A review of The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr

Carr is a fine writer and his pastiche of Conan Doyle’s prose perfectly captures the voice of Holmes and Watson. One might say (entering into the spirit of things a little) that the particular singularities of Carr’s mimesis are most instructive and have many points of interest.

Reviewed by Paul Kane

The Italian Secretary: A Further Adventure Of Sherlock Holmes
by Caleb Carr
Hardcover: 263 pages
Carroll & Graf Publishers (April 10, 2005)
ISBN: 0786715480

Mr. Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first consulting detective, and Dr. John Watson, his faithful Boswell, are such memorable characters that it is hardly surprising that they have come to assume an iconic status within our culture. One consequence of this is that many later writers (and movie directors too, such as Billy Wilder) have been tempted to bring them back to life in their own fictions. Indeed, it could be said that in doing so they have simply been following in the footsteps of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, for as we all know Holmes was originally to have met his death at the Reichenbach Falls in The Adventure of the Final Problem, at the hands of his arch-enemy Moriarty. Except that Holmes’s public would not let him die, and he was resurrected by popular demand.

Notable reprises of Conan Doyle’s creations since have included Nicholas Meyer’s novel, The Seven Per Cent Solution, and the short stories of June Thomson. Thomson’s stories, which seem to be little known outside of the UK, were based on an especially fine idea: each story was based on a case that was mentioned only in passing by Conan Doyle. With The Italian Secretary, Caleb Carr has now made a bid to trump both these aces and his novel is without a doubt a valuable addition to the genre.

Here, Holmes and his old friend Dr. Watson travel to Scotland at the behest of Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, to investigate the suspicious deaths of two royal employees that seem to place the life of Queen Victoria herself in danger. For Holmes these two deaths call to mind the murder of David Rizzio, an Italian who had been tutor and secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, three centuries before. The novel is full of incident and has echoes of many of Conan Doyle’s classic stories, in particular The Hound of the Baskervilles – there is a strong (but perhaps only apparent?) supernatural element at play. One of Carr’s themes is the insidious persistence of sectarianism (i.e., the prejudice and hostility between Protestants and Catholics) in Scotland. It is a disease that blights Scotland to this day and is most evident in the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers, the two Glasgow soccer clubs.

Carr is a fine writer and his pastiche of Conan Doyle’s prose perfectly captures the voice of Holmes and Watson. One might say (entering into the spirit of things a little) that the particular singularities of Carr’s mimesis are most instructive and have many points of interest. The rhythm and tone of the prose, the vocabulary and diction used, the employment of litotes and other rhetorical devices – in short, the culmination of all of these – all contribute to Carr’s success.

One of my irritations with the more popular depictions of Holmes and Watson, and I suppose I’m thinking especially of all of those Basil Rathbone movies, is that they often seem little more than caricature. Holmes will often do a David Blane routine, impressing all with his amazing feats of deduction while Watson – poor guy – is his ready foil, an amiable buffoon only. Not so in The Italian Secretary, where we get an egalitarian relationship and a Holmes and Watson that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have recognized. Holmes is a formidable detective with an intelligence that marks him out from other men. He sees and knows more than you or I, and he judges people more severely than we might. He is a moralist, with a deep anger when confronted with the murder of the innocent. Watson is our representative and is more down to earth, but in most ways he is Holmes’s equal.

With The Italian Secretary Caleb Carr has achieved a triumphant reprise of the original dynamic duo. The game is afoot once more!

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane@yahoo.co.uk

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