Originally published in 1998
In Sherlock Holmes and The Chinese Junk Affair, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are called upon once again to save Queen and Country.
Upon receiving a card from Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, the duo are debriefed by the Prime Minister on an astounding fact: a man named Rodger Hardy claims to be able to transport matter from one place to another through electricity, in what he calls transposition.
As the threat of Hardy selling his discovery to other countries weighs on the Prime Minister, he enlists Holmes to find out whether such a feat is possible, and whether or not Britain has anything to worry about.
Can Sherlock solve what seems to be an unsolvable mystery in time, and help Britain?
This book also contains Sherlock Holmes and the Tick Tock Man and Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room.
I had not expected to be writing about any of the many, many Holmes pastiches until I had completed rereading the original canon but a recent review of this title by Tomcat on Beneath the Stains of Time caught my eye. In that review Tomcat praised some of the ideas in the stories but suggests that the Holmesian elements hold those stories back.
As you will see in the thoughts that follow I have a lot of sympathy with that view. Indeed I think it is telling that the story I enjoyed most, Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room, is the one that reads least like Doyle in terms of the narration yet because of its question of motive and resolution it manages to feel closest in spirit. Each of the other two stories would have benefitted from being shorter and more tightly focused on finding the solution to their central problems.
Thoughts on the three stories contained follow:
Sherlock Holmes and the Chinese Junk Affair
A British government minister visits a friend from university who shows him that he is having a full-sized ocean-going wooden junk constructed in his home’s underground ballroom. The ship is much larger than any of the exits making it impossible to move the vessel once it is finished so the minister is puzzled why he is undertaking this strange project. He agrees to come back regularly to check on the progress.
On the day that the junk is completed, the minister visits to check its progress, dines with his friend and then they return to the ballroom only to find it has vanished. A short while later it is seen nearby on the river. The friend tells him that he has a method for transmitting matter that could revolutionize warfare. He is willing to sell it to Britain for a fee though he will keep the method secret until war comes, fearing that the technology could devastate a peacetime economy.
The minister is sent by the British government to consult with Sherlock Holmes to seek his opinion on whether the technology is real or if it represents some sort of trick.
One way that any pastiche will differ from the original works is that almost all are presented as historical pieces. While there are certainly some that incorporate elements of the supernatural or crossover with other literary universes, many works attempt to fit into our understanding of our own history. That means that when someone claims to have made a device that can transport a sailing vessel miles in a matter of seconds, we can dismiss the possibility that it really works. In other words, we can approach this story with certainty that the friend is performing some sort of confidence trick. The question is how the trick is worked.
The most impressive part of the story is the clarity of its central idea and of the circumstances in which the trick is worked. The image of the junk in the ballroom is a really striking one. Similarly, the passages in which the minister explains the situation are really very effective and do a good job of reassuring the reader that we are not looking at a secret door, false floor or removable ceiling.
Holmes’ explanation is clever and credible and the sequence in which he demonstrates how the trick was worked has a similar visual appeal. I was also struck by how satisfying the ending is in terms of its resolution. In other words, the basic structure of the plot is really quite solid.
So, why am I not in love with it? I think the problems begin with the lengthy investigation, most of which takes place in Watson’s absence. While that is practical in terms of streamlining the account, it leads to the investigation feeling strikingly sedentary. Holmes, it seems, does not really work out how it was done so much as figure out who he should ask to explain it. This is rather disappointing as it seems to diminish rather than reinforce his genius as a detective.
I was also rather disappointed in the presentation of its Chinese characters given at a few points in the story where Watson describes them as sounding like young children and moving like monkeys. While I recognize that these are intended to pastiche the attitudes found in Doyle’s own work, they are completely unnecessary to the story and so feel more like incidental affectation than an attempt to provide serious commentary or criticism of those attitudes.
Still, the case is the most intriguing of the three and a pretty solid example of an impossibility.
Sherlock Holmes and the Tick Tock Man
In which Holmes and Watson take a walking holiday, attend a church service and hear the story of the village’s German watchmaker who was found dead with a head wound. The old man supposedly was going to leave a small fortune to establish almshouses but when his home was searched no money could be found leading some to suspect that the watchmaker was robbed. That the watchmaker’s pet raven had escaped the home and would not return, repeatedly screaming a German word seems to confirm that idea for many of the village’s inhabitants.
This story is decidedly in the adventure mode, offering surprisingly little for Holmes to actually do. There is really just one clue that stands out and that can really only be interpreted in one way. We are left to follow Holmes as he connects those dots but given how elementary those connections are, I don’t think readers will feel particularly impressed.
Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room
The final story is also its shortest. Holmes receives a visit from a Viscount who recently returned from India with trophies including a collection of Japanese armor. He decides to house his collection in a building on his estate but is dismayed to find that a piece is stolen. This prompts him to establish an elaborate series of defences around the building including trip-wire activated shotguns, man traps and a flock of geese. Having once owned geese myself I can confirm that they are pretty loud and aggressive, making for excellent watchdogs. In spite of these precautions two further pieces are stolen raising the question of how this was done.
As setups go this is really rather interesting, particularly when the reader considers that the value of the armor is a fraction of that of pieces found within the main home itself. So far, so good.
Unlike the other two cases, here we get a small selection of suspects to consider. Holmes sets out to figure out how the trick was worked and why – two questions that are really equally important.
Unfortunately they are not equally interesting. The solution to why the crime was done is really rather good, being both clued pretty effectively and resolved in a way that feels authentic to many of the resolutions in other Holmes stories. The question of how it was managed however is rather underwhelming though it is explained quite logically.
Earlier I described the first case as the most intriguing of the three and I would obviously stand by that assessment but I will say that in spite of that I probably found this the most enjoyable of the three as a story. Its brevity is a big plus with little space feeling wasted and while its solution is a little too simple, I appreciated the question of the thief’s motives.
The Verdict: A mediocre collection of stories featuring Holmes but little of his genius. The idea behind The Chinese Junk Affair, the most original of the three plots, is clever but it unfolds much too slowly.