Between the Thames and the Tiber

BOOK: Between the Thames and the Tiber
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Ted Riccardi



For my daughters and my sons

Claire and Miranda

Matthew and Nicholas



An Affair in Ravello

A Case of Criminal Madness

The Death of Mycroft Holmes

The Case of the Plangent Colonel

Porlock’s Demise

A Death in Venice

The Case of the Two Bohèmes

The Case of the Vermilion Face

The Case of Isadora Persano

A Singular Event in Tranquebar

The Case of the Missing Lodger

The Mountain of Fear


will have noticed inevitably that I have employed only the greatest reticence when writing of myself. This is, of course, as I deem it should be, for the public, which spends so much of its time perusing these adventures, is ever greedy for what it can learn of the great detective, and while it sometimes speculates about the life and origin of his friend, the good doctor remains, most appropriately in my sincere judgement, in the background, a useful second to the great master of detection.

An unexpected event in the not so distant past, however, leads me now to break somewhat with the rules that I imposed upon my editorship, for, though personal to me, it impinges on Holmes’s work and the way in which it was carried out in the volume that follows.

In the fall of 1900, I received notice from Combs and Herriot, barristers-at-law in Cornwall, that I had fallen heir to the estate of an uncle who had just passed on. I was most surprised by this news. As the reader may recall, I had considered myself alone in this world as far as family was concerned and had little inkling that I had a surviving uncle. My elder brother and I were the only children of older parents who passed on just before I left for Afghanistan in 1878, and they rarely spoke of any of their relations. My brother died in sad circumstances in Manchester. Regrettably, I had not seen him in many years.

In subsequent talks with the executors, I learned that a Mr. Peter Tomkins, of Cornwall, was indeed my mother’s younger brother, and that, except for me, he had no living issue. Mr. Tomkins, I was informed, had spent his declining years in Italy, in Rome to be precise, where he had lived quietly but lavishly before a stroke had paralysed him. He never recovered, and his final demise came as no surprise to his doctors.

I found myself suddenly the fortunate beneficiary of this gentleman, one who had been a successful tea planter in Assam and an indigo merchant in Bihar, whose private fortune thus accumulated would suffice to support me in ease for the rest of my life. It is curious that he lived in Rome for many years and not far from where Holmes and I had set up our living quarters. Neither Holmes nor I ever ran into him. He was, I gather, a recluse who lived alone except for an Indian servant who took care of his daily needs. His friends and acquaintances consisted almost entirely of the upper strata of Roman society.

I deliberately said nothing of this good fortune to my friend Sherlock Holmes, for I intended to have him share in my luck. Since half the inheritance was more than enough for me to survive, I requested the Cornwall barristers to deposit the other half in an account for Holmes, to be administered for him by his brother Mycroft. Mycroft informed Holmes of the wish of a generous donor who preferred to remain unidentified. Holmes did not pursue the matter, though I am sure he knew all along who his benefactor might be. The practical effect of this was to free Holmes from any financial worries and to allow me the leisure to accompany him wherever necessary. This arrangement continued until Mycroft’s death, when Holmes received the remaining portion as part of his brother’s estate.

It was this unexpected legacy then that made it possible for Holmes and me to spend long periods on the Continent, in particular in Italy, where Holmes had become as well known as he was in England. Although he was often paid handsomely for his services by rich clients, he often charged nothing for his services, particularly if his client proved to be impoverished. It also made it possible for him to concentrate on cases in which the only interest was the intellectual one of finding the solution to a difficult problem, whether or not a crime had been committed.

London, of course, and our quarters on Baker Street continued to be our home, but the sunny rooms on Via Crescenzio in Rome continued to beckon to us. In time, we became as comfortable on the banks of the Tiber as on those of the Thames.

The cases that follow contain a small sample of the many that Holmes pursued in Italy. I accompanied him in all, including “A Death in Venice,” the one that made his early reputation in the limited circles of Italian criminology. This case, for reasons that should be obvious to the reader, concerns the death of one of the greatest figures of nineteenth-century Europe. Indeed, its publication even today, and after so many years, may be premature. Holmes, however, has insisted on its public appearance, to quiet the growing rumours that have become part of the daily tabloids.

The collection also includes an account of the death of Mycroft Holmes and his attempt to prevent the great conflagration that enveloped all of Europe. Had Mycroft lived just a few days longer, it would indeed be possible to argue that this conflict might have been avoided altogether. At any rate, the case provides convincing evidence that the war did not start nor have its causes in Eastern Europe but in the cruel events that took place just before Holmes returned to England, in 1894.

Holmes has also permitted me, with the greatest reluctance, to write frankly, if not in detail, about his long relationship with Lady Jennifer Maxwell. In this, I must confess that I insisted over a number of years on some mention of his respect and affection for her. It was only in recent months that he acquiesced with an “All right. May the Devil take you,” and took peevishly to his violin. He has not returned to the subject since.

The title of this volume,
Between the Thames and the Tiber
, was suggested to me by an old acquaintance, an American, whom I got to know in London after my discharge from the army medical corps in Afghanistan. A writer of great fame, he was kind enough to review the manuscript in its entirety before final submission to the publishers. The reader should note that the terms “Thames” and “Tiber” are not to be taken in any strict geographical sense, but rather as symbols of the two imperial powers, one of which is our own, the other of course being the Roman, that have formed and dominated the cultures of Europe as well as many of those that lie far beyond what is now the known world.

A final word with regard to myself. The young, provincial, and amusical doctor who accompanied Sherlock Holmes to Italy soon became an astute observer of the astonishing creativity of the human spirit, particularly in the city of Rome. These changes in personal habit and interest took place largely under Holmes’s tutelage. When there was no problem in detection confronting us, I would frequent the Rome Opera on an almost daily basis. Holmes often accompanied me, explaining the intricacies of both music and text. It was Holmes who removed my “tin ear,” as he often put it, and permitted me to hear things that I had never heard before. My reading also changed and I found myself engrossed in such difficult works as Berlioz’s treatise on orchestration edited by Richard Strauss. It was through this work that Holmes and I came to know Strauss quite well. I identified him fairly quickly as “the man in the blue coat.”

I must interject a word here about Holmes’s great nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. As time passed, Holmes became more and more of the view that Moriarty might still be alive, even after painstaking investigations of every credible report that he had been seen in England and in France. His belief was based mostly on the evidence provided to him by Fred Porlock, originally a disciple of the evil professor, later his chief rival. In the end, however, Holmes came to the conclusion that it really was no concern of his whether Moriarty had ceased to exist or not. “What is important to understand, Watson, is that the battle against evil is a constant one, a struggle against one of the great powers in the universe, not the fact of a man or his life of crime. Indeed, evil is not a fact; it is a condition of the universe. Were it a mere fact, we would have done away with it. Obviously, we cannot. We are part of an infinite struggle, timeless and without end.”

It is over a decade since the notes for the last of these cases were recorded. In their final composition, I have had to make a few editorial decisions that will please some and displease others. Thus, in a few places, I have quoted the speech of a character in the original language spoken, often of course in Italian, but sometimes in French or German. Some will revel in these passages, others will find them obstructive annoyances in the flow of the narrative. In my defense, I can say that Holmes has given his full support to my textual decisions. Indeed, at one point he suggested that he wished I might write these accounts entirely in French or Italian. They would thus serve him as mnemonic linguistic devices for his further language study. My knowledge of French and Italian are far too weak, however, for such a task.

In recent days, Holmes has announced that, upon the conclusion of his treatise on the motets of Orlando di Lasso, he intends to compose a treatise on crime and its relation to music. No one but he could conceive and execute such a work; no one could surpass it.

With the passage of time, Holmes has become less reticent and his intellect remains as sharp as ever. My memory has weakened, however, and I may have misstated a fact here and there. For these and other inevitable lapses, I beg the indulgence of the reader for one who is fast approaching old age. To paraphrase the great Latin poet:
de senectudine nihil nisi malum

H. W

April, 1931


Sherlock Holmes, the one that follows is perhaps the most revelatory of certain elusive traits of character which, despite our deep and intimate friendship, remained well if not entirely hidden from view for as long as we knew each other. It contradicts most thoroughly the image that he assiduously cultivated of himself as a machine without emotions, a bodiless brain created solely to think. This cold façade which he put forward so convincingly, however, cracked on occasion despite his best efforts. The reader indeed may recall my observation, in the case of the three Garridebs, of the great affection that I saw move across his face when he feared that I had been fatally wounded. Despite these occasional breaks, Holmes persisted obstinately in his chosen portrayal of himself, for, even if untrue, the image frightened away fools and those who would waste his time on the trivial. In any case, let the reader know that Holmes has passed on the present manuscript with a benign smile and a laugh not devoid of irony.

I have remarked as well in past accounts that my friend’s personal habits, despite his well-known disorderliness, were of the most abstemious kind, even ascetic in their nature. In that portion of his life in which many of these cases fall, tobacco was his only habitual indulgence. As to food and drink, he ate only what was necessary to keep mind and body alive and drank even less, indulging from time to time in a single peg of whiskey or a glass of wine.

In Italy, despite the wider palette of temptation afforded there, I observed little change in his habits. He still ate sparingly and thought little about the food that was presented to him, though I noted that he had acquired a taste for the strong Roman coffee and the warm crusty loaf that the servant boy brought to our table every morning at dawn. As soon as Holmes finished with that simple breakfast, he would retire for a time to consult his books, perhaps the chief area in which his natural abstemiousness had failed him.

BOOK: Between the Thames and the Tiber
13.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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