Some years ago, when reading Philip Mansel’s Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, a particular sentence lodged in my imagination and sent me sliding down a precipitous tangent. It described the enigma that was Sultan Abdülhamid II. Even now, I find it surprising that the phrase which was to alter my destiny was parenthetical.
“He was a collection of antitheses, subtle and silly, brave and frightened, cruel and tolerant, modern and traditionalist, listening one moment to the Koran the next to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes (read to him at night from behind a screen in a specially commissioned translation). [my italics]
How wonderfully peculiar that the last Ottoman sultan to command the world stage was, like the monarch in The Thousand and One Nights, teased in perpetuity by a Scheherazade in the form of the world’s first consulting detective. That the Shadow of God on Earth was in thrall to an early hero of mass popular culture seemed to me a sturdy hook on which to hang a piece of fiction. It would be a rich conceit and one that would connect my two adopted cultures and help me translate one into the other.
Translation was key. At the back of my mind was the tale of the Turkish novelist Kemal Tahir. He translated Micky Spillane to make ends meet and when he ran out of Mike Hammer stories, sat down with a map of New York, a city he had never visited, to make some up. What if the palace translation department in Yıldız Palace somehow found itself in a similar pickle? They would be forced to invent a Sherlock Holmes adventure and do so based on court intrigue: the best plot lines they had available to them. But Abdülhamid, being Abdülhamid, was too-well served by an army of spies and informers and no palace shenanigans would have gone unreported. This was a man who slept with a loaded revolver under his pillow, a man whom his enemies accused of deep paranoia. How would he react to listening to a Sherlock Holmes adventure by night and reading a similar story in an informer’s report the very next day?
That was then. Working my way back in time to the court of Abdülhamid turned out to be a ride of hairpin curves and treacherous diversions. Many writers describe a sort of a Geppetto syndrome– the adrenalin rush of seeing characters come alive and, like wilful children, acquire a momentum of their own. I recall the slightly battered feeling after one such character decided to take over the narration mid-novel, leaving me to write a very different book with a very different structure from the one I had intended. My lingering resentment of this behaviour was only dissipated, much later, when a copy editor not given to flattery offered praise for the offending chapter where this rebellion occurred. Yet far more surprising and even unsettling, was a growing sense, not so much that I was lost in a fictional world, but that I had stumbled upon one that had anticipated my arrival.
To explain, I should set out that I started with two main premises – one historical and the other of my own invention.
The first, I have already described, was Abdülhamid’s love of Sherlock Holmes. I read only recently that the “siftah” [first sale] of the translation department which triggered this addiction by was “The Adventure of the Empty House” a classic “locked room” mystery published in in 1903 (although set in 1894). It is conspicuous for bringing back to life Sherlock Holmes ten years after Arthur Conan Doyle sent him tumbling to what seemed certain death off the cliff edge above the Reichenbach Falls. While I can see how it would have appealed to an existing readership, overjoyed to see their hero’s resurrection, I confess to the heresy of believing the story to be far from ingenious; the crime a bit dull. I struggle to understand how it would have created a fresh convert of Abdülhamid. Fortunately, I had already taken the precaution of setting the clock back a full decade. In my account, Abdülhamid’s first encounter with Sherlock Holmes is “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”. This happens to be the first Holmes story I came across as a boy, contains a far superior “locked room” mystery and manages, in circumstances I need not go into here, to save the Sultan’s life.
Crime fiction, the cheap perfume of mystery and suspense, is often placed under the rubric of escapist literature, particularly by those who have never read Raymond Chandler. In many of its later incarnations – from the Name of the Rose to My Name is Red – it has aspired to be more. Even so, a ruler poised so precariously on the throne and who many of his European contemporaries referred to as Abdul the Damned, would have reason enough to escape under the bedclothes with a whodunnit. A purportedly true account by The Lives of a Bengal Lancer-author Francis Yeats-Brown has Abdülhamid reading “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” as he waited in 1909 to be removed from the throne. Three years later, the Young Turks were hastily arranging his evacuation from exile in Thessaloniki, only days ahead of an advancing Balkan army. According to a report in The New York Times, the Sultan’s refusal to be manhandled back to Istanbul aboard a German gunboat was at first mistaken as a sign of senility, a diagnosis dispelled when he spoke perfect French, discussed world affairs, and then enquired “whether Sir Conan Doyle [stet] was still amusing the world with the exploits of Sherlock Holmes.” These stories were the only ones that ever appealed to him, according to the paper, before quoting Abdülhamid’s judgement that Doyle would have made a “magnificent Chief of Police”.
Abdülhamid II is not the main character in my novel but is a central presence. It was no simple challenge portraying a ruler whose reputation fluctuates between merciless tyrant and heroic defender of empire and the faith. My first literary encounter with him was in Barry Unsworth’s The Rage of the Vulture, where he prowls his own private torture chamber, a villain no less subtle than Mister Tooth Decay of early toothpaste ads. To the religious and nationalist right in today’s Turkey, Abdülhamid has become an emblem of imperial tradition and defiance of a jealous and hostile world. Payitaht, the recent historical soap opera whose 154 episodes, broadcast by Turkish state television and inspired by the work of Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, is a melange of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. In it, according to one commentary: “A free press, secularism and democracy are the work of foreign powers, religious minorities and godless liberals, and ultimately serve to erode national identity, honor [stet] and security.”
As a warning against Hamidian exceptionalism, I was pointed in the direction of the Belgian ruler depicted in King Leopold’s Ghost, a figure of such cruelty and corruption as to make Ivan the Terrible seem like Ivan the Not-So Bad. I was struck by ambassadors’ accounts of Abdülhamid as an unpretentious figure capable of private charm who would lean over to light a visitor’s cigarette in a way one could never imagine of Queen Victoria. Selim Deringil’s The Well Protected Domains describes a monarch much preoccupied with his own image and the representation of his empire abroad. I leafed through the photographic album which The Porte would present to foreign powers. The fountains, hospital wards and mechanical looms offer proof of the empire’s progress, but, with exception, are noticeably void of people. There are certainly no pictures of Abdülhamid. The only portrait he sat for, as far as I know was taken in 1867 during a trip to England while still prince. A more enduring image is Arminius Vámbéry’s tantalising description of him as ‘the very personification of the bourgeois monarch”. In the end, I consoled myself that I was writing fiction not history. Not everything I wrote did happen, but it might have.
That second premise of the novel was the reply Arthur Conan Doyle gave in 1930, near the end of his days, to the question of which of the Holmes adventures he liked the best. “I hated them all” he said, an answer born of resentment that no one remembered him for his more serious work. However, at one point he corrected himself to confess that there was one story which continued to intrigue him, “The Adventure of the Second Wife”. Of course, there is no such story and unravelling what the dying author really meant became the mystery for generations of Holmes enthusiasts. One of those determined to find the solution is my principal narrator, for whom an idle pastime turns into a life-time obsession. The Adventure of the Second Wife also became the name of my novel. It contains one or two locked rooms of its own.
My protagonist was a member of what I discovered to be a very substantial community for whom the Sherlock Holmes canon is something of a sacred text. They play “The Game” of treating the stories as historical fact, where half the fun is accounting for the occasional inconsistency in the literary account. There are screeds devoted to the moment in “The Man with the Twisted Lip” when Dr Watson’s wife, Mary, refers to him as James, not John, a lapse of concentration easy enough to understand. These enthusiasts comb the 1883 edition of Bradshaw’s Railway Guide with monk-like devotion to discover if there really was a 6.20 train from Leatherhead, which would have allowed Helen Stoner in the “Adventure of the Speckled Band”(or SPEC, in the famous Finley Christ system of abbreviation) to reach Baker Street by 7.15 that fateful April morning (it would have to have been the 4th of April, according to the renowned Holmesian authorities Dakin and Zeisler– while the formidable Baring-Gould opts for the following Friday).
At one point I took myself off to what I thought might be “Game” headquarters– or at least a sacred site along its principal ley line. This, at a stone’s throw from Baker Street, was the very comprehensive Sherlock Holmes Collection, then in the bowels of the Marylebone public library, and which had started life as the Borough of St. Marylebone’s contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain. I had decided that the death of Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of the Final Problem” would play a pivotal role in my own narrative, and for some reason I wanted my first reading of it to have tactile authenticity. So, I trooped down to the reading room to find an original, unbound December 1893 edition of the The Strand magazine. As I turned to the last page, the fate of my book, if not my own, was suddenly sealed. On the verso (page 470) was the Sydney Paget illustration with the caption “A small square of paper fluttered down,” that shows Dr Watson standing at the cliff edge from which his friend has just fallen into the rapids below. “The best and the wisest man I have ever know” are the final words on the final page of the “Final Problem”. On the recto (page 471) was a new article, “The Sultan of Turkey” with a three-quarter-page portrait (the one taken in 1867) of Abdülhamid II.
The author of this piece was the Maulvi Rafiuddin Ahmed, whom I discovered was a barrister at the Middle Temple, a confidant of the Queen’s Munshi who had also tutored Victoria in Farsi and Urdu (though he called it Hindustani). Reading not too closely between the lines it was clear one of his priorities in life was protecting the Muslim community in India, by which he meant preserving the British presence and, in turn, stopping the Porte from allying with Russia. Reading a bit more carefully, it was also clear that Ahmed was trying to promote the opening of a theatrical spectacle at Olympia called “Constantinople at London” in which he had some mysterious interest. The hall was turned into a Las Vegas-style replica of the Ottoman capital (repurposing the canal infrastructure from “Venice in London,” of the previous year) and twice daily a cast of over a thousand performed Constantinople or The Revels of the East – A Grand Terpsichorean, Romantic and Lyric Spectacle, and Aquatic Pageant, replete with extravagant water features, including a waterfall and a lake.
My plot began to thicken, or more accurately, what I thought was invention was turning out to be real. I now possess an 82-page copy of the original theatre programme. Sure enough, among the advertisements at the back are ones for anthologies of Sherlock Holmes.
* * *
A codicil to this story took place some time ago, while I was a journalism fellow at Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was 12 April, my wife’s birthday, and we had decided to celebrate by boarding the 7.14 train to Chicago to take Philip Mansel (he who had set the whole ball rolling) to lunch before going on to the lecture he was giving at the Newberry Library. I had to collect something from the hotel so made my own way to the auditorium. I still arrived early but was lucky to find a seat. I remember being impressed that so many Chicagoans would choose to spend a Saturday afternoon attending a Courts, Households and Lineages Seminar on cultural clashes between ambassadors and Sultans in Constantinople. It took me some time to realise that I was in the wrong room, and that the hordes were there to listen to the famous Sherlockian scholar Richard Lancelyn Green speak at the opening of an exhibition of “Doyleiana.” I crept away before it began, albeit with nagging regret that I was missing a chance to witness an episode from my book come to life. It is no disrespect to Philip’s scholarship that his session was in a more intimate room upstairs, attended by a smaller audience of specialists.
If I had hoped to hear Richard Lancelyn Green on another occasion, this was not to be. The next year, the police broke down his London door to find his body in bed, accompanied by a menagerie of stuffed toys and a bottle of gin. He had been garrotted with a shoelace and a wooden spoon to prevent him, or so the suspicion ran, from blocking the £1 million sale of a Doyle family archive at Christie’s to stop it going into private hands. A widely accepted counter theory was that he had staged his own death in a secret, stylish, if psychotic tribute to Sherlock Holmes. The coroner returned an open verdict. What happens in a locked room is ours to imagine.
© Andrew Finkel