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Mr. Doyle and Dr. Bell Hardcover – July 28, 2003
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Learn more
From Publishers Weekly
Canadian Engel's serviceable venture into the Sherlock Holmes genre suffers by comparison to David Pirie's The Patient's Eyes (2002), likewise substituting a young Arthur Conan Doyle and his real-life mentor, Dr. Joseph Bell, for Watson and Holmes. When a beautiful opera singer and her lover are found brutally slain, suspicion falls on Alan Lambert, "a man of good family fallen upon evil days," whose brother asks Bell for assistance. As the doctor and his protege race the clock to save Lambert from the gallows, Edinburgh's power elite impedes their efforts at every turn. Undeterred, the pair persists in exploring numerous avenues of inquiry that the police have ignored or discounted. While the period details ring true and Bell is a convincing master detective, with his deductions based on careful observation and encyclopedic knowledge, his personality remains far less developed than that of Pirie's hero. Similarly, Engel barely alludes to Doyle's well-documented family difficulties, which provided Pirie with ample grist for making the future creator of Sherlock Holmes sympathetic and complex. Moreover, the murderer's identity will come as less than a surprise to most readers.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Mr. Engel is a born writer, a natural stylist . . . This is a writer who can bring a character to life in a few lines. (Ruth Rendell)
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While Doyle came to weary of his association with the world's most famous literary detective, he shared many of Holmes's qualities, including the abilities of observation and deduction learned from Dr. Bell, and he actually did lend his efforts to the consideration of real-life mysteries from his own time.
Howard Engel's novel is a clever tribute to Doyle, his mentor, and his creation. He ingeniously sets his murder mystery not in London, as might be supposed, but in Edinburgh and even more ingeniously (but inevitably, given the pecking order between Doyle and his professor) makes the youthful Doyle play Watson to Bell's Holmes. Gratefully, Bell is a little less brusque with minds less active than his own than is Holmes.
Most ingeniously of all, the murder mystery that Mr. Doyle and Dr. Bell are called upon to solve is based upon a genuinely celebrated murder case from Doyle's mature years that Doyle played a principal role in resolving - though again, in this setting, as a student in the year 1879, he plays an acolyte's role.
Which murder case? I leave it to the reader to see if he recognizes it from the book, if he doesn't recognize it already. Engel himself provides the answer in his afterword.
I am only familiar with one other novel in which this device is used and that would be Bruce Alexander's "Person or Persons Unknown", the fourth in Alexander's Sir John Fielding Series, in which the Jack-the-Ripper slayings are moved backward 100 years in time from the late 19th century to the late 18th century.
Robert Louis Stevenson also makes a few cameo appearances as Doyle's college chum, and Doyle and Bell are also granted an interview with the great Disraeli ("Mr. Dizzy"). There are some annoying diversions that do not contribute to the story, and I assume that these are historical allusions that I failed to recognize. There are certainly a number of allusions to the Sherlock Holmes stories that Doyle will later write that the reader WILL recognize.
I'd like to see more murder mysteries in this vein - though I'm not sure that the world is ready for a story about Oliver Stone, as a precocious fourth-grader (in Donald J. Sobol's "Encyclopedia Brown" vein), solving a mysterious shooting at a presidential motorcade in downtown Fresno during the Eisenhower years.
In this book, Bell, with Doyle playing his eager Watson-esque assistant, attempts to prove the innocence of a condemned man and ends up sideways with the Scottish police and the Scottish justice system. The case is based on a true story that occurred some years after the times of ACD and Dr Bell.
Whereas Pirie paints a dark moodish piece with all of his characters (including the leads) as sombre, haunted individuals caught in a web of horror and intrigue, Engel's picture is bright, snappy, and breezy (or as much so as possible given that it details a wrongly convicted man facing the gallows). Pirie is rich in minute detail and atmosphere, Engel skips from scene to scene, plot point to plot point, like a runner trying to break the hundrde yard dash. In sum, I must confess that Pirie's book, the second in his Doyle/Bell series, is much more literary and engrossing but Engel's, originally published in paperback in 1997, is simply, a lot more fun. As they say in the ads though; "even better, try them both!"