A Little Too Elementary, My Dear Watson. The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr (Audio Book)

The Italian Secretary is Caleb Carr’s attempt at a Sherlock Holmes mystery – and as far as that goes it’s not bad.  The character’s stay true to the originals, Carr has nicely captured Watson’s narrative voice, and the mystery itself is no more or less plausible than any of Doyle’s.  The text is significantly helped in being read by Simon Prebble.

But when held up to others of the genre (Sherlock Holmes stories written by authors other than Doyle having become a genre unto itself) how does it rate?  It doesn’t add anything to the canon, like Meyer’s The Seven Percent Solution or Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind.  There’s no reinterpretation of old material, like what Neil Gaiman  did with his Lovecraftian take in the short story A Study in EmeraldThe Italian Secretary is just a basic Sherlock Holmes mystery that has a tendency to drag on bit… a bit being 352 pages.

Quick Segue:  One of my biggest gripes lately has been doorstop books that could have been improved through judicious editing.  When it’s a book featuring  Sherlock Holmes, a character introduced in short stories and two novellas, it seems particularly ridiculous.

The mystery of The Italian Secretary involves a ghost story set in Scotland  (with the obligatory Mary Queen of Scots connection, of course).  This didn’t bother me as much as it seems to have  some Holmes enthusiasts who felt that it was out of character for a man as logical as Sherlock Holmes to believe in ghosts.  Indeed, Watson displays the same disbelief in his narrative.  But Carr has done his research.  Arthur Conan Doyle was keenly interested in spiritualism & the occult (like many of his contemporaries).  Knowing this it doesn’t seem out of character for Holmes to share that credulity.   And, the fact is, Carr needed his ghosts.  I found ghosts to be significant to this story in more than one way.

The central Scottish ghost story is mildly entertaining, but it is the tertiary ghost story  where I think Carr had gold.  It takes place on Baker Street and bookends the narrative.  In it we explore the consequences of believing in “ghosts” or, more accurately, believing in what does not exist.  Holmes has a nice soliloquy on his and Watson’s ghost sightings, their decision whether or not to acknowledge what they saw and what that choice can mean.  I couldn’t help but see a parallel being drawn to the fact that for a time there were those who believed that the detective and his friend existed outside of the stories.  Carr handles this B-storyline with a much lighter touch than is used in his treatment of the rest of the novel.  It is the direction I think he should have taken, but unfortunately didn’t.

My overall feelings about The Italian Secretary are probably more complex than the book merits.   If you must read it, I’d recommend skipping all but the first and last chapters.   If you decide the skip it altogether, you haven’t missed much.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (Redux)

Let’s start with Michael Chabon.  Being a fan of all things Sherlock Holmes, I read “The Final Solution” when it was first released. It’s a slim novella that, in my opinion, tread too much water.  You move from beginning to end at a satisfactory pace with no major plot disappointment or style road bumps to slow you down. But, it was average. Middle of the road. Bland.  I was left with the sense that both our efforts, mine and the author’s, had disappointing returns.

Note:  Chabon was also hurt by the fact that “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin came out at about the same time. Of the two, Cullin’s book reads better, creates more atmosphere and adds something to the canon. Both use the same gimmick – an unnamed detective at the end of his life who is, but never identified as, Sherlock Holmes. Cullin’s story is the more solid, more crisp, and better channels Doyle.

So, I’m not even really sure why I picked up this book.

Author aside, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” isn’t a story I’m normally drawn to. It’s a hard boiled detective novel.  It’s alternative history. It’s very, very Jewish. I’m not against any of these things – I just don’t browse those sections of the bookstore. Fortunately the book turned out to be more than the sum of its parts.  “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is a book to read because you enjoy good storytelling… and I’m happy to say that the writing isn’t so shabby either.

Better than not so shabby, in fact.  Chabon writes sentences that pull you through the main plot  while cheerfully directing your attention to vignettes he’s skillfully placed off to the side. (He’s very much what I imagine a MGM movie lot tour guide to be: instructing you to please look to the left and to the right, while hurrying you ever forward to the main event). Here’s an example of that kind of moment:

The main character of the story, Meyer Landsman, and his partner Berko Shemets wander into a seedy bar/strip joint at 7AM to talk.  Inside is Hershal, a dog waiting patiently for his master, Nathan Kalushiner, to return. Nathan was a jazz clarinetist who ran off with a mobster’s wife and whose various body parts subsequently washed up on the docks (but not, we are told, his C-soprano clarinet). Hershal has been waiting in the same spot for 5 years.

Berko has been staring at the dog with increasing fixity. Abruptly, he gets up and goes over to the stage. He clomps up the three wooden steps and stands looking down at Hershel… He takes hold of the dog’s head in his massive hands and looks into the dog’s eyes. “Enough already,” he says. “He isn’t coming.”

The dog regards Berko as if sincerely interested in this bit of news. Then he lurches to his hind legs and hobbles over to the steps and tumbles carefully down them. Toenails clacking, he crosses the concrete floor to the table where Landsman sits and looks up as if for confirmation.

“That’s the straight ems, Hershel,” Landsman tells the dog. “They used dental records.”

The dog appears to consider this, then much to Landsman’s surprise, he walks over to the front door. Berko gives Landsman a look of reprimand: What did I tell you? He darts a glance towards the beaded curtain, then slides back the bolt, turns the key, and opens the door. The dog trots right out as if he has pressing business elsewhere.

Berko goes back to the table, “looking like he has just liberated a soul from the wheel of karma” and the main action resumes.

These stories within the story are the foundation on which Chabon builds a novel that is an  homage to the magical realism of South America & Marquez as much as it is to the genre literature he is such a proponent of.  They are also, in my mind, an indication of all great fantasy writing.  Because creating a world that immerses readers is all about attention to detail.   The details are what sell it.  And the pleasure of a Chabon book, a good Chabon book, is found in how skillfully he handles these details.

The plot of “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is otherwise surprisingly straight forward.  There are two parallel story lines. Two years after its creation Israel fell and was wiped from the map of the Middle East. The American government gave the Jewish refugees of WW2 the use of a desolate area of Alaska – for 60 years. The 60 years is about up and everything, including the police force, is about to revert back to the Americans.

The second storyline revolves around Meyer Landsman… destined to become one of the great gumshoe detectives.  Landsman is a drunk who lives in a dive hotel that caters almost exclusively to lowlifes. His neighbor, a grandmaster chess player and smack addict is murdered in the room next door. This bothers Landsman and he becomes fixated on solving the case. As is par for the course in these kinds of stories, a lot of people seem to have a vested interest in his not doing that.  Landsman also manages to face and resolve several personal issues along the way.

Overall, “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” is an enormous and welcome surprise of a book  Chabon took the cliche detective novel and tossed it into an alternative history novel. He populated it with people who are the neighbors you want to have in the world you almost wish you lived in. Every last eccentric character is completely exotic; but is at the same time fleshed out to the point of being completely believable in their every description, word and action.  And in a time when the word literature has become synonymous with angst and depression, Chabon’s book is happy and laugh out loud funny. And did I mention? – the writing isn’t so shabby, either.

Vive le Genre!

Lately there has been a renewed interest in genre fiction. Whether it’s Stephen King’s lurid covers on retro paperbacks in the grocery aisle, Michael Chabon’s serialized adventure story in the New York Times Magazine, or Arturo Pèrez Reverte’s Captain Alatriste swordsman-for-hire series, – the pulp novel is suddenly being taken seriously. And I’m glad. Books written & read for entertainment and good writing aren’t mutually exclusive concepts. Graham Greene, Dumas, Dickens and Faulkner were the mass market darlings of their times. It seems that some books, like wine and Juliet Binoche, only get better with age. But before you jump into the latest crop of retro-flavored genre fiction, here are my recommendations to establish your street cred:

Wilkie Collins – Collins, who last topped the best seller lists in the 1860’s, is on the edge of most readers’ radars.  His best known works are The Woman in White & The Moonstone, so either would be a good introduction.  Both books are filled with over the top plot contrivances (complicated revenge schemes, heroines locked in asylums and Hindu jugglers to name just a few) that make them entertaining reads in ways the author probably never intended.  In addition to solid writing, Collins can arguably be credited with creating the English Detective novel.   Dubbed a “sensationalist” author, it is my opinion that his stories seem less dated and maudlin than his contemporary (and mentor) Charles Dickens.

Arthur Conan Doyle – Everyone has heard of Sherlock Holmes.  Doyle created a character so popular, who so captured the imagination of his readers, that societies exist to this day that study the short stories and novellas as canon.  While most are dazzled by the deductive reasoning of the hero, I contend that Doyle’s greatest stroke of genius is Watson. It is Watson who lends the tales the semblance of fact with his offhand references to past cases and conversational, first person narrative.  He’s much more personable than Holmes, and ten times more entertaining.  If I sound a little bitter, it’s because the man never seems to get the credit he deserves.  It is unquestionably because of John Watson that the Sherlock Holmes stories are some of the best short stories ever written.

H.P. Lovecraft – Lovecraft was another short story author who used first person narrative to brilliant effect.  His narrators mentally deteriorate in the course of their stories – slowly driven mad when confronted by alien and unspeakable horrors.  I need to repeat that… UNSPEAKABLE HORRORS!  Only Lovecraft could mold such a seemingly quaint old fashioned phrase into a vessel of terror!  Read him, you’ll understand.  They invented the phrase “blood chilling” for this man’s stories, and if they didn’t they should have.  You doubt me?  Google the Necronomicon.  A book that people, to this day, still believe exists. And which was entirely a creation of Lovecraft’s imagination.  Convincing readers that fiction is fact is impressive in anyone, but particularly so when the author wasn’t even trying.

Fritz Leiber – Fritz Leiber is the creator of my favorite swords & sorcery buddy team – Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. This dynamic duo were cast in the tradition of fantasy heroes like Tarzan & Conan (Fafhrd is a Barbarian & the Gray Mouser is a Thief and former sorcerer’s apprentice), but they take themselves a lot less seriously. Two Lankhmar adventurers who have seen better days, their luck going up and down with the whims of fate, they first meet after each loses the current love of his life. Rakish, if a little shabby, they get themselves into and out of trouble (and under various female characters’ skirts) with the kind of panache to make James T. Kirk green with envy. Old Gods, underwater kingdoms, magicians & thieves’ guilds all make an appearance and add to the fun. Leiber has a cheeky sense of humor that keeps the stories light, despite some dark happenings. There’s a silliness about these tales which is a large part of their charm. Originally published in those old 60’s & 70’s magazines with names like “Fantastic Stories” (it doesn’t get any booksexy-er than reading them in the original), all the stories are collected in paperback editions that are a little bit more attainable. Lucky us!