Beware of Foreign Entanglements!

While Victorian society often seems hidebound, clinging to a certain worldview (British is best), previous posts in this series have talked about how rapidly the world, and that world specifically, was changing. Travel was speeding up, the telegraph had been invented, laws were changing, and many Britishers had visited the Empire’s far corners, or, as in Katy Darby’s story, had served in the Army there. Of course, that wasn’t the only way Victorians learned about the rest of the world—it also came to them, for better or worse. In Belanger Books’s entertaining volume Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, edited by Richard Ryan, contemporary authors look at any number of external influences on Holmes’s milieu.

These external forces are all the more consequential because, as George Gardner maintains, “no other historical period is so iconic and fully-formed in the mind of both reader and writer.” Or, as author Kevin Thornton put it, “with a Holmes story, there is no need for back story, to explain who the characters are, what they do, and what the story is about. It’s all there as soon as you mention Sherlock or 221B.” A situation ready-made for exciting surprises.

Certainly, it takes a vivid imagination to figure out how such well-known characters would have reacted to the era’s untoward events, like the Irish separatists’ bombings. Gardner’s story has Watson “jumping at shadows,” but Holmes takes a more measured view, seeming to believe “the hysteria and fear around the Fenian bombers were a larger threat than the bombings themselves.” Another example is in Shelby Phoenix’s story, which involves a shop selling Japanese pottery, “actually pretty popular back in Victorian England,” she says. Bringing goods to England for sale inspired her malefactor to do the same with people.

“While we often picture Holmes and Watson living in a generic Victorian London, the Year of Mystery concept has encouraged me to think about their place in history—about a series of unexpected events that could have happened in the existing historical context,” says author Paul Hiscock.

Here are two stories that exemplify the cross-cultural influences of the time.

“The Mystery of the Cloven Cord” by George Jacobs begins with a visit from Scotland Yard Inspector Gregson, who is bearing an unusual scarf. Cut in half and rolled like a rope, it was abandoned at the scene of an attempted murder. A similar scarf was left at a recent break-in. The victims heard a Bengali dialect. Holmes and Watson soon find themselves in the middle of a foreign intrigue in which miscreants looked to the Thuggees—“bandits and murderers who would roam India, killing and robbing travelers”—for inspiration and had brought their methods to England.

In 1885, hundreds thousands of Britishers visited a major exhibition of Japanese art and culture, which burned to the ground a few days before DJ Tyrer’s story, “The Japanese Village Mystery,” opens. Holmes and Watson become involved when the Village’s proprietor approaches them within days of the fire, fearful he’ll be charged with arson. Watson is called away from this meeting to visit his patient, WS Gilbert (who, in real life, engaged a Village tea server to coach his “three little maids” for The Mikado). Gilbert has been attacked by a black-clad man with a Japanese sword. A similar man is seen combing through the exhibition ruins, and the proprietor insists the man is “a member of that sect of assassins known as the Shinobi.” Once again, foreign entanglements have a dangerous side!

The authors mentioned herein cleverly use foreign influences and experiences to increase the intrigue in Holmes’s world. Their stories in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885 are:
Katy Darby – “The Adventure of the Lock Hospital”
George Gardner – “The Adventure of the Damaged Tomb”
Kevin Thornton – “Tracks Across Canada” and “Tracked Across America”
Paul Hiscock – “The Light of Liberty”
Shelby Phoenix – “Sherlock Holmes and the Six-Fingered Hand Print”