about Zionism and prejudice, as well as several saccharine scenes featuring Watson’s wife.

In “The Devil’s Due” MacBird makes sure that the fear of foreigners in fin-de-siecle Britain closely resembles our own contemporary xenophobia. Meyer similarly emphasizes parallels between toxic but politically useful disinformation then and now: For instance, Sherlock informs Mycroft, “These Protocols are almost certainly spurious news, but left unexposed, they will take root and grow in strength and credibility.” Alas, not even exposure can always crush an insidious fictional narrative.

While some purists don’t care for Sherlockian pastiches, all readers will find much to enjoy in “The Daily Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Quotes,” selected from Conan Doyle’s original stories by Levi Stahl and Stacey Shintani. Appropriately, the passage that was chosen for Nov. 28 describes a wild, tempestuous evening, when “the wind howled down Baker Street, and the rain beat fiercely against the windows.” Could there be any better weather for curling up with an adventure of Sherlock Holmes?