Sherlock Holmes, Year One: The Twelve Caesars by Scott Beatty

Review by Chris Redmond

There ought to be some kind of special award for the Sherlockian author who can write, as Scott Beatty does in this novel, a sentence as lurid as this one: "Even in the overwhelming green glow of the all-consuming conflagration, one might easily discern that he was practically purple with unrestrained madness."

No extra points are given for identification of "he" as Professor James Moriarty — who else could the villain be in this contemporary equivalent of a shilling shocker? — or for arranging the presence of Irene Adler, reinterpreted here as the fiancée of Sherlock Holmes. As for the incident in which Holmes, Watson, and Adler all find themselves tied up and threatened with death in Moriarty's warehouse lair, oh, that doesn't go back any further than, say, 1899 in William Gillette's stage melodrama.

Gillette's dialogue may sound a little old-fashioned to today's audiences, but it's still grammatical, even elegant. Beatty stumbles so often that it's as though he writes with the help of Google Translate. "We had certain dread that the Professor would one day return," he writes, and, "Lividity of the corpse would indicate a most recent demise." He also thinks "trodding" and "discomforting" are words, spells out "Mister" every time it's used, writes "faired" for "fared" and "lead" for "led" — and so it goes. Beyond all this, a prudent author who uses the work of the Roman historian Suetonius as a significant plot point might make some effort to spell "Suetonius" right (Beatty gets it one time out of seven).

Beyond this sort of thing, there's a larger issue to be considered, and Beatty is by no means the only author whose work raises it. A distressing number of mystery novels, and not only Sherlockian pastiches, tell of wildly ingenious serial murderers who go to enormous effort to kill according to arbitrary patterns. It might be a map, a nursery rhyme, practically anything; in this case it's a series of historical incidents (see Suetonius, supra). The criminal's ingenuity is always, in the end, matched by the ingenuity of the detective in recognizing the pattern and predicting what outrage will come next. But there is rarely a plausible explanation of why the master criminal troubles to create a puzzle worthy of the Times crossword. Well, yes, he's insane; in Moriarty's case, specifically, he's megalomaniac, which does not come as news; but the whole thing is desperately artificial and unsatisfying. And really, twelve victims is a bloodbath that stretches credibility.

It's also difficult to explain why a pastiche author, with the wide world of Sherlock Holmes in which to work, should choose to toss aside the authentic "Afghanistan" incident in which Holmes first meets Watson, invent reasons why Holmes already knows not just Watson but also Adler and Moriarty, give them this wild and gory adventure, and then segue into the summons to Lauriston Gardens that introduces the "Study in Scarlet" mystery. In fact practically everything about this book is difficult to explain, including why it has so many titles.