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Out of nowhere, a massive document leak. There is a giant conspiracy, organized against the entire world, by a nefarious group of bad actors, or so the leaked document seems to say. They're the usual suspects: the sort of people towards whom the embattled empowered always direct their dog-whistles, and it has already fueled deadly violence. It justifies the actions of the shadowy secret police and props up Russia's feudalist head of state. It is the kind of news that can make public opinion, enthrall nations, and determine the course of history. Is it an accurate report, or deliberate misinformation? Only one person can resolve this question for the edification of Mycroft Holmes, de facto and sub rosa administrator of Great Britain and the Empire. It's his brother Sherlock, of course.
This is the premise of Nicholas Meyer's fourth Sherlock Holmes spinoff, THE ADVENTURE OF THE PECULIAR PROTOCOLS: ADAPTED FROM THE JOURNALS OF JOHN H. WATSON, M.D. This novel is the long-awaited follow-up to the Meyer series that began in 1974 with the witty, caustic THE SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION. In that novel, Mycroft and Watson lure Holmes, obsessed with the mathematical mediocrity Prof. James Moriarty, to Vienna to have his debilitating, far from glamorous cocaine addition cured by a young and a-historically rational Dr. Freud, but they all find themselves entangled in a dangerous mystery. In THE PECULIAR PROTOCOLS, Mycroft again sends Holmes and Watson on an epic journey via transcontinental European trains and passenger ships, this time into Ukraine and Czarist Russia, to investigate the provenance of that leaked document, found on the body of a murder victim in London.
More dangerous than canonical secret documents from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories, such as the Naval Treaty, the Bruce-Partington Plans, or the French missive stolen by the blackmailer Eduardo Lucas, the "peculiar protocols" should be familiar to many readers. Formally titled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, this document is the notorious early twentieth-century forgery that alleged that the global Jewish population is led by an international cabal of wealthy malfeasants bent on controlling or destroying Christian/Western/global civilization. Long proven a dangerous deception, it played a significant role in the fate of Czarist Russia and has been appropriated and foisted on the public as historical truth by various hatemongers including Hitler. The Protocols have recently been published as truth in places ranging from Louisiana (2000) to Lebanon (2001). In 2018, – here I quote Meyer's explanatory epilogue – "Vladimir Putin obliquely invoked the Protocols" by “suggesting that 'Jews' were behind the 'meddling' in the U.S. 2016 presidential election." The modern crisis of weaponized counterfactual hatred, therefore, appears to have roused Meyer to write this latest Holmes adventure.
It is well worth reading. By showing Holmes tracing the origin of the Protocols to the Czarist Okhrana (secret police), its extremely-well-documented historical source, via a web of translation, intrigue, and plagiarism, Meyer reveals the Protocols' unimpeachable falseness and the motives behind their creation and dissemination. En route through Russia, Holmes enlists the translation services of one Mrs. Walling (in public, he calls her Violet Hunter, after a canonical heroine of unusual bravery). The real Anna Strunsky Walling (1877-1964), as Meyer informs us, was a Russian Jewish activist of socialist ideals who, with her Anglo-American husband, collaborated with Reconstruction-era African American leaders to found the NAACP. In a tiny Ukrainian village, Holmes comes face to face with demons worse than Moriarty when he encounters the aftermath of a pogrom, or orgy of government-organized violence against Jews; the sort of thing both fueled and supposedly rationalized by the Protocols, and, in trying to pursue justice for the victims of the pogrom, he finds a demonic side to himself more frightening than his cocaine-addled persona from THE SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION. This is what makes Meyer's novel immensely powerful. Glittering with wit and battling Watson's assertions via quasi-academic footnotes, THE PECULIAR PROTOCOLS shows the power of documents like the Protocols and the hate tanks that produce them to derange even a mind as eminently logical as that of Sherlock Holmes. It is a terrifying reminder that, contra Vincent Starrett, in the world of Holmes and Watson, it is decidedly not "always 1895." They prove most affecting when they inhabit the immediate present and shed light on its most horrific and pressing mysteries.
§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She specializes in nineteenth-century literature. https://uwgb.academia.edu/RebeccaNesvet
Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, November 2019
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