Not all Sherlockians may be familiar with the character who is, more or less, the hero of this peculiar book. He is Allan Quatermain, the hero of a dozen novels by Sir Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925). Quatermain, who has become a mainstay of pastiche and steampunk, first appeared in King Solomon's Mines (1885), a melodramatic tale set in a lost African paradise; it may have influenced Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. Haggard's books are recognized for relatively sympathetic portrayals of Africans and other indigenous people with whom the British heroes come into contact. And so it is here: the story at the core of things is actually told not by Quatermain but to him, by “Hans”, his Hottentot sidekick. That story is twelve pages long; the book is — well, it's pretty hard to tell, because of a complicated numbering system, but let's say 225 pages.
Most of the volume is made up of prefatory material, structured like Russian nesting dolls. The book has a Preamble, an Introduction, a Preface, three Forewords, a five-chapter Prologue... it just goes on. The effect is almost of hypertext, or Gemara, or that 250-year-old attempt at hypertext that is the comic novel Tristram Shandy. It's enjoyable for a while, and then it gets somewhat irritating. In the end the reader isn't quite clear whether there was actually a point the author wanted to make, or whether the whole thing was done as an exercise in verbal virtuosity.
The book has James Clerk Maxwell in it, and Pope Pius IX, and a beautiful Roman maiden cast out by her imperial father. And quite a bit more. It's very readable, too. It's just rather a shame that it doesn't have more of Watson and Holmes.
Copyright © Chris Redmond 2015