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Wednesday 2 August 2023

‘Sherlock Holmes and the Legend of the Great Auk’ by Linda Stratmann

Published by Sapere Books,
23 June 2023.
ISBN: ‎978-0-85495041-6 (PB)

These stories of the early adventures of Sherlock Holmes are narrated in the memoirs of Doctor Arthur Stamford, the medical man who was Holmes’ friend and companion in detection when they were both students in London, before Holmes met his main biographer, Dr Watson.

In the first adventure that Holmes and Stamford shared they won the gratitude of the officials at the British Museum when they solved a mystery involving a great treasure of the Museum, the Rosetta Stone. As a result of this they are often invited to private views of new exhibitions. Usually, Holmes and Stamford are not interested enough in to make the time to accept these invitations, but they decide to attend the private unveiling of a new ornithological exhibit, a stuffed and mounted specimen of the Great Auk, a large flightless bird, which in the year of the exhibition, 1877, is believed to be extinct.

The Great Auk has been donated as part of the estate of Sir Andrew Caldie, a keen amateur ornithologist who had died the previous year. The select audience includes the eminent ornithologists who verified the authenticity of the exhibit, including the superintendent of the museum’s natural history department, Sir Richard Owen, and Sir Andrew Caldie’s grandchildren and heirs to his fortune, Mr and Miss Caldie. Also present was the eminent editor of the Ibis magazine and, far less well known, the editor of The Natural History Review, Mr Smith. Smith is younger than most of the academics present, and he appears to be dangerously overwrought. When the Great Auk is revealed, he rants at Sir Richard Owen, accusing him of fraudulent practices, he then tries to attack the glass front of the cabinet that houses the exhibit with a small hammer. Holmes acts swiftly to subdue Smith and the officials of the British Museum decide not to prosecute him, especially when they realise that he is the son of an ornithologist who died recently in tragic circumstances. According to newspaper reports, the young man’s father, Professor Smith, committed suicide by cutting his throat, after attacking his wife with a razor blade. This tragedy occurred before their son returned from his employment in New Zealand, and Mrs Smith was rescued by the coal delivery man who burst into the house when he heard her screams. Smith blames Sir Richard Owen for his father’s mental breakdown because he believes that Owen unfairly built his career on Professor’s Smith’s work.

Holmes writes to Smith, offering to call and return his geologists’ hammer, and Smith replies thanking Holmes for his intervention and saying that if Holmes visits his house on the following Saturday, Smith will explain his reason for suspecting the provenance of the stuffed Great Auk.

Everybody present at the altercation at the British Museum has given their word not to speak of Smith’s accusations about the authenticity of the Great Auk but wild stories appear in some popular newspapers. Most people blame Smith but Holmes is not convinced that the young man is guilty of this indiscretion.

The newspaper publicity has two effects involving Holmes. Two of the eminent ornithologists who had validated the authenticity of the exhibit request Holmes to help them to dispel the doubt about the bird while, at the same time, concealing any hint of where the specimen originated. Although, the Great Auk is believed to be extinct, the senior ornithologist harbours a hope that the bird may still exist and does not wish to endanger any survivors by revealing their location. Also, Holmes is summoned by Miss and Mr Caldie, who wish him to prove the validity of the specimen donated by their grandfather to save his reputation and that of their family name. The two siblings are very different types of people: Miss Caldie is a serious-minded young woman who is determined to spend her fortune on a foundation to provide education for young women; her brother is a sybaritic wastrel who has already gambled away much of his inheritance.

Before Holmes and Stamford can keep their appointment with Smith he goes missing and is discovered beaten to death. The investigation transforms from academic interest in an almost certainly extinct bird and becomes a mission to discover the truth about the brutal murder of a young man. Stamford is an inoffensive young man, who unlike his successor, Watson, has little expertise in weapons and self-defence, and an unwise foray into the world of public house gambling leads him into a dangerous. potentially fatal situation.

Sherlock Holmes and the Legend of the Great Auk is the fifth book in the series featuring the early adventures of Sherlock Holmes as narrated by Arthur Stamford. This is an excellent series, which grows stronger all the time. An investigation that starts as a matter of academic interest turns into the hunt for a monstrous killer. In this book we discover more about the background of Stamford, a young man who, because he comes of an ordinary working family, feels like an outsider amongst the more privileged medical students, which does much to explain his friendship with the consummate loner, Holmes. The plot is complex with several strands of investigation and the historical detail is authentic and immaculately researched. As a protagonist, Stamford is engaging, especially as he reveals a disarming candour about his own shortcomings, and Holmes is a far more sympathetic character when seen through his narrator’s eyes. Sherlock Holmes and the Legend of the Great Auk is a superb read which I recommend.
Reviewer:  Carol Westron

Linda Stratmann was born in Leicester in 1948 and first started scribbling stories and poems at the age of six. She became interested in true crime when watching Edgar Lustgarten on TV in the 1950s. Linda attended Wyggeston Girls Grammar School, trained to be a chemist’s dispenser, and later studied at Newcastle University where she obtained a first in Psychology. She then spent 27 years in the civil service before leaving to devote her time to writing. Linda loves spending time in libraries and archives and really enjoys giving talks on her subject.

Carol Westronis a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  Her first book The Terminal Velocity of Cats was published in 2013. Since then, she has since written 5 further mysteries. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.

To read a review of Carol latest book
The Curse of the Concrete Griffin
click on the title.

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