“What if . . . ?”
That’s essentially how I begin plotting my detective novels, and that’s the game Rob Nunn plays in his new book The Criminal Mastermind of Baker Street. He makes his starting point clear in the introduction:
“What if one of the cleverest men in London had turned his brains to crime instead of detection?”
The answer to that question is a chronological retelling of the Canon, from Holmes meeting Watson in the late Victorian era to their encounter with the German agent Von Bork at the dawn of the Great War. Instead of being the world’s first consulting detective, Holmes is a consulting criminal who helps the police when it serves his own ends.
This does not proport to be a lost manuscript from Watson telling the “true” story behind familiar tales. Rather, it is a sort of alternative universe or mirror image view of our old friends, which I find much more satisfying.
The Holmes of this book turned to crime when he solved the riddle of the Musgrave ritual and his employer reaped the fruit of his labors – i.e., the treasure. He is the mastermind behind many of the crimes in the Canon, including the gold robbery in “The Red-Headed League.” And Irene Adler was his client, not her royal ex-paramour, among many other differences.
Moriarty is, of course, a rival that Holmes has to eliminate. But Colonel Sebastian Moran escapes from prison and plays the role assigned him in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stage play “The Crown Diamond” (later reworked without Moran as “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone.”)
All of the Canonical cases are mentioned in this volume, as are many of Dr. Watson’s untold tales. Some of these adventures are related in detail with quotes from the Canon subtly altered to fit the conceit of the book. Victor Lynch the forger, for example, is an employee in Holmes’s criminal empire, and Charles Augustus Milverton is blackmailing Watson.
Rob Nunn’s knowledge of the Canon is equal to his affection for it. The book is peppered with inside jokes. Thus, the Watson of this book doesn’t write about Holmes until he retires. Then he changes his friend’s name to Sheridan Hope and adopts the pseudonym of Ormond Sacker!
There is no point in being a Sherlockian if you can’t have fun with it. This book is fun.