The Sacred Seal by J. Regis O’Connor

Review by Chris Redmond

This short novel by J. Regis O'Connor, about the same length as The Hound of the Baskervilles, is a serious pastiche, written in the voice of Dr. Watson and presenting a case of disappearance (perhaps murder) which Sherlock Holmes investigates and duly solves. Inspector Lestrade is involved, and there is a brief appearance by Pope Leo XIII, since the case is that of Cardinal Tosca, canonically mentioned in "Black Peter."

His Eminence (Holmes, ever deferential to the aristocracy, repeatedly calls him that) has disappeared during a visit to a rather improbable little Benedictine monastery conveniently located "near Spitalfields Market in the East End of London." Holmes and Watson investigate, taking extreme pains to avoid doing anything that might bring scandal on the Church. Indeed, their investigation is artificially prolonged in the hope that Lestrade will lose interest or be called away to more pressing cases, and thus not come to know the unfortunate truth. A quick trip to Rome to brief the Pope provides a useful diversion.

The story is competently written, and the prose is remarkably Watsonian, with reliable grammar, a workmanlike vocabulary, and a nice mixture of short and long sentences, a particular feature of the good doctor's style. Special praise is due for a long colloquy about the tracing of footprints in the snow, in the first chapter, and a perceptive observation about Sherlock Holmes's mercurial personality, at the beginning of the third.

On the other hand, the reader is entitled to complain about a chain of hidden clues that rather resembles a child's game of hare-and-hounds. And when the criminal is eventually identified and, inevitably, tells a self-justifying story, it may seem improbable that a crime could have been in preparation for so very long. As for the technological device by which the crime was committed, one can at least say that it it smacks more of Rube Goldberg than of the canonical Holmes.