Settle in, dear reader. We have for you today an excerpt from George Mann’s new novel, Sherlock Holmes: The Will of the Dead.
Here’s the book description:
A young man named Peter Maugram appears at the front door of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson’s Baker Street lodgings. Maugram’s uncle is dead and his will has disappeared, leaving the man afraid that he will be left penniless. Holmes agrees to take the case and he and Watson dig deep into the murky past of this complex family.
A brand-new Sherlock Holmes novel from the acclaimed author of the Newbury & Hobbes series.
Read on for an excerpt…
by George Mann
I felt overcome by a sense of weary inevitability as our hansom hurtled through the misty, rain-lashed streets towards the morgue the following morning. I’d called for Holmes early, only to find him setting about a hearty breakfast of coffee, toast and marmalade, and had consequently spent half an hour waiting around while he saw to his morning ablutions. At least, I considered, he was making an effort.
Holmes had, I discovered, spent much of the evening digging through his records, searching out references to the Maughams, researching the family’s history. The evidence of his investigations had still been spread haphazardly across the sitting room floor when I’d arrived: swathes of newspaper clippings pasted into leather-bound ledgers, now marked with neat little slips of paper; old, hand-drawn family trees, annotated in scratchy black ink; scrawled notes on scraps of yellowed notepaper. I’d found myself wondering if the chaotic nature of this display did not in some way represent the strange and incomparable processes that took place inside his head.
Holmes had also, it transpired, sent ahead to arrange our visit to the morgue. We were to meet with a delegate from Scotland Yard upon arrival, namely an Inspector Charles Bainbridge. I’d had occasion to make the man’s acquaintance once before, during the fateful affair of the Persian Teardrop, and he seemed like an amiable, competent fellow.
I’d also gathered from Holmes’s manner that he’d volunteered me to inspect the body. As we trundled through the busy streets in the rear of our hansom, I must have been frowning as I considered such work, for Holmes turned to me, an amused gleam in his eye. “I’d have thought you’d have grown used to the morgue by now, Watson, given the nature of your profession,” he said, with a single arched eyebrow.
“I made a pledge to save lives, Holmes,” I replied, somewhat tersely, “Not to wallow in death. I’m quite capable of examining a cadaver – as you well know – but I most definitely reserve the right to exercise my distaste for such endeavours.”
Holmes threw back his head in sudden, raucous laughter. “Quite right, dear Watson,” he said, pushing aside the blind in order to peer out of the window. “Quite right.”
We lapsed into silence for a time as the hansom rolled on through the bustling streets of the capital. Holmes sat with his head bowed and his eyes closed, distracted by his own thoughts. I, on the other hand, couldn’t help feeling a little affronted by his dismissive attitude towards my obvious discomfort. Nevertheless, as we rolled on I found myself growing resigned to the thought that I would shortly find myself examining Sir Theobald’s corpse. There was nothing else for it; Holmes would never accept the word of the police surgeon without further examination of our own. We trundled on, jostled and jolted at the cab bounced over the uneven cobbles.
“Incidentally, Holmes,” I said after a while, breaking the silence in an effort to dispel the solemn atmosphere that I sensed had settled over us, “what do you make of this damnable ‘iron men’ business?”
Holmes looked up from his meditation. “Ah – so I see you made good use of your time at Baker Street this morning, Watson, scanning the day’s headlines.”
“Quite so,” I said, almost adding that he had left me with little else to do. I decided to refrain from such recriminations, however; I had long ago learned that getting flustered with Holmes did not in any way precipitate a productive conversation. “It sounds like a remarkable – if regrettable – state of affairs, does it not?”
“Indeed, Watson,” replied Holmes. “Most unusual.”
The ‘iron men’ robberies had become something of a plague upon the rich households of the capital in recent weeks. They’d begun with the most outlandish of reports – of terrifying men forged of iron, who lurched out of the fog-shrouded night to smash their way into people’s homes.
The descriptions in the newspapers would have had one believe the machines had been conjured from the fiery pits of Hades itself: glowing eyes, a jerking, mechanical gait, razor-sharp talons and inhuman strength. Hot coals burned in braziers on their backs, and scalding steam hissed from vents at their elbows and knees. By all accounts they possessed a keen intelligence, although they never spoke or communicated in any way. They would simply force their way into the chosen property, and, taking no heed of any protestations from the homeowners, would march directly to where the lady of the house stored her most precious jewellery and claim it as their own, marching off again into the night.
At first I’d assumed the reports to be an elaborate hoax, or else the wild imaginings of the traumatised victims, but the incidents had continued to increase in frequency, and soon enough the sheer number of recorded sightings lent credence to those initial accounts. My friends at Scotland Yard had confirmed the truth of them, too; a lone bobby had tried to tackle four of the machines as they quit the residence of a Mr. Humphrey Scott, an architect, and had received a sharp blow to the head for his troubles. The force of it had hospitalised him for three days.
That very morning, as Holmes had presupposed, I had read the latest account in the morning edition of The Times, detailing the theft of Lady Godfrey’s pearls during the night. It seemed as if this epidemic of robberies was unlikely to cease any time soon, and from what I gathered, the Yard had no obvious leads.
“Have you not considered lending them a hand? The Yard, I mean,” I ventured. I found it somewhat odd that Holmes had not yet seized upon the matter with his customary zeal, particularly given the recent paucity of interesting cases and his resulting doldrums.
He gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “I think, Watson, that the matter is not for me,” he said. “And besides, here we are on our way to the morgue to engage ourselves with another enterprise. If Mr. Maugham’s assertions are correct, I believe this case will demand our full attention. I shall leave these fanciful accounts of ‘iron men’ to the police.” With that he closed his eyes and returned to his contemplative state.
Sighing, I leaned back in my seat and watched the city rush by the window.
Presently the hansom trundled to a stop, and glancing up I recognised the familiar entrance to the police morgue. “Right, well – here we are,” I said, collecting my hat from the seat beside me. “Let’s be on with it.”
Holmes inclined his head in acknowledgement and I opened the door, clambering down from the carriage. Driving rain lashed my face, but the inclement weather had not dissuaded the multitudes from going about their business. The sounds of the city assaulted me from all directions: brash newspaper salesmen pitching their wares; barrelling hansom cabs; and the chatter of pedestrians as they bustled about beneath their umbrellas. Beside me, the horses were whinnying and stamping their feet impatiently. I handed the driver a couple of coins, and then turned to see Holmes already disappearing into the building.
It was not without some resignation that I followed him into that house of death. The morgue was a cold, clinical sort of place, filled with the rich aromas of blood and decay. I admit I couldn’t quite repress a shudder as we stepped over the threshold and were confronted with all the varied sounds of the butcher’s art.
Inspector Bainbridge was waiting for us in the foyer, leaning heavily on an ebony cane. He was a wiry looking fellow in his mid-thirties, with prematurely greying hair and a wide, bushy moustache. He offered us a weary smile in greeting, as if in anticipation of the unpleasant business to come.
“Morning Mr. Holmes, Dr. Watson,” he said genially.
“Good morning, Inspector Bainbridge,” replied Holmes, with far less reserve than I’d come to expect from him when addressing policemen.
“Indeed. Thank you for coming to meet us, Inspector,” I said. “I fear it is not the most pleasant of circumstances in which to meet again.”
“Quite so, Dr. Watson,” said Bainbridge. “But for the life of me, I cannot understand why you are here. Surely it’s a cut and dried case? The poor man took a tumble down the stairs in the night, and broke his neck in the fall. That’s about the size of it.”
Holmes waved a dismissive hand. “I’d prefer not to leap to any conclusions until I’ve seen the body for myself, Inspector, or before my colleague here has had a chance to examine it. I’m sure you understand…” His tone was firm, but not cutting.
“As you wish, Mr. Holmes,” said Bainbridge, nodding. “It wouldn’t do to colour your opinion on the matter. This way, then.”
He turned and beckoned for us to follow him, leading us along a corridor lined with smooth porcelain tiles that had once been white, but were now discoloured and yellow with age. We trundled behind silently in single file as he showed us to the small antechamber – really no more than a partitioned-off area of the passageway – where the remains of Sir Theobald awaited us.
I smelled the corpse before I saw it, a thick, cloying stink that seemed to stick in the back of my throat. Like all cadavers left unburied for more than a couple of days, the early stages of decomposition had begun to set in. I set my jaw in determination, resolving to get this over with as swiftly as possible.
The body rested on a marble slab, covered by a thin cotton sheet. Holmes turned up the gas lamps while Bainbridge stepped forward and peeled away the shroud. He wrinkled his nose in distaste as he did so. “Here we are, then. I’ll warn you, gentlemen – it’s not a pretty sight.”
“You’re certainly right about that, Inspector,” I said, appalled by the gruesome countenance of the victim. The man’s face was a bruised and bloodied pulp, his head resting at an awkward angle, the neck clearly broken. The pale flesh of the torso was covered in deep, purple contusions, and the bones of the left forearm had snapped in at least two places. “Look at him, Holmes!” I exclaimed. “I’m amazed the family was able to recognise him at all.”
Holmes approached the slab, peering intently at the cadaver. “Yes…” he said, clearly concentrating. He began to circle the body, his footsteps echoing in the enclosed space. “Remarkable, isn’t it? It appears as if his cheekbone has been broken by the impact. And there, around the orbit of the left eye – the skull is completely shattered.”
“Yes, a severe blow to the face if ever I’ve seen one,” I confirmed.
“I’ll remind you, gentlemen,” interjected Bainbridge, “that Sir Theobald did take a tumble down a rather hazardous flight of stairs.”
“Quite,” said Holmes, a little dismissively. “His neck is broken, too.” He glanced up to see Bainbridge frowning. “Just as the Inspector suggested,” he added. “What do you make of it, Watson? In your opinion, could a fall down a flight of stairs in the dark have caused such a severe set of injuries?”
I considered the question for a moment, joining Holmes beside the corpse. Grimacing, I turned the head from side to side, examining the wounds. The face was swollen and damaged beyond what I would have expected. Could a fall down the stairs really have led to this?
I cast my gaze over the torso, searching for a pattern in the injuries. There was no obvious story to set out, no quick explanation I could offer to describe what might have occurred. Shrugging, I turned to Holmes. “It’s certainly possible. I hesitate to commit, but I don’t think I can rule it out.”
“Ah, yes! I see it Watson!” said Holmes, animated. He lifted the other, broken arm, and rotated it in the same manner, holding it up for me to see.
“See what?” said Bainbridge, from over my shoulder. “What is it?”
“It’s typical in cases such as these, Inspector,” I explained, “that the victim puts their hands out before them in an effort to break their fall. It’s an involuntary reaction.”
“And?” prompted Bainbridge.
“Well,” I continued, “with injuries as severe as this I’d expect to see evidence of just that – bruises and scratches on the hands and forearms where Sir Theobald attempted to save himself. Probably even a broken wrist, judging by the condition of his face.”
“As you can see, Inspector,” added Holmes, “the victim’s hands, however, are entirely unblemished.”
“What of the broken arm, then?” asked Bainbridge.
Holmes ran his hands along the dead man’s arm, applying pressure. “The breaks are clean and appear to have been caused by the arm being trapped beneath him as he fell,” replied Holmes. “The radius and ulna have sheared, but the wrist remains undamaged. Thus, he did not attempt to put his hands out before him as he fell.” He gave a satisfied smile.
“Yes, Mr. Holmes,” conceded Bainbridge. “But if Sir Theobald had imbibed as much alcohol as the reports suggest, his senses would have been considerably dulled. If he fell in a stupor he may not have been able to react in time. Is it not true that his head might have struck the stairs before his hands did?”
“Watson?” said Holmes, deflecting the question. I could see by the look in his eye that he already knew the answer, but was looking to me to debunk Bainbridge’s theory.
“It’s a good theory, Inspector,” I said, “but even so, he’d have had to be practically unconscious to be quite so unresponsive. So inebriated, in fact, that he wouldn’t have been able to walk across the landing in the first instance.”
Bainbridge’s face fell.
“What, then, is your assertion, Watson?” asked Holmes.
“Even a cursory glance at the cadaver suggests that Sir Theobald was most likely unconscious before he was pitched down the stairs. Either he blacked out near the top as the result of a seizure or heart attack – which remains a possibility – or else someone gave him a helping hand,” I replied.
“Precisely!” said Holmes, a little too gleefully for my liking.
“You’re suggesting murder, Dr. Watson?” asked Bainbridge. He sounded weary.
“I’m suggesting the possibility of murder, Inspector, which is a very different matter,” I replied.
“Quite so, Watson,” said Holmes. “Yet it nevertheless confirms my fears that Sir Theobald’s death might well have been engineered.” He reached out to turn the corpse’s face toward him, and then stopped, glancing up. “May I, Dr. Watson?” he asked, courteously.
“What? Oh, be my guest, Holmes,” I replied, retreating from the side of the mortuary slab to stand beside Bainbridge.
We watched for a few moments as Holmes set about examining the body in minute detail. He withdrew his magnifying glass from his pocket and leaned in so close that his own face was nearly touching that of the dead man. He peered at it closely for a few moments.
Next he pulled a small paper bag and wooden toothpick from a leather wallet and began scraping beneath the man’s fingernails, catching any resulting detritus in the bag.
Bainbridge leaned closer, lowering his voice to a whisper. “What’s he doing, Doctor?”
“Oh, don’t worry, Inspector,” I replied, laughing. “This is quite typical of Holmes. Volunteers me to do the examination but can’t resist taking a look himself.”
Holmes had begun muttering beneath his breath. “…no obvious signs of poison, no puncture wounds, no -” he stopped suddenly, beckoning me over. “Ah, Watson! Look here! Bruises on the upper arms.”
“The poor chap is covered in bruises, Mr. Holmes,” said Bainbridge. “I really can’t -”
“No, indeed you can’t, Inspector,” interrupted Holmes, brusquely. He abandoned his examination of the corpse and strode across the room to where Bainbridge stood watching. “Your police surgeon has once again offered up a slapdash job. The bruises here are entirely consistent with two people grasping hold of Sir Theobald, their hands beneath his arms, just so…” He reached out and grabbed Bainbridge, hoisting him up onto his tiptoes and causing him to splutter and flush in consternation.
“Yes,” I said, intrigued now by Holmes’s findings. “You can see how they must have taken his weight.”
“Meaning?” said Bainbridge, smoothing down the front of his suit and eyeing Holmes nervously.
“Meaning the case is not quite as cut and dried as it at first appeared,” said Holmes. “Wouldn’t you agree, Inspector?”
“It certainly sounds that way, Mr. Holmes,” replied Bainbridge, with a heavy sigh. “Although I admit, I rather wish it wasn’t. I have my work cut out as it is, what with this iron men business. Let alone another murder enquiry.”
“The iron men case,” said Holmes, “how interesting.”
“Oh, believe me, you’re welcome to it, Mr. Holmes, if the matter’s taken your fancy,” said Bainbridge, with feeling. “It’s a damnable business, make no mistake.”
Holmes smiled. “I fear not, Inspector. I deal with men, not phantoms. Such as the men who saw to it that Sir Theobald fell to his death.” He appeared to make a decision. “Watson. I think we’ve seen enough. Let us make haste to St. John’s Wood, and the late Sir Theobald’s home.”
“Right you are, Holmes,” I said.
Holmes was already making for the door, and I rushed to keep up with him. “Er… my thanks to you, Inspector.” I called over my shoulder to Bainbridge, who stood watching us leave, wearing something of a bemused expression.
“Right! Yes. Good day to you, Doctor,” he called in response. “It sounds as if I’ll be seeing you again very shortly.”
He did not seem overly amused by the idea.