I had such high hopes for The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr. My husband surprised me with it just after I had started to renew my addiction to Holmes and had read several mentions of it at the Sherlock Holmes Social Network.
Of course, those mentions were not generally favorable, but the setting of a murder at the Royal Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh, Scotland sounded so inviting. Here’s the basic plot: After several assassination attempts on Queen Victoria, Holmes and Watson are brought to Holyrood Palace at the instigation of Holmes’ brother Mycroft (who as we know sometimes is the government). A recent assassination attempt, first dismissed as a simple desire for notoriety, now appears as though it might be related to the jockeying of power between England and Germany. At the same time, two men are killed very brutally during renovations at Holryood Palace, the official residence of the monarch in Scotland.
And during the train ride there, Holmes and Watson are attacked by a very inefficient bomber who looks and sounds too much like MacAdder, Edmund Blackadder’s mad Scottish cousin — “the maddest man to wear a skirt in Europe.” The bomber shouts, “We’ll nae let ye muhrder more Scots patriots.”
Add to this mix the story of David Rizzio, an Italian courtier who became the private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, who was murdered when Mary’s husband Lord Darnley joined a conspiracy of nobles jealous of Rizzio’s relationship with Mary. The murder occurred in Holyrood Palace and supposedly there is a blood stain in a room of a ruined tower — the same tower being renovated — that never dries where Rizzio’s body lay. OK, good stuff, I have goosebumps just thinking about it.
Unfortunately, all these elements are just thrown against the wall to see what sticks, especially a very uncharacteristic Holmes who throughout the entire book seems preoccupied with the supernatural. Now, I enjoy reading books and watching TV and movies about the supernatural, even though I am very skeptical of the paranormal in the real world. But I really don’t like the idea of Holmes courting the supernatural. He is the embodiment of reason; ghosts need not apply. Of course, I have to give allowances because the author originally wrote this story as part of a collection of new supernatural-themed Holmes stories, The Ghosts of Baker Street. But the story grew too large to be included in the collection.
And it shows. There are too many red herrings and long expositions that really don’t advance the plot, especially the cryptic message that Holmes and Watson receive that start the case. It’s true that Conan Doyle often included legends and history that sometimes overwhelmed the main story, but his usual pattern was to deal with it succinctly or at length. In The Italian Secretary, the back stories are just long enough to feel like padding or the author getting carried away.
Despite these critiques, the relationship between Holmes and Watson seems solid. In fact, Watson fairly shines and shows he’s absorbed quite of lot of the master detective’s methods.
And I’m of two minds about the climactic ending, which seems a little too much like Assault on Precinct 13, where Holmes and Watson must defend the palace from an all out assault. At times the action seems gripping and at other times absurd when you realize a royal palace has been left largely unguarded. There is, however, a very logical reason it is unguarded, but it still seems absurd.
Do I recommend The Italian Secretary? Of course I do. Despite the bad taste in my mouth of a Holmes who seems far too gullible and the unnecessary intrusion of a “real” supernatural character in the story (I prefer the MacGyver episode where we hear a bone-chilling howl after our mulleted hero has defeated the large man pretending to be Bigfoot), it’s still a fun read with a great premise. Caleb Carr is a very good writer, this is just a minor but still entertaining effort.