Review: The Ardlamont Mystery by Daniel Smith

In the interests of fairness, I disclose that I was sent a free copy of this book by the publisher for the purposes of review.

This book tells the story of the death of Cecil Hambrough who died, allegedly from an accidentally discharged shotgun, whilst in the company of his tutor Alfred Monson and a man called Edward Scott on the eponymous Ardlamont estate in Argyll, Scotland towards the end of 1893.

The subject is of potential interest to the Sherlockian and Doylean because, in the subsequent court case, Henry Littlejohn and Joseph Bell, both doctors and tutors at Edinburgh University, were called upon as expert witnesses.

By the time of these events Bell was well known as the principal inspiration for Sherlock Holmes who was, at this time, about to meet his literary death at the hands of his creator Arthur Conan Doyle - a one time pupil of Bell.

Dr Joseph Bell
Henry Littlejohn was almost certainly another, if unacknowledged, inspiration for Holmes so the fact that these two real-life 'Holmeses' were showcasing Holmes-style techniques in the real-world was something that naturally caught the attention of the newspaper reading public of the day.

My biggest fear upon opening this book was that we would get an unnecessary amount of text devoted to the lives of these two leading forensic lights. Some writers fall into the trap of assuming that we need to understand everything about a person they are featuring, no matter how peripheral, and write volumes accordingly. This naturally detracts from their principal subject. At the other extreme some authors take it for granted that their readers know the people involved already thus rendering their book inaccessible to those not in the know.

Smith strikes a good balance. He writes enough about Bell and Littlejohn (amongst others) that you understand where they came from professionally, and their importance to both Doyle and Holmes as teachers and inspirations, without giving you chapter and verse on their lives.

Dr Henry Littlejohn
As a result, if you know about the two men you will learn little new but your patience will not have been tested by the experience. If you've not heard of either man when you start the book you'll know enough to follow events and possibly be inspired to read more about them.

The book opens with sections devoted to these two men and the family whose son is the unfortunate pawn, and later, victim of the events described. The Hambroughs were a family whose head had badly handled their finances. Hopes for the family's fortunes thus rested with the son Cecil who, as a direct result of his financial prospects, became a person of interest to anyone seeking to profit from the family's precarious financial situation.

Various people, chief amongst them Alfred Monson, attached themselves to Cecil, each of them pursuing their own agenda. All the scheming and counter-scheming by these people ultimately led to Cecil dying from the aforementioned gunshot wound.

Although initially viewed as an accidental death information soon emerged that cast doubt on the that explanation (put forward principally by Monson) and this led to the trial at which Bell and Littlejohn featured as expert witnesses.

Smith handles the trial very well. He conveys the sheer amount of information detailed at the trial without actually putting it all before you. The pertinent evidence is placed before the reader and you do get a sense of being one of the many members of the public who attended proceedings.

Once the events of the trial are over, Smith devotes the remainder of his book to how the principal figures fared in the days and months afterwards. This largely focuses on Bell, Littlejohn and Monson with a lesser amount written about the trial judge, Monson's family and the prosecution and defence counsels.

I enjoyed this book and my only issue lies with the sub-title. The Ardlamont Mystery is not the story behind the creation of Sherlock Holmes but it is a story that allowed his creator's real-life inspirations to step out of the shadow of the Great Detective and showcase their skills on a much bigger stage than they had been hitherto accustomed.

Written by Alistair Duncan Buy my books here

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