We’re pleased to once again bring you an excerpt, this time from James Lovegrove’s new novel, Sherlock Holmes: Gods of War (available this week from Titan Books)!
Here’s what the book is about:
1913. The clouds of war are gathering. The world’s great empires vie for supremacy. Europe is in turmoil, a powder keg awaiting a spark. A body is discovered on the shore below Beachy Head, just a mile from Sherlock Holmes’s retirement cottage. The local police are satisfied that it’s a suicide. The victim, a young man, recently suffered a disappointment in love, and Beachy Head is notorious as a place where the desperate and depressed leap to their deaths. Holmes, however, suspects murder. As he and Watson investigate, they uncover a conspiracy with shocking ramifications.
Read on for an excerpt!
We arrived at a stretch of elegant park, complete with boating lake, putting course and bowling green. Beyond lay scrubland, and it was here that the circus was situated, within a stone’s throw of the sea. The red-and-white Big Top dominated, its canvas snapping and its guy-ropes twanging in the persistent onshore breeze. People were drifting into the tent, the matinee performance due to begin in half an hour. Barrel organ music played jauntily and, more distantly, a lion roared. A burly strongman in a leopard-skin tunic strode past us carrying a two-hundred-pound barbell on his shoulder as though it weighed no more than an umbrella. A clown juggled a half-dozen balls, much to the delight of a small knot of children.
Holmes did not head for the Big Top but rather diverted past it to a longer, lower tent. Around the entrance a painted hoarding announced that this was McMahon’s World-Famous Freak Show – A Cavalcade of Oddities, Monstrosities, and Curiosities! Holmes paid the sixpence entry fee for each of us, and as we stepped inside he murmured to me, “I don’t suppose you happen to have brought your trusty service revolver along, have you?”
“Holmes, I haven’t fired the thing in anger in nigh on ten years. My wife won’t even allow it in the house.”
“That’s a no, then.”
“Forgive me but I hardly could have predicted I would need a gun. This was meant to be a social visit, old friends catching up, not two superannuated sleuths rushing headlong into danger. There is, I take it, some risk attached to what we’re doing?”
“Perhaps, perhaps not. I asked about your revolver more in hope than expectation. It never hurts to take precautions. On balance, however, I believe we are both up to the task of collaring the suspect should he refuse to come quietly. My baritsu skills have not entirely deserted me, in spite of a lack of practice, and I’m sure your military training is still embedded in your muscles, for all that it’s been more than three decades since you were on campaign. The reflexes remember, even if the mind thinks it has forgotten.”
Holmes’s faith in my combat prowess, while I was sure it was hopelessly misplaced, was nonetheless heartening.
The freak show tent smelled of mud, trampled grass, and a strange, indefinable odour which I am going to call “fascinated revulsion”. Holmes and I, along with a handful of other paying customers, strolled past a series of roped-off booths where the bizarrest specimens of humanity disported themselves for our benefit.
There was the Tattooed Man, every inch of his bare skin a network of designs and arabesque patterns. There was Giganta, a lady so fat that she appeared to have three chins and a similar number of folds of flesh over each ankle. And of course the obligatory bearded woman, whose luxurious facial hirsuteness would have been the envy of any pirate captain.
There was also an unfortunate afflicted with Von Recklinghausen disease, which had left him with warty growths all over his body, a twisted pelvis and a distended cranium. The swelling of his skull was such that a conical bony protrusion stuck out from the centre of his forehead, and this had earned him the sobriquet the Rhinoceros Man, no doubt in homage to Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, who had suffered from the same syndrome. Holmes and I had made Merrick’s acquaintance during an adventure I have yet to write up but which I am thinking of bestowing with the title “The Deformed Angel”, and I can honestly say I have rarely met a gentler, humbler, more delicately mannered creature than he, for all the grotesqueness of his outer self.
People peered and ogled at the freaks, buoyed up with a sense of “there but for the grace of God go I”. Children, with the absence of self-restraint that is the mark of immaturity, gesticulated and jeered, although some of the adults present behaved little better. One or two of the women, and not a few of the men, looked visibly unwell.
For my part, I was overcome by curiosity, to such an extent that I couldn’t tear my gaze from the array of weirdness and ugliness on display before me, even as I berated myself for my prurience. As a general practitioner it was my sworn duty to treat all the people in my care alike, no matter what repellent medical condition afflicted them, but here, outside my surgery, I found it hard to maintain a professional detachment. I wanted to stare like anyone else, much though I berated myself for it. Wasn’t that what we had paid for – the liberty to regard fellow human beings as dispassionately as though they were museum exhibits? Sixpence was all it cost to leave our sympathy and our decorum at the door.
Holmes touched my elbow. “Ah. Here we are. Watch, Watson.”
On a wooden podium stood a man. Most of him looked fairly normal, apart from his head, which was flattened on top and pointed in front, so much so that his eyes were set further apart than is customary. He was dressed solely in a loincloth, revealing a frame that was thin almost to emaciation. His sign described him as “Reptilio the Human Cobra”. His looks alone seemed deserving of the name, for the profile of his head, with its low brow and forward tapering, reminded me distinctly of that of a snake.
At the centre of the podium was a wire birdcage. Reptilio opened the door, whose dimensions were perhaps seven inches by nine. He inserted one foot in the cage, then, crouching down, the whole of one leg. Before our very eyes he proceeded to introduce the rest of himself into the cage. He bent, twisted and doubled over in ways that the most limber of contortionists would have had difficulty emulating. He seemed able to dislocate his shoulders and hips at will, with no evident distress, and to flex his hinge joints such as the knee and elbow in completely the opposite direction than the good Lord in His wisdom intended. In less than a minute he was fully ensconced inside the cage, and a small tug of his fingers enabled him to close the little door, sealing himself in.
I have to admit I was more than a tad impressed, and more than a tad disconcerted, and I applauded, as did most of the others who formed an audience for the feat, even as I winced squeamishly.
When I perceived that Holmes was not clapping, but rather merely looking on with a wry fascination, that was when it dawned on me that before us lay the accomplice of whoever had masterminded the robbery at Barraclough’s. Only a man as eerily, unnaturally lithe as Reptilio could have wormed down the lightwell and penetrated the cellar via the tiny window.
“Him,” I whispered. “He’s the one.”
“Indubitably,” said my companion. “Just yesterday the redoubtable Mrs Tuppen described to me a trip to this very circus where she had seen a man climb into a birdcage no larger than the one in which she keeps her own pet parrot.” He mimicked his housekeeper’s thin, querulous voice. “‘Tweren’t natural, Mr Holmes. Not right that a man should be able to fold himself like that, like crumpling up a piece of paper. Almost witchcraft, it was.'”
Reptilio undid the cage door and began to climb out. He emerged head first, his peculiarly shaped skull just fitting through the aperture.
“We should rush him now,” I said. “Grab him while he’s still half in, half out and we have him at a disadvantage.”
“Unwise.” Holmes cast a meaningful glance towards a couple of circus employees – roustabouts is I believe what they’re called – who were keeping an eye on things in the freak show tent. Both were big, beefy men with faces that spoke of former careers as bareknuckle pugilists or else a general, leisure-time fondness for fisticuffs. “I’d prefer not to earn the unwanted attention of those two. Anyway, I have a better idea.”
We repaired outside and waited until the freak show closed briefly to allow the “exhibits” a rest. Soon enough the Tattooed Man, Giganta and the rest filed out of the tent, making for the wooden caravans that were parked haphazardly round the back of the Big Top. Holmes and I stole after them, at a distance. We saw Reptilio bid the others a casual farewell and climb the steps into his own caravan.
“Now to beard the serpent in its nest,” said Holmes. “I will approach from the front, formally. You, Watson, are to stay here and stand guard. I fear the Human Cobra may prove as slippery as his namesake, so be prepared and on the alert.”
Holmes knocked on the caravan door, and when Reptilio answered, looking surly and not a little suspicious, my friend launched into a monologue about being a talent scout for a rival circus, they were on the lookout for new acts, the terms of any contract would be highly favourable, et cetera. Reptilio was by no means persuaded at first, but such was Holmes’s silver tongue that he soon began nodding his snakelike head, intrigued. He invited my friend inside, and I remained where I was, some dozen yards from the caravan. Behind me the orchestra in the Big Top struck up a rollicking march, accompanied by the tramp and trumpet of elephants and cheers from the crowd.
Further minutes passed, and I regret to say that my eyelids grew somewhat heavy and began to droop. I had reached the age where some kind of nap during the day was no longer an option, more a necessity, and the urge to take forty winks was pressing hard upon me now.
I had almost dozed off where I stood, when all at once I beheld an eerie sight which jolted me out of my somnolence. Reptilio was squeezing out through a tiny window in the side of his caravan: his head, then one arm, then the top half of a wriggling torso. Feeling a crawl of horripilation up the back of my neck, for a moment or so I was too stunned and aghast to move.
Then a sound of splintering wood issued from within, followed by a sharp, urgent cry in a voice which I recognised as Holmes’s. This roused me from my paralysis, and I dashed over and seized Reptilio firmly by the available wrist.
“Watson!” Holmes called out. “He is trying to get away! Do you have him?”
“I do,” I called back. “Do you?”
“By the heels, literally. But the man’s deuced hard to keep hold of.”
I knew this myself, for I was having difficulty maintaining my grasp on his arm. Reptilio writhed and squirmed like an eel, cursing me and Holmes all the while in terrifically colourful terms. He demanded we release him, on pain of damnation to hell, which made me all the more determined not to comply, and doubtless Holmes too.
Eventually Holmes found a means of securing Reptilio’s legs, and the man was trapped, suspended part-way through the window. The commotion drew people’s notice. One of the roustabouts from the freak show tent came up and challenged me. I stated that I was in the process of making a citizen’s arrest and that Reptilio was wanted in connection with the commission of a burglary. The roustabout expressed scepticism and was on the verge of manhandling me very forcefully when Holmes emerged from the caravan bearing a heavy burlap sack. From it he produced several pieces of jewellery and a loose handful of iridescent black pearls, each the size of a child’s toy marble, of the kind Barraclough had described.
“Is this,” he said to the roustabout, “the usual property of a circus artiste? Are you all in the habit of concealing hundreds of pounds’ worth of gemstones in your caravans?”
The roustabout had to allow that they were not.
“Perhaps, then, you’d be so good as to fetch your employer, Mr McMahon, if he is available.”
The roustabout glanced at Reptilio, poking from the caravan window like some huge misshapen tongue from a pursed mouth, and said, “Yes. I think I’ll do that.”
In no time the circus proprietor was on the scene, an affable, ruddy-cheeked fellow in tweed, and once Holmes had shown him the jewellery, McMahon was in no doubt as to Reptilio’s guilt.
“Up to your old nonsense again, eh?” he said to Reptilio, contempt in his voice. “I gave you fair warning last time, after that business with the banker’s strongbox in Dorchester. It was only you could have done it, what with there being no way in save the chimney. I didn’t speak up then, when I ought to have, and I regret it. Now what have you done? Robbed a jeweller? People like you do little for the reputation of circus folk. You bring shame on us.”
Reptilio blustered, but soon the bluff and bravado turned to spite. “You don’t pay us nearly enough, McMahon,” he snarled. “What kind of life is this anyway? Being paraded in front of all those goggling eyes, those slack jaws, those poking fingers, day after day, night after night. I deserve more than this. I deserve a better life.”
It was tantamount to an admission of guilt. The game was up. Reptilio the Human Cobra had been caught with his ill-gotten gains. Now all that remained was for him to surrender up the identity of his partner in crime.
[End of excerpt]