The Strange Case of the Dutch Painter By Timothy Miller: Review/Giveaway/Guest Post

Apr 23, 2022 | 2022 Articles, Lorie Lewis Ham, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Lorie Lewis Ham & Timothy Miller

This week we have a review of the latest Sherlock Holmes mystery by Timothy Miller, along with a fun Holmes guest post by Timoth. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of the book, and a link to purchase it from Amazon.

The Strange Case of the Dutch Painter by Timothy Miller
Review by Lorie Lewis Ham

The Strange Case of the Dutch Painter is the second book in Timothy Miller’s new Sherlock Holmes series. The books are presented as old cases that have never been published, but now that Holmes is dead, they now can be. The latest book is from a case that Watson was not a part of—he discovers the unpublished manuscript while going through Holmes’ papers.

This story is told by continental art historian Dr. Ivan Lermolieff, who accompanied Holmes on this case. As they investigate, Holmes goes by the name Monsieur Vernet. The pair have been asked to find several Old Masters paintings after the Louvre discovers that the ones they’ve been displaying are fakes. The task leads from Parisian art galleries to Vincent Van Gogh’s deathbed, where Holmes has doubts that the painter’s death was really suicide.

Just as Timothy used very familiar fictional characters in the first book, The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle, in this book he uses familiar historical figures within the art world, including numerous now famous painters. I found myself wishing that I knew more about art history so I could more fully appreciate all the references—I am sure those that do have that knowledge will enjoy the story even more. But even if you have minimal knowledge of art history, everyone knows the name of Vincent Van Gogh, and it is still a fascinating Sherlock Holmes mystery.

Being that we only get a taste of Watson in the beginning and end of the book, the book does have a very different feel to it thanks to the different narrator, who is someone who doesn’t know Holmes and is often baffled and annoyed by him. But while I did miss Watson, it is nice to have a new Holmes story to enjoy and Timothy Miller does an excellent job of bringing that story to life and mixing in interesting bits of history. The mystery is filled with twists and turns, and there is even a bit of an added mystery in the epilogue. If you are looking for a new Sherlock Holmes story that is a bit different then you are used to, be sure to check out The Strange Case of the Dutch Painter. I look forward to seeing where Timothy Miller takes this series next!

Lorie Lewis Ham is our Editor-in-Chief and a contributor to various sections, coupling her journalism experience with her connection to the literary and entertainment worlds. Explore Lorie’s mystery writing at Mysteryrat’s Closet. Lorie’s new mystery novel, One of Us, is set in the Tower District of Fresno and the world of community theatre!

Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Coal Tar
By Timothy Miller

“Returning to France I spent some months in a research into the coal-tar derivatives, which I conducted in a laboratory at Montpelier, in the South of France.” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Empty House

Alright, what the dickens are coal-tar derivatives? And why would Sherlock Holmes spend any time, much less months, in research on them? And what does it have to do with Vincent van Gogh? These are questions that might not keep you up at night, but as a writer of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, my last one dealing with Van Gogh’s murder, it definitely had me burning the candle at both ends, So let’s explore:

First, what’s coal tar? Coal tar is a by-product in the process of the distillation of coal. Coal tar contains about 10,000 chemicals, only about half of which have been identified. So research goes on.

Which brings us to coal-tar derivatives and what must have been something like the internet in the second half of the nineteenth century—not because you can send email by coal-tar, but because of the host of applications that it led to. You’re probably familiar with creosote, a wood preservative used for railroad ties, but here are a few other coal-tar apps: shampoo, soap, ointment, analgesics, treatment for eczema and psoriasis, sugar substitutes, perfume, and explosives. And paints. Specifically aniline dyes, which would revolutionize the art of painting. The word aniline comes from the French anil, indigo, and thereby hangs a tale.

Timothy Miller

Because before synthetic dyes, most colors—yellows, browns, greens—came from minerals in the earth, but there were a few which had more exotic sources. Carmine came from crushed bugs: cochineals. Purple dye came from a rather smelly species of snails. And blue came from lapis lazuli, a rare and prized rock which had to be crushed to make ultramarine—and from indigo.

Indigo was known as blue gold because of the intense demand for it in Europe. Indigo was so prized that the British, or rather their Indian subjects, or rather their Indian serfs, turned land for food crops into vast tracts of indigo for which they were paid a pittance, which led to the Indigo Revolt of 1859, and in turn led to brutal repression by the British “planters.” Which in turn would lead to later rebellions.

Which meant that the invention of mauve was a godsend. Mauve?

Well, yes, mauve, that pale purple shade, gets the prize because it was the first synthetic dye invented, in 1856, by William Perkin, who was trying to invent a synthetic quinine at the time. Oops! A whole host of synthetic dyes followed, an entire industry. And the race to create a synthetic indigo was on. In 1883, the Germans broke the code, and in 1890, a Swiss chemist Karl Heumann, introduced a method of mass production. Thus affordable blue jeans were born.

This also meant a revolution for art; artists no longer had to grind their own pigments (or train apprentices to do so) or store their paints in pig bladders (a chancy proposition, given that they were prone to burst open). Artists were free of their studios. Plein air painting was possible. Instead of painting gods and heroes, kings and queens, they could paint street scenes, picnics by the river, water lilies, dancers, the whole joyous repertoire of everyday life for which we have come to love the Impressionists and with a whole new palette of bright synthetic colors to mix from.

Of course, tin tubes were needed to achieve this miracle as well, and in 1841, the American painter John Rand invented them. As Renoir said, without paint in tubes, there would be no impressionism. Add in the invention of field easels, which could be carried on the artist’s back, and the artist was completely mobile. A painter like Van Gogh could trudge around a picturesque town like Auvers-sur-Oise and plant his easel wherever the fancy struck him. He painted over eighty such paintings there in the last two months of his life—more than one a day. And he used blue like mad.

So that’s what coal-tar derivatives had to do with Van Gogh, and the history of modern art.

Wait a minute, wait a minute, Tim. You’ve completely dodged the question of Sherlock Holmes’s research into coal-tar derivatives. What was he doing all those months in Montpelier? I don’t mind telling you, this was a poser. And I had to dig deep for an answer. Fortunately I had one ace up my sleeve: cocaine. Holmes’s addiction to cocaine was well known. It was hardly unusual in his day. Most of those nineteenth century medicinal tonics were based on either alcohol, morphia, or cocaine, so most people were zonked out.

But synthetic cocaine? I knew it was possible, because a friend from my college days (who will remain nameless), a chemistry major, had created it. Purely for scientific purposes, you understand. As a matter of fact, shortly after succeeding, he got cold feet and flushed it all down the toilet. Sic transit gloria.

But I asked him: had he used coal tar in his creation? No. He supposed it might be used, but in this day and age, there were far more efficient methods. I’d have to keep searching.

At last I came upon it: New York Times, April 16, 1928.

“The manufacture of synthetic cocaine from coal-tar derivatives has reached a stage which permits of chemically pure stuff being made in a home laboratory, according to disclosures in the New Berliner today.”

Bingo! The article goes on to speculate that cocaine (by then illegal) was being mass produced and sold by Germany to pay for reparations from World War I. When you think that the manufacture of a little more cocaine might have averted World War II, you’re in the wicked world of historical fiction writers.

So I’ll posit that Sherlock Holmes was trying to develop synthetic cocaine, possibly to share his discovery with the world, or possibly purely for scientific purposes. A few years later Dr. Watson finally weaned him off cocaine. So, he probably failed in his quest, and went home to London. That’s my conjecture, and I’m sticking to it.

To enter to win a copy of The Strange Case of the Dutch Painter, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “painter,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen April 30, 2022. U.S. residents only, and you must be 18 or older to enter. If you are entering via email please include you mailing address in case you win, it will be deleted after the contest. You can read our privacy statement here if you like. BE AWARE THAT IT WILL TAKE MUCH LONGER THAN USUAL FOR WINNERS TO GET THEIR BOOKS DUE TO THE CURRENT CRISIS.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Also listen to our new mystery podcast where mystery short stories and first chapters are read by actors! They are also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Spotify. A new episode went up this week.

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Timothy Miller is a native of Louisiana and a graduate of Loyola University in New Orleans. The Strange Case of the Dutch Painter (Seventh Street Books) is his second mystery that features none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most beloved character — Sherlock Holmes. He is hard at work on his third. You can learn more on his website.

Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.

8 Comments

  1. I’m always up for some Sherlociana! Count me in!

    Reply
  2. Sounds fascinating. Thanks for the chance.
    diannekc8(at)gmail(dot)com

    Reply
  3. I haven’t read many of the Sherlock Holmes
    stories. Would like to try this one. thanks
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    Reply
  4. Sounds intriguing positive.ideas.4youATgmail.com

    Reply
  5. The Strange Case of the Dutch Painter by Timothy Miller sounds like a colorful mystery for readers to enjoy.

    Reply
  6. The Strange Case of the Dutch Painter by Timothy Miller sounds like a great book for Sherlock fans!

    Reply
  7. We have a winner!

    Reply

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