What a magical mystery tour of a novel. A lot of the time I found myself as bemused as poor Dr Watson as what exactly was going on and who all these mad characters were, between maharajahs, femmes fatales, midget monocle manufacturers, doppelgangers, an aesthete who makes soup brewed from a mammoth’s femur… the list goes on and on.
Oh, and a couple of real people have walk-on parts, including Frederick William Burton, Irish-born artist and director of the National Gallery (dubbed William Frederick in the book – a mistake or part of the overall hall of mirrors effect?). Irish people will know him as the painter of the ineffable ‘Meeting on the Turret Stairs’, held in the National Gallery of Ireland and in 2012 voted Ireland’s favourite painting [see below]. Even Queen Victoria turns up in the book and is revealed as a good chum of our detective.
A maddened elephant rampages through the first chapter, setting the scene for all sorts of shenanigans. Actually, to use a Hitchcockian term, this particular elephant is something of a MacGuffin, an irrelevance, as opposed to the ruby elephants, the badge of a secret society, with dark secrets of their own that unfold with the plot.
Sherlock, a little too superciliously knowing here for my taste – although I suspect the author has his tongue firmly in his cheek when the detective explains his ‘elementary’ deductions – races through the book with a befuddled Watson trying to keep up behind him. If this were a film, the special effects would be spectacular, between villains in a hot air balloon or a perilous ascent to find a corpse on the top of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. And envisage, if you please, a high speed chase on Penny Farthings, our heroes trying to keep their balance, hotly pursued by four evil Archangels, men in black suits and shades bearing the names of their heavenly alter egos Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel? These gentlemen keep popping up but don’t ask me exactly what they are about or who they are working for.
I enjoyed it, I think I did. It was particularly pleasing that Mrs Hudson features as a strong and positive character.
My advice to would-be readers: don’t try and analyse it too closely or take it too seriously. Just go along for the ride.
Standing in his way are some deadly foes: the Archangels: assassins in top hats and tailcoats, hell bent on the murder of the great detective and the acquisition of the treasures of the realm.
The adventure leads the intrepid pair to Lord’s Cricket Ground, the Royal Albert Hall, a bizarre series of thefts at the National Gallery, deepest rural Suffolk and ultimately the very heart of the Empire. With high speed chases on Penny Farthings and a cast of eccentric characters, it takes all of Holmes’ ingenuity - and a little help from Mycroft - to unravel this elephantine mystery.