Read an exclusive excerpt from new Sherlock Holmes novel, 'Art in the Blood'
July 17, marks the release date of Mr. Holmes, a new Sherlock Holmes film starring Sir Ian McKellen. Because we, like the rest of the pop culture universe (not to mention the legions of fans of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock), can’t get enough of the iconic detective, EW presents an exclusive extract from Bonnie MacBird’s forthcoming Sherlock Holmes novel, Art in the Blood, out October 6, 2015.
Check it out below:
Art in The Blood by Bonnie MacBird
During the Olympic summer of 2012, while researching some Victorian medical information at the Wellcome Library, I chanced upon a discovery so astounding that it completely altered my course. After requesting several old volumes, I was brought a small, dusty selection, some so fragile that they were held together by delicate linen ribbons.
Untying the largest, a treatise on the usage of cocaine, I discovered a thick sheaf of folded and yellowed papers had been tied to the back.
I opened the pages carefully and spread them before me. The handwriting was strangely familiar. Was I seeing clearly? I turned back the cover of the book; on the title page, in faded ink, was inscribed the original owner’s name: Dr. John H. Watson.
And there, on these crumbling sheets of paper, was an unpublished, full-length adventure written by this same Dr. Watson – featuring his friend, Sherlock Holmes.
But why had this case not been published with the others so long ago? I can only surmise that it is because the story, longer and perhaps more detailed than most, reveals a certain vulnerability in his friend’s character which might have endangered Holmes by its publication during their active years. Or perhaps Holmes, upon reading it, simply forbade its publication.
A third possibility, of course, is that Dr. Watson absentmindedly folded up his manuscript and, for unknown reasons, tied it to the back of this book. He then either lost or forgot about it. And so I share this tale with you, but with the following caveat.
Over time, perhaps from moisture and fading, a number of passages have become unreadable, and I have endeavoured to reconstruct what seemed to be missing from them. If there are any mistakes of style or historical inaccuracies, please ascribe these to my inability to fill in places where the writing had become indecipherable.
I hope you share my enthusiasm. As Nicholas Meyer, discoverer of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The West End Horror, and The Canary Trainer said recently for himself, and all fellow lovers of Conan Doyle — ‘We can never get enough!’
Perhaps there are more stories yet to be found. Let’s keep looking. Meanwhile, sit down by the fire now, and draw near for just one more.
OUT OF THE DARKNESS
“I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom.” — Thomas Carlyle
CHAPTER 1: Ignition
My dear friend Sherlock Holmes once said, ‘Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.’ And so it was for him. In my numerous accounts of the adventures we shared, I have mentioned his violin playing, his acting – but his artistry went much deeper than that. I believe it was at the very root of his remarkable success as the world’s first consulting detective.
I have been loath to write in detail about Holmes’s artistic nature, lest it reveal a vulnerability in him that could place him in danger. It is well known that in exchange for visionary powers, artists often suffer with extreme sensitivity and violent changeability of temperament. A philosophical crisis, or simply the boredom of inactivity, could send Holmes spinning into a paralysed gloom from which I could not retrieve him.
It was in such a state that I discovered my friend in late November of 1888.
London was blanketed with snow, the city still reeling from the extended horror of the Ripper murders. But at that moment, violent crime was not my concern. Married earlier that year to Mary Morstan, I was ensconced in a nest of comfortable domesticity, living at some distance from the rooms I had formerly shared with Holmes in Baker Street.
One late afternoon found me reading contentedly by the fire when a note arrived by breathless messenger. Opening it, I read: ‘Dr. Watson — he has set 221B on fire! Come at once! – Mrs. Hudson.’
In seconds I was hurtling through the streets in a cab towards Baker Street. As we tore around a corner, I could feel the wheels slipping in the mounding snow, and the cab lurched dangerously. I rapped on the roof. ‘Faster, man!’ I shouted.
We skidded into Baker Street and I saw the fire wagon and several men leaving our building. I leaped from the cab and ran to the door. ‘The fire,’ I cried. ‘Is everyone all right?’ A young fireman stared up at me, eyes shining from a smoke-blackened face.
‘It’s put out. The landlady is fine. The gentleman, I ain’t so sure.’
The fire captain pushed him aside and took his place.
‘Do you know the man who lives here?’ he asked.
‘Yes, quite well. I am his friend.’ The captain eyed me curiously. ‘And his doctor.’
‘Then get in there and see to the fellow. Something is not right. But t’weren’t the fire.’
Thank God Holmes was at least alive. I pushed past them and into the hall. Mrs Hudson was there, wringing her hands. I have never seen the dear woman in such a state. ‘Doctor! Oh, Doctor!’ she cried. ‘Thank heavens you’ve come. It’s been terrible these last days, and now this!’ Her bright blue eyes brimmed with tears.
‘Is he all right?’
‘From the fire, yes. But something, something awful … ever since he was in gaol! He has bruises. He won’t talk, he won’t eat.’
‘Gaol! How is it that—? No, tell me later.’
I raced up the seventeen steps to our door and paused. I rapped loudly. There was no reply.
‘Go on in!’ called Mrs Hudson. ‘Go!’ I flung open the door.
A blast of cold, smoky air assailed me. Inside the familiar room the sounds of carriages and footsteps were muffled to near silence by the new snow. In one corner, a wastepaper basket lay upended, blackened and wet, with charred paper nearby on the floor and a small area of drapery burnt away, now sodden.
And then I saw him.
His hair awry, his face ashen with lack of sleep and sustenance, he looked, quite frankly, at death’s door. He lay shivering on the couch, clothed in a shabby purple dressing gown. An old red blanket tangled around his feet and with a quick movement he yanked it up to cover his face.
The fire, along with stale tobacco smoke, had filled the study with a sharp acrid odour. A blast of freezing air blew in from an opened window.
I crossed to it and shut it, at once coughing at the foetid air. Holmes had not moved.
I knew immediately from his posture and ragged breath that he had taken something, some intoxicant or stimulant. A wave of anger swept over me, followed by guilt. In my newly wedded bliss, it had been weeks since I had seen or spoken to my friend. Holmes had, in fact, suggested we attend a concert together not long ago, but along with married social life, I had been busy with a critically ill patient and had forgotten to reply.
‘So, Holmes,’ I began. ‘This fire. Tell me about this.’ No response.
‘I understand that you were imprisoned briefly. What for? Why did you not send word?’
‘Holmes, I insist you tell me what is going on! Even though I am married now, you know that you can call on me when something like … when … if you …’ My voice trailed off. Silence. A sick feeling crept over me.
I removed my greatcoat and hung it in the old familiar place, next to his. I returned to stand next to him. ‘I need to understand about this fire,’ I said quietly.
A thin arm emerged from the ragged blanket and waved vaguely. ‘Accident.’
In a flash, I grabbed his arm and yanked it into the light. It was, as Mrs Hudson said, covered with bruises and one substantial cut. On the transverse side was something more alarming: the clear evidence of needle marks. Cocaine.
‘Damn it, Holmes. Let me examine you. What the devil happened in gaol? And why were you there?’
With surprising strength he wrenched his arm away and curled into the blanket. Silence. Then finally, ‘Please, Watson. I am fine. Go away.’
I paused. This went far beyond the occasional dark mood I’d witnessed in the past. He had me worried.
Sitting down in the armchair facing the couch, I vowed to wait this out. As the mantelpiece clock ticked and the minutes turned into an hour, my concern deepened.
Some time later Mrs Hudson entered with sandwiches, which he refused to acknowledge. As she puttered around mopping up the water left by the firemen he shouted at her to leave.
I stepped with her on to the landing and closed the door behind us. ‘Why was he in Gaol?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know, Doctor,’ said she. ‘Something to do with the Ripper case. He was accused of tampering with the evidence.’
‘Why did you not call upon me? Or upon his brother?’ I asked. At that time, I knew little of the considerable influ- ence in government affairs that Holmes’s older brother Mycroft commanded, and yet my sense was that some help might have been offered.
‘Mr. Holmes told no one, he simply vanished! I am not sure that his brother knew for a week. Of course he was released right after, but the damage was done.’
I learned much later the details of this horrific case and the ill-directed trials it put my friend through. However, I have been sworn to secrecy on this account, and it must remain a matter for the history books. Suffice it to say that my friend threw considerable light on the case, something that proved most unwelcome among certain individuals at the highest levels of government.
But that is another tale entirely. I returned to my vigil. Hours passed, and I could neither rouse him, engage him in conversation, nor get him to eat. He remained unmoving and in what I knew to be a dangerous depression.
The morning drew into afternoon. While placing a cup of tea near him, I happened to notice what appeared to be a crumpled personal letter lying on the side table. Unfolding the bottom half silently, I read the signature: ‘Mycroft Holmes’.
I opened it and read. ‘Come at once,’ it said, ‘the affair of E/P requires your immediate attention.’ I folded the note and put it into my pocket.
‘Holmes,’ I said, ‘I took the liberty of—’
‘Burn that note,’ came a shrill voice from beneath his cover.
‘Too wet in here,’ I said. ‘Who is this “E slash P”? Your brother writes—’
‘Burn it, I say!’
He would say nothing further but remained buried and unmoving. As the evening wore on, I decided to wait him out and remain there through the night. He would eat — or collapse — and I would be there, as his friend and his doctor, to pick up the pieces. Valiant thoughts indeed, but shortly after, I fell asleep.
Early the next morning, I awoke to find myself covered with that same red blanket I now recognized from my old rooms. Mrs Hudson stood over me with a tea tray and a new letter — oblong and rose-tinted — resting on the edge of the tray.
‘From Paris, Mr Holmes!’ said she, waving the letter at him. No response.
Glancing at Holmes, and the unfinished food from yesterday, she shook her head and threw me a worried look. ‘Four days now, Doctor,’ she whispered. ‘Do some- thing!’ She placed the tray next to me.
From the rumpled figure on the couch the thin arm waved her away. ‘Leave us, Mrs. Hudson!’ he cried. ‘Give me the letter, Watson.’
Mrs. Hudson departed, throwing me an encouraging look. I snatched the letter from the tray and held it away. ‘Eatfirst,’ I demanded.
With a murderous look, he emerged from his cocoon and slammed a biscuit into his mouth, glaring at me like an angry child.
I held the letter away and sniffed it. I was rewarded by an unusual and delicious perfume, vanilla, perhaps, and something else. ‘Ahh,’ I said in pleasure, but Holmes succeeded in snatching the letter from my hand, immediately spitting out the biscuit. He examined the envelope thoroughly, and then tore it open, extracting the letter and scanning it quickly.
‘Ha! What do you make of it, Watson?’ His keen grey eyes were shaded by exhaustion, but lit by curiosity. A good sign.
I took it from him. As I unfolded the letter I noticed that he was eyeing the teapot uncertainly. I poured him a cup, added a splash of brandy and handed it to him. ‘Drink,’ said I.
The letter bore a Paris postmark with yesterday’s date. It was written in bright pink ink and on fine stationery. I glanced at the delicate handwriting.
‘It’s in French,’ I stated, handing it back. ‘And hard to read even if not. Here.’
Impatient, he snatched the letter and announced, ‘Writing — most definitely female. Scent, ahh … floral, amber, a touch of vanilla. I believe this is a new scent of Guerlain, “Jicky”, in development but not yet released. The singer — for this is how she describes herself — must be successful or at least very much admired to have obtained a bottle in advance.’
Holmes moved to better light near the fire and began to read with the theatricality I have come to enjoy at times, and tolerate at others. His fluent French made translation simple for him.
‘“My dear Mr. Holmes,” she says, “your reputation and recent recognition by my government has led me to make this unusual request. I seek your help in a highly personal matter. Although I am a concert singer in Paris, and as such may perhaps be considered by you to be of lower “caste” — caste, an odd choice of word for a chanteuse — “I beg you to consider helping me.” Ah, I cannot read this; the ink is so pale!’
Holmes held the letter to the gaslight over our fireplace.
I noticed that his hand was shaking and he looked unsteady. I moved behind him to read over his shoulder.
‘She continues, “I write on a matter of the greatest urgency concerning an important man of your country, and the father of my son—” here the lady has crossed out the name — but I perceive it is — What the devil?’
Holding the letter up closer to the light, he frowned in puzzlement. As he did so, a curious thing began to happen. The ink on the letter began to fade so quickly that even I noticed it standing behind him.
Holmes cried out and immediately pushed the letter under the cushion on the couch. We waited a few seconds, then pulled it out to look at it again. It was completely blank.
‘Ah!’ said he.
‘It’s some kind of disappearing ink!’ I cried, silenced immediately by Holmes’s sidelong glance. ‘The father of her son?’ I asked. ‘Did you catch the name of this important personage?’
‘I did,’ said Holmes, standing quite still. ‘The Earl of Pellingham.’
I returned to the couch wondering. Pellingham was one of the wealthiest peers in all of England, a man whose generosity and immense power in the House of Lords – not to mention his virtuous reputation as a humanitarian and collector of fine art – made him nearly a household name.
And yet here was a French cabaret singer claiming ties to this well-known figure.
‘What are the chances, Holmes, of this lady’s claim being valid?’
‘It seems preposterous. But perhaps …’ He moved to a cluttered table and spread the letter out, under a bright light.
‘But why the disappearing ink?’
‘She did not want a letter with the gentleman’s name to fall into the wrong hands. The Earl is said to have a long reach. And yet she has not told us all, I think—’
He now aimed his magnifying glass at the letter. ‘How curious, these scratches!’ He sniffed the page. ‘This blasted perfume! Yet I detect the slightest odour of— wait!’ He began rummaging through a collection of glass bottles. With small dabs, he applied droplets to the page, muttering as he did so. ‘There must be more.’
I knew better than to disturb him at such work and turned back to the newspaper I was reading. Not long after, I was startled from my dozing reverie by a cry of triumph.
‘Ha! Just as I thought, Watson. The letter that disap- peared was not the entire message. I have revealed a second letter underneath, in invisible ink. Clever indeed—a double use of steganography!’
‘There were small scratches on the page that did not match the writing we saw. And the faintest odour of potato. The lady has employed a second ink that only appears upon the application of a reagent, in this case iodine.’
‘Holmes, you amaze me. What does it say?’
‘It reads: “My dear Mr Holmes, it is with the utmost panic and terror that I write this to you. I did not wish a letter naming the boy’s father to remain extant; hence my precaution. If you are as astute as reputed, you will discover this second note. Then I will know you are the man to help me.
‘“I write to you because my young son, Emil, aged ten, has disappeared from the unnamed’s estate, and I fear he has been kidnapped or worse. Emil has until recently lived with this man and his wife under complicated conditions which I would like to make known to you in person.
‘“I am allowed to see him only once a year at Christmas time, when I travel to London and must follow explicit instructions for a most secretive assignation.
‘“A week ago, I received a letter telling me that our meeting, to have taken place three weeks hence, is now cancelled and I will not see my boy this Christmas, nor ever again. I was enjoined to accept this on pain of death. I cabled at once, and a day later I was accosted in the street by a vicious ruffian, knocked to the ground and warned to stay away.
‘“There is more, Mr Holmes, but I fear a strange net is closing in on me. May I call on you in London next week? I implore you in the name of humanity and justice to take my case. Please cable your reply to me signed as Mr Hugh Barrington, London Variety Producer. Very sincerely yours, Emmeline ‘Cherie’ La Victoire.”’
Holmes paused, thinking. He picked up a cold pipe, grasping it with his teeth. His tired features took on a hint of animation. ‘What do you make of this “strange net,” Watson?’
‘I have no idea. She is an artist. Perhaps a touch of the dramatic?’ I said.
‘I think not. This letter displays intelligence and careful planning.’
He tapped his cold pipe on the page in a sudden decisive gesture, glanced at the clock and stood, his eyes afire. ‘Ah, there is just time to make the last ferry from Dover. Pack your bags, Watson; we leave for the Continent in less than ninety minutes.’ He moved to the door, shouting downstairs,
‘But the lady is coming here next week, she said.’
‘Next week she could be dead. Concerned as she is, this young woman may not fully appreciate the danger she faces. I will explain all en route.’
And with that he was at the front door, again shouting into the hallway, ‘Mrs Hudson! Our bags!’
‘Holmes,’ I cried. ‘You are forgetting! My bags are else- where. In my own home!’
But he had left the room and entered his bedchamber. I wondered if his brain was even functioning to forget such a thing. Was he healthy enough to—?
I leaped from my chair and tore back the cover from the couch. There, tucked under one of the cushions, lay Holmes’s cocaine and hypodermic. My heart sank.
Holmes appeared in the doorway. ‘Please convey my apologies to Mrs Watson and collect your things at …’ Here he paused, seeing the bottle and syringe in my hand.
‘Holmes! You told me this was finished.’
A flicker of shame crossed his proud countenance. ‘I’m… I’m afraid I need you, Watson.’ There was a slight pause. ‘On this trip, that is. If perhaps you would be free?’
The words hung in the air. His thin frame stood silhou- etted in the door, poised, nearly quivering with excitement, or perhaps the drug. I looked down at the needle in my hands. I could not let him go alone in this state.
‘You must promise me, Holmes—’
‘No more cocaine.’
‘No, I mean it this time. I cannot help you if you will not help yourself.’
He nodded, once.
I replaced the syringe in its case and pocketed it and the cocaine. ‘You are in luck, then. Mary leaves for the country tomorrow to visit her mother.’
Holmes clapped his hands together like a child. ‘Very good, Watson!’ he cried. ‘The Chatham departs for Dover from Victoria Station in three-quarters of an hour. Bring your revolver!’ With that he vanished up the stairs. I paused.
‘And the sandwiches,’ he shouted down from above. I smiled. Holmes was back. And so, for better or worse, was I.