Bruce's Reviews > The Italian Secretary: A Further Adventure of Sherlock Holmes

The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr
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May 30, 10

Read in May, 2010

Picking up his pen and writing a Sherlock Holmes story, as have so many authors since ACD published his collection so many years ago, Carr’s editorial comments in his early chapters seem to suggest that he is using this device in part to create a narrative about terrorism and the domestic response to it, no surprise given his concern about this issue that resulted in his non-fiction work of 2002, The Lessons of Terror, a work that I found troubling in its implications, espousing as it did preemptive military offensives as the primary and indeed preferred response to perceived threats, a response that seemed to me at the time I read it to be insufficiently nuanced and excessively limited in its perspective. The non-fiction book also contained, in my opinion, odd and unsubstantiated ideas about the role of civilians as objects of terrorism. But as I picked up this present novel I decided to suspend my skepticism and let him work out his plot and argument before judging either its credibility or his skill in setting it forth.

Although each of Arthur Conan Doyle’s seemingly countless imitators must inevitably bear the judgment of their readers regarding their fidelity to the work of the original, it is also true that readers sometimes focus so exclusively on assessing whether or not a later novel is perfectly consistent with Doyle’s writings themselves that the excellence of the copy may be obscured and any enjoyment of the latter work for its own sake and on its own merits may be lost. Thus, I try first of all when approaching such an apparently derivative work to assess it as if it were not attempting to work in a particular tradition, even as I take advantage of my knowledge of the Holmes stories to supplement my knowledge and increase my appreciation where deserved.

Having first read the entire Doyle/Holmes corpus over half a century ago, and having returned to it periodically since, I must confess that in general I have come to enjoy more recent works in the detective-mystery genre more and Doyle less, more recent works seeming to focus more on intra-psychic exploration and less on pure deductive brilliance. And so I find myself opening a contemporary Holmes story with a bit of a sigh, prepared to experience a more “primitive” work than I would ordinarily prefer. But I try to keep an open mind.

In the present book, Carr constructs a world and plot that are entertaining at times, enough to keep me reading, but ultimately the sum was less than its parts and was too fanciful to be convincing. Within the narrative, Carr inserted speculations about why young men (sic) are prone to acts of terrorism, but the relevance to the story was not entirely clear. Although this novel was approved by the Conan Doyle Estate for official affirmation as a Holmes sequel, I am not convinced that it is impressive enough to deserve any renown that such a seal of approval might provide.
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