Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Japan by Keisuke Matsuoka

Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Japan
By Keisuke Matsuoka
Translated from the Japanese by James Balzer
Vertical, 2019

Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Japan  By Keisuke Matsuoka Translated from the Japanese by James Balzer, Vertical, 2019

A pure and unexpected treat from the folks at Vertical: a rich, fluid English-language translation by James Balzer of Keisuke Matsuoka’s 2017 Sherlock Holmes pastich-novel Shaarokku Homuzu tai Ito Hirobumi - now available for an entire new readership in a sturdy paperback titled Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Japan, which boldly goes where ten thousand pastiche novels have gone before, right to the lip of the Reichenbach Falls on that fateful day in 1891 when Sherlock Holmes grappled with his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty, the two of them plunging to their doom in the mists.

Or so London’s thousands of Holmes fans thought, until Arthur Conan Doyle grudgingly buckled to public pressure and brought his hero back from the dead in the most direct way possible: by clarifying that he had never been dead in the first place. Only Moriarty had fallen into the falls; Holmes had saved himself but remained in hiding, letting the world, his enemies, and his dear friend Dr. John Watson, believe he was dead. Through this ruse, Holmes hoped to gain the upper hand in hunting down Moriarty’s remaining henchmen, starting with Colonel Sebastian Moran, the villain in Holmes’ return story, “The Adventure of the Empty House.”

Into the three-year gap between the Falls and the Empty House has rushed a veritable phalanx of pastichers over the decades. Holmes has been a monk, a swami, an American cowboy, a masked New York vigilante, a UFO passenger, and a host of other incarnations. Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Japan gives away its own variation right in the English-language title; Keisuke Matsuoka, a respected and bestselling author in Japan, has his sleuthing hero fleeing to Japan and teaming up with his old friend Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s first prime minister. The two first met when Holmes was ten, but even then, the boy had made a strong impression: “Sherlock was an enigmatic child, thought Ito. Governed entirely by reason, and yet possessing a depth of sensitivity that was greater than that of the common man.”

Keisuke Matsuoka’s conception of Sherlock Holmes resonates with that sensitivity. The book’s opening scene takes readers deep into the details of that final confrontation at the lip of the Falls and presents a miserable Holmes watching from concealment as Watson arrives on the scene and concludes that he’s dead:

Sherlock felt a wave of hot misery overcome him. Looking at the sky, his vision swam with tears. There were no eyes upon him now. Surely this once he might be forgiven for momentarily giving in to a little sentiment. Without this slight release, he feared he might cry out for Watson, and then all would be naught - he would only face constant designs upon his life, and his friend would be exposed to considerable danger.

Sherlock Holmes pastiche novels have a short itinerary of pilgrim’s touchstones that are very nearly obligatory, and it quickly becomes obvious that our author is devoted Holmes fan, steeped in the lore. He provides the expected visit to 221b Baker Street, for instance:

The room, however, was in a state of extreme disarray. Mountains of books and papers lay toppled across the easy-chair and sofa, leaving absolutely no space to sit. A Persian slipper stuffed full of tobacco had been left lying out; there were cigars in the coal shuttle. A stack of unopened correspondence was pinned to the mantelpiece with a jack-knife, and scattered next to it was a variety of paraphernalia including a pipe, a syringe, a knife, and several bullet cartridges. One wall was the proud bearer of an assortment of bullet holes, which formed a pattern spelling out the letters “V R.”

But the main setting of the book is Japan, and the main kernel of the plot is a convincingly drawn narrative of the Otsu Incident, in which handsome young Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich (later to be the doomed final Romanov Tsar) was the object of an assassination plot in April of 1891. Naturally, when Holmes and Hirobumi Ito begin examining the plot, they start uncovering an elaborate web of plots and counterplots.

It’s all marvelously welcoming, even in translation. Sherlock Holmes pastiche novels are a dicey affair just in general, forced as they are to navigate between slavish imitation and strictly corseted miniaturist innovation. Meiji-era Japan is an appealingly exotic setting for a Holmes adventure, and Hirobumi Ito is a fascinating foil for our familiar hero, but even so: we know that nothing in the book must be allowed to impede Holmes from showing up in Watson’s consulting room in 1894.

Despite this, Keisuke Matsuoka somehow manages to infuse his story with tension and even a degree of believable pathos, and his version of Sherlock Holmes is rich with love and geeky knowledge. This is easily the most enjoyable Holmes pastiche to appear in the US market in years.

—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, The Washington Post, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.