BOOKS

2019 Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols

With the international bestseller The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Nicholas Meyer brought to light a previously unpublished case of Sherlock Holmes, as recorded by Dr. John H. Watson. Now Meyer returns with a shocking discovery—an unknown case drawn from a recently unearthed Watson journal.

 

January 1905: Holmes and Watson are summoned by Holmes' brother Mycroft to undertake a clandestine investigation. An agent of the British Secret Service has been found floating in the Thames, carrying a manuscript smuggled into England at the cost of her life. The pages purport to be the minutes of a meeting of a secret group intent on nothing less than taking over the world.

 

Based on real events, the adventure takes the famed duo—in the company of a bewitching woman—aboard the Orient Express from Paris into the heart of Tsarist Russia, where Holmes and Watson attempt to trace the origins of this explosive document. On their heels are desperate men of unknown allegiance, determined to prevent them from achieving their task. And what they uncover is a conspiracy so vast as to challenge Sherlock Holmes as never before.

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT FOR THE ADVENTURE OF THE PECULIAR PROTOCOLS

Typically authors on the road get to read from their works, but as I am persuaded most people in this audience already know how to read, I thought I would attempt something slightly different, a sort of background rumination by which I hope to contextualize my novel in ways that may – possibly may not – contribute to your enjoyment of the book.

I think it safe to suggest that impressions of the world first experienced in childhood are among the most potent and long lasting.  People, sights and youthful experiences remain with us as a form of “imprinting” when many more recent events have bewilderingly faded from memory. Such imprinting must inevitably include works of art to which we are exposed at what we actually term an “impressionable” age.

Tolstoy said that the purpose of art is to teach us to love life. Others have speculated that art helps us to endure or possibly to escape life.  But any way you slice it, it is as young people that we tend to bond most passionately with certain books, pictures, movies and music that end up forming so much of our future tastes and personalities.

Certainly, among my own childhood artistic epiphanies, the works of Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas and Robert Louis Stevenson – all helpfully introduced to me at bedtime by my father - (along with the Just-So Stories, Alice in Wonderland and, yes, the works of Arthur Conan Doyle), these, along with the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, and a million other movies like Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, or Some Like it Hot – these, I say, occupy unique places in my heart – and for many of my generation, I daresay, in theirs, as well.

Younger folks may have missed Bambi, and Cary Grant, (who remains bafflingly unknown to those deprived souls who have never seen Notorious, Bringing Up Baby or North by Northwest), but one of the few artistic creations who seems to have transcended successive generations with little difficulty is Sherlock Holmes. And of course, one cannot speak of the Great Detective without including his medical amanuensis. I am confident that I am not alone in finding myself speculating as to the astonishing durability of these two characters and the invincible hold they exert on our imagination and affections.  Succeeding Quixote and Sancho Panza, while pre-dating Batman and Robin, they nonetheless survive (with some dubious cultural concessions) as clear iterations of themselves.

My father gave me the complete, one volume Holmes when I must have been about eleven and though my memory occasionally plays me false, it is my recollection that I devoured all sixty stories, more or less at once. There was something compelling but also reassuring, comforting even, about this pair, whose ingenious but civilized responses to a world that was far enough away to feel like a fairy tale but simultaneously close enough to my own to be recognizable.

This may be as good a place as any to point out that detective stories (with the arguable exception of Oedipus), deliver paradoxically the exact opposite of what they promise. Detective stories promise to thrill us with tales of murder most foul, the body splayed in an unnatural position, the head bashed in by a blunt instrument wielded at the hands of a person or persons unknown. How is it then that we like to “curl up” with a good mystery? (Do we curl up with audio books? Just asking.) For heavens sake, we readers like to take this mayhem into bed with us and a more intimate conjunction can hardly be imagined! Why should this be so?  Because in the end, detective stories, for all their protestations of mystery and gore, are reassuring. Unlike life, a random proposition in which people live or die for no reason, in detective literature, no matter how realistically the details are presented, in the end, as the detective invariably concludes, it all adds up. And it does! Always. Unlike life, in these stories, nothing happens without a reason – and Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate reasoning machine.

I do not propose to answer the question of what makes Holmes in particular so popular; the solution to that eternal riddle, I confess, eludes me. I’m sure there are as many theories as there are theorists. 

I will note instead that all works of art are ineluctably products of the time in which they are created. Mozart doesn’t just sound like Mozart; he also sounds like late eighteenth century middle-European music.  Renoir isn’t just inimitably Renoir; he is also unmistakably a nineteenth century French Impressionist. Perhaps uniquely, Holmes and Watson are sufficiently flexible to be adapted to successive eras and locales. While purists like myself may cavil and prefer taking their Holmes straight, it cannot be denied that the Holmes-Watson brew has been poured into many a different-shaped bottle and the vintage seems to time-travel well.  Whether Holmes remains in the nineteenth century or fights World War II; whether he stays in London or turns up in The United States in the 21st century, very few Holmes adaptations prove unprofitable. And yes, there are certain cosmetic changes as the detective and the doctor bow to shifting cultural dictates. Though it might embarrass us to admit, there are occasional racist and anti-Semitic sentiments expressed in the original Holmes stories that grate now if they didn’t then; and of course there is Holmes’s drug addiction. Successive Holmes incarnations have toned down or pruned altogether these unsavory attributes of The Great Detective, softening his misogyny and even, dare I mention it, his tobacco habit.

 

One might argue that no great harm has been done by these bowdlerizations, but I am less sure. What happens when we start re-writing our cultural history to delete that which bores, or worse, embarrasses us? Do we cancel performances of The Taming of the Shrew?  Cut out the ludicrously happy slaves from screenings of Gone With the Wind? To do so, I think, risks alienating us from our own origins. George Santayana observed that those who do not learn the lessons history teaches are condemned to repeat those lessons. I worry that with the collapse of education, we Americans no longer know (or care), who we are, where we have come from, or what we stand for. But Steppin Fetchit existed as did Shakespeare’s Petruchio and Billie Holliday singing Strange Fruit was not just whistling Dixie. We are foolhardy, I think, to pretend otherwise.

There’s no denying Bach sounds cool when performed by the Swingle Singers, but in my view he is even cooler without them. I certainly have loved and marveled at Sherlock! with Benedict Cumberbatch, the most persuasive Holmes in memory and Martin Freeman, a refreshingly credible Watson, but at the end of the day, I want my detective, horse-carriages, cocaine warts and all.

To go back for a moment to my observation that all works of art are ineluctably products of the times in which they were created, I should note one addendum – (one can hardly term it an exception), and that is this: forgery too is the product of the time in which it is created. Though a good forgery may pass muster at first, as years pass distinctions between the forgery and what it is impersonating begin to jump out at us. Van Meegeren’s Vermeers were rapturously celebrated when he allegedly discovered them in the 1930’s, but today, juxtaposed with real Vermeers, they appear hopelessly Art Deco.   Take four films, all purporting to take place in 1776; one made in 1920, another in 1943, a third in 1987 and a fourth in 2003. I am confident that anyone here could, within five minutes, date within five years when these films were actually shot.   Whether in black & white or color, silent or sound, the depiction of women, political views, hairstyles, the length of sideburns or the musical accompaniment, a thousand such details as these will soon give the game away.

So, inevitably, with Holmes. Each generation, one is tempted to say, gets the Sherlock it deserves. I believe it was Michael Chabon who observed that all fiction is fan fiction.  In my own imitations, I try to sustain the illusion that such tales might have come from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle, but I’m like a tone-deaf person trying to hum Beethoven’s 9th and keep my listeners from perceiving that I can’t hear. Sooner or later I’ll sound a clinker. The public will find me out and my Holmes forgeries will also reveal the time as well as the cultural pressures and prejudices that informed their creation, so different from Doyle’s.  

Forgery has thus interested me for a very long time. The questions posed by forgery include not only ethical, financial, legal and philosophic considerations, but aesthetic ones as well. If you have two paintings that cannot by any scientific means be distinguished from one another, why or how can one be called better? Suppose one has been painted by Leonardo and the other by me.   If the pictures cannot be distinguished, why is one more worthy? (The best answer I ever got to that question is that one could not exist without the other).

What is the difference between a forgery and a copy?  Something invisible: the intention. As a forger, or more charitably, perhaps, a Doyle imitator, I must grapple with these problems – and here’s another: once a really good forgery appears in the world, it may be detected but seldom exposed as fake. I’ve been told by those who call themselves experts that there are more Renoirs hanging on the walls of famous museums around the world than Renoir ever painted.  And if, as I suggest, time ultimately exposes most forgeries, it is also true that very few people who own Van Meegerens or de Horys have ever proved willing to part with them.  

Forgeries devalue truth and the best take longest to expose, no matter how obviously false they may ultimately appear.  Today we are surrounded by forgeries. Fake news is all the rage. Fake faces, fake sentiments stuffed into fake mouths.  We’re now drowning in fakery, lost in a Photoshopped hall of mirrors, where truth is increasingly difficult to discern.  The Internet wilderness has made every flat-earther peer-reviewed. Lies race around the world while Truth is putting on its sneakers.

Once you become interested in forgery, it isn’t long before the most destructive forgery of all comes to your notice. I refer, as some of you may have guessed, to the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. If you are unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, you can Google Fiona Hill’s testimony at the recent House impeachment inquiry. Created in 1903 by the Tsar’s secret police, the Protocols purport to be the minutes of a secret meeting of Jews plotting to take over the world.  Their purpose was to justify Tsarist massacres of Jews known as pogroms. The Protocols were denounced as fake almost from the moment they appeared. In point of fact the Protocols are a plagiarized fake.  (To get your heads around that one, you gotta read the book).  But regardless, the Protocols persist, disseminated in the 1920’s by Henry Ford in his newspaper, taught to this day in certain schools as textbooks, even quoted by Vladimir Putin. My own work made me wonder if there mightn’t be some point or purpose in having one of my fakes tackle one of the Tsar’s, thus my present novel was born. See how it all adds up? Whether my book makes any dent in the cultural perception of the Protocols and the hatred they disseminate remains to be seen, but if it takes a thief to catch a thief, what about a forger to expose a forgery?
 

—NICHOLAS MEYER, December 2, 2019

NICHOLAS MEYER

STORYTELLER