What haven’t they done to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson? Over the years, print authors and scriptwriters have tinkered with the pair by having them living in current times, have them use contemporary technology and investigative techniques, or change the gender mostly of Watson but sometimes Sherlock as well. Occasionally such creators have Sherlock turned into a criminal including becoming Jack the Ripper or even Professor James Moriarty.
The latter device is what Rob Nunn explores in The Criminal Mastermind of Baker Street where Holmes builds a criminal empire in London by being a “crime consoltant” where he advises criminals on how they can get away with their dirty deeds and avoid violence and capture, so long as they run their schemes through him first. As Holmes explains to Dr. Watson when they meet, Holmes wants crime to be “gentlemanly” and leave London streets safe from the unsavory aspects of bloody crime and street toughs as he becomes involved with counterfeiting, gambling, burglary, and occasionally extortion.
At least, that’s what Nunn tells us Holmes, with Watson’s willing assistance, is doing. For the first hundred pages or so, we rarely witness criminal activities as Nunn dramatizes very few of the stories, with notable short exceptions like a breezy description of Holmes pulling the strings of the lucrative Red-Headed League. Other than recaps of Conan Doyle’s own flashes of Holmes’s mental gymnastics, we see little of Holmes deductive reasoning but rather see his organizational flair and his pugilist skills in a boxing match with McMurdo, a character taken from Conan Doyle’s Valley of Fear. In fact, Nunn is very clever creating an alternate history of Holmes and Watson by revamping many of the original Holmes mysteries, developing some Doyle stories the creator gave scant mention in the original Holmes canon. In others its Nunn who gives the old yarns a hit-and-run treatment as he seems to want to touch every base in the Holmes biography including good use of the Baker Street Irregulars, Mycroft Holmes, and a unique take on Irene Adler.
The pace quickens considerably in the second hundred pages of the book where Holmes and Professor Moriarty engage in their on-again, off-again tug of war for supremacy in London’s criminal underworld. This occurs along with no shortage of digressive tales where Holmes is often far more detective than criminal overlord, as in Nunn’s short retelling of Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four. While Holmes is a comparatively moral criminal, he doesn’t have quite the moral compass of characters like Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar (The Saint.) Holmes’s hands aren’t clean, but he often does contribute to both private and public good, so much so that Mycroft overlooks much of what his younger brother is up to.
While Nunn hopes readers unfamiliar with previous Holmes stories will enjoy his take on the Victorian-set mythos, I rather suspect his primary audience will be established Sherlockians who might enjoy diving into his novel to compare their own perceptions of the realm created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with the new interpretation spun out by Rob Nunn. After all, Nunn prides himself on how he researched and reworked the canon to shape his fresh takes on the adventures. The fast pace is often a good thing as the reader is swept along from incident to incident, but it can also be a problem as many quick story bites aren’t developed enough to make them memorable. A clever book to be sure, something for Holmes and Watson fans to add to their shelves of Sherlockiana, to coin a term.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on Nov. 3, 2017 at: