The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols marks Nicholas Meyer’s return to the everpopular world of Sherlock Holmes. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974) united a cocaine-addicted Holmes with Sigmund Freud and launched a thousand pastiches in its wake. The West End Horror (1976) and The Canary Trainer (1993) followed. The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols partakes of the verve and originality that distinguish its predecessors.
London, 1905: Mycroft Holmes asks his younger brother Sherlock to investigate the origins of “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” which appears to reveal a secret Jewish plot for world domination. Is this troublesome document real or a forgery? Holmes and Dr. Watson travel from Edwardian England to tsarist Russia in their search for the answer.
A hallmark of Meyer’s work is the mingling of historical and fictional characters. Protocols is no exception. The great detective and the good doctor cross paths with such real-life figures as Israel Zangwill, a noted playwright and Zionist; Chaim Weizmann, a professor of chemistry at the University of Manchester and, later, the first president of Israel; and, most importantly, the American Socialist leader William English Walling and his wife, the novelist Anna Strunsky Walling, recently returned from a year in Russia. Mrs. Walling serves as Holmes and Watson’s guide to that vast and troubled country. And as for the protocols, the real document has been repeatedly debunked as a forgery since it first appeared at the turn of the last century. Only the bigoted and the deranged give it any credence.
Holmes is timeless; so, alas, are hatred and prejudice. Meyer doesn’t shy away from detailing the physical and mental damage they exact. The effects of a pogrom in Kishinev are captured in Watson’s journal: “On those dusty, dried-mud streets, one could not help observing the vacant lots where homes once stood, their owners fled or dead. The charred ruins were gone, but square patches of ground remained ominously black.” Meyer offers a trenchant critique of anti-Semitism and the ways in which such pernicious beliefs take root in the public imagination.
Protocols is an effective thriller, rich in atmosphere and period detail, as well as a wise, affectionate, and sometimes deeply melancholy portrait of Holmes and his world. It’s a masterful concoction that Sherlockian devotees will savor.