The Secret Archives of Sherlock Holmes, by June Thomson

Secret archives cvr

June Thomson has published several volumes of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, so they must sell, but while The Secret Archives is nicely written, the plotting and charaterisation in these seven short stories feels lacklustre.  There is little suspense, and it is usually fairly easy to work out what is going on and who the perpetrator is – in ‘The Case of the Three-handed Widow’ the title gives away a plot device unnecessarily, and although other stories are not quite so blatant in signalling their storylines, most of them offer little challenge.  Characterisation too is a fair way from Conan Doyle, Holmes and Lestrade seeming to derive more from the Basil Rathbone interpretation (Watson fares slightly better in the denseness stakes than he does as depicted by Nigel Bruce, thankfully).

A foreword by ‘Aubrey B Watson’ notes that these accounts of Sherlock Holmes’s cases were written by John H Watson but never published.  After his death they were sold by a relative of his to someone with the same surname who had taken an interest in his namesake’s career, a certain John F Watson.  Copies of the manuscripts (the originals having been destroyed in a bombing raid on London) were inherited by the purchaser’s nephew Aubrey, a man who thinks that 1942 was ‘the height of the Blitz’.

Presumably they were unpublished and left to languish in a tin dispatch box in a bank because of their inferior quality, Herbert Greenhough Smith having rejected them for the Strand.  There would have been no other reason to withhold them from publication, except a bonus story reprinted from another volume in the series that involves an army officer who cheats at cards, as John H Watson wished to spare a fellow Afghanistan veteran the disgrace of public exposure.

There is an echo of Conan Doyle but Thomson fails to capture the essence.  Only a couple even approach Conan Doyle’s style and texture: an investigation of a dead farmer in Wales, albeit the true culprit is fairly easy to determine (there aren’t that many suspects), allows some atmospheric writing; a case involving a missing young French woman has a weak denouement, but is satisfyingly complex.  Where this Holmes particularly parts company with Conan Doyle’s is his willingness on occasion to guess, ignoring his own adage, ‘I never guess. It is a shocking habit, – destructive to the logical faculty.’  He is forever genial, never waspish, which strikes a false note, and there are occasionally loose ends that are not tied up.

Particularly irritating is the use of footnotes inserted by ‘Dr John F. Watson’, because while they demonstrate Thomson’s familiarity with the canon they are often obvious, and some are repeated in different chapters.  In all cases they are a distraction from the flow of the narrative and their presence a puzzle – after all, John F Watson had no intention of publishing the stories (with no originals to support their provenance), so why would he bother to annotate them?

The major problem is that Thomson has underestimated the perspicacity of the average Sherlockian and assumes that a story’s revelation, where there is one, will come as a surprise, whereas the reader is very likely ahead of her.  If the Baker Street atmosphere is missing as well there isn’t much left.  This is certainly an undemanding read but it adds nothing to the corpus.


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