The Scroll of the Dead by David Stuart Davies

Review by Chris Redmond

This pastiche novel by David Stuart Davies, first published in 1998, is back a dozen years later as part of a paperback series from Titan Books. Somebody at Titan Books must have rather peculiar eyesight, as the volume is set in surprisingly tiny type with surprisingly broad leading (white space) between the lines; it could have been made considerably more legible than it is. Somebody at Titan Books is also, most likely, intimidated by the possibility of having to tell a distinguished and prolific Sherlockian like David Stuart Davies that his prose needs editing now and then. They shouldn't be; a competent editor should know, even if Davies forgets, that "protagonist" and "antagonist" are two different words for a reason, that there is no such word as "ensconsed," and that there are rules for how to use commas.

There are other caveats as well. Davies is British and I am not, and he knows better than I do about the details of British life. (For example, he knows that Penrith is in Cumberland, in the Lake Country; I had always thought it was in Cornwall.) Otherwise, I would have doubted that a house in London's Curzon Street would have a "main back door" beside the kitchen door, and that a livery stable would be located two miles outside a small town rather than within it.

Despite such issues, some of which suggest haste on the author's part since they cannot possibly indicate ignorance, this story has much to recommend it. Above all, it goes without saying, David Stuart Davies knows Sherlock Holmes, his laconic patterns of speech, his affectionate if sometimes tense relationship with a longsuffering Watson, his silences, his sudden unexpected exertions (whether climbing a wall or paddling a boat). If the reader perhaps finds it a little unlikely that Holmes should suddenly speak in the Santee Sioux language, it is gratifying to encounter him quoting Wordsworth at an appropriate moment. He also goes dashing about the country a good deal; the North American reader, at least, may wish to reach for a map.

Davies resists the usual temptation to which pastiche authors succumb: to present Holmes with a challenge on which the very survival of the Empire depends. This story likewise has no Irene Adler, no Mycroft, no Moriarty — and very little Oscar Wilde. It is a good way outside the run of Canonical plots, however, involving no jealous stepfathers or aristocrats' gems, but instead a wealth of ancient Egyptian relics and a cabal of young men with their eyes on eternal life. They are "insane," both Holmes and Watson keep repeating; well, they would have to be, and that weakens rather than strengthens the book, for readers of Sherlock Holmes are inclined to prefer their villains sane and avaricious. For all that, The Scroll of the Dead is not bad reading.