The year 1872 finds Mycroft Holmes, not yet known as Sherlock Holmes’ smarter brother, pulled into a drug-tinged series of murders that, against all odds, entangles his younger brother too in a piquant case of sibling rivalry.
As London is devastated by the Savage Gardens Murders, whose victims are the owners or habitués of opium dens, Mycroft, recently promoted to the position of special counsel to Queen Victoria, looks forward eagerly to hands-on involvement in international intrigue at the highest level. Instead, he finds himself mired in family problems. A ship belonging to his old friend and Trinidad native Cyrus Douglas has been wrecked, and in order to take part in its salvaging, Cyrus must absent himself from Nickolus House, the residential school he runs for orphaned boys in memory of his own dead son. Could 18-year-old Sherlock possibly take a few days off from his studies at Downing College, Cambridge, to teach the boys some elementary principles of mathematics in Douglas’ absence? Sherlock’s first response is splenetic refusal, but once he settles into the job, his unorthodox instructional methods endear him as much to his temporary charges as they horrify Mycroft, and the fatal overdose of one of them makes him determined to investigate. Although Mycroft announces, “Unless that poor boy’s death has implications for Queen and country, it is no matter for me,” his own chance meeting with medical student Ai Lin, whose brother, Dai en-Lai, is a schoolmate of Sherlock’s, leads him to both the same mystery and, even more unlikely, to a promise of romance.
The mystery, as so often in Conan Doyle, is less interesting than the Holmes-ian byplay. But fans will want to read this sturdy pastiche if only for the deathless query: “Do we bring Sherlock in? Or leave him in relative ignorance until after his exams?”