In a pair of intriguing novellas set in London in the 1890s, the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes and his protégé, Inspector Alec MacDonald of Scotland Yard, are severely tested by a string of random killings of ‘gentlemen of consequence,’ and a plot to bring down the monarchy and plunge the British Empire into chaos.
Having ‘acquitted himself very well’ in The Valley of Fear, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fourth and final Holmes novel, long-time Sherlock Holmes pasticheur Gary Lovisi advances young Inspector MacDonald, or Mr. Mac as The Great Detective is fond of calling him, to lead character in two fast-paced and highly enjoyable Victorian mysteries.
In the opening tale, The Affair of Lady Westcott’s Lost Ruby, ‘crack detective’ MacDonald, considered by Holmes to be one of Scotland Yard’s best prospects, is assigned a promising case concerning a minor member of the nobility and her missing prized possession.
MacDonald, a big, dour Scotsman with a thick Aberdeen accent, is not overly impressed with titles and has no qualms about speaking his mind to aristocrats. When he discovers that the ruby in question is not a precious gemstone but a ‘delightful and perfectly beloved’ little Yorkshire terrier, he is affronted, believing the somewhat dotty Lady Westcott is guilty of wasting police time and subjecting him to ridicule by his co-workers.
Unlike his callous, conceited colleague Inspector Lestrade, MacDonald is a decent, empathetic man. Saddened by her utter despair at losing her ‘sole companion in this cold lonely world,’ and guilty at his insensitive remarks, he agrees to look into the matter.
The case takes an unexpected twist when Lady Westcott vanishes without a trace. The hole in the property fence is indication of an intruder, and the wealth of diamonds, rubies, sapphires, gold, and extravagant jewellery still ‘lying about neglected in various drawers in her armoire’ – what MacDonald terms ‘the swag’– suggests this trespasser was no common thief.
Unable to locate the lady himself or fathom why anyone should want to abduct her, MacDonald is not too proud to seek the help of his mentor. And Holmes, desperately craving a challenge, knows that when MacDonald comes to him with a case, it is often with something ‘unique and outré.’ Happily, this case does indeed prove to be the ‘real corker’ MacDonald promises.
In the second adventure, The Case of the Unseen Assassin, MacDonald is forced to play deputy to Lestrade, who is investigating a spate of shootings of wealthy men in bustling, upmarket districts of London.
Holmes is ‘visibly upset’ at Lestrade’s mishandling of two cases – the first involving a ‘posh’ young bank teller with a rich bride-to-be and a promising future who was shot dead in London’s Strand while giving money to a beggar, and the second concerning the killing of ‘a newly minted’ Liberal MP in the heart of busy Piccadilly Circus. Holmes is convinced the ‘incompetent’ Lestrade has made a grievous error in arresting the beggar for the murder of the bank teller and accusing a rival politician of killing the MP.
MacDonald is equally sceptical of Lestrade’s logic. No gun was found on the beggar and, while the man accused of murdering the MP has no firm alibi and owns a recently discharged rifle that matches the bullet found in the victim, there is no conclusive evidence he pulled the trigger.
A further shooting in The Strand leads the Press to compare the killings to the Ripper murders and dub the killer the ‘Unseen Assassin.’
MacDonald doesn’t have the authority to pursue the cases, and Lestrade has no desire to employ the services of Holmes. Nonetheless, Holmes, sensing a connection between the murders, mounts his own investigation. Visiting newspaper offices and delving into their ‘morgues’ of back issues, he sees a pattern emerge, the connection stretching beyond London and all the way to the Continent.
Both entertaining and thrilling, The Affair of Lady Westcott’s Lost Ruby and The Case of the Unseen Assassin prove to be stimulating, remarkable mysteries, and refreshingly different to many other Holmes pastiches. Let’s hope Mr. Mac will return.
(Stark House Press, paperback, £9.95)