One the enduring mysteries of the Sherlock Holmes canon is how Doctor Watson came to become injured. Anyone who reads the original tales is aware that he was an army Doctor, that he served in Afghanistan* and that he took bullets from a jezail to the leg and shoulder. The specifics of his service are not covered in any more detail than that, mainly because Watson’s narrative is focused on the current exploits of Holmes rather than his own past.
The concept behind this book was therefore intriguing to me as, in whatever medium Holmes is seen, I have always had a soft spot for good old Doctor Watson and always wondered about the story behind his wounds. This book delivers that tale as Watson, following a mysterious visit from an old army buddy, is called upon to relate it to Holmes in order to explain some discrepancies noted in previous telling. The bulk of the book covers Watson’s telling as he describes a treasure hunt in the wilds of Afghanistan against the backdrop of a war with the dissident tribes of that region.
The ‘war journal’ style may be the greatest weakness of this work. The information within is very well researched and many details of the war are presented – troop movements, names of regiments and commanders, results of battles and so on. All well and good if one is looking to write an essay on the military of the period but much of it is portrayed in a very bland style. Of course, this helps to maintain the periodicity (it certainly fits the style of contemporary war journals) and the fiction that this is Watson’s account of the events as he is likely to have told them to his friend, but when reading this there is a tendency to gloss over these largely irrelevant details in search of the next piece of the plot to find the treasure. There is also the fact that this is a story set in the Holmes universe in which Holmes does not make a significant appearance. He is there at the start, in order to persuade Watson to tell his tale, and he closes the book with some observations but that is all he contributes. The publishers, no doubt aware of this fact, are therefore careful to not label this as a ‘Sherlock Holmes adventure’ to avoid any confusion.
If you accept that this is a story without Holmes, then there is a rather good adventure story here. There is no great mystery to solve (and one suspects that had Holmes been there the location of the treasure would have been deduced in a matter of moments and therefore reduced the tale to a mere footnote…) but there is intrigue, tension and a travelogue of India and Afghanistan to enjoy. When starting this book, I had entertained the expectation that maybe there would be a situation established where Holmes and Watson were faced with a mystery in their present day which linked back to Watson’s military service and the telling of the tale would give Holmes a clue as to the current dilemma. This is not the case, Watson’s tale is all we get. Perhaps a missed opportunity or maybe McMullen was keen to focus on his central concept rather than digress.
In all, an interesting if risky premise – telling a Sherlock Holmes tale without Sherlock Holmes in it and potentially dabbling in the canon in a way which might annoy purists**. Enjoyable and interesting if you are curious about the background of one of the heroes but still leaves you wanting more of the eponymous detective.
*A neat little correspondence that Stephen Moffat uses in the modern remake, the fact that Watson has a modern war in Afghanistan to come home from…
** For example, Holmes quickly ascertains on examining the bullets that were taken from Watson’s wounds that they were not from a Jezail at all…