A Most Irregular Tribute To The Great Sherlock

Focus took a trip back to the last century, to eavesdrop on a conversation between the famous detective Sherlock Holmes and his colleague, Dr Watson.

The room was quiet, lit only by firelight and the soft glow of an oil lamp. In one corner a bewhiskered man sat reading, while opposite him a lean figure was smoking a pipe and gazing into the flames.

Suddenly, the first man spoke. “But this is preposterous Holmes!” he exclaimed. “This is a copy of the Cambridge Evening News, which your housekeeper gave to me to bring up as I have arrived just now, it having apparently been delivered by a gentleman for your attention …”

“An inhospitable town, Cambridge, as I think I remarked when we were investigating The Missing Three-Quarter,” interjected his companion, who was none other than Sherlock Holmes, the great detective.

“Yes, Holmes, yes,” said Dr Watson (for it was, of course, the detective’s companion and biographer). “But listen to this. It is about you!” – and he started to read aloud, his voice full of indignation.

“It says that a Cambridge scientist, a Dr Antony Richards, is such an admirer that he has set up societies in your honour, and even dresses up and impersonates you by pretending to solve murder mysteries he has created – for money!” he added, his voice rising.

“This Richards – he is 36, it seems, an age by which I would have thought a man might have acquired more discretion than to imitate his betters – lived in London before moving to Cambridge six years ago, and from his top-floor flat had been able to see both your residence in Montague Street, and also 221b Baker Street.

“Whether that influenced him I do not know, but apparently a few years ago he was invited to attend the annual dinner of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London by a Czechoslovakian countess he had met at a scientific conference – do you think she could have been the one who was involved in that unfortunate affair involving the dog that didn’t bark?”

Holmes made no immediate response, other than to sip at the contents of his glass, but his attitude showed him to be listening, so Watson continued his perusal of the newspaper.

“Anyway, be that as it may, curiosity took him to the dinner, and he was, the paper says, ‘hooked’ – really a most curious term, I think it must mean very interested.

“He applied to join the society, but there was a long waiting list – gratifying that, do you not think? – so while he was waiting he became involved with other Sherlock Holmes societies.

“From what it says here, there are lots of these clubs in your honour, not just in England but all around the world. The biggest one it seems is in Japan – imagine! – where schoolchildren study my stories about you as part of their English lessons. Really, it is most pleasing to think my work attracts such acclaim.”

At that moment, the logs shifted in the grate, spilling sparks on to the rug, and by the time Dr Watson had stamped them out, and both their glasses had been refilled from the decanter on the sideboard, he was ready to resume reading, his voice and his view of the Cambridge imposter noticeably softer.

“As I said, this man Richards joined another society, and it was soon suggested that he should set up a special one dealing specifically with your journeys, which he did in ’92. He calls it the Irregular Special Railways Company, taking the title from the Baker Street Irregulars, those urchins you will persist in paying to collect information for you.

“Apparently the members, who have outings and meetings and regular newsletters, particularly like to study details of your journeys, as reported in my stories, and check whether they could actually have taken place by consulting old timetables and record books. What a confounded impudence! Do they think I make up these details to entertain myself?

“And what’s more, they look for clues to try to locate the very buildings mentioned, though I go to such trouble to make sure people can not be too clearly identified. Oh really, this is too much!”

“Calm yourself, Watson!” said his friend. “Read on.”

Watson, though still considerably ruffled, obliged. “Hmmn, this next bit isn’t actually about you, but about a police inspector, fellow named Morse – do you think he’s somehow connected to our old friend Inspector Lestrade?

“It seems that in addition to admiring you, this fellow Richards is also Chairman of the Inspector Morse Society, which has some writer chap called Colin Dexter as its Honorary President. I notice he didn’t have the courtesy to invite you to preside over his jollifications, but no doubt he knew what your answer would be.

“Ah, this next bit is more serious – this is the point where he starts to impersonate you. Back in ’92, it seems, these Irregular Special Railway Company people had a stall at an open day run by the Kent & East Sussex Railway Company.

“While they were there, somebody called Tom Baker, who is involved with the railway – the paper says he was formerly known as Dr Who, but as a fellow medical man I have certainly never heard of him – suggested that in return for being allowed to put up their stall they should run what the paper calls a ‘Murder Mystery Evening’, to raise money for them. 

“This Richards fellow wrote a script and they performed it on the train, and it is reported that everybody enjoyed themselves. Really, people are most peculiar!

“Anyway, that seems to have been the first of many such events. Now he and other members of his group go all over the place running these murder evenings, which take place while people are eating dinner. Richards dresses up as you, and – by Jove – other people pretend to be me, most often another Cambridge scientist called Ian Clements.

“The paper says that Clements and Richards both work for a company in Cambridge called Molecular Simulations Ltd that produces something called ‘software’, whatever that is, for use by other scientists. At least they are not claiming to be gentlemen, but then gentlemen would have had the courtesy to ask our permission before impersonating us in this way!

“Anyway, they hold these murder evenings on a number of small railways around the country, from Cambridgeshire to Devon and – by gad sir, this gets worse – also at private parties, and for businesses, in public houses, restaurants, even synagogues, anywhere with a minimum of 20 guests.

“Good gracious, even the new British Broadcasting Corporation – surely they mean Company? – has been in touch, requesting one for a staff Christmas party. Is nothing sacred?”

The other man, who though silent had been listening intently, relit his pipe. His face bore an expression that would have made his colleague pause, had Watson not been busy scrutinising the paper, which bore a photograph of the man Richards, dressed as his hero in a deerstalker hat and Inverness cape.

Eventually Watson spoke again. “For my sake as well as yours, Holmes, we must find this man and stop him, and we must put a notice in The Times telling anyone who has come into contact with him that he is an imposter. As a medical man, I cannot have my reputation threatened in this way, and I am surprised you seem to be taking this sorry business so quietly.”

At last Holmes spoke: “I think, dear friend,” he said, “that such action at this moment would be superfluous. Consider the evidence.

“Look closely at the paper you hold in your hand. Although reputed as a seat of academic excellence, Cambridge is otherwise a backward place when compared with London, yet this newspaper bears signs of printing expertise such as I doubt could be matched by The Times itself.

“Regard the photographs, many of which are in full colour. Although I consider myself a student of such matters, I have no knowledge of how such a result could be achieved with the printing presses currently available.

“The size of the newspaper itself is unusual too, is it not? – barely half as large as its London counterparts. And lastly, and irrefutably, the daily paper for the Fens is the Cambridge DAILY News, as you doubtless recall, yet this professes to being an evening newspaper. Tell me, what date does it bear?”

Watson studied the page in front of him and his eyes widened. “But this cannot be so! It claims to be Monday October 5, 1998, yet I know this is 1895. Is this some trick, or have I been inhaling smoke from your damned opium?”

The detective smiled. “The answer, old friend, is ‘no’ to both questions. It is much simpler. While at my club recently, Mr Conan Doyle and I dined with Mr H G Wells, and he confided over dinner that his story of The Time Machine was not, as everybody assumes, just a story. I challenged him to bring me proof. This obviously is it!”

Watson was speechless for a minute, then rallied. “But if what you say is true, how do you explain him travelling to the very day and place that happened to have an article about you 103 years on? The coincidence is too great!”

“No coincidence at all,” smiled the detective. “I imagine he planned the whole thing deliberately. If time is three dimensional as has been suggested, he could spend weeks, months in the next century while barely being missed in this one.

“Work it out for yourself, but I would say it is elementary, my dear Watson.”

By Pat Meakin

Murder And A Four-Course Meal On The Valley Line

The body was discovered shortly after the train left the station, while the passengers were tucking into their first courses. 

But nobody panicked, fainted or screamed. Instead they just settled themselves more comfortably into their seats, and looked forward to their four-course meal, secure in the knowledge that Sherlock Holmes and faithful Dr Watson were on board to take charge of the murder investigation.

It is not a scene from a novel or film, but one of the Murder Mystery evenings held at the Colne Valley Railway, at Casle Hedingham (between Haverhill and Halstead).

The evenings began three years ago as an experiment, and have proved immensely popular.

“We started with one, held two the next year and four this year, and we expect to have even more next year, because at the moment we’re turning people away,” said general manager Richard Hymes, who was one of the founder members of the railway and acts as maintenance engineer during the murder mysteries.

The evenings, which cost £31.50 including the meal, a certificate and prizes where appropriate, on part of a beautifully restored vintage Pullman train, which has carriages which were once used on famous trains such as the Golden Arrow and the Bournemouth Belle.

One carriage was also used on a Royal Train – the crests can still be seen on the carpets!

Numbers for the evening are limited to 63 people in two carriages, so that everyone can participate fully in the process of unravelling clues, solving the mystery and ensuring the murderer gets his – or her – just desserts.

The passengers get their desserts also, as well as starters, main courses, coffee and mints.

The meals begin with Chilling London Smog (Bucks Fizz), and the menu features dishes as Shimmering Body from the Loch (Salmon Terrine), and Heart of the Beast (fillet steaks topped with pate, mushrooms and herbs wrapped in puff pastry), with vegetarian meals and special diets provided on advance request.

And as well as taking part in the murder investigation, passengers can spend part of the evening exploring the remainder of the railway, which is restored and run completely by volunteers and attracts around 80,000 paying visitors a year, with approximately 20,000 schoolchildren on educational visits.

“The train comes back into the station part way through the evening, to let people stretch their legs and give those who wish a chance to smoke.” Said Richard.