Review by Chris Redmond
A novel filling in the details of Sherlock Holmes's travels during the Great Hiatus is not a new idea. A narrative of what Holmes might have done in Japan is not a new idea either, especially after this year's film “Mr. Holmes” and the novel it's based on, A Slight Trick of the Mind. A narrative with Professor Moriarty in the background? It's been done. A story of Holmes and Watson aboard ship? Not new, as Sherlock Holmes and the Titanic Tragedy (1996) regrettably demonstrates. Holmes entangled in international espionage with the future of the world hanging in the balance? Been there, done that.
In short, there's relatively little that's new in the plot of Sherlock Holmes, the Missing Years, Japan by Vasudev Murthy. The measure of this author's skill is that he has nevertheless written a very good book, exciting and readable and even somewhat believable.
(This book cannot even claim to be the first widely available pastiche written by someone living in India. We had The Adventure of Black Drop, by “Radkris” a few years back. Murthy lives in Bangalore, according to the present book's publicity, and has written a number of previous books on topics from crime to classical music. His interest in music is evident in a somewhat odd minor plot thread.)
The first fifty pages of the story are written in the authentic Watsonian voice, and the reader is — or at least I was — lulled into expecting that delightful form to continue. At that point, however, the author explains that subsequent events need to be narrated from various points of view, and things get a bit erratic. At a couple of points, documents are inserted, printed in different type faces from the main narrative. That sort of thing is a warning signal to this reader, and perhaps others; however, it's always possible to follow what's happening in this novel (this is a high compliment, considering what some writers are doing with experimental Sherlock Holmes fiction nowadays). And there's plenty more of Holmes as seen by Watson, which is the most authentic of all Holmeses.
Each chapter is introduced by a Japanese ideogram and a few literary words (poems, the book's publicity explains). A few footnotes, as well as an indignant letter from Watson at the very beginning of the text, provide comic relief in the form of tension between Watson-the-narrator and his young editor. There are insights, presumably authentic, into Japanese culture and nature, and the personality of the Meiji Emperor himself. Murthy makes all this palatable as well as comprehensible.
The trouble with Holmes-has-to-save-the-world fiction is that the reader knows the world will, indeed be saved. No suspense there. And when there are (to an English-language reader) too many unfamiliar names, the whodunnit suspense tends to be diluted as well. Still, Murthy's narrative moves smoothly and efficiently to its conclusion, and sustains reader interest.
I could have done without the Epilogue, with not one but two brief lyrical narratives in the Japanese style, not closely related to Sherlock Holmes. But an author is allowed to be a little bit self-indulgent, I think.