Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Bulgarian Codex by Tim Symonds

Review by Chris Redmond

Dr. Watson was known to read fiction as well as medical journals — in “The Five Orange Pips” he picks up one of Clark Russell's sea stories, hugely popular in their day — so it is not utterly inappropriate that he chooses Rupert of Hentzau, the popular sequel to Anthony Hope's classic The Prisoner of Zenda, for background reading when he and Holmes find it necessary to go to Bulgaria. Why they make that trip, and what they do while there, is told by Tim Symonds in this 2012 pastiche.

It would seem that the author, too, relied on Hope's fictional Ruritania (if not the Marx Brothers' Freedonia) in developing his portrayal of Bulgaria, circa 1900, and its flamboyant Prince Regnant. Of course there may be a grain of truth in both Symonds's Bulgaria and Hope's comic-opera Balkan territory. "The principal character Prince Ferdinand,” Symonds writes in an authorial note, “is based closely on one of the most compelling personalities in world history, the real Prince Regnant.” At the same time, Symonds's Ferdinand is a self-acknowledged parody of the King of Bohemia who became entangled with Irene Adler. And he is by no means the only comic character in the book, which is also populated with such useful canon fodder as vampire-fearing peasants and exotically-uniformed troops.

The book's plot actually has little to do with the codex that provides its title. Events race along in breakneck fashion as is usual in the current generation of pastiches, which provide rather more action for Holmes and Watson than the canonical stories do. (Symonds deserves credit for a particularly outrageous and artistically successful action on Holmes's part which provides a key piece of the evidence.)

But the plot would hardly support a novel, even a short one (Codex runs less than 150 pages), without the book's most noticeable feature, the detailed scenic description. Other recent books, such as Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Sachertorte, have demonstrated the same fault — clearly the authors have done their research and been unable to force themselves to discard enough of it. So Symonds's Watson goes on, literally for pages, about the flora of eastern Europe, the attire of Ferdinand's courtiers, and the palace's art and architecture. He is startlingly well-informed, too, as when, upon seeing a row of mansions in Sofia, he is able to tell the reader that their owners are “merchants exporting flax, linseed, honey and tallow.” A little of this sort of thing lends delight to Watson's authentic narratives; in this quantity, it irritates.

Symonds does much name-dropping, making much of the popular English entertainer Vesta Tilley, giving Holmes and Watson an improbable colloquy about Alice in Wonderland, and filling two pages with an uncomfortably explicit account of a performance of Oscar Wilde's “Salomé.” The text is liberally sprinkled with words in italics, expressions in Bulgarian, German, French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin. The author also expects the reader to believe that Watson knows what apotropaic magic is, and can pronounce it, and that he would write (describing a landscape) “Green softened into sfumato.”

Symonds's Victorian English is good, though not perfect. He gives Holmes one brilliant line, borrowed in part from "The Man with the Twisted Lip": "You have a grand gift of silence, Watson. Now is a good time to exercise it." But he spoils it by putting the verb in the indicative rather than the subjunctive mood.

Still, these things are details. What remains is that it is good fun to send Holmes and Watson to Ruritania, laugh at the prince, and approach the borders of Victorian propriety in ways a reviewer should not spoil by mentioning. Oh, and surely one is not meant to take Watson's derringer collection seriously.