When did I first hear the word ‘prequel? It was the answer to a direct question to a team in a quiz I had participated in, I think, in 1980. They had no clue. Nor did I. My partner Jacob, a never-say-die type and a great one for making ‘intelligent guesses’, answered it right, working back from the word ‘sequel’.
It was in 1986 that I bought my first prequel – Alan Arnold’s Young Sherlock Holmes. It is based on Chris Columbus’ (not the explorer of the 15th century!) screenplay of a film of the same name produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Barry Levinson. Arnold holds Holmes as an ideal, stating in the epilogue that Holmes is as much the chivalric medieval knight as a Victorian and Edwardian gentleman.
Sherlock Holmes is one of the best known fictional detectives in the world. So famous that he, rather the house at 221b on Baker Street in London where he is supposed to have lived, continues to get mail a century after he would have died, had he been a real person. There are fans who delight in retelling the tales; the story in this book fills in the gaps of Holmes' childhood, education, interests, traits and bachelorhood.
The story attempts to foreshadow the life of Conan Doyle’s adult Holmes. The author does take considerable liberties with the legend, but largely succeeds in his bid in ‘implanting’ the Holmesian props – his pipe and deerstalker hat are shown as trophies collected during the adventure in this story – and hints of his interest in violin and chemistry as well as traits like the prodigious powers of observation and deduction. Likewise, Watson too is imbued with the characters and interests that the latter-day Watson had. The other major characters in the ‘Adult Sherlock Holmes’, like Inspector Lestrade and Prof Moriarty too make their appearance in the story.
The story begins with the first meeting of the teenaged Holmes and his latter-day sidekick Watson at boarding school. Young Watson joins Brompton School. At the very first meeting, the reticent Watson is impressed by the intellectual Holmes’ deductive reasoning. Holmes speculates as to Watson's origins, his diet, his father's profession, etc. Holmes guesses Watson's first name to be James, but when Watson says he is off the mark, Holmes says John, the correct name, was his second option.
Watson befriends Holmes and Elizabeth who is Holmes’ girlfriend of and niece of retired schoolmaster Rupert T Waxflatter. The eccentric Waxflatter who lives on school grounds and performs flight-tests on a recumbent bicycle-like aircraft he has designed is Holmes’ mentor. Watson also meets Dudley, Holmes’ snooty nemesis, and Rathe, the enigmatic fencing teacher, who regards Holmes as a favourite.
Meanwhile, two local prominent citizens, Mr. Bobster and Rev. Nesbitt kill themselves after suffering hallucinations induced by poisoned darts, shot from a blowpipe by a hooded and cloaked apparition. This is a mystery very much in the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The clues are there – one merely needs to follow them to a logical conclusion. Some purists may balk, but this is an intriguing addition to the body of post-Conan Doyle literature, a worthy pastiche. Young Lestrade, as a junior policeman in this story, dismisses the possibility of foul play.
Holmes is expelled from school when Dudley frames him for cheating in an examination. Waxflatter stabs himself after being shot with a dart. Holmes discovers that the Rametep, an Egyptian death cult, may be responsible. Together with Watson and Elizabeth, he tracks the cult to a London warehouse, where all three suffer hallucinations while escaping the cultist horde. Lestrade is convinced to investigate.
Holmes realises that the dead men were members of a group, one of whom survives – Cragwitch. Arnold's research into the Egyptian lore, as well as details about London and Holmesian detail is impressive. The boys visit Cragwitch, who reveals that the cult is revenging itself upon the men for their youthful desecration of an Egyptian tomb. Holmes belatedly identifies the cult leader as Rathe, and the hooded assassin as a woman named Mrs Dribb.
Rathe and Dribb carry Elizabeth off to the warehouse-temple for sacrifice. Holmes and Watson give chase in Waxflatter’s machine. Elizabeth is rescued, and Dribb dispatched by fire, in a swashbuckling climax. Elizabeth receives her death wound, interposing herself between Holmes and Rathe’s bullet. (Elizabeth's death, and Holmes' promise to wait until the day they are re-united, does provide an explanation for Holmes' bachelor life.) Holmes and Rathe duel with swords until the latter falls through the ice on a frozen Thames. The bereaved Holmes leaves the school, and Watson, the two promising to meet again.
Of the things that impressed me in the book is the subtle references and allusions or build-up to the other works featuring adult Holmes. In the opening chapter, he has started learning to play the violin and is quite frustrated that he has not mastered the instrument even after three days of practice and wants to smash the violin because it drives him insane! His pipe is originally bought by Watson to allow them to question an antique shop dealer; in the conclusion, Watson presents it to Holmes as a parting gift. The Inverness cape of Holmes originally belonged to Rathe, and is also his first trophy. His deerstalker cap belonged to his mentor Waxflatter, who later dies. His niece, Elizabeth, gifts it to Holmes who refuses to don it at first but due to Elizabeth's and Watson's persistence he puts it on, and by the end of the adventure, Holmes has started wearing it regularly, to remember Elizabeth. He also picks up his trademark phrase ‘Elementary, Watson. Elementary’ from Waxflatter. Holmes uses a magnifying lens to catch the slightest details of anything he investigates. He also makes a mention of his elder brother, Mycroft.
I am amazed at Arnold’s dexterity. Not for nothing that he is read even today.