A mass influx of novels devoted to Henry James is news. A mass influx of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, on the other hand, is rarely news; novels and short stories in this subgenre are rarely heralded with ticker tape parades. Nevertheless, numerous eyebrows have been raised by the appearance of three pastiches from well-known authors and higher-brow publishers. Michael Chabon and Mitch Cullin use Holmes as a means to a historical end, but in The Italian Secretary, Caleb Carr sticks to the basics: Holmes, Watson, and game afoot. (Yes, Carr's Holmes does say "the game's afoot!")
The eponymous Italian secretary is David Rizzio, and the main action involves the cult of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mycroft Holmes fears that a number of assassination attempts on Queen Victoria may be (gasp) part of a larger plot, spearheaded by German operatives. The suspicious deaths of two Scots at Holyroodhouse raise the possibility that a (gulp) ghost may be involved--possibly Rizzio's ghost, out for revenge. Holmes and Watson set out to investigate the links between the assassination plot and the Holyroodhouse deaths, and discover betrayed maidens, goshawks, trebuchets, and tourist traps.
Pastiches are rarely a satisfactory business, and Sherlock Holmes pastiches are no exceptions to the rule. Doyle was by no means the world's greatest prose stylist, but Holmes and Watson are nevertheless marvelous characters--and they're Doyle's characters. Moreover, while I think that Steven Dutch is a wee bit tone-deaf when it comes to Holmes' appeal, he's basically right about what he calls the stories' "essentially mystical view of the scientific method, where intuitive methods are infallible and never need correction"*; pastiche-writers often apply Ronald Knox's Ten Commandments of Detection (1928), which don't mesh at all well with what Doyle usually did. (It's occasionally possible to figure out a mystery before Holmes explains it, but not all that often--especially since Doyle doesn't always reveal the necessary information before Holmes pulls the solution out of a hat.) Throw in the ever-present danger of imitating late-Victorian prose style, the ongoing (and incorrect) assumption that Watson has about as many brains as the Scarecrow, and the temptation of quoting from Doyle himself, and you've got a recipe for disappearing over the literary Reichenbach Falls. The writers who have managed to save themselves from death by Doyle have generally resorted either to outlandishness, as in the story featuring an android Holmes and a cloned Watson, or humor, as in Stephen King's engaging "The Doctor's Case."
Carr tries to play things a bit more straight. On the bright side, his Watson is actually a pretty intelligent guy; even better, the faux-Victorian prose is, if not brilliant, at least not actively obnoxious. And the novel moves along at a reasonably fast clip (I finished it in the midst of various lines at the King Tut exhibit). Unfortunately, though, there are a number of glaring flaws, many of them relating to the historical scaffolding. To begin with, Carr has to assume that we don't know anything about Mary, Queen of Scots; alas, to remedy the situation, he has Holmes clumsily retell the story to Watson. Cue reader: "Surely Watson knows this already?" Carr does try to work up a sense of history's emotional effect, as well as a (very) loose connection between the innocent Queen Mary and the innocent Queen Victoria, which suggests a possibly more ambitious fiction--Victorian fictional cult figures investigating Renaissance historical cult figures--but, in the end, the Renaissance and Victorian elements fail to mesh. (Readers up on Carr's recent writings on terrorism may wonder, however, if there's some allegorizing going on when it comes to the workings [or not] of Victoria's intelligence agents.)
There are some other awkward points. The plot occasionally has moments drawn from bad cop dramas, like this one:
And there, standing in the hallway, was [X], his height and strength never so apparent.
"Holmes!" I cried, lunging toward the bed and securing the Palm protector that lay under one of the pillows; but Holmes only placed himself squarely in my line of fire. "Damn it, man!" I urged. "Move, I've no clear shot at him!" (176)
Cue reader: "Er, Watson, old man? I'm guessing that Holmes doesn't want you to shoot this chap." Clunky moments like that aside, the real villain is too obvious, and Mycroft Holmes is too much of a buffoon. Moreover, the plot is a bit stop-and-go, especially given one extremely large and extremely red herring. And the gory conclusion to the Holyroodhouse murders would have worked better if Carr had been more consistent in his use of the Gothic; as it stands, the final deaths don't quite seem to me to fit in the book. Carr's name on the cover aside, this is neither better nor worse than most pastiches of this ilk.
*--I've always thought that Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse was a Sherlock Holmes parody, intentional or otherwise; he tends to come up with incredible hypotheses, almost all of which prove to be spectacularly incorrect.