Now it can be told: Sherlock Holmes starred in still more real-life adventures, bringing to book such varied miscreants as the serial poisoner Dr. Thomas Neill Cream and the brides-in-the-bath killer George Joseph Smith. Following a summary account of two “failures,” Holmes’s skirmishes with Dr. H.H. Crippen’s trial for murdering his wife and Oscar Wilde’s ill-fated libel action against the Marquess of Queensbury, historian/biographer Thomas (The Victorian Underworld, 1998, etc.) gets down to the serious business of immersing the nonpareil detective in five annals of Victorian crime. All of them are notable not only for Holmes’s ingenuity in reasoning and tactics but for Thomas’s in maintaining mystery even in cases like Smith’s—a case in which most readers will recognize the guilty party from the outset. True, except for Smith and Cream, the leading figures are more obscure than in the previous volume (The Secret Cases of Sherlock Holmes, 1998), and Thomas is so intent on re-creating each case in all its historical detail that they all go on far too long. But there are ample compensations throughout, from the high-concept openings—a gambler who guarantees that his clients will never lose, an outraged neighbor’s glimpse of nocturnal rituals involving a series of naked bicyclists—to Holmes’s airy pertinacity in clearing the hopelessly guilty-looking Major Alfred John Munson of a murder charge.
As before, readers will come away sharing the conviction of Conan Doyle’s earliest audience that Victorian England would have been both fairer and more exciting if Sherlock Holmes really had existed.