Cambridge the setting for author Bonnie MacBird’s fourth Sherlock Holmes novel
Cambridge’s historic streets and hidden passages have long inspired stories of mystery and intrigue, so it seems natural that the most famous detective of them all – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes – arrives in the city in the latest novel to come from the pen of Bonnie MacBird, an American writer and enthusiastic long-time Sherlockian.
The Three Locks, the fourth novel in Bonnie’s acclaimed series, was published by Collins Crime Club, an imprint of HarperCollins, yesterday (April 1).
The book follows the international success of Bonnie’s first three Sherlock Holmes adventures, Art in the Blood, Unquiet Spirits, and The Devil’s Due. Her books – each of which has taken her around two years to write – have been published in 17 languages and widely praised, with Bryan Cogman, producer/writer of Game of Thrones, calling the first entry in the series “worthy of Doyle himself”.
The Three Locks is set in 1887 as an Indian summer broils London and Cambridge. A mysterious impregnable box arrives for Watson, locked and with a secret from his past. Then a famous escape artist/ conjurer fails to unlock his ‘cauldron’ and burns to a crisp during a performance at Wilton’s Music Hall in Whitechapel.
Meanwhile in Cambridge, three suitors, including a priest, an aristocrat and a young physicist, vie for the love of a spiteful beauty, who vanishes after her lookalike doll is found dismembered in Jesus Lock on the River Cam.
The cases convolve as Holmes and Watson tangle with clergy, police, academics and scheming siblings, risking life and limb to solve the murders and to keep the innocent from the gallows.
Speaking to the Cambridge Independent from her London flat just off Baker Street – that’s dedication for you! – San Francisco-born Bonnie reveals that she has been a fan of Sherlock Holmes since the age of 10.
“I read a lot of Victorian English fiction as a kid,” she says. “Then of course culturally there was so much – The Beatles, of course, and Hayley Mills... As a kid I was kind of an Anglophile.”
Bonnie calls Sherlock Holmes “the most known fictional character of all time”, adding: “There’s not a country in the world where you can’t go and show an image of a deerstalker and a magnifying glass and everybody knows what it is.”
On what she brings to the stories, Bonnie says: “Even when you’re emulating, as I am doing, you can’t help but bring yourself somewhat to it, but I try not to consciously insert myself into the thing. I am a feminist, obviously, I am a woman of modern times and so I do sympathise very much with the role of women then.
“But on the other hand, making a giant issue of it and bringing it to the forefront would not be true to the Holmes canon. But what I do do is make sure that there’s some very interesting females in all the stories who are challenged in different ways by the constraints of their time.
“So I have a female doctor, I have a woman that ends up running a whisky company, and in the new book I have a young daughter of a don at Cambridge who’s very constrained by her father, who doesn’t even want her to touch into academia. And she’s very bright.”
Aside from liking Cambridge, Bonnie says she had another reason for choosing to set the novel in the city. “I really wanted to do something set in the Cavendish labs,” she explains. “My husband [Alan Kay] is a computer scientist and so I knew the Cavendish labs and I just got very intrigued by the notion of some young scientist there, and some of the work that was being done at the time.
“Then I thought, ‘How can I use that because it’s just so fascinating?’ And Holmes is a kind of amateur scientist. He has a Bunsen burner in his sitting room and he’s always doing chemistry experiments, much to the dismay of his fellow lodger.”
Bonnie continues: “I think Cambridge, intellectually, just sounded like an exciting place. It’s never clear where Holmes went to university in the original stories. It’s mentioned that he did go to university but either was sent down or dropped out quite early – and it’s a big bone of contention in the Sherlockian world as to whether this was Oxford or Cambridge.
“I follow the Cambridge side because of the emphasis on science, and also [Sherlock’s brother] Mycroft, who went into the government, had been more of an Oxford man, I think.
“So I just thought it would be really interesting if either he went there or if he wanted to go there. I think given the timing of things, he would have wanted to go there [to Cambridge] and be involved in the science of the day there, because that would fit his personality.”
Bonnie says she came up with the title The Three Locks without knowing what the locks were – “I just liked the title,” she notes. “Then I read about the Jesus Lock and I thought thought, ‘With a name like that, I have to use the Jesus Lock!’
“So I went up to Cambridge and explored and then, weirdly, somebody had died in the Jesus Lock the week before I got there. It’s quite dangerous and so I looked into it and tried to understand what the mechanics of those locks are.
“I thought this is certainly a wonderful setting for a very exciting sequence in the book. So I thought, ‘OK, there’s one lock’ and then as I researched Cambridge, the town and gown mentality was very contentious at that time – I think more so than maybe at any other time.
“There was something called The Spinning House. Thomas Hobson, of Hobson’s Choice, had a building there and it eventually became a police station and then it became a holding house for young women who were arrested by the university’s proctors, who were completely separate from the police department.
“What they were trying to do was take young women off the streets who were ‘tempting’ the innocent students. So they would arrest young women who they suspected of prostitution but frankly they would arrest any young woman they felt like who was out after curfew.
“They would bring them to this place called The Spinning House, because at one point they spun yarn there, but it was practically a jail outside of the normal police system for holding women and they treated them terribly.
“They were not charged with anything and they couldn’t get out – they had no recourse to lawyers or anything – so it was an awful situation. I thought, ‘OK, I’ve got to use The Spinning House’ and my writing found exciting things there.
"The Spinning House, the Jesus Lock and the Cavendish labs – I got very excited about all those things.”
As part of her research visit to Cambridge, Bonnie also enjoyed cinnamon buns at Fitzbillies, which was sadly founded some 33 years too late to make an appearance in her story. “It’s such a beautiful place, I love Cambridge,” she says, “and I went to the Fitzwilliam Museum and had a pretty good time there – had a little element of that in the story as well.
“And I talked to people who went to Cambridge. I did a fair amount of research, but right in the middle of my research the pandemic began and so I had to shift to more online than I would normally do.”
Writing Sherlock Holmes stories is not without its challenges. “You have to deliver on so many promises,” observes Bonnie. “Being Sherlock Holmes you’ve got some very prickly readers! I try to emulate the voice authentically. I also do a great deal of research about the time and place, so research is a very big part of what I do.”
When she first decided to write a novel, following a serious illness, Bonnie quickly realised who she would like her main protagonist to be. “I knew it would take a while and I thought, ‘Who do I want to spend time with?’ And it was just Sherlock Holmes – even though there’s lots of Sherlock out there, I really didn’t care. I wrote what I loved.”
Bonnie adds: “I set out some very specific lines in the sand that I would adhere to. It absolutely had to not contradict canon in any way; I wanted to slot the stories in chronologically to where there wasn’t a case in canon.
"I wanted to speak in the authentic voice of John Watson. I studied it very carefully and because I’m an actor, I can hear voice very clearly in my head.”
Bonnie, who divides her time between London and Los Angeles – although she has been ‘stuck’ in London since the pandemic began and says she prefers it over here – has enjoyed the many depictions of the character over the years.
She cites Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett’s interpretation of the character as particular favourites, and believes that renowned actor and University of Cambridge alumnus Hugh Laurie would make a “fabulous” Holmes.
Bonnie also loves the modern Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman version, calling it “very clever” and Robert Downey Jr’s interpretation of the character in the two Guy Ritchie films. “There’s a big group of Sherlockians in the US called The Baker Street Irregulars and there’s of course The Sherlock Holmes Society of London, and I’m in both of those,” she says.
“The ‘serious’ scholars argue these points about the modern updates, but I actually love them. The Downey version they complain about it being too action-oriented and so forth, but in fact there’s quite a bit of action in the original canon – he’s a boxer and he knows Bartitsu, which is a martial art of the time.”
Each of Bonnie’s four Holmes books explores a theme. Art in the Blood revealed the perils and gifts of the artistic temperament, Unquiet Spirits uncovered the danger of letting ghosts of the past lie unresolved, and The Devil’s Due touched upon the cost of corruption. The Three Locks examines the risk of keeping dark secrets locked away.
Away from novel writing, Bonnie has worked as a screenwriter, actress, producer, theatre director and voice artist, and was a development executive in feature films at Universal Studios from 1975 to 1979.
She also wrote the original screenplay for the ground-breaking 1982 science fiction film, Tron.
The Three Locks, published by Collins Crime Club, is available now. For more on Bonnie MacBird, visit macbird.com.