I have just finished my fifth Sherlock Holmes novel. It's 'out there' now, titled 'Sherlock Holmes And The Nine-Dragon Sigil'. Like my other 'sherlocks' it took me a year, of which perhaps four months was doing the research. I think now I could lecture at my old university, UCLA, on the final years of the Ch'ing Dynasty and the terrifying but beguiling Empress Dowager Cixi, the like of whom this world may never see again.
In my previous novel (Sherlock Holmes And The Sword of Osman) I spent a lot of time researching the final years of the Ottoman Empire, with Holmes preventing the assassination of the Sultan at the request of England's famous foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey. In 'the Nine-Dragon Sigil' Sir Edward again asks Holmes to take on an assignment, this time in the fabled Forbidden City in the far-away 'Middle Kingdom'.
As I put on the novel's cover, ' It's the year 1906. Rumours abound that a deadly plot is hatching - not in the fog-ridden back-alleys of London's Limehouse district or the sinister Devon moors of the Hound of the Baskervilles but in faraway Peking. Holmes's task - discover whether such a plot exists and if so, foil it.
But are the assassins targeting the young and progressive Ch'ing Emperor or his imperious aunt, the fearsome Empress Dowager Cixi?
The murder of either could spark a civil war.
China's fate and the interests of Britain's Empire in the Orient could be at stake.
Holmes and Watson take up the mission with their customary confidence - until they find they are no longer in the familiar landscapes of Edwardian England. Instead, they tumble into the Alice In Wonderland world of The Forbidden City.
China at the end of the Ch'ing, as the 20th Century commenced, was a wonderland still hardly known to the outside world, and I found it enthralling to write about.