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The Italian Secretary: A Further Adventure of Sherlock Holmes Paperback – October 27, 2009

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Editorial Reviews Review

Although Sherlock Holmes categorically dismissed, in "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire," supernatural explanations for corporeal crimes ("This Agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. ... No ghosts need apply"), one of the most popular among Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes tales is The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), in which the fate of a Devonshire family supposedly hangs on the savage appetites of an apparitional beast. More than a century later, in The Italian Secretary, Caleb Carr again presents the hawk-faced consulting detective with a yarn woven of paranormal plot threads, the mystery this time rooted in the fatal 16th-century stabbing of David Rizzio, a music teacher and confidant to Mary, Queen of Scots.

For Holmes and his affable annalist, Dr. John Watson, this spirited escapade begins sometime in the late 19th century with their receipt, in London, of an encrypted telegram from Sherlock's eccentric elder brother, Mycroft, "a senior but anonymous government official." It summons them to Edinburgh, Scotland, where architect Sir Alistair Sinclair and his foreman, Dennis McKay, have been slain in the midst of rehabilitating the medieval west tower of the Royal Palace of Holyrood--the very wing where Queen Mary had lived, and where Rizzio had met his brutal, politically motivated end. Mycroft fears these murders portend new threats against Britain's present monarch--the elderly Queen Victoria, who infrequently lodges at the palace--by a known assassin, perhaps in nefarious league with the German Kaiser. En route north, Holmes and Watson are menaced aboard their train by a red-bearded bomb thrower (supposedly a rabid Scots nationalist), only to discover that still greater dangers await them, and others, at Holyroodhouse. The plaintive drone of a weeping woman, cruelly punctured and shattered corpses, a pool of blood "that never dries," and a disembodied Italian voice with unexpected musical tastes all imply the wrath of wraiths behind recent atrocities. But Holmes and Watson deduce that greed, rather than ghosts, may be to blame.

Carr, who earned renown with his historical mysteries, The Alienist (1994) and The Angel of Darkness (1997), apparently intended The Italian Secretary to be a short story; however, he couldn't stop writing. The result is a fleet-footed, atmospherically gothic, and often amusing Holmes tale (with an exposition scene in Watson's bed chamber that’s truly priceless), but one that makes scant attempt to enhance our understanding of Conan Doyle's characters--a less ambitious undertaking, in that respect, than Mitch Cullin's concurrently published A Slight Trick of the Mind. And while Carr displays a gift here for adopting another author's literary techniques, it is really his own style and series players that his fans are waiting to see more of in the future. --J. Kingston Pierce --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Writing a Sherlock Holmes tale is, for popular writers, equivalent to playing Hamlet for male actors: a challenge that few refuse and many regret. Bestselling author Carr (The Angel of Darkness, etc.) acquits himself with honor, though not high honors, in this short novel that pits Holmes, Watson and Mycroft Holmes against conspirators at Queen Victoria's Royal Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh, Scotland. When the men are killed at Holyrood in a fashion similar to the slaying centuries before of David Rizzio, an Italian confidant of Mary, Queen of Scots, Mycroft, who is Victoria's head of intelligence, calls upon his brother and Watson to help solve the mystery. Are the killings the work of Scottish nationalists? Or perhaps the sign of a restless ghost? From the latter question, and the novel's primary setting of the dank castle, emanates a well-drawn atmosphere of gloom that makes this story a nice companion to The Hound of the Baskervilles. Holmes fans and scholars should be pleased with this novel, which generally hews to "the Canon" (unlike, say, Nicholas Meyer's Seven-Per-Cent Solution) and reflects a deep knowledge and understanding of Holmesiana, but the primary base for this novel will be, of course, Carr fans, who won't be quite as thrilled—for while the novel captivates, it matches neither of Carr's previous megasellers in plot invention or depth of character. Still, this should hit bestsellers lists, though not in a major way. (May 10).
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; Reprint edition (October 27, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312352042
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312352042
  • Product Dimensions: 4.1 x 0.9 x 10.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (112 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #393,196 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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99 of 106 people found the following review helpful By Lonya VINE VOICE on April 19, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
So said Sherlock Holmes in The Yellow Face. Any indefinite doubt I had about Caleb Carr's ability to craft a credible and very enjoyable Sherlock Holmes adventure was dispelled in the first few pages.

I have read and enjoyed Carr's earlier fiction, The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness. One of the hallmarks of both books was Carr's ability to create a seemingly auhentic picture of life in 19th-century New York. He also created a wonderful pair of characters in Dr. Lazlo Kreizler and his trusted comrade John Schuyler Moore. However, Carr faced two hurdles in writing the Italian Secretary. He had to recreate the atmosphere of Victorian-era Scotland, a region he was probably not as intimately familiar with as New York City. Further, while Kreizler and Moore sprung solely from Carr's imagination, here Carr had to find authentic voices for the esteemed Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, whose characterization by Arthur Conan Doyle must be fixed firmly in the imagination of anyone who has ever read the original Holmes tales. That is no easy task.

I have read virtually all of Conan Doyle's work but admit that I cannot claim as much expertise as devoted Baker Street Irregulars or other followers of Holmes. However, this amateur thinks Carr has done a terrific job replicating their original voices. It sound like Holmes and Watson to me.

The plot line is set out in detail in the product description and I won't go on at length about the plot or discuss any of the many twists and turns along the way. I did like the way Carr threw Sherlock's brother Mycroft into the story. Carr does an excellent job describing the petty sibling rivalries that must affect even the most accomplished of brothers.
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51 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Dash Manchette VINE VOICE on April 23, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Being familiar both with the Sherlock Holmes tales and the fiction of Caleb Carr, I approached this book with interest. The result was a worthwhile read as Carr sends Holmes and Watson off to investigate murder and intrigue in Scotland.

As a Caleb Carr novel, THE ITALIAN SECRETARY is quite good. The book is exciting and the plot holds the reader's interest. Carr greatly expands the character of Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's brother, who has a special though vaguely defined relationship with the queen. Mycroft calls upon his brother and Watson to investigate murders that may call the queen's safety into question.

As a Sherlock Holmes story, the result is a bit weaker. Carr captures the relationship between Holmes and Watson very well. His portrayal of their individual personalities is fairly good though just slightly off. This does not disrupt the story, however, and merely serves to remind us that Carr is not a clone of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Carr's weak spot is that his portrayal of Holmes' logic is not as tight as one might have hoped. Although some clues are presented to the reader, they are tied together far more loosely than in the original stories. Although Doyle himself would sometimes have Holmes make inferential leaps, those times stood out starkly as the exceptions to the rule. Indeed, one major plot twist is presented by Holmes stating what he had earlier observed even though no clue whatsoever had been presented to the reader. This makes THE ITALIAN SECRETARY read more like a crime novel than a detective novel.

Another point to note is the subtle supernatural aspect that Carr employs in the book. Although he tries to gloss this over in the final chapter, it nonetheless feels artificial in a Sherlock Holmes tale.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Prof. Gwen Knightly on July 18, 2005
Format: Hardcover
In the past month I've made a point of reading four books on Sherlock Holmes, one right after the other. Not so hard for a lady who has read Conan Doyle's stories and countless pastiches for over 65 years since the age of nine. I've also encouraged my students to also read these books. Before diving into Caleb Carr's try at Holmes, I finished up Laurie R. Kings "The Locked Room" and found it to be wonderful and hardly a waste of my time. The same could be said for Mitch Cullin's "A Slight Trick of the Mind" and Michael Chabon's "The Final Solution," both of which were well written, well researched, and offered fresh perspectives on Holmes in his dottage. Too bad that it had to end on a low note with Caleb Carr's "The Italian Secretary," a book that was not only tiresome but terribly cliche and sadly predictable. How disappointing to slog my way through it after previously reading three first-rate and enjoyable novels that raised the bar on Holmes' pastiches. That might be the reason I gave one star instead of two stars. It's a shame that such a fine writer as Carr couldn't handle the characters or storyline with much originality, and the only readers who will find much pleasure in this book are those who aren't very well versed in Doyle's creation.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By wysewomon on July 19, 2006
Format: Mass Market Paperback
At the beginning of this Sherlock Holmes pastiche by Caleb Carr, our friend John Watson, M.D., arrives at Baker Street to discover Sherlock Holmes perusing a mysterious coded telegram. Once deciphered, the telegram proves to be from brother Mycroft, who--wonder of wonders, to any Sherlock enthusiast--has cabled from scotland to inform the Master his skills are needed in the matter of murder most foul. To the train, Watson! And don't forget your trusty service revolver!

Having quite enjoyed Carr's historical crime fiction, I was looking forward to seeing how he treated the world's first consulting detective. At first, my expectations for success seemed to be realised. Watson's voice in narration, the initial depiction of Holmes, the outre nature of the crime, all are reminiscent of Conan Doyle at his finest. However, as I continued reading, I began to be less and less satisfied. Something was...not quite right, and it kept getting less and less right as the book progressed.

First off, it seemed to me that Carr had only the most superficial understanding of the characters, and this was not enough to carry them beyond the confines of Baker Street. Once Holmes left his familiar props, he became quite flat. I always imagined the master with a twinkle in his keen, grey eye, but this Holmes didn't have one. I did not see his excitement over the case or his delight in his own powers. Carr also seems to have forgotten the numerous times Holmes was able to put distraught females at ease when Watson could not, which made later portions of the books sit quite ill with me.

For his part, Watson was We, the readers, know that Watson was an integral part of this duo, as does Holmes himself. But John H.
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