Review by C.J. Bunce
Since Sir Arthur Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories have moved into the public domain over time, several hundred novels have hit the market. Writers like Nicholas Meyer have attempted to pristinely emulate word-by-word Doyle’s prose. Others seem to have a Holmes actor in mind, coming through in the depiction of key mannerisms or apparel, like Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett, or more recently Robert Downey, Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch. Most modern writers take on Dr. John Watson as the narrator, typically writing in short, brief statements except when describing the oddity that is his colleague-friend Holmes. Tim Major has written Holmes stories before and his latest is here in time for the holidays, Sherlock Holmes and the Twelve Thefts of Christmas. Major’s is a very readable story that tracks two mysteries at a fair clip: Why are strange things happening to a noted Norwegian explorer in England, and what puzzle has Irene Adler put in front of our sleuth this time?
Holmes takes on a new client: Norwegian arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen, a real-life adventurer who completed the first trans-Greenland journey, via skis, in 1888. Nansen, his wife, and exploring partner are in England between expeditions, looking for funding. Nansen has been receiving creepy “gifts” of animal meat on his doorstep. His partner believes this to be from a spirit that he claims to have seen in the last, harrowing days of his Greenland adventure. The message: go away, stay away, and do not return. But who is really sending this strange message? Holmes does not believe in coincidences, so he won’t rule out that Irene Adler has something to do with it.
Holmes begins to see cryptic messages from Adler–referred to by Doyle’s Holmes as “the woman.” The reader is advised that Adler has created puzzles for Holmes before. This time he believes the message is hidden in a piece of music he is calling the Adler Variations (think of the code in Tom Hanks’ The Man with One Red Shoe) which are accompanied by letters of the alphabet written on slips of paper. What does it all add up to? It’s the days before Christmas and the detective pair deduces that they must solve a Christmassy magic number “twelve” mysteries to get to the final answer.
The problem with Irene Adler stories is that they always feature Holmes and Watson unable to keep up with her, and she never gets enough time on the actual stage or page. The beauty of the Adler stories is that they allow Holmes to act differently than usual. He is always besotted with her. Watson is amused to see it and, even better, to point out Holmes’ strange differences to him directly. The Twelve Thefts of Christmas leans into this fun. Major creates a further adventure less concerned with the technical nuances of matching Doyle’s text, and more concerned with not letting the reader grow weary of the convention (although some side excursions border on testing the reader’s patience).
Readers can readily picture this Holmes and Watson as Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s duo from the recent, popular BBC series. It’s easy to laugh at Holmes for his bizarre nature, rather than need to feel sorry for him as if he suffers some affliction, as some writers have painted the character.
This does not feel like a Christmas story–the MacGuffin only happens to occur at Christmas. The mystery does not relate to the holiday and Major doesn’t paint much of the festivities into his take on Victoriana. The reader also may doubt Holmes throughout the story. Are his observations even valid, or is Holmes paranoid? The very idea of Adler makes him weak in the knees–or as weak in the knees Holmes ever could be. Is that all that’s going on here?
Sherlock Holmes and the Twelve Thefts of Christmas is a good read at the holidays or otherwise. Major’s latest mystery is a solid addition to the canon of modern Holmes and Watson adventures. The novel is available now in hardcover with a lovely Christmas red cover, from Titan Books, here at Amazon and from other booksellers.