Spurred on by a well-informed war veteran, Sherlock Holmes revisits several homicides in war-torn South Africa and India.
As both a useful historical note and an intolerably overextended prologue illustrate, the record is clear: Two weeks after the 1879 assassination of Louis Napoleon, Prince Imperial and claimant to the throne of France, by rebels in Natal, Capt. Jahleel Brenton Carey, commander of the prince’s bodyguard, was court martialed. The reversal of the verdict merely dragged out Carey’s life four more years until he died in India under suspicious circumstances. Not long after Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson have taken rooms together at 221-B Baker Street, Watson gets his own case. Rev. Samuel Dordona, who was with Carey when he died, is convinced that his friend’s death was murder and that the Prince Imperial’s death bears closer examination by a qualified veteran like Watson. Since Holmes’ brother Mycroft, permanent secretary for Cabinet Affairs, has an unofficial finger in every government pie, Holmes quickly assumes a leadership role in the case. The murder of Capt. Joshua Sellon in London implicates Col. Rawdon Moran—the older brother of the infamous Col. Sebastian Moran, whom the faithful will recall from Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes—and incidentally provides a chance for Holmes to do what he does best: investigate crime scenes, make lightning inferences, unmask secrets and propose explanations as dazzling as they are logical. Unfortunately, Holmes the detective, who’s enjoyed a vigorous afterlife in Thomas’ pastiches (Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly, 2010, etc.), is upstaged by Holmes the secret agent for the final act, which finds Moran behind yet another historical outrage.
Thomas’ attempt to intertwine the Holmes saga with the political fortunes of the empire is more ingenious than convincing, unless your idea of Holmes is Errol Flynn.