Nicholas Meyer’s first bestselling novel, “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” concocted a fanciful case that brought together the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and the real-life founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud.
Meyer’s fourth and latest outing in his Sherlock Holmes series is “The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols” (Minotaur Books), which sets the most famous detective in literary history on a very real historical mystery: Who forged the notorious anti-Semitic screed known as the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”?
Meyer is perhaps best known as a screenwriter and film director whose credits include three “Star Trek” movies, the time-bending romance “Time After Time” and my own favorite, “The Day After,” which imagines what would actually happen if an American city were the target of a nuclear missile.
All of Meyer’s Sherlock Holmes novels embrace the same narrative conceit that Arthur Conan Doyle himself first used. “For a good portion of my adult life I have been involved with and found myself editing missing, unknown, or unearthed manuscripts alleged to have been authored by Sherlock Holmes’s amanuensis, John H. Watson, M.D.,” Meyer writes by way of introduction. The notion that Holmes and Watson were flesh-and-blood human beings, which is known among Sherlockians as “the Game,” is alive and well.
Sherlock Holmes dismisses “Protocols” as self-evidently fraudulent and its contents as “arrant nonsense.” But he also discerns the deadly intent of the forgers, and author Nicholas Meyer deftly places the document into its historical context.
“The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols” opens on Holmes’ 50th birthday in 1905. Meyer makes a sly reference to his own first novel when Holmes is made to observe that one of his birthday gifts, a novel by Tolstoy, was recommended by “our friend in Vienna.” Soon, however, Holmes and Watson are called on to inquire into the origin and intended use of a 20-page typescript that appears to be “the minutes of a secret meeting of a conclave of Jews who are plotting to take over the world,” as Watson describes it.
Here, of course, Meyer is repurposing a document that first entered history in the early 20th century and still afflicts us a century later because, then as now, “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is a favorite tool of the most vicious and deadly anti-Semites, including the ones who have surfaced recently in America. The great detective quickly dismisses the document itself as self-evidently fraudulent and its contents as “arrant nonsense.” But he also discerns the deadly intent of the forgers, and Meyer deftly places “Protocols” into its historical context.
While Theodor Herzl was conducting open meetings of the World Zionist Congress, Meyer shows us, Jew-haters were still willing to believe in the existence of a secret conspiracy. He manages to shock us by quoting a speech that Winston Churchill actually delivered in Parliament. “From the days of Karl Marx here in London down to Emma Goldman in the United States, this worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization,” Churchill ranted, “has been steadily growing.”
Holmes proposes that the true purpose of the forged “Protocols” is “to prompt the elimination of a forceful figure in Jewish affairs” by putting Herzl “into the cross-hairs” of an assassin’s gunsight. The investigation quickly puts him in touch with other historical characters, including Chaim Weizmann (who is introduced to Holmes under his adopted English first name, Charles). Prefiguring the role in history that empowered Weizmann to lobby the British government for the Balfour Declaration, Weizmann casually discloses to Holmes that he is “working on an acetone-butanol-ethanol fermentation process” that can be used to manufacture a gunpowder substitute called cordite. It is Weizmann who confirms Holmes’ suspicion that Herzl may have died of something other than heart disease. “The Russians have the reputation of being the most accomplished poisoners since the Borgias,” Weizmann is made to say.
Meyer seeks to entertain his readers, and succeeds admirably in doing so, but he also serves a higher purpose. Watson, for example, finds his way to an essay by Mark Twain that purports to praise the Jewish people but employs a deeply anti-Semitic trope. “All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” Watson cites Holmes for the proposition that “evidence which on the face of it points in one direction, viewed from a slightly altered perspective, may admit of precisely the opposite interpretation.” The point is that Twain’s depiction of the Jews actually prepares his readers to accept the slanders of “Protocols.”
“The scurrilous Protocols had already begun their insidious work, tunneling their way into my poor, addled brain,” Watson muses. “And if they could manage progress in mine, which was — to some degree — armed against them, what might they do to others, who were not?”
At certain moments, Meyer appears to turn his gaze from the turn of the 20the century to the here and now, as when Holmes engages in conversation with his brother, Mycroft, about the importance of the case he is attempting to solve. “This is not about the Jews; it is about truth. Which we are bound to seek and to value,” Holmes says. “These Protocols are almost certainly spurious news, but left unexposed, they will take root and grow in strength and credibility.” We cannot but think of the demonstrators in Charlottesville who chanted, “The Jews will not replace us.” And surely that’s what Meyer intends us to think.
What makes Meyer’s book such a pleasurable read is his ability to keep all the plates spinning at once. We follow Holmes and Watson into the twists and turns of their imaginary investigation, we are invited to pause now and then to read Meyer’s informative and often slyly humorous footnotes, and our eyes are pointed to the surprising facts of history that are embedded in the narrative. “The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols” is a must-read for Sherlockians, to be sure, but it is also a treat for rest of us.
Buy “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” on Amazon here.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.