By way of introduction…
In perusing my extensive notes, I find that the adventures in Timbuktu of my friend, the eminent consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, stand out for their extraordinary complexity and cultural richness. And yet, it has been necessary to keep the matter utterly secret all this time, though for reasons outside some associated diplomatic sensitivities. The reader will soon understand why.
I have faithfully—and, I believe, accurately—documented over three hundred situations where Holmes’ dexterity made all the difference, often in matters involving life and death. That is an interesting turn of phrase I have stumbled upon while writ- ing, because this particular chronicle addresses that aspect of the human experience. Concepts like God, reincarnation, souls, and so on present difficulties to the logical mind. Yet religion thrives, with the mass of humanity believing that the universe is under the control of a benign power, who demands obedience, placation, and worship in many odd and sophisticated ways.
It is admirable that modern education frowns on what cannot be tested and verified. This is necessary for the vast majority of our sciences. I can hardly imagine my patients being satisfied with vague and dramatic pronunciations of appeals to spirits for healing if they were to seek the alleviating of a stomachache, for example. And yet such is the case in many parts of the world untouched by modern medicine and its principles. Men and women would rather pray to unseen temperamental spirits, who must be addressed just so, rather than accept the products of scrupulous scientific inquiry that are repeatable and validated by peer review.
No, this story (1) is not about magic. Sherlock Holmes was always contemptuous of the black arts, demonstrating to me more than once, with chemicals and logic, how a clever man could take advantage of the credulity of thousands. It can also be argued that what we know today may be a fraction of all that really exists, and therefore, when confronted with entirely new situations, we may not have a ready explanation that science accepts. The use of the telephone in large parts of the civilized world is endemic; we may lift the phone and ask an operator to place a call to someone many hundreds of miles away and have a conversation. While the entire principle of telephony is based on scientific logic involving magnetism and electricity, perhaps a hundred years ago we might have summarily dismissed the possibility of speaking to another person in such a manner through copper wires. In fact, had some- one even suggested this, execution might have followed in certain countries where allegations of witchcraft invariably end badly for the dilettante inventor. The world is indeed moving forward. Who can say how we shall be communicating a hundred years from now? Perhaps we will not need wires or even operators.
But I digress.
What followed after the events at Reichenbach Falls has been debated extensively. Many theories were propounded by members of an excitable public seeking satisfactory closure. Some said Sherlock Holmes had spent the period in Japan assisting the Emperor Meiji. Others insisted that he had spent time in a monastery in Tibet as some kind of advisor to the Dalai Lama. Many swore that Holmes had been sighted in the United States, providing confidential counsel to the President. I listened to these fanciful theories and refused to be provoked to comment. I held back even when charlatans claiming to have conclusive information about Holmes’ secret life as an undertaker in Edinburgh—which they would part with for a fee—tried to swindle members of the public with the guarantee of a personal meeting. It is painful for me to state how remarkably gullible the average citizen is. So convinced is he of a particular viewpoint that he reacts with righteous indignation if any other theory—nay, even the truth!—is advanced. This is true of religion, too, the reader will agree, in which indoctrination from an early age renders the mind incapable of even considering an alternative viewpoint. Indeed, it once happened that a devout reader almost assaulted me in London, claiming that my entire body of work could be considered heretical because I had had the temerity to state that one or more stories were, in hindsight, entirely false. He spoke of “The Canon,” and made much of it, and called me an imposter. Yes, me, Dr. John Watson.
But the passage of time and the need to clarify certain matters has now made it necessary for me to place before you the truth. Our unusual journey through the Sahara Desert to the ancient city of Timbuktu and then to the lower Nile Valley needs to be brought forward so that the uncomfortable questions raised in Parliament recently are put to rest, specifically with regard to the meeting we had with the khalifa in Khartoum, the details of which Holmes conveyed in a confidential note to the Foreign Office. Unfortunately, the Vatican has refused to confirm or deny the related events and claims, leaving us with no alternative but to put the matter before the public and appeal to its sense of discernment. My solicitors are prepared to respond to any legal challenge from allegedly affected parties, but we suspect that eventuality is extremely unlikely, given the embarrassment that may result. I have, as you might expect, carefully masked some names and changed dates and locations in order to prevent the eruption of an unintentional international crisis. I am pleased to say that Mycroft Holmes, very likely the most profound thinker of our times and deeply influential at the Home Office, returned my manuscript with only an exclamation mark noted on the first page, which I took as a compliment for my diligent work. Sherlock Holmes, too, gave me his tacit approval, albeit with a sardonic smile. He has lately been consumed by the energies required to produce a series of monographs that were a direct consequence of our remarkable experiences. I am not assisting him in this exercise, as I have never been enamoured of monographs.an alternative viewpoint. Indeed, it once happened that a devout reader almost assaulted me in London, claiming that my entire body of work could be considered heretical because I had had the temerity to state that one or more stories were, in hindsight, entirely false. He spoke of “The Canon,” and made much of it, and called me an imposter. Yes, me, Dr. John Watson.
It is a truism that men are the same everywhere. If there is a shortcut available to acquiring wealth and power, and settling scores, and if their value systems permit and they think no one is looking, they will use that shortcut with little regard for how their actions might impact others. The regrettably bloodthirsty public relishes horrendous crimes followed by the apprehending of the perpetrators. My published stories of Sherlock Holmes have been popular for that reason; they appeal to the reader’s sense of righteousness and the need for a noble closure. Yet we have kept away from the public a very large number of cases that have to do with thwarting of intent. Just under the surface of awareness lurk motivated men and women with unspeakable evil in their hearts, seeking to destroy people, institutions, and nations. Had it not been for the highly developed logical mind of Holmes, I can say with certainty, many families and nations would have been grievously—and permanently—maimed in many ways. There is, I am sorry to say, no “market” for such tales, to use the odious word employed in a letter to me by my editor in the United States of America, a country driven by endless excitement, the boundless pursuit of lucre at the cost of every civil courtesy that one man may extend to another, and an unfortunate celebration of decadence.
This book that you have chosen to acquire, thereby demonstrating the finest of literary tastes (2) and the highest of intelligence, is a chronicle of the period between the (false) story of the demise of Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls and his supposed miraculous reappearance in the enticingly titled story “The Empty House.” In this book, you will observe how the world has shrunk: China, India, Sudan, Egypt, Morocco, Italy, and Mali have all been woven together with the invisible threads of human endeavour through the passage of time. History, geography, culture, music, and—regrettably, perhaps—crime will find a place in subsequent pages. The magnificent, incandescent presence of Sherlock Holmes permeates each page of this chronicle.
John H. Watson M.D.
London 26th May 1909
- Many have remarked that this is one of the most extraordinary pieces of writing they have yet encountered.
2. A Swedish gentleman, Alfred Nobel, invited me to Paris for a private discussion on the matter in November 1895. Unfortunately, pressing matters pertaining to the confounding disappearance of the Earl of Gloucester’s wife detained Holmes and me, leading to a misunderstanding. I understand he subsequently set up a much-coveted prize for the literary arts and, I am told, referred specifically to me as one of his inspirations and the obvious winner. I may clarify that had I been nominated, I would have declined. I affirm that I never wrote the chronicles for recognition or acclaim. A newly evolving term “best-seller” typifies, I regret to say, an insecure author’s constant need to seek validation of his efforts by assuming that unthinking social behaviour (akin to the behaviour of lemmings) translates to a positive certification.