Frederick Andrew Lerner, D.L.S.
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Sherlock Holmes and the Great Game

by Fred Lerner

It was more than forty years ago that I realised that a well-known book, usually regarded as an adventure story for boys, was in fact an oblique account of Sherlock Holmes's activities during the “missing years”. The Canon tells us little of Holmes from the time of his carefully-faked death at the Reichenbach Falls until his return to London (“The Adventure of the Empty House”). We have Holmes’s own brief resume of those years:

I travelled for two years in Tibet...and amused myself by visiting Lhassa, and spending some days with the head lama. You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend. I then passed through Persia, looked in at Mecca, and paid a short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum, the results of which I have communicated to the Foreign Office... (“The Adventure of the Empty House”)

Baring-Gould suggests (in Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street) that Holmes spent at least part of that time in Montenegro, where he begat Nero Wolfe upon Irene Adler. Perhaps he did; I fancy there isn’t all that much else to do in Montenegro. But it is my conviction that Holmes was up to something rather more important.

Now, my knowledge of Sherlockian historiography is sadly out-of-date. The idea I put forward here was original thinking in 1962, when I conceived it; and in a private letter Baring-Gould himself affirmed its plausibility. But it may well be that in the past forty-odd years some other Sherlockian has happened across the same document that I did; or perhaps the Sherlockian consensus has fixed upon an alternative chronology of the missing years. Still I find my hypothesis an attractive one; and here it is:

Holmes never told Watson the true reason for his absence from London. The whole episode at Reichenbach was merely a cover for some work he was doing for the Foreign Office, at the urgent request of his brother Mycroft. (“You would also be right in a sense if you said that occasionally he is the British government.” — “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans”) And what was it that so concerned Mycroft Holmes and the Foreign Office? Nothing less than the security of the Indian Empire.

For the Russians had designs on India, and were attempting to bring nearby Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet into their sphere of influence. The Indian Army was fully capable-of repulsing any military attack; but some subtler agency was needed to undo the damage caused by Russian spies and infiltrators. Such an agency existed. To outsiders, it was an innocent research bureau of the Government of India. But the staff of the Ethnographic Survey knew that their real mission was the security of the Empire. And, thanks to Rudyard Kipling, we know of some of the moves and countermoves in their Great Game.
I haven’t the space here to retell Kim; all I can do is urge anyone who hasn’t read the book to do so. (I doubt that I’ll have to urge anyone who has read Kim to reread it.) Let us assume at least a nodding acquaintance with its plot, and proceed to ask some questions.

Why did the Teshoo Lama leave his monastery in the hills of Tibet? We’re told that he had learned of Western research into Buddhist lore which narrowed the location of the River of the Arrow, which brings salvation to him who bathes therein. And from whom did he learn of this? Perhaps from “a Norwegian named Sigerson”.

When Kim was judged ready for advanced training in The Great Game, he was sent to the “healer of sick jewels”, a Eurasian called Lurgan, who kept a shop in Simla. Lurgan was a master of disguise, a close student of comparative human behaviour, and a man whose powers of concentration and persuasion bordered on the supernatural. We are told that he was well above average height. Haven’t we met such a man before — on Baker Street?

And what of Billy, “the young but very wise and tactful page” (“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone”), of whom we hear nothing elsewhere in the Canon? Kipling tells us of the extraordinary impression which young Kim made upon “Lurgan”. Would not a postgraduate course at the Baker Street campus be an invaluable part of a young operative’s training?

There are — as always in Sherlockian studies — a few trifling problems with the chronology. But ascribing these to Watsonian discretion (or to Watsonian carelessness!) lies well within the permissible techniques of Sherlockian historiography.

I should like to hear from Sherlockians whether my conjectures seem reasonable, and whether they have been anticipated or superseded. In the meantime, I nominate Kim as the fifth Sherlock Holmes novel.

(This originally appeared in slightly different form in Lofgeornost #5, August 1983. It was reprinted as “Sherlock Holmes in India” in A Bookman’s Fantasy: How Science Fiction Became Respectable, and Other Essays, published by NESFA Press in 1985.)


My favorite topic in Sherlockian studies is the question of precisely how Sherlock Holmes spent the time between his encounter with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls (“The Final Problem”) and his reappearance in London (“The Empty House”). I have suggested above that some clues to Holmes’s activities during The Great Hiatus might be found concealed in Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim. I’m not the only one to find such clues in that book. In his novel Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years (subtitled “The Adventures of the Great Detective in India and Tibet”; New York: Bloomsbury, 1999; ISBN 1-58234-132-X) Jamyang Norbu recounts Holmes’s progress from Bombay to Lhasa, as told by his native guide, Hurree Chunder Mookerjee. Kipling readers will remember him as the Bengali babu whose corpulent and timorous exterior concealed one of the most valuable players in the Great Game.

All of these qualities show through in Hurree’s narrative, which as both a Sherlockian and a Kipling fan I found both credible and exciting. This is not to say that I can accept as fact every aspect of the Holmes-Moriarty relationship that Hurree reports. As in Timeru Murari’s two sequels to Kim (The Imperial Agent and The Last Victory), the reader of Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years is asked to believe in events that make more sense to oriental than to western notions of how the world works.

I have always felt that Doctor Watson has been greatly underestimated both by Sherlockians and by casual readers (and even more so by those who know him only through film and television). Jamyang Norbu’s portrait of Hurree Chunder Mookerjee demonstrates the same traits of courage and loyalty, so often demonstrated in the Canon, that earned Watson Holmes’s respect and affection. Norbu shows us why Holmes held Hurree in the same high regard that he earned from his colleagues in the Ethnological Department of the Survey of India.

I have no idea what a reader unfamiliar with both Kim and the Sherlockian canon would make of Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years. But as one with an abiding love for both of its sources, I can recommend Jamyang Norbu’s tale as an entertaining and insightful approach to one of the abiding mysteries behind the Great Game.

(This originally appeared in slightly different form in Lofgeornost #117, November 2014)