We’re pleased to be able to bring you an excerpt from George Mann’s new novel, Sherlock Holmes: The Spirit Box (available today from Titan Books)!
Here’s what the book is about:
Summer, 1915. As Zeppelins rain death upon the rooftops of London, eminent members of society begin to behave erratically: a Member of Parliament throws himself naked into the Thames after giving a pro-German speech to the House; a senior military advisor suggests surrender before feeding himself to a tiger at London Zoo; a famed suffragette suddenly renounces the women’s liberation movement and throws herself under a train.
In desperation, an aged Mycroft Holmes sends to Sussex for the help of his brother, Sherlock.
Read on for the excerpt!
Herbert Grange’s house was a relatively modest property for a man of his standing; a recently built, mid-terraced home in a reasonable, but not particularly affluent area. The small front garden was not yet mature, but a row of glorious red roses spilled over the dwarf wall, poking out through gaps in the cast iron railings.
There were no lights on in the front room, although the curtains had been closed in the bay window. It simply looked as if nobody had arrived home from work that day; as if the house was still waiting for Grange to return. The thought made me shudder, recalling images of his bloated, distended body. If it hadn’t been for the soft yellow glow leaching out through the glass panel above the front door, offering evidence of recent occupation, the place would have seemed entirely unwelcoming. Clearly, however, Inspector Foulkes had arrived before us.
Holmes had telephoned ahead to Scotland Yard, requesting that Foulkes meet us at Grange’s house, and judging by the light in the hall and the automobile parked in front of the building, he’d already arrived.
My stomach was grumbling, and I hoped what remained of the evening’s endeavours would not take long. I was sure that both Holmes and I would benefit from a hot meal at my club.
Despite this distinct lack of sustenance, I could not avoid the fact that I’d enjoyed myself more that day than I had in quite some years. It felt good to be working with Holmes again, not only because I had missed my friend dearly during the months since our last adventure, but because I felt that, finally, I was able to do some good. The war had left me feeling helpless and old, but Holmes’s arrival and insistence on my help had reminded me what it was to be useful. To be a man who made a difference.
I glanced across at him, only to discover he was already climbing out of the motorcar, despite the fact we had not yet come to a complete stop. I mobilised myself quickly in order to keep up.
“You should come inside with us, Carter,” I said to our driver, as I opened the door and climbed down into the road. “You’ll catch your death out here.” The sun had long since set above London, and the bright, clear skies of earlier had given way to a chill and starry evening.
“Oh, don’t worry about me, Dr. Watson. I’m quite happy to wait for you out here. I’ve a good book and a warm coat. You go about your business, and I’ll be right here waiting for you when you’re ready.”
“If you’re sure?” I said, offering him a final chance to change his mind.
“Perfectly sure, Dr. Watson,” he replied.
I took him at his word, hurrying round the vehicle to catch up with Holmes. “Decent chap, that Carter,” I said.
“Quite,” replied Holmes. “Shame about his heart.”
“His heart?” I queried. “What the devil do you mean, Holmes?”
Holmes issued a disapproving ‘tut’. “Watson, I should have thought to a medical man it was obvious. Our driver suffers from a chronic weakness of the heart. Consider the facts: pale skin, breathlessness…”
“The very fact he’s here, in London, rather than at the front…” I cursed myself for my poor observation. “I should have seen it. Poor boy.”
Holmes said nothing, but took the steps up to the house and rapped loudly on the door with the brass knocker. It was cast in the shape of a rather undignified, impish face, its mouth fixed open in a screaming grimace.
Footsteps followed, and a moment later the door yawned open and Inspector Foulkes stood in the light, his considerable figure cast in stark silhouette. “Evening, gentlemen,” he said. His voice sounded muffled, and it took a moment before I was able to discern that he was speaking around the mouthpiece of a pipe, which he’d clenched between his teeth. “This is something of an unconventional hour to be making house calls.”
I offered him an apologetic shrug from behind Holmes.
“Well come in, come in.” He stood to one side and ushered us both over the threshold.
“I understand, Inspector, that Herbert Grange lived alone,” said Holmes.
“That’s correct, Mr. Holmes. He was a bachelor,” replied Foulkes.
“No lodgers, tenants, housekeeper?”
“The housekeeper comes in on Monday, Wednesday and Friday to take care of the washing and cleaning. I gather Mr. Grange had no love of home cooking and preferred to eat out.” Foulkes shook his head, as if finding it difficult to comprehend such a notion. Holmes had already pushed on past him and was at the other end of the hallway, taking stock of his surroundings. “There were no lodgers or other inhabitants,” added Foulkes.
“Very good,” said Holmes. “Now, if you’ll give me leave?”
“Be my guest,” said Foulkes, with a gregarious shrug. “Take as long as you need.” At this, I felt my stomach grumble once again. “We’ve disturbed nothing. The house is as it was the day Grange died.”
“Excellent,” said Holmes. He passed along the hallway and disappeared down the short flight of steps to the kitchen.
Foulkes glanced at me, realised that I was not about to follow Holmes, and gestured for me to join him in the sitting room instead while we waited.
The room, and from what I could gather the rest of the house, was well appointed. Grange had obviously lived comfortably, and lived well. The house had the well-worn feel of a place that had been inhabited. Trinkets clustered on the mantelpiece, and on top of the sideboard stood framed photographs of people I took to be close friends and family.
Papers were spread out on a small table beside a high-backed chair in the bay window. A cut glass decanter and a half-finished tumbler of whiskey had been placed on top of them.
The curtains were drawn, but I had the distinct impression that the room was indeed very much how Grange had left it, as if he had simply got up from where he’d been sitting and left for the day, with every intention of returning later.
“So, Dr. Watson,” said Foulkes, “did you manage to turn up anything useful at the War Office?”
I shrugged. “With Holmes, even the most trifling detail might be the key to unlocking a mystery, but I fear his method is not to reveal anything until much later in the game.”
Foulkes nodded. “Keeps his cards close to his chest, does he? Can’t say I blame him. Although I admit, Doctor, this whole business has me somewhat baffled. I mean – a suicide is a suicide, is it not? No matter the victim or how much it pains us to acknowledge their rather unseemly deed. I cannot see that there is much of a mystery to unravel.”
“I rather fear that if the matter has piqued Holmes’s interest – and, indeed, that of his brother – then there will be layers to this case that have yet to become apparent,” I replied.
We lapsed into silence for a moment, both standing by the fireplace, contemplating the implications of what I’d said. After a while I noticed that my back was beginning to ache, and cursed myself for not taking more care. I wasn’t getting any younger, and I’d pushed myself harder that day than I had in months, if not years. That was the thing about spending time with Holmes, I realised – being caught up in a new case, dashing about like we had when we were younger – it felt a little like old times. There was a joy in that, of course, but nevertheless, I had to remind myself that I no longer had the stamina I once did.
“Do you mind if I sit?” I said. “It’s been something of a trying day.”
“Not at all,” replied Foulkes. “Help yourself.”
I chose the armchair by the window and slumped into it gratefully. Foulkes, in the meantime, had drifted over to the sideboard, where he was taking in the unsmiling faces in the photographs. I cast around, looking for anything of interest.
The papers on the small table caught my eye and I reached for them, sliding a handful out from beneath the decanter, careful not to spill the remains of Grange’s drink in the process. I transferred them to my knee. They were, it seemed, a series of bizarre photographs.
Clearly the subject was Grange himself, sitting in a repeated pose across six photographs: a head and shoulders shot. His expression was decidedly serious, perhaps even vacant, as he stared, unseeing, into the lens of the camera. The photographs had clearly been taken in sequence; although his pose had not altered, there were minute alterations in the curve of his lips, the direction of his eyes. Most unusual, however, was what could be seen above Grange’s head.
In every print there were strange shapes and cloudy patterns, like some sort of gaseous aura surrounding the man. The pattern changed from photograph to photograph, but it was clearly present in all of them. I peered more closely. Within these patterns were striations, segregated bands like the pattern of a rainbow, and just as colourful, despite the sepia tone of the photographs themselves. They were unlike anything I had ever seen.
“What do you make of these?” I said to Foulkes, holding them aloft.
He turned, saw what I was looking at and crossed the room to stand over me, looking down on the photographs. “Yes. Damned unusual, aren’t they?” he said. “Some sort of double exposure, I presume. A sequence of portraits that have gone wrong.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so, no. Look at Grange himself. His image is sharp and clearly in focus. If the photographs were double exposed, it would be evident here, as well. And besides, look at his countenance, his posture. He’s not posing for a studio portrait. It’s as if he’s not really there. He looks – well, haunted, I suppose. He doesn’t look engaged. No, this is something else.”
“Then what?” said Foulkes. “I suppose it could be some sort of gas or vapour, swirling around above and behind him. But what about those colours? How did the photographer achieve that?”
“Good point,” I said, intrigued. I simply couldn’t fathom the look on the man’s face. Had he been planning his own death, even here, in these strangely crafted shots? Did he know what was coming?
I looked up at the sound of footsteps in the hall outside. “Let’s see what Holmes makes of them,” I said, getting to my feet.
As expected, Holmes appeared in the doorway a moment later. He looked pleased with himself.
“Well?” said Foulkes.
“This,” said Holmes “is in no way the home of a man who planned to commit suicide. If his death was premeditated, it was not by Grange himself. I have studied the habits of many diverse victims in my time, Inspector, and a man who does not intend to return home from work does not leave the remnants of his breakfast on the kitchen table, his bed unmade and entries in his diary for events still to be fulfilled.”
“Yes, I had that sense too,” I said. “The place feels as if he simply got up and went to work in the usual sort of hurry; that he intended to return home later to see to it all.”
“Precisely, Watson,” agreed Holmes. “It is the tendency of suicides, in my experience, to put their homes in order before committing the fateful deed. It brings a note of finality to proceedings, helps them to prepare.” He paced back and forth as he spoke, his eyes flicking from the mantelpiece, to the sideboard, to the ticking clock. “It is my belief that Grange fully intended to return home from work on the evening upon which he died.”
“Then you do suspect foul play,” said Foulkes.
“It is the only logical conclusion,” said Holmes.
“Murder, then?” I suggested.
Holmes shook his head. “Perhaps by proxy,” he replied. “I do not for a moment believe that anyone but Grange himself had a hand in arranging his plunge into the Thames, but as to whether he was in his right mind, and whether another had placed an undue and unwelcome influence upon him – well, that reminds to be seen.”
“Though you suspect that to be the case?” said Foulkes.
“I suspect nothing,” said Holmes, a little sharply. “I deal only in facts. To drawn any conclusions at this juncture would be tantamount to guess work. I had assumed that Chief Inspector Bainbridge might have impressed such cardinal principles upon his replacement before he retired.”
Foulkes flushed a bright shade of cerise.
I coughed, drawing attention away from the rather embarrassing conversation.
Holmes peered at me inquisitively. “Do I take it, Watson, that you have found something worthy of consideration?”
I glanced down at the photographs in my hand. “Well… I… oh, goodness knows,” I said. “See what you make of these, Holmes.”
I crossed the room and handed him the bundle of prints. He leafed through them with interest.
“Well?” I prompted, after a short while. Holmes glanced up at Foulkes. “Inspector, have you any indication that Mr. Grange might have shown a particular interest in matters of the spiritual or the occult?”
Foulkes looked perplexed. “No, not at all,” he said. “I’ve heard or seen nothing to support that claim.”
Holmes gave a brief nod of acknowledgement. “Indeed, quite the same can be said of his home. I see no evidence here – these photographs aside – of a particular fascination with such trivia.” This last word was accompanied by a derisory snort, indicative of perhaps Holmes’s most unsavoury trait: his lack of empathy and his distinct inability to engage in the idea that others might find comfort in notions or beliefs that he himself had previously disregarded.
“Yet, here are the photographs,” I said, a little haughtily. “And clearly you take them to be examples of the sort of spiritualist material that we have often seen purported to present evidence of the supernatural realm.” I was referring, of course, to the many cases Holmes had dismissed over the years when, upon allowing a visitor to seek consultation in our Baker Street sitting-room, they had gone on to produce folders full of similar works, asking for Holmes’s assistance in contacting a late family member, or laying an errant spirit to rest. He had never had time for such nonsense, and while I consider myself a typically open-minded chap, as a man of science I had been forced to agree with him.
Nevertheless, the manner of his rejection had always left something to be desired, particularly when handling the rather sensitive needs of a person who had recently been bereaved.
“Poppycock,” said Holmes, as if to underline my thoughts. “Hokum.”
“Nevertheless, I am right,” I pressed.
Holmes sighed theatrically. “Quite so, Watson. Quite so. These photographs do, indeed, appear to have some connection with that murky world of showmanship, extortion and irrational credulity.”
“An indicator, perhaps, of his state of mind, close to the time of his death?” I suggested.
Holmes shrugged. “All evidence points to the contrary, Watson, as I have already outlined. No, there is something more going on here.”
“Have you ever seen anything like it?” asked Foulkes. “This halo effect around the subject’s head. The colours…”
“They are quite singular,” agreed Holmes. “The ingenuity behind their creation is remarkable.”
“I was just saying to Fou -” I started, braking off suddenly at the deafening crump of a detonation from somewhere nearby. The house trembled around us, the windows rattling in their frames.
“Good Lord!” bellowed Foulkes. “What the Devil…?”
The echo of the explosion was still ringing loudly in my ears. It had been very close, no more than a few streets away. I looked at Holmes. “Zeppelins,” I said.
Holmes went to the door, as if to head out into the street.
“Wait!” I called, sternly, and to my surprise he stopped, his hand upon the doorknob. “Stay inside,” I added. “There’ll be more bombs to come.” He backed away, crossing the room to stand beside me.
As if to ratify my point, the sound of another nearby explosion caused us all to flinch. This time it was close enough to make my teeth feel as if they were rattling inside my skull.
“They’re damn close,” I said. “And coming this way.” I crossed to the window and parted the curtains, peering out into the night sky. Sure enough, the silvery lozenge of a German zeppelin drifted lazily across the sky, under-lit by the wavering pillars of searchlight beams. From somewhere close by the dull thud of anti-aircraft fire started up, like the roar of distant thunder. The zeppelin seemed unconcerned by this noisy banter, however, continuing on its slow pass over the city.
Oily smoke over the rooftops marked the trail it had left, from tumbling incendiary devices, and worse, explosive payloads like the two that had just been deployed.
“I’d suggest you step away from the window, Dr. Watson,” said Foulkes. “If another of those ruddy bombs goes off, you could find yourself on the receiving end of the blast.”
“Yes,” I said, allowing the curtain to drop and backing away. “Of course, you’re right.” I looked to Holmes. “I think we’d better lay low until it’s passed over. We’ll be in more danger if we try to make a run for it. Shall we see if we can rustle up some tea?”
Holmes looked distracted. “What? Yes, of course,” he said, although I knew that he hadn’t really heard me. He’d been thinking about the bombs, about the people trapped in the burning buildings, the imminent danger. I’d never seen him quite like this before – the look of sheer impotence on his face. He clearly wanted to do something, but there was nothing he could do.
We’d faced danger together countless times before, of course, but this time the enemy was not simply a criminal out for revenge, or a murderer attempting to flee. There was no master plan at work here, no trail of clues to uncover. This was not an enemy that Holmes could understand and outwit, but rather an implacable, faceless foe, and the realisation of that, I believe, was quite startling to him.
In all the years he’d been hiding away in Sussex with his bees the world had changed, and there, in Grange’s house that night, his disassociation with the modern age was brought to the fore in sharp relief. Where Foulkes and I had remained in London, and had consequently witnessed the horrors of the war first hand, Holmes had only read the reports in the newspapers, or heard them recited on the wireless. Witnessing them directly had momentarily stopped him in his tracks.
“I’ll do it,” I said, deciding to give him a moment. I started toward the door, but as I did so there was a momentary stillness. Then a bomb exploded in the street outside.
The percussive boom of the blast was like a terrifying thunderclap, and the force of it bowled me forward, sending me sprawling across the sitting room floor. I landed face down on the burgundy rug, jarring my elbow and knocking the wind from my lungs. It felt as if I’d been shoved between the shoulder blades.
I rolled onto my side, trying to catch my breath. My hands were smarting, and my ears were ringing so that I couldn’t hear anything but the sound of my own heartbeat, thumping ten to the dozen.
I propped myself up, gasping, trying to get a measure of what had occurred. Holmes was on the floor beside me, stirring and in the process of picking himself up. He had a small cut on his left cheek, but otherwise seemed unharmed.
Foulkes was over the other side of the room, close to the sideboard, and had already regained his footing. He was dusting shards of broken glass from his trousers.
The bay windows had shattered in the explosion, and a spear of broken glass – a jagged shard about as long as my arm – had skewered the chair I’d been sitting in just a few minutes earlier. I swallowed. If I hadn’t moved, or if Foulkes hadn’t urged me to step away from the window, it would have been buried in my chest now.
Fragments of glass were scattered all across the floor, and the edges of the curtains were on fire. I scrambled to my feet, skidding on broken shards, and rushed over to the window. “Help me!” I called to the others, grabbing the nearest smouldering curtain and tugging it down from the pole. The pole itself came away from the wall with my frantic wrenching, and I hastily bundled it all up together, tossing it out through the now empty window frame into the front garden. I realised Foulkes had joined me and was following suit.
Within a moment or two, the fire was safely confined to the garden.
I sighed with something akin to relief. My hearing was starting to return in stuttering episodes, increasing in frequency, and we were all still alive and mercifully uninjured.
Through the blasted frame, I took in the scene of utter devastation in the street outside. Many of the houses hadn’t been as lucky as Grange’s – the roofs and frontages had been severely damaged and small fires licked hungrily at exposed beams. People were spilling out into the street, desperately laden down with their children and armfuls of their prized possessions. A portion of the road itself had largely disappeared, in its place a crater the size of an omnibus, the tarmac cracked and splintered around the lip. Thick smoke hung in the air.
The ringing bells of ambulances were converging on our location, mingling with the sorrowful cries of children and the dispossessed.
I looked up, searching for the perpetrator. Searchlights still pierced the sky, but the zeppelin was now receding into the distance, its havoc wreaked, at least on this small area of the city. I had no doubt that there would be more to come before the night was out.
I would be glad to get home, although I guessed that Carter might have to abandon his vehicle for the night and join us on foot, at least until we could pick up a hansom.
And that’s when it dawned on me. Carter. He’d been outside in the motorcar during the blast.
Panicked, I shoved Holmes out of the way – he had come to stand beside me at the window – and rushed to the door. I hurtled along the hallway, flung open the front door and charged down the garden path toward the waiting automobile.
The sight that greeted me was one that I would never forget.
The blast had hit the vehicle with such force that it had tipped it over so that it lay on its side, half up on the pavement. The driver’s door was buckled, so that it had pinned Carter in, trapping his legs beneath the steering wheel. The roaring heat of the explosion had scorched the vehicle so comprehensively that the paint had bubbled from the metal panels. The seats were still smouldering where the leather and stuffing had burned. And Carter, that poor, poor boy, had been torched alive.
The flesh of his face was now a charred and blackened mess, but I could see the fixed expression of horror, the scream of anguish frozen forever in the set of his jaw. I couldn’t help but recall what I had said to him when I’d left him out here by himself, less than an hour earlier: ‘you’ll catch your death’. It was an old expression, but it had proved horrifyingly prophetic.
I sank to my knees, tears welling in my eyes. I felt responsible for the lad, as if I’d somehow let him down. I should have pressed him harder to come inside, demanded that he did as I said. But it was too late, now. There was nothing to be done. Carter had become another victim of the war.
I realised Foulkes and Holmes were standing behind me, and felt Holmes’s hand on my shoulder. He helped me up, and the look on his face was one of heartfelt sorrow. “That poor boy,” he said.
Around us, the ambulances and fire engines had started to arrive on the scene, and the firemen were beginning to round everybody up.
“You should go,” said Foulkes. “Get home before you become embroiled in all of this.”
“We can’t!” I said. “I’m a doctor. I could help.”
Foulkes shook his head. “You’re in no fit state to help, Dr. Watson, and besides, the ambulances are here. There are plenty of doctors and nurses on hand. If anything, you should consider getting yourself looked over.”
“I am quite well,” I said, although in truth, I was wincing with every intake breath.
“The Inspector is right, Watson,” said Holmes. “We can be of little use here. We should take our leave and repair to Ealing, where we can recuperate without distraction. We are neither of us as young as we used to be.”
I glowered at Holmes, but in truth I knew he spoke sense. I noticed he still had the photographs of Grange, tucked under his left arm. “We still have a case to solve, and I am resolved now, more than ever, to see it through,” he said. “That boy gave his life in pursuit of Mycroft’s cause. I shall see the matter resolved.”
“What of Carter?” I said. “We can’t just leave him here. Who’s going to speak to his mother?”
“I will remain here and see to the necessary arrangements, Dr. Watson,” said Foulkes. “Rest assured, I won’t leave until the boy has been extracted from the wreckage and taken to the morgue. I will see to it that the family is informed.”
“Very well,” I said, with a heavy sigh. I could see there was no point arguing, and in truth, my every instinct screamed at me to get as far away from the place as possible.
“Thank you, inspector,” said Holmes. “We shall be in touch.”
“See that you are, Mr. Holmes,” said Foulkes.
“You’re a good man, Inspector Foulkes,” I said. “Bainbridge would be proud.”
“Thank you, Dr. Watson. Now go, before that lot rope you in to start answering questions.”
I nodded, and with one last look at the terrible, charred remains of our driver, I turned and walked away, leaving Holmes behind me to catch up.
[End of excerpt]