The book opens with a vivid description of the British Army disaster in 1879 at Isandhlwana in South Africa when Zulu warriors killed over 1,300 British soldiers. In the book the defeat was blamed on the sabotage of ammunition boxes and the ammunition itself.
A shadowy figure, Colonel Rawdon Moran is thought to be the mastermind of the betrayal.
The book then follows Dr. John Watson as he is deployed to the English Army in Afgahnistan where they are fighting to ensure the Russians do not take over the country. We read how Watson was badly wounded in another British Army catastrophe, the battle of Maiwand.
While interesting the telling of the stories means Watson does not actually meet Holmes until almost 100 pages into the mystery.
There is a sparkling picture of Holmes by Watson:
From the start, I knew that Holmes was a man who never admitted failure or defeat. I have sometimes been asked to describe his appearance and manner by those who had not known him. I have suggested that they should imagine the stance and manner of Sir Edward Carson, QC, that most vigorous and astute of cross-examiners, combined with the combative and self-assured manner of Lord Birkenhead, the former Mr. F.E. Smith. There was also a dash of the late Lord Curzon with his taste for what he called effortless superiority. But even all that does not do him sufficient credit for his nobler character. Holmes would put away ambition in order to work tirelessly and without reward on behalf of the poorest and humblest client. Indeed, it was “poor persons’ defences” which gave him the greatest satisfaction and which, he undertook, without reward, for pure love of justice.
We learn more about how Holmes and Watson came to share lodgings at 221B Baker Street.
Together they join in the investigation of a murder at Carlyle Mansions, a simple building of discount lodging, especially for members of the military.
Mycroft provides information on the sinister Moran.
Holmes is brilliant in assessing the murder scene. His powers of observation and deduction are well set out by Thomas.
Holmes and Watson are threatened. Watson provides a powerful description of fear and terror:
I had known fear on the battlefield, where I expected to find it. But then I had been in company with my comrades. Terror, I was to learn is faced alone. There is no comrade to turn to, no rhyme nor reason to what is happening.
I struggled with Moran as a great criminal in the mode of James Moriarity. It is not easy to remain plausible in a book in which the mastermind moves and acts freely while being pursued by British police and British secret agents. For a man intent on revenge and criminal profits Moran is remarkably public.
It has the feel of a plot from over 100 years ago when great criminals were often the foe for great detectives.
The title is misleading in that Holmes spends little of his time on Her Majesty’s Service. Far more is spent on criminal detection supplementing the efforts of Scotland Yard.
The short stories of Thomas involving Holmes are more engaging. With few exceptions, such as Laurie R. King’s series involving Holmes and Mary Russell, I think the short stories are a better format for Holmes and Watson.
I shall read more short stories by Thomas but do not expect to read again a Holmes novel by him. (Oct. 17/13)