Sherlock Holmes and the Sword of Osman by Tim Symonds

Review by Chris Redmond

In this novel by Tim Symonds there is material for a first-class Sherlock Holmes short story, with quite a bit left over for an old-fashioned travel book and a detailed article about the role of the Ottoman Empire in European politics just before World War I. Unfortunately, the mixture of the three fails to grip the reader as a novel-length Sherlock Holmes adventure really ought to.

To be fair, this is pretty much how a certain genre of pastiches are written. This book is, for instance, no more annoying than the decade-old Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Sachertorte, set in Vienna. The formula is to summon Holmes out of London, out of England, to some foreign land where he will quickly adapt to the culture (is there no end to Holmes's ingenuity with disguise and facility with languages?) and solve a baffling problem that threatens to drag the civilized world into war. Such a narrative is typically framed by scenes involving Mycroft Holmes, includes a lot of name-dropping, and shows off the author's intimate knowledge of some far distant land.

In the present case, the distant place is Stamboul (Constantinople, Istanbul), the capital of the decaying Ottoman Empire. In the portion of the novel that would make a satisfying short story, Holmes and Watson investigate the theft of a valuable state artifact, thereby thwarting, or at least postponing, a plot against the Sultan. For pages and pages, before and during and after the investigation, they admire the city. The action constantly grinds to a halt for descriptions by an amazed Watson, with far more detail — bird species, colours, nationalities, herbs — than he or anyone could possibly have remembered. The reader also wonders at times, as when the Sultan's eccentricities come to the fore, whether the author intended certain passages to be serious or burlesque.

The Notes, Acknowledgements, and Lexicon at the end of the book go on for many pages. There can be no doubt that Symonds has made it his business to know Stamboul, and Turkish history, intimately. One is somewhat reminded of Arthur Conan Doyle, who said he had read (and taken notes on) a hundred books in preparation for writing The White Company. It certainly reads that way, and The Sword of Osman is similarly dense with detail at the expense of action.

In the intervals of following Holmes about Stamboul as he deals with the affair of the stolen sword, Watson is apparently trying to write the memoir that would eventually become “Wisteria Lodge.” He doesn't find much time to concentrate on it, which no doubt is why the resulting short story is not one of the canon's most gripping. Neither is Osman — and yet, of course, better a mediocre Sherlock Holmes story than none at all.