Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic detective character is mostly in the public domain now, meaning that anyone should be free to create new tales starring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. Novelist George Mann has just published The Spirit Box, a new adventure set in 1915 during the Great War. We've got an exclusive excerpt.
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.
Mann is also the author of the Newbury & Hobbes detective novels and the characters make a cameo appearance in The Spirit Box. Our excerpt from Chapter Three has Holmes and Watson visit the War Office to inquire into the death of military adviser Herbert Grange.
To my untrained eye, the War Office building on Horse Guard’s Avenue was something of a monstrosity. Architecturally speaking, of course, it was a triumph of neo-Baroque design, with high, decorative domes, sculpted window frames and artificial pediments. To my mind, however, it represented everything that war was not; glorious, a thing to be celebrated – cultivated, even. It even looked like a ruddy cathedral.
As I stood there on the pavement looking up at the building, I found it strange to consider that inside that vast edifice, the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener himself, was going about his business, planning our efforts abroad. As an old soldier, a believer in war being a matter for professionals, I had found Kitchener’s rhetoric troubling, his exhorting young men with no experience of military life to join up as if volunteering for a football match.
I had not spoken to Holmes regarding his opinions on the war, and although I knew he did not often interest himself in the murky world of politics, to Holmes a villain was a villain – be they a petty thief, a blackmailer, or a foreign country with which we were at war. I believed the reason he was in London, taking leave of his retirement, was because he felt duty bound to do his bit for the war effort, to use his considerable intellect in assisting his brother to resolve a matter that might yet prove to have far-reaching implications for the morale of the nation.
Of course, there was also the distinct possibility that he was simply bored, and the mystery surrounding the death of Herbert Grange was nothing but a timely diversion. Truthfully, that was the real reason I’d so far avoided enquiring after his thoughts on the matter – in case I found myself frustrated by the self-centred nature of his response.
“So,” I asked of Holmes. “How does one gain entry to the War Office? I don’t imagine it’s as simple as strolling up to the front door and asking to be let in.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Watson,” replied Holmes, with a sly smile. “I often find the direct approach elicits the most satisfactory result. Let us not overcomplicate matters.” With that, he tugged determinedly on the lapels of his overcoat, and then, exuding complete confidence, strode right up to the front door and went in.
I hurried behind him, shaking my head in amusement.
Two soldiers stood just inside the doorway – guards, I presumed – and they eyed us with disinterest as we crossed into the lobby.
I took stock of the lobby. It was everything one would expect from the exterior appearance of the building: opulent and ostentatious. A polished marble floor had been laid in neat, geometric patterns, portraits of former military commanders were hung prominently in a series of alcoves, and a vast chandelier hung on a silver stem from the high, vaulted ceiling. A series of doors opened onto what I assumed to be a network of offices and corridors leading deeper into the building.
There were two Chesterfields against the far wall, and a mahogany reception desk in the centre of the room, behind which stood a middle-aged man in a neat black suit. His hair was thinning, and beneath a clump of wispy grey strands his pate gleamed in the sunlight. His features were craggy and careworn, as if he’d spent a lifetime outdoors, toiling in the sun, and had now, approaching retirement, been co-opted into manning the reception desk of this establishment. It occurred to me that he was probably a retired solider like myself. “Good morning, gentlemen?” he said, as much a question as a greeting.
“We are here,” announced Holmes, “to represent the interests of Mr. Mycroft Holmes. I am Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and this is my associate, Dr. John Watson.”
The man raised an eyebrow, and glanced from one of us to the other. “I take it then, gentlemen, that your visit relates to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the death of Mr. Herbert Grange?” asked the man, who I now took to be a most well-informed butler cum receptionist.
“You surmise correctly, sir,” replied Holmes, with a gracious bow of his head. “We have some questions regarding his last known movements, and I would examine his office if you would grant me leave.”
The man gave a curt nod. “Please wait, Mr. Holmes, Dr. Watson, while I shall consult with my superiors.”
He reached for a telephone receiver, which he plucked from its cradle between finger and thumb as if it were something distasteful. He dialled a number, and waited. A moment later, I heard the crackle of a voice on the other end, although I was unable to discern the precise words.
“Mr. Bates,” said the receptionist. “I have two gentlemen here, claiming to be representatives of Mr. Mycroft Holmes.”
“Yes, that’s right, Mr. Sherlock Holmes and associate. They wish to speak with someone regarding the death of Mr. Grange.” He listened intently, and then placed the receiver back in the cradle.
“Mr. Bates will be with you momentarily,” he said.
“My thanks,” said Holmes.
We moved away from the reception desk while we waited, so as not to be overheard.
“Well, Holmes,” I said. “That was somewhat easier than I expected. Although I wonder if invoking the name of your brother might perhaps count as cheating.”
Holmes allowed a smile to twitch at the edge of his lips.
“A truly great detective makes use of all the many weapons in his arsenal, Watson. My brother is nothing if not comprehensive. Mark my words; his fingerprints are all over this matter. I have no doubt that we are expected.”
As if in confirmation of Holmes’s theory, the door opened and a man in a black suit appeared. He approached us, his eyes lowered. “You are very welcome, sirs,” he said. “My name is Bates. Sergeant John Bates, retired.” He puffed out his chest as he delivered this piece of information, clearly proud of his former career. It was heartening to see. “I am to remain in your company for the duration of your visit. I shall escort you to the late Mr. Grange’s office. You may ask your questions of his secretary, Miss Millicent Brown.”
“Most satisfactory,” said Holmes.
The man inclined his head. “If you’d like to come this way,” he said, beckoning for us to follow. He showed us through another door, which opened onto a long corridor. The floor was lined with plush red carpet, the walls with yet more portraiture. I couldn’t shake the notion that the figures in the paintings, peering down at us with their strict military bearing, were watching our every movement.
“Afghanistan?” I ventured, catching up to the fellow as he led us past innumerable offices, some of them apparently inhabited, others silent and empty.
“Yes, sir,” said Bates.
I nodded. “Yes, me too.” I smiled. “It seems a long time ago, now.”
“Yes, sir,” confirmed Bates. He stopped abruptly, and I nearly stumbled as I caught myself from marching on ahead of him. “This is Mr. Grange’s office, gentlemen,” he said, indicating a glass-panelled door. A small, brass name plaque confirmed his assertion. He knocked twice, and then turned the handle, poking his head around the door.
“Ah, Miss Brown. I hope you’ll be amenable to helping two gentlemen who have come to enquire about Mr. Grange’s unfortunate…” he trailed off, struggling to find the appropriate words. “Well, they wish to ask you some questions.”
“I’ve already spoken to the police, Sergeant Bates,” came the quiet, hesitant reply. “But if you think it might help, then of course. Please, show them in.”
Bates pushed the door open for us and waved us through. I found myself leading the way.
The first thing I noticed was the distinct scarcity of any personal effects; the room was sparsely furnished and felt decidedly unlivedin. Two oak desks, two chairs, a poster map of Europe and a filing cabinet were the sum of the room’s contents, aside from a low bookcase under the small window in a far corner. The bookcase held what appeared to be legal texts and Parliamentary reports, although I was surprised to see a rather ornate amber paperweight on the bottom shelf, into which had been etched a five-pointed star. Given the stack of papers on Grange’s desk, I was surprised that he hadn’t made better use of such an object. Craning my neck to see through the window, I could see the identical windows of other offices on the opposite side of a triangular courtyard. Clearly Grange had had neither elegant digs nor much of a view.
The second thing that struck me was the sheer winsomeness of Grange’s secretary, Miss Millicent Brown. She was a remarkably handsome woman; young, in her mid-twenties, with startling rust-coloured hair tied back from her long, pale neck, and a smattering of delicate freckles across her nose. She was dressed in a smart blouse and grey jacket, and was standing behind her desk on the left of us as we entered the room.
“Thank you for agreeing to see us, Miss Brown,” said Holmes. “I understand this must be a troubling time for you. My name is Sherlock Holmes, and this is my associate, Dr. Watson.”
The woman’s expression changed so dramatically at the sound of our names that I had to resist the urge to laugh. Her eyes widened in shocked recognition, and her bottom lip began to tremble uncontrollably. “M… m… Mr. Sherlock Holmes?” she stammered, before sitting down on the edge of her chair and looking decidedly lost.
Compassion overrode any sense of amusement I had felt. I went to her side. “Are you quite well, Miss Brown?”
“Oh, yes, quite well,” she said, although her tone was unconvincing. Her eyes flitted from me to Holmes, and then back again.
I glanced up at Bates. “Could I trouble you to fetch Miss Brown a glass of water?” I asked.
Bates nodded and went immediately from the room. It was clear to see that the woman was out of sorts. This, I supposed, was in no small part down to the recent death of her employer, but it also seemed that the appearance of Holmes and I had thrown her into disarray.
“Forgive me,” she said, after a moment. “It’s just – to have you both here, it suddenly makes it all so real.” She put a hand to her mouth. “He’s really dead, isn’t he?” She peered up at Holmes, a pleading look in her eyes.
“How long had you and Mr. Grange had an understanding, Miss Brown?” said Holmes, gently.
“An understanding…?” I blurted, surprised. I quickly realised my transgression and found my manners, although I felt my cheeks flush with embarrassment. Once again, Holmes had managed to see to the root of the matter within moments.
“But how…?” began Miss Brown.
Holmes smiled, but managed to refrain from showing off too overtly to this clearly distressed woman. “I observe the sterling silver pen upon your desk, marked with the initials ‘M.B.’. It is clearly less than a year old – the nib shows wear consistent with only a few months’ use, and the casing is not yet tarnished. It was evidently an expensive object, far beyond the means of a secretary. A gift from an admirer, then. This, along with the unusual proximity of your desks, the onyx mourning ring upon the third finger of your right hand and your obvious distress, lead me to infer that you and the late gentleman had a relationship beyond the confines of the War Office.”
Miss Brown gave a sad, knowing smile. “You’re right. Of course you are. We have been courting for almost a year,” she replied. “We were to be married, once the war was over. He didn’t want to wait, but I couldn’t do it, not with all this going on.” She waved her arms as if to encompass not only the room, but also the entire War Office, and everything it represented. “I couldn’t bring myself to be that happy when we were sending so many young men to their deaths. When even my friends and neighbours were at risk of dying in their sleep, from the zeppelin raids…” She broke off into a sob, and I passed her my handkerchief. She dabbed ineffectually at her eyes.
“I can’t believe he’d do something like this,” she said, between stifled gasps. Her body shuddered, wracked with misery. My heart went out to the poor girl. “Why did he do it?”
“That is what we are here to establish, Miss Brown,” said Holmes, not unkindly. He paced up and down before Grange’s desk, thoughtful for a moment. “So, if I am to understand you correctly, Miss Brown, you believe Mr. Grange’s actions on the day of his death to be… shall we say, uncharacteristic?”
“If you mean, did I have any notion or indication that he intended to kill himself, Mr. Holmes, I did not. I thought we were happy…”
“Nothing in the weeks or days leading up to Mr. Grange’s death gave you any cause to suspect he may have been troubled? No nervousness, unexpected telephone calls, erratic behaviour, cancelled trysts?” Holmes had tented his hands beneath his chin, and continued to pace up and down, a distant look in his eyes.
“No, nothing like that. He was a busy man who often found himself pulled from pillar to post, but there were no signs of anything unusual,” replied Miss Brown. “Just his work here, and the typically punishing schedule of meetings in Whitehall. That is, until the last day. The last time we spoke he did not seem himself…”
She broke off as we heard the sound of the door opening, and Bates appeared with the requested glass of water, which he handed to Miss Brown. She took a sip, and placed the glass on her desk beside her typewriter. Bates retreated to stand in the opposite corner of the room, watching us all attentively.
“And, forgive me for being indelicate, Miss Brown, but he shared no concerns with you during your time together as a man and a woman? No personal considerations?” asked Holmes.
Miss Brown glanced anxiously at Bates, and then shook her head. “No. Everything seemed normal.”
“I understand there was some recent furore over a speech given in the House that many considered to represent a pro-German attitude?” said Holmes.
Miss Brown shook her head. “Mr. Grange was a kind and generous man, Mr. Holmes, and he counselled mercy. He believed that people should not be deemed innocent or guilty simply by virtue of the place they were born, but by their actions. His speech was not pro-German, any more than it was anti-British. He argued against the targeting of German civilians, that is all; whilst at the same time condemning the German command for authorising the zeppelin raids on London. He believed soldiers should fight wars, not the poor, the infirm, or women and children.”
“He sounds like a wise and honourable man,” I said.
“Indeed,” said Holmes. “Which makes it all the more intriguing that he should suddenly end his life in such an apparently erratic manner.” He stopped pacing for a moment before Miss Brown’s desk. “I would appreciate it if you could outline for me, sparing no detail, no matter how small, the full circumstances surrounding your final conversation with Mr. Grange. You said that he did not seem himself?”
Miss Brown took another sip from her glass. “Yes, of course,” she said, “although I fear there is little to tell. The discourse was quite prosaic, at least it seemed so at first…” She stopped and took a deep breath. “Oh, I suppose I should really start at the beginning.”
“Thank you, Miss Brown,” said Holmes. “In your own time.”
“It was approaching midday,” she said. “The morning had passed much like any other. Mr. Grange had been here, in the office, since around half past eight, and he’d conducted three interviews, for which I’d taken extensive notes.”
“And the nature of these interviews?” prompted Holmes.
“Mr. Grange was responsible for interviewing naturalised German citizens, Mr. Holmes – people who were either German natives who now resided in England, or had been born British citizens to German parents.”
“To assess their allegiance, I presume?” I interjected.
“Yes, that’s right,” said Miss Brown. “It was his job to ensure that none of those people were working against us from within our own borders.”
“And of the three interviews he conducted that morning,” said Holmes, “were any of the interviewees suspected of anything untoward?”
Miss Brown shook her head. “No, not that I can recall. Herbert –” she stumbled over his name, and then corrected herself, “Mr. Grange, encouraged them to go about their business once their interviews had been concluded.”
“Have you made typescripts of these interviews, Miss Brown?” asked Holmes.
“Not yet,” she replied. “What with everything…” She cleared her throat, and I saw that she was perilously close to breaking down again.
“We understand,” I said, patting her shoulder and glancing at Holmes. “It’s a trying time.” Bates was still standing in the corner, watching. His expression seemed fixed, regimented, as if he didn’t wish to be considered to be either corroborating or denying her story.
“Nevertheless, I wish to help in any way that I can,” she replied. She took a deep breath, bucking herself up. “As I’ve already mentioned, it was approaching midday, and just as soon as the last of the interviewees had been escorted from the building, Mr. Grange returned to the office and suggested he take me out for lunch.”
“How did he seem to you at that point, Miss Brown?” said Holmes.
“Buoyant,” she replied. “Reasonably upbeat. He was talking about a new café that had opened up just around the corner, how he’d spotted it the previous day and decided he’d like to take me there to try it out.”
“I assume you jumped at the opportunity?” asked Holmes.
“That’s just it,” she replied, her brows creasing. “I said that I had a little too much work to do that afternoon, and that I’d be quite happy to remain here in the office with my sandwiches and apple.”
“He was somewhat deflated by this news?” I suggested.
She shook her head. “No. Well, perhaps. That’s when things became a little odd.” She got up from her chair, and I stood aside to let her pass. “He went to the window and noted that it looked like rain anyway, and that perhaps it was best that we go another day.” She touched her hand to her hair in an innately feminine movement. “Herbert knew how I don’t like to be caught out in inclement weather. I was about to agree when he seemed to be overcome by a sudden – well, illness, I suppose. He put a hand to his head, like this,” she held her fingers to her right temple, “and staggered across here.” She paced across the room, retracing his steps. “He mumbled something along the lines of ‘My God, they’re here. They’re in here.’ He looked horrified. Panicked, even.”
“How did you respond to this sudden alteration in his behaviour?” said Holmes.
“I rushed to his side, of course, to check that he was alright. He shrugged me off. He didn’t appear to be in any pain, but he was clearly distraught.” I noticed Miss Brown was trembling as she recounted the harrowing events. “I asked him what he meant, who ‘they’ were, but he was inconsolable. He simply looked at me, grabbed me by the top of my arms, and said: ‘I won’t be responsible for the loss of the spirit box.’ That was it. He didn’t look back, or say goodbye. Didn’t even stop to collect his coat. He simply stormed from the room in a great hurry, and that was the last I saw of him.”
“Good Lord,” I said, unable to contain my astonishment at such a bizarre and unexpected tale.
Holmes appeared animated, still pacing, and I could see from the look in his eyes that he was fascinated by this new and unforeseen development. “The ‘spirit box’,” he said. “Do you have any notion of what he meant by that?”
“I fear not,” replied Miss Brown, returning to her seat. “I’ve never heard of it before. Do you know what it is?”
Holmes sighed. “I do not,” he said, “although it may yet prove to be of great consequence to the case. Permit me another question, Miss Brown. When Mr. Grange exclaimed ‘they’re here’, who do you believe he was referring to?”
“Well, the Germans, of course. Who else?”
“Who indeed,” replied Holmes, cryptically. He was standing before Grange’s desk, looking down upon scattered reams of paper, his back to us. “And you believe he meant that they were here, in the War Office?”
“It’s so difficult to tell, Mr. Holmes,” replied Miss Brown. “He… he wasn’t himself. Some change had come over him, and at the time I was more concerned with his health than what he was actually saying.” She sighed. “I’ve gone over it a thousand times since, and I can only suppose that’s what he meant by it, yes.” I watched as a tiny tear formed in the corner of her eye, and then rolled down her cheek. She caught it with the back of her hand. Another followed a moment later. “I can’t help thinking…” her voice cracked. “I can’t help thinking that if I’d only agreed to go to lunch, none of this would have happened.” The tears came in a sudden flood, and she put her hands to her face, turning away.
“I think we’ve asked enough questions today, Holmes,” I said levelly.
He gave a curt nod of acknowledgement. “There is just one other thing, Miss Brown, if you’ll forgive me.”
She choked back her sobs and, with as much dignity as one can muster in such situations, dabbed at her eyes with my handkerchief and straightened herself up. She turned to Holmes. “Yes, of course. What is it?”
“The interviews that Mr. Grange has been conducting. How many should you say you’d transcribed?”
“Why, all of them, save the final three,” she replied. “Around forty or fifty, I should think. They’re over there, in that filing cabinet.”
“Excellent,” said Holmes. He glanced at Bates, “Mr. Bates, I shall need your permission to remove these transcripts, but I feel it necessary in the pursuit of this matter that I investigate all possible avenues. I’m sure you’ll understand.”
“Of course,” replied Bates. “There’ll be some paperwork to see to, but my instructions were to provide you with full and unencumbered access to Mr. Grange’s files.”
“Most satisfactory,” replied Holmes. He approached the filing cabinet, pulled out the top drawer and began removing the files, heaping them untidily onto Grange’s desk. “Miss Brown,” he said as he worked, “I trust it is not too much of an inconvenience to request your timely assistance in transcribing those final three conversations? I believe their contents may be fundamental in helping to understand this most singular matter.”
“Of course,” she replied. “I will set to work immediately, and have them sent to you tomorrow.”
“Very good,” said Holmes. He had finished extracting the contents of the filing cabinet and now had a heap of manila folders about a foot high, balanced precariously on the late man’s desk. He gathered them up into his arms. “Dr. Watson will provide you with the address.”
With a sigh, I searched in my pocket for one of my address cards and placed it upon Miss Brown’s desk. She glanced at it, and then stood, as Holmes crossed the room with the folders, heading for the door. “Mr. Holmes?” she said urgently, as if panicked that she might miss her chance. “Do you believe that Herbert was under some form of influence when he did what he did? I’m not sure if I could bear it if you thought otherwise…”
“I believe there is a distinct possibility that he was, Miss Brown,” replied Holmes, with a sad smile. “However, I do not care to speculate until I am in receipt of all of the facts.” He hesitated in the doorway, where Bates was holding the door open for him. “Come along, Watson. There’s work to be done.”
“My thanks to you, Miss Brown,” I said to the sad, pretty woman, who was still standing behind her desk. “I will endeavour to inform you just as soon as there is any news to share.”
“Thank you, Dr. Watson,” she said. She was holding herself together with remarkable dignity, although I knew that the moment the door was closed, she would once again lose herself in floods of tears. I decided to leave her my handkerchief. It was the very least I could do.
Holmes had gone ahead and was waiting for me in the lobby while Bates – presumably – saw to the paperwork for the files Holmes wished to remove.
“A devilish business this, Holmes,” I said wearily, as I came to stand beside him before one of the alcoves. He was staring up at the portrait of a moustachioed man in full military dress.
“Indeed, Watson,” he murmured in reply. “Indeed.” He touched his index finger to his lips. “There is much still to learn regarding Grange’s interests, his habits, what sort of man he was. I cannot help but feel the answer to this puzzle lies outside this office, amongst matters more personal or private.”
“You’re referring to this ‘spirit box’, are you not?” I said.
“Quite so, Watson,” he replied. “Intriguing, is it not? It is growing dark and suppertime is almost upon us, but I will ask for your forbearance for just a short while longer. There is one further stop I wish to make before we retire for the evening – the home of Mr. Herbert Grange.”
I nodded my acquiescence. “Very well,” I said. “I’ll leave you here to await the return of Bates with your files, and in the meantime I shall prepare Carter for the worst.”
Holmes laughed. “Watson?” he said.
“It is good, is it not, to be once again concerned with a new mystery?”
I grinned. “Yes, Holmes,” I said. “It most certainly is.”