“Sigil. Pronounced ‘sijil’. An inscribed or painted symbol or occult sign considered to have magical power.” So begins the very latest Sherlock Holmes mystery and adventure from the pen of Institute member, Tim Symonds: a writer who has immersed himself in the drama and legend of England and the Empire’s greatest detective; and, through his brilliant, authentic re-creations of an era, honours the original work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – to the extent that one could almost believe that a miraculous, ageless Sir Arthur was still writing today.
With each new Sherlock adventure, Tim seems to find ever-more exciting and intriguing adventures for his heroes. From book to book, there is simply no lessening of either inspiration or tension. This time, the action moves to the closed, forbidden celestial world of the imperial Chinese court – to a China (of 1906) a year in which a progressive Ch’ing Emperor finds himself at odds with the old order, in the form of the Empress Dowager – guardian of tradition and an insularity that stretches back to a time out of mind, and where secret symbols – of mysticism and dragons – could mean life or death. But British interests are at stake, and the prospect of uprisings and assassinations could be catastrophic for His Majesty’s Government, playing as it is, ‘The Great Game.’
The Foreign and Colonial Office is treating the situation in the Far East with extreme caution, and so Dr. Watson – experienced in the privations of warfare in remote eastern climes – is sent into China, by long-forgotten, demon-haunted mountain passes from Kashgar and on to the famous Silk Road. The bold ex-army doctor is ready for anything as the adventure truly gets underway: “I have taken to carrying my Webley-Pryse revolver under my jacket. I regret not employing a half-dozen armed convoy bodyguards…” He pitches his tent in – “…a sheltered spot at 13,900 feet, some 1,700 feet below a knife-edge pass. A penetrating wind blew non-stop.” Local colour abounds in the story, as Watson encounters passing tribesmen and (needing added protection from the elements) seems to take a leaf out of Holmes’s book: “A mafoo on a shaggy pony sold me a Mongolian cap, a huge thing of red flannel, wadded and trimmed with fur, with ear-flaps which can be tied under the chin. The cap has already proved of great value.”
Just earlier, Watson had experienced a bizarre encounter with an outlandish fortune-teller – a creature almost not of this world, with a smile displaying: “… four or five teeth running together in one piece, like a bone.” I will not spoil the plot for you, dear reader, but suffice it to say that nothing in the adventure if quite what it seems…
Once in China, Watson is reunited with the great man of Baker Street, but so conspiratorial and dangerous is the situation that communication with the outside world cannot be through conventional means. Instead, messages have to be relayed via a Royal Navy cruiser in Hong Kong harbour – lest infamous forces discover Holmes’s strategy. The threat of death at any moment – of pitiless power-struggles and mysterious poisons – hangs over the imperial court. But what could possibly be the connection between one of the leading players in this curious world, and a meeting earlier in England between Watson and an oriental fellow dressed in a “tailored hacking jacket and checked cravat” with a keen interest in the countryside and flora of Southern England?
All will be revealed in this, the most elusive and inscrutable of Tim Symonds’s Sherlock series.
Sherlock Holmes and the Nine-Dragon Sigil by Tim Symonds, MX Publishing, 364 pages, paperback , ISBN 978-1-78705-035-8