Enjoy this exclusive excerpt from Sherlock Holmes: The Spirit Box by George Mann, a historical thriller featuring the Great Detective, teamed again with Dr. Watson, as his talents are summoned to England's defense amid the turmoil of World War I (available August 19, 2014).
Summer, 1915. As zeppelins rain death upon the rooftops of London, eminent members of society begin to behave erratically: a Member of Parliament throws himself naked into the Thames after giving a pro-German speech to the House; a senior military advisor suggests surrender before feeding himself to a tiger at London Zoo; a famed suffragette suddenly renounces the women's liberation movement and throws herself under a train.
In desperation, an aged Mycroft Holmes sends to Sussex for the help of his brother, Sherlock.
“So, are you going to tell me why you’re here?”
I was once again ensconced in the back of the automobile, bouncing along the King’s Road and feeling decidedly green around the gills. Beside me, Holmes appeared to be faring little better.
“I received a telephone call from my brother yesterday morning, just after breakfast,” he said, resting his head against the seat back and closing his eyes. I wondered if he were trying to imagine he were somewhere else, instead of flying along the road at an unconscionable speed inside a metal box. I certainly was. “He outlined for me his desperate concern regarding the situation in London, the effect the Kaiser’s bombing raids are having upon the morale of the people, even their support for the war.”
“Well, he’s not wrong,” said I. “I’ve felt it myself. The thought of Londoners dying in those dreadful blasts, the burr of the zeppelins drifting overhead – it sometimes feels as if the end times are upon us.”
“You always have had a penchant for melodrama, Watson,” said Holmes, with a chuckle.
“Melodrama!” I returned, with some consternation. “Holmes, the country’s at war! The enemy fly uncontested above the streets of the capital, dropping incendiary weapons upon the rooftops of our people. I hardly think it is melodrama of which I speak.”
Holmes remained silent, allowing my brief flare of anger to burn itself out. I knew he wasn’t chastised by my outburst, but in turn he knew me well enough to at least pretend that he was.
“I see the war has affected you deeply, Watson,” he said, after a minute or two.
“I rather suppose it has,” I agreed, my moustache bristling with something akin to embarrassment. I decided to steer the conversation back to the subject at hand. “Surely, though, that’s not the reason for Mycroft’s call? I mean, as celebrated a figure as you are, he cannot expect you to single-handedly boost the morale of the nation.”
“Quite,” said Holmes, with the hint of a smile. “No, I rather think there are those more suited to such pursuits. Mycroft’s request was far more specific, and better tailored to my particular field of expertise.”
I nearly suggested ‘obtuseness’, but the irony would have been lost on Holmes. “Go on,” I prompted.
“It seems, Watson, that the present atmosphere in London has given rise to a proliferation of suicides. There are three particular cases of which Mycroft has requested I apprise myself: a British Army officer, Captain John Cummins, who strenuously urged surrender before feeding himself to a tiger at London Zoo; a famed suffragette, Mary Temple, who wrote to The Times to renounce the Women’s Liberation movement the day before throwing herself beneath an Underground train; and Herbert Grange, a Member of Parliament who worked at the War Office and is said to have given a pro-German speech to the House before hurling himself into the Thames.”
“Yes, I’m aware of all three incidents,” I said. “There’s been extensive discussion of them in the press. Does Mycroft believe there to be a connection between these unfortunate deaths?”
“That remains to be seen, Watson, although brother Mycroft rarely deals in absolutes. I suspect there is more to this matter than at first appears,” replied Holmes, as cryptic as ever. “What is abundantly clear to me is that three apparent suicides of high-profile individuals are not going to assist Mycroft’s efforts to raise the public spirit.”
“And so you agreed to come out of retirement to take the case?” I said. “To assist the nation in its hour of need?”
“Indeed. I explained to Mycroft that I would do so on the strict understanding that my old friend, Dr. John Watson, was to meet me from my train and accompany me for the duration of my investigation.”
I admit I felt a sudden flush of pride that Holmes should issue such a stipulation on my behalf. “But how did you know that I didn’t have a previous engagement?” I asked.
“My dear Watson,” said Holmes, with an appraising look. “Has Mrs. Watson not been in the country for some months, ever since the zeppelin raids began in earnest? Has your old regiment not patronised you with talk of advisory positions? Have your efforts to throw yourself into your literary pursuits not ended in dissatisfaction?”
“Why… yes,” I replied, deciding not to encourage a lengthy explanation of how he had reached his assertions. It was clear that Holmes had lost none of his acute observational abilities. “You are correct on all counts.”
“Then, Watson, are you not ready for an adventure?”
“More than you could ever imagine, Holmes,” I said, with feeling.
“Excellent, Watson!” he proclaimed, animated now. “And how fitting that it should begin at one of our most familiar haunts, a place to which we have both become greatly accustomed over the many years of our acquaintance.”
“Baker Street?” I ventured, my heart warming at the very thought of the place.
“Indeed not, Watson!” he replied, with obvious relish. “We are headed to the morgue.”
I sank back into my seat, my enthusiasm suddenly dampened. “I can hardly wait,” I said.
It felt peculiar to return to a place that had once been so familiar, such a part of my life both professional and personal, and yet which, at the end of my career as chronicler of Holmes’s investigations, I had been overjoyed to leave behind me. It smelled the same: the tang of spilled blood, the musk of decay, the chemical stench of carbolic and bleach.
As a medical man and a retired soldier I was far from squeamish around the dead – I had carried out more than my share of dissections over the years, just as I had witnessed the mutilated remains of combatants on the battlefield. Yet something about the proximity of so much death left me feeling plaintive, morose. Perhaps it was that I most often had recourse to visit the place in order to play my part in the investigation of a murder, which in and of itself is a depressive business. It had never failed to astound me the ingenious and elaborate methods that people would develop in order to harm one another.
Whatever the case, I could not claim to be cheerful to be back, although I admit to a certain frisson, a sense of feeling revivified at the thought that Holmes and I were once again engaged on a case. This, to my mind, was simply the first hurdle to be crossed.
A man was waiting for us in reception, wrapped in a vast, woollen overcoat, despite the weather. He was tall, broad around the shoulders and even broader about the waist. He wore a big, bushy beard, which had long ago gone to grey, and was standing with his arms folded across his chest, his expression brooding. He looked up when we entered, and his countenance brightened considerably.
“Mr. Holmes. You’re most welcome. Most welcome indeed,” he said, approaching Holmes with a hesitation akin to reverence. “My name is Inspector Gideon Foulkes.” He extended his hand and Holmes took it, shaking it briskly. “I’m sure you won’t recall, but we’ve met before, almost twenty-five years ago, during that business with the ‘iron men’. I was, of course, a mere constable in those days.”
Holmes smiled graciously. He was clearly not surprised that the Inspector remembered him. I suppose for many of the Scotland Yard men now in positions of seniority, Holmes was something of a mythical figure, a shadowy outsider who men like Lestrade and Bainbridge had brought in for assistance when their own faculties had failed them.
Some of them, like Foulkes himself, had even been serving constables during the height of Holmes relationship with the force. I recalled the case he mentioned; an investigation into the mysterious ‘iron men’ who had carried out a plague of jewellery thefts in the autumn of 1889, although I fear I had no recollection of meeting him. It pained me to consider those events had occurred over twenty-five years earlier, when we were all much younger men.
“Thank you, Inspector,” said Holmes. “You know why we’re here, of course?”
“Quite so, Mr. Holmes. I’ve been fully briefed,” replied Foulkes. “I’ve made all of the necessary arrangements.”
“Excellent,” said Holmes. “Then if you would be so kind to lead on…?”
Foulkes paused, as if a little put out by Holmes’s lack of niceties or conversation, but then nodded thoughtfully, as if remembering that he should have expected no less. “Of course,” he said.
He glanced in my direction and I smiled warmly. His reciprocating smile told me that he appreciated the gesture. “If you’d care to follow me?” he said, beckoning toward a side passage that would lead us from the reception lobby and into the morgue proper.
We trailed after him in silence.
Foulkes led us deep into the warren of white tiled corridors and chambers. Everything was lit with the harsh brilliance of naked electric bulbs, causing the tiles to gleam like the porcelain scales of some vast, dormant beast.
The passages were abuzz with activity, and we were forced to stand aside whilst two porters shuffled past us bearing a litter. The corpse on the stretcher was blackened and burned, barely more than the skeletal remains of a man, but I found myself unable to avert my gaze, fascinated by the dead man’s ghastly visage, the blank stare of his empty eye sockets.
The porters scurried away down the passage with barely a word or a nod of acknowledgement. I could hardly blame them for such minor infractions, however – if ever there was a soul-destroying job, it must be this. As a doctor I had long ago vowed to heal people, to find ways to help them continue to live. Consequently, in a place such as this, I always had the sense of arriving too late. By the time a person’s corpse had found its way to the morgue, the only job left was to clean up after them.
We resumed our trek through the maze of rooms. After a short while I noticed that the tiled walls had given way to a series of canvas screens, and realised that the place where Foulkes had brought us was, in fact, a much larger chamber that had been segregated to create a series of smaller partitions. There must have been ten or more separate booths, each of them occupied by people both living and dead. The familiar sounds of autopsy and medical examination mingled with the muffled voices of the surgeons muttering to one another.
Foulkes navigated his way around these small pockets of industry and we followed on behind him, until, finally, we came to a side room toward the far end of the chamber, in a quiet corner away from the bustle. Here, the corpses of the three suicides had been laid out for us on adjacent marble slabs.
I had never felt the charnel house atmosphere of the place more acutely than I did upon sight of those three unfortunates. Their remains were displayed like carcasses in the back room of a butcher’s shop: naked, uncovered, their dignity unpreserved.
Holmes immediately shrugged off his coat and, without even a courteous glance over his shoulder, held it out behind him, clearly intending for me to take it. With a sigh I did what was required, accepting it and folding it over my arm.
Unbuttoning his cuffs and pushing his sleeves up to his elbows, Holmes quietly set about the task of examining the bodies.
They were each of them in rather sorry condition. Foulkes, clearly gritting his teeth, walked us through them in turn. “Captain John Cummins,” he said, indicating the remains of the man on the slab nearest to the wall.
“The man who threw himself into the tiger enclosure at London Zoo,” I said. That much was evident from the condition of the corpse. Even a cursory glance made it clear that the animals had done for him: his throat had been ripped out by the powerful jaws of a beast, leaving unsightly ribbons of torn, glistening flesh. Hunks had been removed from his upper left arm and his right thigh, and perhaps most disturbing of all, his ribcage was exposed on the left side, where the tigers had worried at the flesh, trying to get at the organs. The body was already beginning to show signs of decay.
“Quite so, Dr. Watson,” confirmed Foulkes. “The zoo attendants got to him as soon as possible, but clearly, he was beyond help.”
“Hmmm,” murmured Holmes, noncommittally.
Foulkes eyed Holmes with what appeared to be a measure of nervousness, as if worried that he might have said something wrong. Nevertheless, he forged ahead. “This is the second victim,” he said, stepping back and indicating the female remains. “Miss Mary Temple, a former suffragette and proponent of the Women’s Liberation movement. She threw herself in front of an Underground train during the early morning rush.”
“Good Lord,” I said, beneath my breath. She might have been a pretty young woman once, but it was now almost impossible to tell. The impact of the engine had shattered almost all of her bones and bruised her flesh beyond recognition. Her body looked as if it had been crushed by an immense weight. Additionally, the train’s wheels had severed her right leg near the hip, leaving a ragged, sickening wound. The limb had evidently been recovered and – now blackened with soot and dried blood – lay on the slab close to where it should have been, as if willing itself to be reattached. The woman’s eyes were closed, but this was no peaceful slumber.
“Finally,” went on Foulkes, moving to stand beside Holmes, who appeared to be paying little, if any, attention to what Foulkes was saying, “is Mr. Herbert Grange, MP. Grange worked at the War Office, interviewing German expatriates. As I’m sure you’re aware from the many lurid newspaper reports, he took it upon himself to take a swim in the Thames earlier this week.”
Grange’s body was that of a man in his late thirties, but was now grossly bloated and discoloured from the time it had spent in the water. The hair was lank; the lips, having taken on a bluish tint, were curled back in a horrible parody of a smile, and the flesh was pale and blubbery.
Holmes paced between them, stooping to examine each in turn, paying close attention to the hands, the lips, and the eyes. He seemed unconcerned by any of the obvious wounds. At one point he looked up and caught my eye, perhaps in an attempt to draw me in and seek my opinion on the bodies, but I was giving little away, and he swiftly returned to his examination.
His eyes were as sharp and observant as ever, as he circled the bodies, drinking in every detail, every clue. To Holmes a corpse was an open book waiting to be read, as telling as a written confession, and perhaps more reliable at that. From an examination of the body Holmes would be able to discern the person’s final movements, their emotive state, their financial situation – even the nature of their last meal, all without need of an autopsy. At least, I hoped he wasn’t about to press me to roll up my sleeves and set about a detailed medical examination. It had, after all, been many years since I’d had cause to apply myself to such gruesome work.
“No,” he announced, dismissing the dead captain with a wave of his hand. He turned his back on the slab. “And no again,” he said, regarding the remains of Miss Temple. He crossed to the final body, that of Mr. Herbert Grange, MP. “This one, however. This one is of interest.” He leaned closer, so that his nose was almost touching the dead man’s face.
“No?” echoed Inspector Foulkes. “In what sense do you mean ‘no’, Mr. Holmes?” He looked decidedly confused, and I felt a certain measure of empathy for the man.
“I mean, Inspector Foulkes, precisely what I say,” replied Holmes. “Those bodies are of no interest to me. It is plainly evident that there is no connection between these deaths. The manner and cause by which they met their respective ends is abundantly clear, if one simply cares to look closely enough at the facts.”
I winced at Holmes’s cutting tone. “Perhaps, Holmes, you could share with us your observations?” I said.
“Must I explain my reasoning?” said Holmes, with a heavy sigh. “It’s devilishly tiresome.”
“I fear, Mr. Holmes, that if I am expected to dismiss these deaths as you imply that I should, I must have your reasoning,” said Foulkes. “If nothing else, there are the families to think of.”
“Very well, very well,” said Holmes. He gestured to the mangled corpse of Captain Cummins. “Consider the late captain. Had he not recently returned from the front?”
“Well… yes,” confirmed Foulkes.
“Where he undoubtedly witnessed scenes of the most appalling nature. Is it not enough to make one question his commitment to the cause? To make him consider surrender, if it is perhaps the swiftest path to the cessation of hostilities?” The questions were, of course, rhetorical. We stood in silence for a moment, waiting for Holmes to continue.
He moved deftly between the slabs until he was once again standing over the body in question. “Now consider the evidence. There are exceedingly dark rings around the eyes, a tell-tale sign of insomnia. This man was troubled. He had not slept properly in weeks.” He lifted the dead man’s right arm, indicating the hand. “See here: the cuticles on both hands have been picked away until they were raw and bleeding – suggestive of a decidedly nervous disposition. And then, of course, there is the simple fact that any man in his right mind would not hurl himself into the tiger enclosure at London Zoo.” The timbre of Holmes’s voice had grown during the course of his explanation. “No, sir. I put it to you that this is, indeed, a clear case of suicide, brought about by a malaise of the mind, inspired by Captain Cummins’ recent exposure to the horrors of the war.”
“Shell shock?” I ventured.
“Precisely, Watson,” confirmed Holmes. “And thus of little interest. I see no conspiracy in this man’s death, other than that which one man conspires to do to another upon the field of battle, and the anguish which necessarily ensues.”
Foulkes nodded, slowly and deliberately, considering Holmes’s words. “And the woman?” he asked.
“Quite the opposite,” said Holmes, “but no more interesting because of it.” He moved across to where her body lay on the adjacent slab. “The corpse is clearly in unenviable condition, but it is plain enough to see that Miss Temple had enjoyed a far more ordered and serene existence in her final days. She had taken a position in a munitions factory, preparing shell cases for the men at the front; she lived an admirably structured life; she had recently discharged her political concerns and aired them to the nation in her letter to The Times. She was a woman with a bright future ahead of her.”
“But her letter to The Times, the one of which you speak – it essentially amounts to a suicide note, does it not, a statement to support her cause? She renounced the Women’s Liberation movement and then threw herself beneath the wheels of an Underground train.” said Foulkes.
“Indeed not, Inspector,” said Holmes, a little harshly. “If the woman had intended the missive to be, as you suggest, a suicide note, would she not have thrown herself beneath the train the very day it was published? The delay of a day suggests quite clearly that she was not, as you imply, attempting to draw attention to her cause by underlining her letter through her actions. By the time her death was reported, the edition of the aforementioned newspaper containing her heartfelt message was already serving as a wrapper to a thousand fish suppers.”
“Then you suspect murder?” said I.
“I do not,” said Holmes. “Tell me, Inspector – which train was Miss Temple awaiting when she took her unfortunate tumble from the platform?”
“The 8.22 from Tottenham Court Road,” replied Foulkes.
“Ah,” said Holmes. “As I expected. A busy train, Inspector?”
“One of the busiest,” replied Foulkes. “Hundreds of people all anxious to begin their working day.”
Holmes nodded. “Then it is clear. Miss Temple’s death is naught but a tragic accident. Her letter, as you suggest, was not a suicide note, but an attempt to begin anew. In this, Miss Temple was simply following the example of Miss Pankhurst in setting aside all thoughts of violent protest. The very fact that she had taken up a position on the production line of a munitions factory proved her point – for Miss Temple, the battle was won. The war has achieved precisely what the Suffragettes have been striving for: raising the acceptance of womenfolk as equal players in our community.”
Holmes stopped for a moment, peering across at us, each in turn. “There is no evidence of suicide in this matter, Inspector Foulkes,” he said. “Only an unfortunate accident; a young woman, anxious to do her bit for the war effort and attempting to cross town to work, was jostled on a busy platform, lost her footing, and fell into the path of the 8.22.”
“But surely…” began Foulkes, before trailing off. He gaped at Holmes, utterly flabbergasted. He opened his mouth as if to speak again, and then appeared to think better of it.
I, of course, had grown used to Holmes’s more theatrical outbursts, and despite our time apart, did not find myself in the least bit surprised by his swift and precise deductions. Nor was I doubtful of their verisimilitude. I knew they could be supported by a score of further deductions that he had not seen fit to mention. “What sets this third death apart, then, Holmes? Why is Herbert Grange so different?”
I could see the appreciation in Holmes’s eyes, the twist of his lips. He’d been anticipating this question. “Isn’t it obvious, Watson?” he said, animated. “Isn’t it clear? Recall, if you will, what I said of brother Mycroft in the motorcar. He is the instigator of this little adventure, and he rarely acts without cause. I do not doubt for a moment that Mycroft is aware of the true nature of these unfortunate deaths and that – given his position of influence – Mr. Herbert Grange is the man whose demise he truly wishes me to investigate.”
“But why, Holmes?” I said, confused. “Why go to all this trouble? Why infer a connection where there is clearly none?”
“Because Mycroft suspects foul play. Because he wishes to keep the wolves from our door, and because he does not want the world at large to know that he has called me here to London with the specific objective of investigating Mr. Grange’s unquestionably suspicious death. The suicides are our cover, Watson; a concealment, a falsehood.” Holmes tapped his index finger thoughtfully against his chin.
“Then what you are saying, Mr. Holmes, is that you believe Mr. Grange to be a victim of murder?” asked Foulkes.
“That would be somewhat presumptuous, Inspector,” replied Holmes, who had returned to studying the corpse of the parliamentarian, his back to us. “I fear the body offers little in the way of motive. Where it is clear to me that Captain Cummins was accountable for his own death, and Miss Temple was not, with Mr. Grange I find myself in need of further data. Only then will I be able to establish the truth.”
He turned abruptly to face Foulkes. “You mentioned that Mr. Grange was engaged in somewhat delicate work for the War Office, did you not?”
“Indeed,” confirmed Foulkes, “interviewing expatriate Germans now living in London.”
“Excellent,” said Holmes. He clapped his hands together, as if to indicate our audience was over. “Then, Watson, to the War Office it is!” He made for the door, without the slightest word of thanks to Foulkes, nor even a glance back over his shoulder to see if I was following.
I glanced at Foulkes and offered him a reluctant shrug. I was about to speak, when he held his hand up to silence me. “No need, Dr. Watson. No need. Just know that, should you need my assistance, you need only leave word at the Yard.” He paused, puffing out his chest. “And know also that you can rely on my absolute discretion.”
“Thank you, Inspector,” I said, stepping forward and shaking him firmly by the hand.
“Right then, Doctor,” said Foulkes. “I think you’d better hotfoot it after him, or mark my words, he’ll be half way to the War Office before he notices you’re not with him.”
I laughed. “You know, Inspector, I’m not at all sure if that would be a bad thing.” I secured my hat on my head, and took off after Holmes.
Copyright © 2014 George Mann
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George Mann is the author of the Newbury and Hobbes and The Ghost series of novels, as well as numerous short stories, novellas and audiobooks. He has written fiction and audio scripts for the BBC's Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes. He is also a respected anthologist and has edited The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, The Solaris Book of New Fantasy and recently Titan's Encounters of Sherlock Holmes anthologies.