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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  1. Great review; I couldn't agree more.

  2. I never miss a story from Mr Andriacco or Mr McMullen, so the idea of a joint collaboration between these two pastiche powerhouses is an exciting one. Throw in a 1920s setting populated by what sounds like a vast and colorful pageant of historical figures, and I'm willing to stake large piles of gold that The Amateur Executioner is going to be amazing.