Saturday, May 25, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: “The Amateur Executioner: Enoch Hale Meets Sherlock Holmes”

Dan Andriacco and Kieran McMullen; Publisher: MX Publishing (April 2013)

“Hale had read the Sherlock Holmes stories as a boy, of course; everybody had. But even though Hale knew that Holmes was a real person, like America’s Alan Pinkerton in the last century and William J. Burns in this one, he had viewed the world’s first consulting detective as a remote and almost legendary figure. And to think that Wiggins had known him! What had Pound said? It was too bad that Holmes was retired. Hale was inclined to agree. But it seemed that the detective’s old friend, his ‘Boswell,’ was still keeping his eye on crime news” (73).

The year is 1920, and the world hasn’t stopped moving simply because Sherlock Holmes has retired. Time has marched relentlessly and ruthlessly forward, and no one has come away unscathed. The Baker Street Irregulars are no longer little boys; familiar canonical characters are now old men with a propensity to ramble; London is filled with an entirely new generation of dizzying intellects and untapped creative potential; and Sherlock Holmes can no longer be found easily with a telegram to the Baker Street flat. And it’s against the background of this complex historical tapestry that Dan Andriacco and Kieran McMullen weave together their new collaborative novel: The Amateur Executioner: Enoch Hale Meets Sherlock Holmes. But despite all that has changed in the years since 1895, some things endure. The criminal class remains active and evergreen, as do those who work in the pursuit of justice. And the art of deduction, as journalist Enoch Hale proves, is still very much in fashion.

The Amateur Executioner is the first collaborative work between Sherlockian authors Dan Andriacco and Kieran McMullen. Andriacco is the author of several Sherlockian writings, including Baker Street Beat, No Police Like Holmes, Holmes Sweet Holmes, and The 1895 Murder. McMullen’s works include a trio of military-themed Sherlockian pastiches: Watson’s Afghan Adventure, Sherlock Holmes and the Irish Rebels and Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Boer Wagon, as well as an insightful survey of actors who have portrayed Dr. Watson on stage and screen throughout the years entitled, The Many Watsons. The authors’ combined talents and respective areas of expertise are well-matched, in addition to being well-balanced. The resulting effort is a triumph of historical fiction – well-researched, engaging, and supremely entertaining.

Journalist Enoch Hale of the Central Press Syndicate, an American expatriate in London, is not a detective – although like most reporters, he certainly has the makings of one. And while Hale himself is not particularly illustrious (although the prominent Wall Street family he left in America would likely beg to differ), his circle of friends and acquaintances more than exceeds the definition of the word. They include poets and politicians, actors, directors and musicians, as well as some characters that seem tantalizingly familiar, but remain stubbornly on the wrong side of recognition until almost the very end of the novel. Well-known canonical faces are also present in abundance. Horace Harker, who readers should know from “The Six Napoleons,” is a regular feature at Hale’s day job, and on separate occasions, Hale turns to both Langdale Pike (3GAB) and Shinwell Johnson (ILLU) for information. To investigate a series of murders, whose common theme is that the victims are executed with a hangman’s noose, Hale even works in close concert with a Chief Inspector Henry Wiggins, whose eye for detail and methods of investigation should be instantly recognizable, as if this character has spent his life studying at the feet of some master instructor.

But the mystery at the heart of The Amateur Executioner is more than just a device meant to propel Enoch Hale from one familiar face to another. The machinations behind the series of murders (and their seemingly unrelated victims) are intricately and expertly plotted, and as complex as any of the one hundred and sixty separate ciphers in Holmes’s monograph. It is a mystery of hidden dimensions and international implications, but with a local flavor not unlike one of the Great Detective’s own cases. The novel stays satisfyingly grounded in the world of Sherlock Holmes – even if the man himself is not a constant presence. Enoch Hale is as doggedly persistent as Sherlock Holmes is known to be, and when his managing director at the Central Press Syndicate (one Nigel Rathbone, recently arrived from South Africa) tells the journalist, “Get the story, Hale!” – there is almost certainly an echo of “Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot."

But there is no denying that the strength of The Amateur Executioner is in the effortless manner in which it evokes historical figures, fictional characters, and famous places. It’s certainly entertaining to read that a fortune-teller (one of the executioner's victims) told both George Bernard Shaw and W.B.Yeats that they will win the Nobel Prize (the former is dismissive of the prediction, while the later seems eager to believe). And as for Winston Churchill, who met with the same fortune-teller? “She said I would be Prime Minister some day. What politician wouldn’t want to hear that” (54)? Later during a visit to a moving picture studio, Hale encounters “Hitch,” the studio’s art director. Short, balding, and chubby, he is described dismissively: “Hitch here designs title cards, but he harbors a not-so-secret desire to be a director” (119). The cavalcade of famous faces culminates in the arrival of William Gillette, the American actor so famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. But the actor seems to be more than a little immersed in his most famous role – despite being nearly 70-years-old – and Hale begins to fear for the actor’s well-being after a round of insightful deductions aimed at the journalist:

“I’ve also never met a journalist who wears Brooks Brothers suits. That takes more money than Fleet Street pays out, until you’re the boss, if then. Your family can hardly be pleased that you’ve become a scribbler, which may explain why you’re pursuing that trade in old England instead of the New England your accent comes from. Yet it’s obvious that they haven’t cut off your allowance since you’re wearing the very latest style and a new fabric that Brooks Brothers has just begun to import from India called Madras. By the way, that notebook in your hand is as indicative of your profession as Chief Inspector Wiggin’s two-and-a-half inch barrel weapon and handcuffs are of his” (125).

A good novel should endeavor to surprise its readers on every page, and The Amateur Executioner is the best kind of surprise – the subtle wink and nudge to – not just fans of Sherlock Holmes – but those who enjoy a wide variety of topics, from poetry to politics to popular culture. The novel is not unlike a treasure hunt, and you wonder just who or what is going to turn up next. It’s a fast-paced and immersive read, barely allowing the reader to take a breath from page to page. But it’s also a remarkable and masterful undertaking – suggestive of something new and fresh, while remaining true to the source that shaped it.

“The essence of lying is in deception, not in words.” (John Ruskin)

The Amateur Executioner: Enoch Hale Meets Sherlock Holmes, by Dan Andriacco and Kieran McMullen is available in paperback from MX Publishing, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.  It is also available for the Kindle. You can follow the authors on Facebook.
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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Currently on Twitter...

As part of an ongoing project on my Twitter feed, I'm delivering stories from the Sherlock Holmes canon in tiny installments of 140 characters or less. I recently finished up "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor," in which Sherlock Holmes professes his affinity for all things American: “It is always a joy to meet an American, Mr. Moulton, for I am one of those who believe that the folly of a monarch and the blundering of a minister in far-gone years will not prevent our children from being some day citizens of the same world-wide country under a flag which shall be a quartering of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes.”

The current story is "The Speckled Band," in which Dr. Grimesby Roylott introduces the reader to: "Holmes, the meddler... Holmes, the busybody... Holmes, the Scotland Yard Jack-in-office!"

Check out my Twitter feed for a daily installment, although I am usually inspired to post more than once a day. And don't forget you can read through the original canon online.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Some Thoughts on Setting: The Tranquil
English Home

“As we drove away I stole a glance back, and I still seem to see that little group on the step – the two graceful, clinging figures, the half-opened door, the hall-light shining through stained glass, the barometer, and the bright stair-rods. It was soothing to catch even that passing glimpse of a tranquil English home in the midst of the wild, dark business which had absorbed us.” (SIGN)

221B Baker Street was not a tranquil English home. Life with Sherlock Holmes was not tranquil. The world with Sherlock Holmes in it was not tranquil. An existence punctuated by indoor pistol practice, unpredictable and uncontrollable chemical experiments, and an assorted cast of unsavory characters arriving at irregular hours was not a tranquil one. But there were moments of tranquility. For instance, the conclusion of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” in which the reader finds Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson enjoying a peaceful, seasonal meal together. The passage in The Sign of Four in which Holmes lulls a tense and exhausted Watson to sleep with his violin. Or even the opening lines of “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” in which the reader finds that Inspector Lestrade has acquired the habit of dropping in at Baker Street of an evening, just to chat. But, by and large, the Baker Street flat was a rambunctious residence.

But that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that all other canonical residences were tranquil ones, either. An address off of Baker Street did not guarantee a peaceful life. The eponymous residence of “The Copper Beeches,” for all its efforts at the appearance of normalcy, turned out to be – for Miss Violet Hunter especially – as dark and dangerous a residence as any alley of ill-repute in London. The Trevor residence in Donnithorpe, seen in “The ‘Gloria Scott’”, is certainly more than peaceful enough in the beginning. As Sherlock Holmes said, “…he would be a fastidious man who could not put in a pleasant month there,” but unfortunately the “old-fashioned, widespread, oak-beamed brick” dwelling quickly becomes the site of high drama, when the elder Trevor’s previous transgressions follow him home. And of course, in “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” no number of ivy-covered walls or pillared front facades can conceal the dark business that took place inside – the monstrous cruelty of Sir Eustace Brackenstall and his violent end.

Nevertheless, in “The Crooked Man,” Sherlock Holmes arrives at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Watson, seeking sanctuary. The Watsons have only been married a few months, and the hour is late – Watson informs the reader that his wife had already gone to bed – but there is no question that Sherlock Holmes would be welcome, that his hat can fill the vacant peg on the hatstand. So, if a tranquil English home doesn’t necessarily mean “anywhere outside of Baker Street,” then what was Dr. Watson longing after as he gazes back at the Forrester residence in The Sign of Four? Was it necessarily the tranquility? Was it the sense of stability? Was it the woman standing on the doorstep (you know, the one he would eventually marry)? Or was it something else, some more intangible quality, something that perhaps escaped even Watson’s implicit understanding?

It’s worth noting that, in the passage from SIGN, Watson is neither coming from nor returning to the flat at Baker Street. He is coming from Pondicherry Lodge – returning Miss Mary Morstan to the home where she currently resides as a governess – and their evening has been long and dark, punctuated by theft, murder, and the revelation of secrets horrible and long-harbored. After leaving Miss Morstan with the Forresters, Watson does not immediately return to Pondicherry Lodge, but instead embarks on an errand for Sherlock Holmes, and goes to Pinchin Lane. It is an unlovely place. As Watson says, “Pinchin Lane was a row of shabby, two-storied brick houses in the lower quarter of Lambeth. I had to knock for some time at No. 3 before I could make any impression.” He is then subjected to a variety of abuse at the hands of the resident, Mr. Sherman, before mentioning Sherlock Holmes and thus gaining entrance, and Sherman’s deference. The interior of No. 3 Pinchin Lane is no better than the exterior: “In the uncertain, shadowy light I could see dimly that there were glancing, glimmering eyes peeping down at us from every cranny and corner. Even the rafters above our heads were lined by solemn fowls, who lazily shifted their weight from one leg to the other as our voices disturbed their slumbers.”

So, what was Watson really seeing in that passage from SIGN, what were the particular items that drew his eye? The first thing he mentions is Miss Morstan and Mrs. Forrester on the doorstep – “the two graceful, clinging figures.” Mary Morstan didn’t just arrive at the place where she lived; she was welcomed home by Mrs. Forrester: “…it gave me joy to see how tenderly her arm stole round the other’s waist and how motherly was the voice in which she greeted her. She was clearly no mere paid dependant but an honoured friend.” And hasn’t Watson received similarly warm welcomes from Sherlock Holmes? In “The Naval Treaty,” the Doctor is informed, “You come at a crisis, Watson” and “I will be at your service in an instant... You will find tobacco in the Persian slipper.” In “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Holmes tells his friend: “So it was, my dear Watson, that at two o’clock to-day I found myself in my old armchair in my own old room, and only wishing that I could have seen my old friend Watson in the other chair which he has so often adorned.” It’s really very simple. What more can one want from a home than to just to know that you are welcome, and that all the comforts are at your disposal?  

And speaking of those comforts, that is the second thing that draws Watson’s eye in the passage from SIGN: “the half-opened door, the hall-light shining through stained glass, the barometer, and the bright stair-rods.” These items are all meant to be indicators of home – things that are comforting and familiar. So, how are these articles any different that the tobacco in the toe-end of a Persian slipper (or the cigars in the coal-scuttle, for that matter), correspondence eternally fixed under a jack-knife, or the bullet-marks in the wall. In “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” Watson practically equates himself with these items: “As an institution I was like the violin, the shag tobacco, the old black pipe, the index books, and others perhaps less excusable.” If bullet-marks and jack-knifes are perhaps less graceful than “hall-light shining through stained glass,” does that make them any less effective as objects of comfort? They are still indicators of home, no matter what kind of home that might be.

Perhaps what Dr. Watson was longing for in that passage from SIGN was not necessarily a different type of home. Is it possible that he just wanted to go home – no matter where that home was, or what it might be? It had already been a long night, with the promise of it being even longer, and maybe all he wanted to do was feel welcomed, and surround himself with the items that comforted him (and most likely sleep, of all ridiculous notions). This is, after all, what Watson does for Holmes when the man arrives on his doorstep, on that long dark night in CROO. He welcomes him in, offers him a familiar creature comfort (in the form of his tobacco pouch), and shares his company with a man that knew his habits even better than himself. The tranquil English home might be, after all, not a necessarily a place, but a place of being.  


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