Although Sherlock Holmes categorically dismissed, in "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire," supernatural explanations for corporeal crimes ("This Agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. ... No ghosts need apply"), one of the most popular among Sir Arthur Conan Doyleâ€™s Holmes tales is The Hound of the Baskervilles
(1902), in which the fate of a Devonshire family supposedly hangs on the savage appetites of an apparitional beast. More than a century later, in The Italian Secretary
, Caleb Carr again presents the hawk-faced consulting detective with a yarn woven of paranormal plot threads, the mystery this time rooted in the fatal 16th-century stabbing of David Rizzio, a music teacher and confidant to Mary, Queen of Scots.
For Holmes and his affable annalist, Dr. John Watson, this spirited escapade begins sometime in the late 19th century with their receipt, in London, of an encrypted telegram from Sherlock's eccentric elder brother, Mycroft, "a senior but anonymous government official." It summons them to Edinburgh, Scotland, where architect Sir Alistair Sinclair and his foreman, Dennis McKay, have been slain in the midst of rehabilitating the medieval west tower of the Royal Palace of Holyrood--the very wing where Queen Mary had lived, and where Rizzio had met his brutal, politically motivated end. Mycroft fears these murders portend new threats against Britain's present monarch--the elderly Queen Victoria, who infrequently lodges at the palace--by a known assassin, perhaps in nefarious league with the German Kaiser. En route north, Holmes and Watson are menaced aboard their train by a red-bearded bomb thrower (supposedly a rabid Scots nationalist), only to discover that still greater dangers await them, and others, at Holyroodhouse. The plaintive drone of a weeping woman, cruelly punctured and shattered corpses, a pool of blood "that never dries," and a disembodied Italian voice with unexpected musical tastes all imply the wrath of wraiths behind recent atrocities. But Holmes and Watson deduce that greed, rather than ghosts, may be to blame.
Carr, who earned renown with his historical mysteries, The Alienist (1994) and The Angel of Darkness (1997), apparently intended The Italian Secretary to be a short story; however, he couldn't stop writing. The result is a fleet-footed, atmospherically gothic, and often amusing Holmes tale (with an exposition scene in Watson's bed chamber thatâ€™s truly priceless), but one that makes scant attempt to enhance our understanding of Conan Doyle's characters--a less ambitious undertaking, in that respect, than Mitch Cullin's concurrently published A Slight Trick of the Mind. And while Carr displays a gift here for adopting another author's literary techniques, it is really his own style and series players that his fans are waiting to see more of in the future. --J. Kingston Pierce
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