Monday, March 7, 2011

100 Books 14 - Caleb Carr's THE ITALIAN SECRETARY

I have not taken the time to become an expert on Sherlock Holmes like so many have, but I may call myself an enthusiast. I have read all of the original stories and novellas at one point or another, have enjoyed all of the great detective's cinematic and television incarnations up to and including the brilliant re-imagining that was last year's Sherlock and even took a stab at writing Holmes fan fiction as a little girl. But I cannot quote the tales chapter and verse, have never donned Victorian drag and played at being a Baker Street Irregular, have not written minute analyses of Holmes' methods or literary antecedents or linguistic patterns as some have done.

No, I do not claim to be an expert on Sherlock Holmes, but I still feel justified in observing that if there was any living writer whom I would want to try to tackle writing more of this oeuvre, that writer would be Caleb Carr, and I was clearly not alone in this, for it was no less a person than Jon Lellenberg, the U.S. representative of the Conan Doyle estate, who set to work persuading Carr to do so.

I'm so very glad he did!

The Italian Secretary is that rarest of books, one that delivers precisely what the reader most hopes for an expects. It is a further adventure of Sherlock Holmes in every way, right down to the proud bafflement of its narrator, Dr. John Watson, M.D., who spends much of the novel trying not to put too much stock into Holmes' declaration of his belief in the power of ghosts but is bothered by it all the same as the famous duo unravels a double-murder at Holyrood House, the Scottish palace that was, in the heyday of Mary, Queen of Scots, the scene of a grisly murder of one David Rizzio, an Italian secretary to the palace. Has this modern killer or cabal of killers taken this famous old murder as inspiration for modern misdeeds -- or is it, as many locals believe, the work of a vengeful ghost? A mysterious presence seems to haunt the older parts of Holyrood House at night and is heard plaintively singing in Italian -- but Holmes quickly discovers that the aria are from Verdi, whose life and work occurred centuries after the Italian Secretary's murder.

So yes, there is an inevitable Scooby Doo quality to the unraveling of the mystery even as the story also takes on some high gothic overtones -- as how could it not, in such a setting? We are not only solving a pair of murders and preventing more, as we tag along with Holmes, Watson and Holmes' brother Mycroft, but also doing a fair bit of mythbusting. I can imagine Carr winking at us all and daring us not to think of a certain Great Dane and his friends as the criminals' ghastly modus operandi are revealed.

I'm a big fan of Caleb Carr. I even sort of liked his mostly ill-received foray into science fiction, Killing Time, which was imaginative and entertaining if also flawed and didactic. But of course, it's for his first two novels, The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness that I really celebrate him, for in them he created mysteries and narratives every bit as compelling as Conan Doyle's but narratives that were every bit as deeply and informedly American as Conan Doyle's were British, and which, in many ways, plumbed the very idea of crime in much greater depth; while Conan Doyle's Holmes is a scientist and observer of outward minitiae, Carr's Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is all of these and more -- a psychologist marvelously unafraid to explore the inner workings of depravity and compulsion that Holmes and Watson would likely never even consider. Carr benefits, of course, from a century's advances in all of these fields (and a thorough study of them, as well as a profound knowledge of American history and law -- he is now a professor of same at my own alma mater, Bard College; I regret that he joined the faculty just a few years after I graduated!) as well as an increased hunger on the part of his reading public for just the kinds of inner and outer details his hero reveals. He succumbs to the common historical fictioneer's temptation to attribute a vast array of innovations and discoveries to his protagonist-detective's invention, cooking down a vast and varied array of individuals' contributions to the field of what we now know of as forensic science to the solitary brilliance of one pioneer, but I'm inclined to forgive him this as he's done so in such compelling surroundings (as you will probably see in my next entry, I do not always give writers this pass).

I imagine writing The Italian Secretary was rather a refreshing exercise for Carr, therefore. It is pure Holmes, an exploration of physical and circumstantial evidence only, an exercise in observation and deduction and of motives no more depraved, really, than greed. After the archetypal horrors of the Kreizler books, and the need to re-create the world of 19th century New York out of raw research, dabbling in this other canon has, I think, to have been an easier and very pleasant experience. Dare I hope he will undertake it again?

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