The paperback volume begins with the full text of the canonical short story “His Last Bow”, set in August 1914. A “Timeline of Events” at the end of the book asserts that Holmes did not, despite his professed plans after foiling Von Bork, return to retirement and bee-keeping in Sussex, but rather “penetrated the German high command” early in 1915, and subsequently carried out espionage in the Balkans, St. Petersburg and East Africa. Some of these events have been reported in a previous novel by Cooper-Posey, Chronicles of the Missing Years. In November 1917, the timeline continues, Holmes received “an invitation” to call on his brother Mycroft Holmes in Whitehall, and that is the point at which the main narrative of The Reluctant Agent begins.
The idea that Holmes was a spy during the 1914-1918 war is not exactly new, and may be inevitable for anyone who reads “His Last Bow” and cannot quite believe that the Sussex Downs were enough for him during a period of great national crisis. It is known for certain that Arthur Conan Doyle, visiting the western front in the middle of the war, was asked by a French official what Sherlock Holmes was doing for the war effort. “Mais, mon général,”, Doyle replied, “il est trop vieux pour service!” Too old? Maybe. Or, Cooper-Posey suggests, maybe not.
The events of The Reluctant Agent are set in Jordan and Turkey, where the war between Britain and Germany was in part played out by local proxies, the armies of the tottering Sultan, and guerrilla bands. To some extent they overlap in time and space with those of a different version of Holmes's activity during this period, Laurie King's 1999 Mary Russell novel O Jerusalem. A potential influence (non-Sherlockian) from longer ago is John Buchan's classic 1916 novel about Richard Hannay encountering Muslim fundamentalism and the caliphate, Greenmantle.
To portray Sherlock Holmes as a secret agent in Bedouin dress is already a considerable departure from the original character, who was (outside “His Last Bow” and one or two stories about the quiet adjustment of embarrassing affairs among the aristocracy) a consulting detective. Holmes, the reluctant agent in this narrative, does very little detecting, although one can reasonably accept his skills of observation and deduction being transferred from crime to the high-stakes business of knowing who is ally and who is enemy on the edges of the Great War. There are, as there must be in a spy novel, a few stunning revelations. (There is also, as there apparently must be in a pastiche, a bit of very personal back-story.)
Cooper-Posey writes good plain English (the story is told in the third person). I do not recall noticing a single error of grammar or a grating departure from appropriate usage. Indeed, there is a simplicity to the story that somehow suggests “young adult” literature, although The Reluctant Agent does not seem to have been written for such an audience. For those who want to read spy stories set more than a decade outside the usual era for the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, it can be comfortably recommended.
Copyright © Chris Redmond 2015