The Italian Secretary, by Caleb Carr, was a disappointment. Possibly it disappointed because the premise boosted my expectations. It’s a Sherlock Holmes pastiche involving the brutal murder of David Rizzio, the secretary of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Tudor intrigue through the lens of a Holmesian puzzle-solving – how could this fail to please?
Well, it did. Part of the problem is ratio; the length of the story compared to the length of the book. This idea was originally intended as a short story for a themed Holmesian anthology, stories with a supernatural aspect. Carr let the story grow into a 316-page book, but the mystery is just not long enough to support that page count.
Our narrator Dr. John Watson starts us off with the cryptic wire Mycroft Holmes sent to his brother. In short order, Watson and Holmes are on their way to the Scottish border, where Queen Victoria is staying. The Queen has two homes in Scotland, Balmoral and Holyroodhouse, which is famous or infamous as the home of Queen Mary, where Scottish nobles brutally murdered her secretary, David Rizzio, practically at her feet. Queen Victoria was having Holyroodhouse refurbished, when two men died in strange and mysterious ways. One body was found in the center of a field the Queen’s window overlooked. Both bodies are strangely mutilated and practically every bone is broken. Mycroft is sure the murders are related to an attempt on Victoria’s life, but Sherlock soon uncovers a different scheme and a common motive for the murders – simple greed.
I liked the atmospheric descriptions Carr gave us of Holyroodhouse and Scotland. He piles on the spooky atmosphere and in the middle of this story, it works. He makes good use of providing the clues and letting the reader play along (mostly) in putting them together, although the reason for the broken bones became obvious a bit too soon, I thought. Carr did a nice bit with the “blood that will not dry;” the supposed pool of blood from the hapless secretary.
Unfortunately, a long and narratively bloated train-ride to Scotland at the beginning and too much talking at the end undercut the shivery ghost-tale aspect. At three hundred pages, the solution of this plot is too simple. There is a reason Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did many Holmes stories but few novels, and Carr should have thought of that.
The bickering sibling rivalry between Mycroft and Sherlock didn’t work well for me either. Mycroft is a big favorite of later generations of Holmes story-tellers, in large part because they can bring in secret service-type stories. In fact, he didn’t show up that much in Doyle’s work for a very good reason. Carr portrays two techy geniuses rubbing each other the wrong way, and two brothers struggling to one-up each other. It would probably work if he weren’t dealing with canonical characters.
I was also deeply irked by Watson’s long lecture-y sentences, filled with parenthetical statements, in which he explains, for instance, not once but twice how Queen Mary’s son became James the First of England. Maybe Watson was really impressed by this, or maybe Carr was, but basically if you read it once you’ve got it. You don’t need to see it again sixty pages later. I don’t understand why Watson or Holmes would care so much about a line of succession that every English school child must learn about.
To sum up; the book is too long for the story and Carr did not convince me that he had a handle on these two famous fictional detectives.
When I got to the end of the story I felt a strong desire to reread The Hound of the Baskervilles; a scary, ghostly tale with the real Watson and Holmes.