Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Sachertorte by Gerhard Tötschinger


Review by Chris Redmond

The title makes this book by Gerhard Tötschinger (translated into English by Richard R. Rutter) sound like something from the saga of Robert L. Fish's Schlock Holmes of Bagel Street. Holmes and a sachertorte, a Viennese chocolate sponge cake with apricot jam and other tasty complements? It sounds like slapstick.

But it isn't. This 2005 novel from The Battered Silicon Dispatch-Box has its faults, but it's dead serious, a story that takes Holmes and Watson to Vienna to investigate what amounts to industrial espionage (who stole the secret recipe for the torte that makes Frau Sacher's kitchen famous?) and stay to investigate political plotting in the weeks leading up to the beginning of World War I.

That points to one of the novel's problems: having read "His Last Bow," we know how Sherlock Holmes spent the summer of 1914, and indeed the two years before that, and it wasn't in the hotels and cafés of Vienna. We also know that the Holmes-Watson partnership ended when Holmes left London for Sussex, more or less a decade before the guns of August, and it is difficult to accept a narrative that shrugs off so much of what is well established as Holmesian fact.

As for Vienna — well, the theft of the sachertorte could hardly figure in the plot anywhere else, but that's the problem right there. Tötschinger does the same thing here that many other pastiche authors have done, but that only a talented few of them have done successfully: pull Holmes far away from foggy London to look into a mystery somewhere wildly different. Generally speaking, the somewhere else is wherever the author lives or wishes to live, someplace that provides an indigenous crime or puzzle that London cannot offer. Such a location also has (let's generously assume) interesting local detail that can be woven into the story, and Tötschinger, whose home is Vienna, has access to an endless supply of such detail. In fact the sachertorte story frequently gets bogged down in it, to the point that there are even footnotes with further information. A great deal of this information would better have been omitted, as it seems unlikely that most readers of Sherlockian fiction are looking to learn much more about the music of the Hofburg chapel, or details of military uniforms.

But the biggest weakness of Sachertorte is not just that the story drags, but that it is so ostentatiously a translation from the German. Watson is not necessarily "discourteous to his verbs," to borrow a phrase from Holmes in "A Scandal in Bohemia," but when he is made to write, "I had only a half hour of time," or Holmes says to him, "We will attempt at the very earliest tomorrow to extend the head start," it soon becomes hard to believe that they are the Englishmen we have come to know. The language, both in narration and in dialogue, is extraordinarily stilted; there are many grammatical errors and misused words; and confusion is worse confounded by a large number of mistakes in punctuation, particularly with quotation marks turning up in the wrong spot.

There could well be a good Sherlock Holmes story hiding in here somewhere, but with pompous language, too much of the Baedeker, and the unfamiliar behaviour of a Holmes and Watson far from home, it's pretty well concealed.