5 Points Book Review: The Italian Secretary

The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr

1. One-Sentence Sentence: What if an old Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript had turned up in somebody’s attic or basement and Caleb Carr had decided to submit it as an original “Holmes” story?

2. Op-Ed: While perusing the local used bookstore after seeing the new “Sherlock Holmes” movie, I stumbled across The Italian Secretary, which I had seen described as Sherlockian pastiche. Now that I’ve read it, I prefer to think of it alternately as first-rate fan fiction or a sponsored follow-up similar to Brandon Sanderson’s Wheel of Time books. Much like Sanderson’s The Gathering Storm, Mr. Carr was approached by the estate of a famous author with a long-running, much-beloved series. Unlike Sanderson, however, Carr didn’t have voluminous notes and an already mapped out story to work from.

Unfortunately for the sake of my contextualization, the last time I read authentic ACD-penned Holmes was close to two decades ago. Since then, my recollections, opinions and insights on the famous consulting detective have been heavily colored by parodies, various televisual homages and the most recent movie (which I enjoyed the stuffing out of, by the by).

That being said, Carr does an astonishing job at matching style and characterization to Doyle’s versions of both Holmes and Watson. The plot is pretty much boilerplate, in the Hound of the Baskervilles, Adventure of the Sussex Vampire vein (and so is the movie, come to think of it: viz. seemingly supernatural occurrences debunked by deductive logic. Actually inductive logic, but that’s another blog post), but the execution is deft and surefooted to the point that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Carr actually was handed a notebook with Doyle’s notes and outlines.

3. Thumbs Up: The joy of a new Holmes story–complete with marvelously accurate characters, a moody and atmospheric setting and great attention to historical and canon details.

4. Thumbs Down: The plot itself falls on the pedestrian side for Holmes. Though the mystery is interesting for the reader and for dear Dr. Watson, the detective himself comes across as somewhat bored. Plus, it’s not true Sherlock Holmes–no matter how accurate the copy, it’s still a copy.

5. Recommendation: Read it if: you’ve read the four novels and fifty-six short stories that make up the canon, perused the pastiches, watched the movies and played the videogames.

-3 Stars-

5 Points Review Scale

1 Star: I would never burn a book, but this really tempted me
2 Stars: Read this book only if you have no other books and reading is the only thing that makes the voices go away
3 Stars: Lousy book with redeeming parts or Good book with obvious flaws
4 Stars: Buy it, read it, loan it out, forget who you loaned it to, buy it, read it, loan it out…
5 Stars: This will be on the syllabus in my upcoming seminar: “The Best Books You’ll Ever Read”

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