Everyone loves a series. Publishers love them because they typically mean millions of insatiable fans will be waiting with their fingers hovering over the “pre-order” button as soon as a new book is announced. Authors love them because a good one leads to a multi-book deal* and some job security, at least until that contract has been fulfilled. Most of all, readers love them because…well, we just can’t get enough, can we?
And why is that? Think about the series you love best. Why do you like them? Do I adore Preston and Child’s “Pendergast” series because I am drawn to vaguely insane plotlines involving weird mutant creatures who crave the human thyroid, mad younger brothers who grind famous gems into dust, or zombies? Are the bleakest, most depressing aspects of LA the reason I turn time and again to Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch? Am I truly anxious to have Sherlock Holmes solve yet another crime on the Titanic?**
The answer to these, and many similar questions is “no, not really.” At least, not when you put it like that. But I’ll happily devour these and several other series, simply because I love the characters.
It’s common to distinguish between genre and literary fiction by saying the first emphasizes plot, while the other gives greater weight to character. While there is a bit of truth to this, I think we can all agree that it’s simplistic–and argue that the best series succeed, not because of plot (although we like plot, don’t lose plot), but because of their characters. Any book can have a car chase; not any book can have a Pendergast car chase. Any (and apparently all) cop novels can have a tortured, military veteran detective with a messed-up personal life…but only one of those is Harry Bosch. And how many amateur sleuths are crawling through the British Isles on any given day? Still, there is only one “consulting detective” in the world.*** In the end, it’s the author’s ability to create characters we love, characters who grow, yet are still relatable, who seem as familiar to us as, well, family† that keep us coming back to a series.
Which was why I was so glad to catch up with Jefferson Cody again.
Several months have passed since Cody worked with his flamboyant brother-in-law, Prof. Sebastian McCabe, to solve the mystery of who killed prominent Sherlockian collector Woollcott Chalmers. It would be nice to report that his role in that adventure catapulted him to at least twenty minutes of fame, earned him a book contract for his hard-boiled Max Cutter mysteries, and forever enshrined him as a hero in the heart of his no-longer-ex girlfriend, Lynda Teal.
Although he’s working on an account of the Chalmers incident, it’s not finished, and he’s just received another form rejection for Max Cutter. As for the “No Police Like Holmes” murder, all it’s earned him is (or will be) an uncomfortable appearance in a courtroom, and the ire of St. Benignus ‘ Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Ralph Pendergast.†† As for the lovely Lynda…they’ve been dating…awkwardly; as her FaceBook status says, “It’s complicated.”
Facebook. Hah! Jefferson Cody is about to learn what “complicated” really is.
The book starts off with a bang–or rather, a ringing phone. In an effort to shore up the college’s popular culture program, its head, Sebastian McCabe, has invited a famous actor-director-producer, Peter Gerard, to speak at the campus. McCabe and Gerard have known each other since their days at Indiana University, and Gerard is more than happy to make an appearance to help his friend–and to donate $25,000 to the popular culture program. Unfortunately, his efforts are cut short. During a small, private dinner the night before he’s to give his speech, Gerard is called to the phone, and never comes back. The dinner attendees (which include McCabe, Cody, Pendergast, and other college notables) find him dead, his head bashed in–with the only untended door locked.
Or was it? Or is he? Is Gerard’s death related to Sherlockian displeasure with his daring hit movie, “221B Bourbon Street,” which moves Sherlock Holmes from Victorian London to Roaring Twenties New Orleans? And makes him a sax player? With…a goatee? Or could it have to do with the $10 million life insurance policy his strapped partner has taken out on his creative wunderkind? How about the beautiful young assistant? Or the seemingly loyal wife? Or was Peter Gerard’s death merely a distraction, while the killer pursued other ends? Speaking of distractions–will McCabe and Cody keep their jobs? Why has Lynda been summoned to syndicate headquarters? What does Willie Nelson have to do with all of this? And just who is the woman in Jeff’s shower? Mr. Andriacco answers all of these questions in a tightly-wound story.
I was proud of myself for picking out the killer in Andriacco’s first novel. And may I say, I am now two for two! Still, even when I thought I was oh, so clever, I had several moments of serious doubt. With No Police Like Holmes, I ended up with two serious suspects, one of which I really liked, and the other one. This left me in suspense until almost the very end, on tenterhooks lest the character I was fond of be led away in handcuffs. For Holmes Sweet Holmes, Andriacco also leads us to two (actually three) persons of interest, but the difference this time was, I didn’t like either of my two picks at all, making the denouement quite satisfying.
Which leads us to what I appreciate most about Mr. Andriacco’s writing: his characters. This is, of course, a blog specializing in Sherlock Holmes-related writing, so naturally, most of the books will feature the actual Holmes and Watson. We know them rather well. So well, that I think it’s fair to say that, although we love books in which those characters are treated with depth and sensitivity, we will be tolerant of more wooden portrayals, as long as they don’t overstep the mental boundaries we’ve created for them. An author like Andriacco, writing about his own characters, doesn’t have that luxury. He can’t rely upon us to fill in any blanks with our headcanons; his people have to live on their own, immediately–and they do.
Jefferson Cody is still the slightly neurotic, uptight man who is not at all thrilled with being his brother-in-law’s sidekick. You have to feel for Jeff; it’s hard to live in the sizable shadow of a family member who’s managed to achieve what you’ve long wanted for yourself. As a PR director, Cody is quite adept at diplomacy and “spin,” but, privy to his thoughts as we are, we get to see his jealousies, judgments and insecurities without the benefit of a social filter. One might be forgiven for thinking that Ms. Teal could do better than a guy who drinks caffeine-free diet cola while silently criticizing his date’s cholesterol bomb, but then we see how he silently proposes to her in nearly every interaction, how he notices everything about her, how he’s made genuine efforts to be “less directional” (read: controlling)–and how his ringtone for her is Ravel’s “Boléro.”††† This is a man in love.
Sebastian McCabe is still the ostentatious eccentric with the brains to back up what some might see as his pretentions. Perhaps his first turn as a detective has left him a little overconfident; in this outing, he’s more ready to perform manipulative “experiments” to check a theory or prove a point. Whether or not this is exactly wise is open to question. As in the first book, although McCabe treats his brother-in-law as a “Watson” and comes up with the ultimate solution, Cody goes sleuthing on his own, and does not do very badly. We get to know Lynda Teal a little better, as well. She’s a woman on the cusp of significant professional and personal changes; she can make a new life for herself…if she chooses. Other recurring characters also grow a little. Ralph Pendergast is the administrator you love to hate (although he seems to love his wife). Father Joe Pirelli (St. Benignus’ President) is feisty and supportive, while Erin’s Chief of Police, Oscar Hummel walks the fine line one must when dealing with brilliant amateurs, and he may have an admirer. Peter Gerard and other “special guests” are nicely fleshed out, while from motive to murder, the villain is evil. And no, I didn’t guess the motive. Not even close.
If you’ve noticed, we’ve had several “big city” versions of Holmes and Watson, lately. Sherlock and John tend to stay in London. “Elementary” will take place in New York City, and even Peter Gerard stuck with very urban New Orleans. The Great Detective, himself, however, knew that evil could dwell in the most bucolic of settings. When he told Watson that “…the lowest, vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside,”‡ he might as well have been speaking of small, picturesque college towns. My dear Sherlockian friend, if you ever have cause to visit beautiful Erin, Ohio….
Watch your back.
Holmes Sweet Holmes is available through MX publishing, the Baker Street Babes website, and your favorite online booksellers, in both print and electronic formats. Obviously, this book is already in print; however, a sequel is due shortly, and if you order through the MX or BSB sites when it appears, you’ll receive your book long before its scheduled release date.
Star Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 “Well worth your time and money.”
*Preferably described in PW’s charming terms as “very nice.”
**This happens more than you might imagine. You won’t find him on any passenger lists because, you know, Mycroft.
*** “Alone on the Water” fans, feel free to sob here for a moment. We’ll wait.
† “You can imagine the Christmas dinners.”
††No relation to Aloysius X.L. Pendergast of the New Orleans Pendergasts. As far as we know.
†††Based on traditional dance music, “Boléro” is supposedly a musical representation of sex…at least, that’s the reputation it’s had since it was used as a love-making soundtrack to the 1970’s film, “10.” So, yes, Jeff, we know where your mind is.
‡ “The Copper Beeches” (COPP)