The anthology, Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, edited by Richard T. Ryan, is one of a series filling in the years 1881-1886, the period between the stories “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Reigate Squire” when no Holmes cases were reported. This fallow period was interrupted only by “The Speckled Band” (one of my favorites), set in 1883. Contemporary writers, not content to assume the duo spent those years twiddling their thumbs, have enthusiastically created adventures to fill in the gap.
Each A Year of Mystery volume, published by Belanger Books, includes a dozen stories, one for each month, and even a bonus story or two from that year. Clearly, the Great Detective was capable of multitasking at a high level! The 1885 volume, which contains one of my stories, was published last December, and I asked some of my fellow authors how much experience they had with this very particular mystery genre. Turns out, a lot!
George Gardner’s story, “The Adventure of the Damaged Tomb,” was his debut as a Holmes/Watson pasticher, and three of the authors (including me) have had two or three published. But to demonstrate that the genre’s well of inspiration is far from empty, five of the authors have published repeatedly in it and one—David Marcum—has published 118 short stories and two novels involving Holmes and Watson.
“The Faulty Gallows” by David Marcum
Let’s give Marcum’s latest story, “The Faulty Gallows,” a closer look. In endnotes, he tells how in real life John “Babbacome” Lee “famously survived three attempts to hang him” for murdering his employer, and how James Berry, another real-life character, was the official executioner who tried and failed to execute him, repeatedly. Marcum provides pictures of both men, and Lee is dapper in his bowler hat. Berry looks unhappy.
Marcum did a beautiful job taking the raw facts of Lee’s narrow escapes and fictionalizing them. Holmes is asked to involve himself in this fiasco by a mysterious “acquaintance at Whitehall.” This device gives him a plausible reason to investigate and allows Marcum to wrap the circumstances of the botched executions in a larger conspiracy that Holmes tumbles to. By the story’s end, a bit remains unresolvable and, when pressed by Watson, Holmes asks for time. No too-neat-and-tidy ending here.
Holmes fans will realize that the mystery man is no doubt Holmes’s brother Mycroft, but since Watson hasn’t met him yet, he’s a cipher to the story’s narrator. Says Marcum, “Mycroft is a useful tool in pastiches—although as a strict Holmesian Chronologist, [I can’t bring him] in too early.”
Holmes is known for his brilliant deductions, yet “the story structures also allow for a lot of off-stage techniques to advance suddenly toward the story’s conclusion,” Marcum says. Contact with Mycroft, which doesn’t have to be explained in detail, sometimes accomplishes that. Mycroft’s murky Whitehall connections also can give some stories, like this one, a bigger frame.