- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 4, 2005

THE ITALIAN SECRETARY: A FURTHER ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES

By Caleb Carr

Carroll & Graf, $23.95, 263 pages

Google Sherlock Holmes and you’ll find 1,460,000 entries to choose from. The vaunted detective has lived so far beyond the original four novels and 56 short stories in which he sleuthed and disarmed that it is hard to fathom how it will all end for him, if it ever does. An early effort by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to have his famous villain Professor Moriarty end Holmes’ life in the story “The Final Problem” (1893) hardly did the trick. After a public outcry, the detective was revived and returned to work in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1901). Sherlock Holmes prospered for almost 30 years more in Conan Doyle’s work and to varying degrees ever after in the work of others.

Readers can find him in countless parodies: “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes,” “Sherlock Holmes in Orbit,” and a Middle Earth concoction called “The Case of the Bashful Balrog,” to name just a few. These are humorous takeoffs, possessed of little more than the punch lines their titles deliver.

But there are also the pastiches. For these, the stakes are considerably higher because, among other things, they have been devised with the idea of matching or extending the original vision of their creator. This takes chutzpah. Or, in the case of Caleb Carr, author of the bestselling novel “The Alienist,” what it seems to have taken is a direct invitation from the Conan Doyle estate. And chutzpah.

So, how does “The Italian Secretary: A Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” measure up? Well, it turns out that the book is very smart and entertaining and, most importantly, Mr. Carr returns the super sleuth to a challenge that is worthy of him. As Ellery Queen once observed, “A pastiche is a serious and sincere imitation in the exact manner of the original author. But writers of parodies, which are humorous or satirical takeoffs, have no such reverent scruples. They usually strive for the weirdest possible distortion and many ingenious travesties have been conceived.”

Fortunately, there is nothing weird at all about this newest of Sherlock Holmes cases. Fans of the detective can settle in quite comfortably, watching the detective dazzle and surprise in a manner well in keeping with what readers have come to expect. Holmes is joined by Dr. Watson, acting in his familiar role as narrator and aide de camp, and by his brother Mycroft in a somewhat sherry-drenched but agreeable turn.

Other characters include a host of Scottish detectives and intelligence officers and Miss Mackenzie, a damsel in distress. But there are also real characters from 300 years earlier who populate and spice up this book: Mary Queen of Scots, her husband Robert Darnley, her presumed Italian lover David Rizzio along with others. The premise here is that the gruesome murder of Rizzio, a controversial member of Mary’s inner circle who was stabbed repeatedly in 1566 at the royal palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, has bearing on some Victorian murders whose victims also suffer multiple stab wounds.

Rizzio’s murder, presumed to have been caused by his ties with Italy and the Catholic Church, find echo in Victorian England where a spate of assassination attempts on Queen Victoria are brought to light. Politics, empire, war and peace all swirl as background to the unraveling story Holmes steadily and deftly pursues even as he must dart pools of blood that mysteriously appear at Holyroodhouse — “the blood that never dies.”

Mr. Carr has a remarkably good ear for both Holmesian linguistic tics and British idiom. He is somewhat less successful in portraying Scottish dialect. Miss Mackenzie utters a few too many “ayes” and “I canna” do this or thats to sound credible. More often she just seems funny.

But in the end, the real success of this book is that Holmes is believably back and his mastery of the evidence that he uncovers and discloses is very convincing, so much so that a return effort by Mr. Carr would be most welcome.

It is therefore not surprising (though a bit startling) to find that an afterword accompanies this book in which Jon Lellenberg, the U.S. representative of the Conan Doyle Estate holds forth on why a pairing of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Mr. Carr’s detective in “The Alienist”) might make a splendid team.

And Mr. Lellenberg uses the afterword to address the one matter that jars a reader throughout the reading of this book — the role ghosts at Holyroodhouse play in this case. For are not apparitions of this kind beneath, if not antithetical, to Sherlock Holmes’ world? Well, not if you remember the Baskerville hounds, Mr. Lellenberg counters.

He writes that though “non-canonical” and “I am not sure Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would approve,” he adds that “I was able to give permission to proceed nevertheless with ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ as an excuse and inspiration.” He adds that Holmes may have declared that “‘no ghosts need apply,’ but it is surely no accident that his most famous adventure of all is about an ancient family curse and a spectral hound haunting eerie fog-stricken Dartmoor.”

Well, in this book it is England’s own Queen Victoria and her empire that seems to be haunted, and as such readers will find a kind of modern-day sadness in it, the passing of something glorious and well, authentically Holmesian. But Mr. Carr’s Holmes is not daunted. “I give entire credence to the power of ghosts,” he says. And ultimately, the Italian secretary, mortally wounded at the time of Mary Queen of Scots gets his day in court. Though Watson will protest “Holmes, that was three centuries ago!” Holmes will counter, “And yet it is said that he walks the palace halls still, seeking revenge …’”

There is revenge. But there is Holmes. And for that we are grateful.


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