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Stories untold
An artist’s impression of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson being attacked by giant Sumatran rats; (above) the Mallomys rat

The news that a giant rat, hitherto unknown to science, has been discovered in the forests of Indonesia will gladden the heart of every Sherlock Holmes enthusiast. For those not in the know, an expedition visiting the Foja mountains of Indonesia’s Papua province in June this year discovered two new mammals — a pygmy possum and a giant rat. Two years ago, the same team had discovered dozens of new plants and animals during their first trip to the region. The Foja mountain range is part of the Mamberamo Basin, one of the largest tropical forests in the Asia-Pacific region, and almost entirely unexplored.

But what has Holmes to do with this? As all Holmes aficionados will know, it was at the beginning of The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire that the following lines occur: “Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”

Is there a passage more tantalising, more pregnant with possibilities, than this in the canon of detective writing? I doubt it. Perhaps the one which comes closest is also by the good doctor himself: “Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” At least the story of the hound of the Baskervilles was deemed fit to be told to the world. How much more unspeakable then must have been the horror of the giant rat of Sumatra, that even the faithful Watson has to be kept in the dark?

The real-life giant rat — known as the Mallomys rat — is however an extremely good-natured rodent, we are told. According to one of the scientists on the team, the rat came into their camp several times a day, showing no fear of human beings. It weighed nearly a kg-and-a-half and was five times the size of an average rat. Before this discovery, the biggest known rat was the Gambian Pouched Rat (Cricetomys gambianus), the adult of which is known to be more than three-feet long. Then there is the Flores Giant Rat (Papagomys armandvillei), also Indonesian, so called after Flores Island on which it is found. From nose to tip of tail, these rats measure over a metre, with the tail alone capable of being 70 cm long.

Predictably enough, there has been any number of pastiches on the giant rat of Sumatra theme, including a full-length comedy album recorded in 1974. There are at least three novels called The Giant Rat of Sumatra, none of which this columnist has ever seen. As for the horrible depredations wreaked on the hapless ship Matilda Briggs, I refer my readers to an article called Fauna in the Canon by Ronald Rosenblatt, to be found at

(The author teaches English at Jadavpur University)

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