The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: THE IMPROBABLE PRISONER by Stuart Douglas, Titan Books, p/b £7.99
Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
The Improbable Prisoner is one novel of a series written by different authors reprising the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson described as The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Such Sherlockian adventures are a bit like putting on an old, comfortable pair of boots and going for a ramble over familiar ground. It is excellent relaxation.
My paternal grandfather grew up in the London of Holmes and Watson so made sure they starred in my childhood. Sadly, his Thirties Doubleday edition of the Collected Stories crumbled a few years ago, having been read and re-read by three generations requiring it be replaced by its Penguin successor. It is a long story, but Conan Doyle sits at the centre of a complex literary web that pervades my family.
In this well-presented tale, that mundane observer of detective genius, Dr John Watson is put in the frame for the brutal slaying of an elderly, frail gentlewoman connected to a campaigning politician who is being too articulate about the London criminal gangs for his own good. Following the aggressive attentions of an Inspector Potter of Scotland Yard, the unfortunate Watson finds himself remanded in Holloway prison – this is before it became a wholly female establishment – in the very cockpit of Mayhew’s criminal London.
Douglas does a decent job describing the venal nature of criminal confinement. He also goes out of the way to explain the period. He defines what is meant by a Black Maria, but fails to realise suspended prison sentences were not introduced in England until 1967. This is a minor detail involving one unimportant sentence in the entire book, which pales before the description of a sadistic, criminal plot to undermine the amateur sleuthing pair of Holmes and Watson whose detective skills are both defeating crime and seen to be undermining the detective office at Scotland Yard.
The story ebbs back and forth to begin with, but in the tradition of Conan Doyle it finally grips the reader about halfway through, forcing total page-turning attention until the full plot stands revealed. Douglas is to be congratulated in his emulation of the master.
Furthermore, the arch-criminal Galloway is a splendid creation. At the denouement, he articulates a philosophy very reminiscent of Class War and you almost feel sorry for the lad. This caused me to recall my paternal grandmother’s stricture, conceived in her birthplace at Eely Terrace, Shadwell-by-Wapping some one hundred and thirty years ago, that you don’t need or want to know your neighbour’s business. It is a standard I still keep to.
After Galloway disappears from the story, the plot seems to tail away into a bit of a whimper. It is as if the climax came to early, although it does effectively tie up all the loose ends. This is a strong tale about how corruption can so easily permeate its foul tentacles throughout society, tangling both the rich and poor in its grip. It is also a moral tale describing how the self-declared, self-appointed saviours of society can all to easily become the unwitting tool of those they condemn.