Thursday, February 2, 2017
In latest Sherlock Holmes in Minnesota installment, the typically flawless Holmes is plagued by doubt and illness.
BY LARRY MILLETT
In his four novels and 56 short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle always depicted the great detective in the prime of life. The Holmes in these tales is not only a perfect thinking machine but also athletic, fearless, and supremely confident. Yet what might have happened to Holmes as he grew older? Conan Doyle doesn’t really address this question in any detailed way. About all that is known from his work is that Holmes retired at some point to Sussex to keep bees and perhaps write an occasional monograph on some esoteric topic related to criminal investigation.
But it’s fascinating to think of Holmes as a senior citizen, coping with the challenges of old age. It was this idea that led me in part to writing Sherlock Holmes and the Eisendorf Enigma, which is set in 1920, when Holmes would have been in his mid-sixties. Other writers, of course, have also explored the topic of Holmes during his advanced years. One of the most notable efforts in this regard is the 2015 film Mr. Holmes, with a screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher (who adapted my novel Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders into a fine play). In the film, Holmes is 93 and dealing with memory loss as he tries to solve one last case.
The Holmes featured in Eisendorf Enigma isn’t yet suffering from memory problems but he’s clearly not quite the man he had been in his younger years. His mind is still as agile as ever, but age has nonetheless taken its inevitable toll, especially on his body. As I was planning the novel, I tried to imagine what sort of infirmity might befall Holmes as he aged. One illness—emphysema—came readily to mind.
Smoking is a prominent cause of the disease, and as Conan Doyle’s tales demonstrate, Holmes was an addictive personality for whom tobacco was both a supreme pleasure and a dangerous vice that held him firmly in its grip. Although Holmes is most commonly associated with a pipe, he also smoked cigarettes and cigars. He was very selective in this respect and even had his cigarettes specially made in London. Holmes also enjoyed good cigars (Cubans in particular) and he rarely went anywhere without a pouch of black shag tobacco for his pipe. Such was his devotion to the demon weed that he even wrote a monograph in which he claimed he could identify 140 different types of tobacco based solely on the ash they left behind.
By the time he reached his sixties, Holmes had probably been a heavy smoker for at least 40 years, so it did not seem a stretch to think his lung function might have become compromised. So it is that in the opening scenes of the Eisendorf Enigma, Holmes travels to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester (where in my earlier novel, Strongwood, Dr. John Watson underwent gallbladder surgery). At the clinic Holmes is diagnosed with moderate emphysema, a condition that leaves him short of breath, especially during any kind of exertion. The disease is a trial for him, as is the daunting possibility that he will have to give up his beloved tobacco for good.
While in Rochester Holmes, who has traveled to Minnesota by himself (Watson must stay in London to attend to his medical practice), suddenly finds himself facing an old nemesis known as the Monster of Munich. The Monster, who had committed a series of grisly murders in Munich in the 1890s, is now ensconced in the village of Eisendorf, a tiny community tucked into a steep little valley not far from Rochester.
I created Eisendorf (population 40 and dropping) as a place profoundly isolated and full of hidden dangers. Its seclusion reflects Holmes’s own circumstances during his years of retirement. Based (very, very loosely) on New Ulm, Minnesota, the town owes its existence to a band of German freethinkers who arrived in the 1850s with the dream of creating a small utopia devoted to reason and enlightenment. But Eisendorf is anything but a paradise on earth. Instead, it is a dying, haunted place that harbors terrible secrets.
Once he makes his way to Eisendorf in hopes of unmasking the Monster, Holmes must confront not only a vicious killer but also his own doubts. In the process readers will see a more vulnerable Holmes than they are used to, not the “high-functioning sociopath,” as he describes himself in the BBC series featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, but a man dealing with his own troubling emotions. Uncertainty, loneliness, and even hints of existential desolation assail Holmes in the Eisendorf Enigma, and yet as he moves toward his ultimate showdown with the Monster he finds two women who help revitalize his long sterile heart.
Watson, too, finally arrives on the scene, hurrying to Eisendorf after Holmes is injured, and together they are finally able to hunt down the monstrous killer who has made the town his home. I hope readers will enjoy my novel—the seventh time I’ve had the privilege of bringing the world’s great consulting detective to Minnesota.
Sherlock Holmes and the Eisendorf Enigma and seven other mystery novels—most set in Minnesota—featuring Sherlock Holmes and St. Paul detective Shadwell Rafferty. A longtime reporter and architecture critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Millett is also the author of numerous books on architecture.
"I always look forward to a Larry Millett book. I’ve read every one of them."
—Steve Thayer, New York Times bestselling author of The Weatherman
"Larry Millett breathes new life into the classic character of Sherlock Holmes in this intriguing, home-grown mystery. Sherlock Holmes and the Eisendorf Enigma is both elegant and entertaining."
—Allen Eskens, author of The Life We Bury
"Millett’s descriptions are lush and rich, and anyone who likes to craft a good visual in their head will appreciate his attention to detail with the setting. Minnesota is a beautiful place, and the author’s descriptions create a written picture that will match any photos you pull up on the Internet or in a book."
—The John H Watson Society