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 Emerald. The 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.