When Sherlock Holmes returned to Baker Street after his Great Hiatus of nearly three years, he told Dr. Watson (who believed him to have died at the bottom of Reichenbach Falls), “I travelled two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa and spending some days with the head Lama.” Many writers of “previously untold” Sherlockian tales begin by dismissing that statement as a screen intended to hide the Great Detective’s adventures in a more conventionally murderous clime—the American Wild West, for example, or Transylvania. But what if Holmes spoke the literal truth to Watson? That’s the premise of this well-wrought, frolicsome pastiche, one whose sole but defining flaw is that it ends by departing from the naturalistic rules of the crime-story game.
The early chapters are suberb. Taking Watson’s place is Hurree Chundar Mookerjee, an Indian “babu” (a servant of the British Raj) who springs directly from the pages of Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. Mookerjee begins by chronicling Holmes’s masterly handling of a Bombay murder case that recalls, and yet improves upon, Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic “The Speckled Band.” Then he travels with Holmes by train to Tibet, whereupon the story shifts from exploits of detection to escapades of the boys’-adventure sort. The pair do battle with a gang of dacoits from a Kali cult, for example. It’s when the action shifts to Lhassa that the narrative goes goes off-course. Norbu, himself a Tibetan, contorts his plot in order to score points concerning both Sino-Tibetan politics and Tibetan mysticism. The original Holmes was both a throwback to the chivalric ideal and a paragon of modern rationalism. That he would use his powers to thwart Manchu imperialism is easy enough to accept. But a climactic scene in which he performs telekinesis pushes Norbu’s ill-advised bid for the sublime into the realm of the ridiculous.
[ADDENDUM: A nice touch on the cover of the U.S. paperback edition, pictured above, is the use of a painting by Mark Tansey, whose work I’ve long admired. The painting, titled “Derrida Queries de Man,” is also a pastiche. It emulates the form of a widely reproduced illustration of Holmes and Professor Moriarty in mid-struggle atop Reichenbach Falls. That drawing, done by Sidney Paget for the original publication of “The Final Problem” in The Strand Magazine, has attained iconic status over the years, and Tansey in his adaptation plays upon that image of a Titanic confrontation between two men of great intellect. There’s a comic poignancy to the notion that a clash between “the Great Detective” and “the Napoleon of Crime” would end with a wrestling match. Likewise, Tansey appears to see something revelatory but not quite serious in the disagreements that emerged between two self-important French literary theorists of the deconstructionist school. The painting renders the rocky cliffs that surround the Falls as mighty slabs of printed matter: The conflict between Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man is a “text of wills,” so to speak. Tansey’s pastiche, unlike Norbu’s, fully honors the spirit of its source material, even as it appropriates that material for purposes of its own.]