California Literary Review

The Italian Secretary: A Further Adventure Of Sherlock Holmes by Caleb Carr

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April 22nd, 2007 at 8:58 am

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The Italian Secretary: A Further Adventure Of Sherlock Holmes
by Caleb Carr
Carroll & Graf, 263 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Game’s Afoot

Those writers whom the gods would destroy, they first tempt into trying to imitate another writer who has influenced them. You may love Faulkner, Joyce or Eliot, but that’s no excuse for trying to ape them – often badly – in your own work. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales have served as a will-o’-the-wisp to later writers eager to see what they can do with the world’s greatest detective as a primary character and his doughty sidekick, Dr. John Watson, as primary narrative voice.

As it turns out, Caleb Carr’s facility with the genre of historical mystery holds true even when it comes to trying his own dark tale of Holmes and Watson battling evil, this time in the heart of Edinburgh, Scotland. Carr, author of The Alienist series of books set in fin de siecle New York, serves up a cracking good yarn, albeit one beset by problems of pacing and plotting.

The Italian Secretary takes place somewhat late in Holmes and Watson’s partnership, after the good doctor’s wife has died and he has removed himself back to 221B Baker Street. Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older brother and a crusty confidant of Queen Victoria, sends the men a mysterious telegram. Once decrypted, the wire sets the duo on a quick run to Scotland, where secret agents of foreign powers may be playing a deadly game with Her Majesty’s life.

En route, Holmes and Watson are rudely reminded of the awful seriousness of their task when bomb-wielding Scots nationalist terrorists try to blow them and their train right off the tracks. The plot only thickens when our heroes arrive in Edinburgh. The royal palace of Holyroodhouse is the scene of two grisly murders. An architect engaged to renovate and restore the palace’s medieval section is punctured by dozens of stab wounds, as is a mason employed to assist in the restoration work. Both men’s bodies are also pulped, every bone in them broken into pieces.

Holmes and Watson must determine whether the culprit lies among the staff of the royal residence or is the ghost of the late David Rizzio, secretary and musician to Mary Queen of Scots. Rizzio was slashed to ribbons in the 16th Century by Mary’s murderously idiotic husband, Lord Darnley. Rizzio, according to legend, haunts the ancient ruins at Holyroodhouse, searching for the odd lone Scot that he can pick off in retaliation for his own demise. Surely the Italian Secretary isn’t responsible for the deaths of two men…or is he? Holmes has great fun tweaking Watson’s latent belief in the supernatural on this particular point. Watson, of course, falls for the needling.

Sound good so far? Well, it is a pretty interesting set-up and Carr does a workmanlike job of following through on it. If there is any let-down in the novel, it involves the pacing. The Italian Secretary moves with stops and starts, like the special train sent by Mycroft to ferry his brother and Dr. Watson to Edinburgh. Exposition moves mainly by means of long conversations among the Holmes brothers and Watson, although, to be fair to Carr, this is a common occurrence in Conan Doyle’s original body of work. The talky nature of the novel undercuts the far-too-brief action scenes.

Sherlock Holmes himself seems vaguely reactive to events throughout the novel – with one notable exception involving a home-made bomb and an overly-long fuse. His deductive powers don’t seem particularly taxed and at times Holmes comes across as a bemused spectator watching events unfold exactly as he expects them to. Carr’s evocation of John Watson as authorial voice, however, is pitch-perfect, delightfully so. The Watson we encounter here shows that he’s spent enough time around his eccentric pal that his own powers of ratiocination have developed quite nicely.

The end of the novel is badly rushed and here Carr would have been well-advised to spend more time threshing out the series of events constituting the story’s denouement. There are times in this part of the novel when characters resemble those varmints you hit on the head at the Whack-A-Mole game at the county fair – they pop up out of one hole only to vanish and appear in another moments later without explanation. I felt somewhat robbed of what might have otherwise been a great pay-off from the story.

All-in-all, however, Caleb Carr acquits himself well on behalf of Conan Doyle and his famous detective, enough so that I would be ready and willing to take another waltz down Baker Street. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Carr do just that, just as I won’t be surprised by a movie treatment on this novel. Let’s just hope that the next time the game’s afoot, Carr comes to play it at greater length.

  • Robert

    I read the book soon after its publication, and I was very interested to see how your criticism would treat it. That having been said, I agree with every aspect of the above review. Caleb Carr is wonderfully talented, as evidenced by The Alienist, but this work was not an ideal example of his potential. Good review.

  • elaine lynn

    Our book club finished a review of “The Italian Secretary” last night, specifically Caleb Carr of whom little is written. Without your review which I discovered today, we felt the ending was also rushed and characters difficult to follow then. Carr did a great job of setting and writing “in the style of”, moreso than Laurie King we felt..I came back to seek answers to the “comissioned by estate of CD” and discovered another huge fascinating world of interest in Conan Doyle; clubs, web sites,fans,etc. and other authors imitating CD. I am sorry I did not find this TWO days ago! I will have to have a follow-up report!
    Elaine Lynn

  • mike in the big O

    great review. he needs some fine tuning.

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