Category Archives: Collection (Stories by the same author)

Andriacco, Dan. Rogues Gallery. London: MX Publishing, 2014

So. Got a question for you. Which do you prefer? Sir Arthur’s novels, or his short stories?

He wants you to say "the novels."

He wants you to say “the novels.”

The four Sherlock Holmes novels–namely, A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of [the] Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear– have some wonderful moments and great dialogue; I am particularly partial to Holmes’ and Watson’s meeting in STUD. However, I have to say that I am not overly fond of Conan Doyle’s technique of starting a story quickly, then dragging it back with a lengthy flashback in the middle of the book. In my opinion, his talents were better-suited to the short story format.* Other authors find it difficult to “think short” and do better when they have more time and space to explore their characters and slowly spin out the plot. It’s relatively rare, I think, to find a writer who can pull off both forms equally well.** Dan Andriacco achieves this feat in his latest Cody-McCabe release, Rogues Gallery.

Up until now, I have only reviewed Andriacco’s Cody-McCabe novels. Rogues Gallery  is a collection of two short stories and three novellas, all featuring the (as-yet) unpublished mystery writer, Jefferson Cody and his larger-than-life Sherlockian brother-in-law,  Professor Sebastian McCabe. Once again the whole gang is here, from police chief Oscar Hummel (now courting Cody’s PA, Annaliese Pokorny) to Cody’s new bride, former reporter (now editorial director) Lynda Teal. This is a good thing, too, as Erin, a small Ohio college town with an unusually high per capita murder rate, is about to get a lot bloodier.

First up is “Art in the Blood,” a novella which takes its title from Sherlock Holmes’ declaration to Watson that “art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.”***  As a college town, Erin has a small community of artists, including Cody’s sister (and Sebastian’s wife) Kate, a children’s book illustrator who has taken to working in stained glass. The Cody-McCabe clan is attending her first exhibit, part of a larger women’s art show at the Looney Ladies’ Gallery. The rest of the town also seems to be up for and evening of art, wine, and cheese platters, making for a long list of potential suspects when one attendee turns up with a corkscrew in his eye. Dr. Thurston Calder won’t be St. Benignus’ new art department head now, but was he dispatched by the competition, or someone else?

Jeff and Lynda rush from that adventure headlong into another (“The Revengers”) when, on the way to a Halloween party (for which they are dressed as The Avengers), they stop to help a mysterious figure in scrubs, waving frantically at them from the roadside.

Not these Avengers.

Not these Avengers.

These Avengers.

These Avengers.

Whoever it is apparently hasn’t heard of the Hippocratic Oath, however, because within minutes, Steed and Mrs. Peel find themselves bound on the floor of an empty house, staring at a timer set to tick away the last twenty minutes of their lives. Will they get out alive, or will the rest of their stories turn out to be past escapades, à la The Hound of  the Baskervilles?

Whichever it is, I won’t tell you. Won’t tell you who set the bomb, either.

Nyah.

Whoever the culprit was, they certainly don’t deserve a visit from Santa, but neither, it seems, does another member of Erin’s criminal class, who is just naughty enough to steal a pearl necklace from one of the town’s benefactresses. At a community Christmas Craft Show, no less. Again, both Cody and McCabe are there to take on the case, but one has to think that really, the citizens of Erin should be grateful no one dies in “Santa Crime.”

The same cannot be said of “A Cold Case,” however, and this time, it’s not an outsider who adds to the body count. No, Erin’s population drops by one when Jeff and Lynda, excited house hunters, open a chest-style freezer to find, not pre-made lasagnas, but a realtor. Apparently bludgeoned to death with a frozen salmon, Olivia Wanamaker had a bad marriage, at least one lover, and a Twitter feud with Erin’s mayor. Did one of these lead to her death? Or was her killer actually St Benignus’ unpopular provost, Ralph Pendergast?

Finally, what began with a Holmes quote, ends with a Holmes quote. “Dogs don’t make mistakes,” Holmes told Watson in “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place.”  People do, however, and in the collection’s final story, Cody finds himself coming to the defense of fellow aspiring mystery writer Ashley Crutcher, who claims she shot and killed her estranged husband by accident, having mistaken him for an intruder. It sounds like yet another episode of “Snapped”–until a jewel theft is thrown into the mix. Only Ranger knows what really happened, but unfortunately, he can’t talk.

Toby

One of the enjoyable things about following a series is seeing how both the characters–and their author–develop. When I first began reviewing Mr. Andriacco’s books, I found them creative and enjoyable, but there were occasional passages which read “rough” to me, or abrupt insertions that, while they illuminated the characters, interrupted the general flow of the story. Those have vanished, and these stories go down as smoothly as Lynda’s favorite bourbon.†  Although there are some dark and eerie moments–the gory corkscrew to the eye and a masked-and-gowned figure waving in the dark, for example–Jeff Cody’s conversational and unwittingly revealing narrative style keep the overall tone light, giving the book more of a “cozy” feeling, rather than that of an excursion into the darker sides of human nature. All of the regulars make an appearance, and it’s as nice to see some of the minor characters (such as Hummel and Pokorny) experiences some changes in their lives as it is to watch the still-besotted newlyweds. One of the drawbacks to having such a close-knit cast is that it is more difficult to play hide-the-murderer. Andriacco does his best to provide a long list of potential suspects amd motives, however, so I was only able to solve one case with certainty before the denouement. Whether long or short, each story was well-plotted and read quickly. If I found “Santa Crime” a teensy bit saccharine, it could be put down to the fact that I tend to fall on the Scroogish side of the holiday spirit spectrum. A long-time Sherlockian and member of a number of Sherlockian societies, Mr. Andriacco inserts enough canonical references throughout the book to entertain the knowledgeable reader without confusing the novice. He also provides enough background to keep Rogues Gallery a stand-alone work; one can jump right in without having read its predecessors. I would definitely recommend it to fans of the modern cozy.

Now, if only poor Jeff could get a book deal.

Rogues Gallery is available at some bricks-and-mortar stores, but is best obtained from your favorite online bookseller (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million) or directly from the MX site (www.mxpublishing.com, or http://www.mxpublishing.co.uk). As of this writing, it is not available as an ebook, but that should change. You can learn more about Dan Andriacco, his writing, and other Sherlockian tidbits at his website, bakerstreetbeat.blogspot.com.

Star Rating: 5/4

For canonicity, Rogues Gallery earns a 5, with 4 stars for being “well worth your time and money.”

Footnotes:

*I say this not having read his other novels–although I have read a lot of his horror shorts, his true crime articles, his autobiographical works and his spiritualist writing. At some point, I need to venture into his historical novels, the Lost World and its related works. So–have you read any of ACD’s other novels, and if so, how do you think they compare to his Holmesian books?

**Of course, perhaps everyone else can, and I just blab too much. There is that.

***”The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”

†Or so I have been told.  I can’t say for certain, as nothing alcoholic has ever gone down smoothly for me.

Reviewer’s Note:

In the interests of full disclosure, I will say that I read “The Revengers” in draft form. However, as I was working on A Curious Collection of Dates at the time, my brain was total mush, and I do not believe I offered comments of any real value. In fact, by the time I began reviewing the book, I had  forgotten who the actual culprit was.

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Filed under Collection (Stories by the same author), Dan Andriacco, Four-star reviews, Holidays, Holmes-related fiction, Jeff Cody and Sebastian McCabe, MX Publishing, Original Character

Gilbert, Paul D. The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes. London: Robert Hale, 2007

My kids love card-shopping. Not because they enjoy finding the perfect pictures and sentiments to send to their loved ones. Nah. They just want to stand there and open up the “cards with sound,” the more annoying the better. Open a card, hear a screechy, nearly unintelligible voice saying something about flatulence–what could be more wonderful?

Well, imagine opening a card and hearing the rich, silky voice of Jeremy Brett.*

Yeah. I thought so.

That’s what struck me when I started reading Paul Gilbert’s The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes.  I opened it, and immediately heard Brett’s Holmes speaking. Of course, I may have been primed for this by the lovely cover, but it wasn’t just that. While many pastiche authors stress about achieving an authentic “Watson voice,” Gilbert’s Holmes captures Brett’s inflections so perfectly that, really, you can’t hear anyone else.**

See the lovely cover. And the lovely chocolate. And the lovely caffeine in handy beverage form. Ignore the not-so-lovely car keys and post-its.

I realize that I’ve just lost a good percentage of my readers as they grab their wallets and migrate over to Amazon. For those of you who are staying….

The Lost Files, contrary to their name, were never lost, buried under some unused indices or decades-old issues of The Evening Standard. No, they’ve been waiting in Watson’s tin dispatch box at the venerable Cox & Co., waiting until such time as he saw fit (or was permitted) to share them with the public. Often in these instances, we get some kind of mournful reference,*** but fortunately these stories have been released at Holmes’ own suggestion, now that enough time has passed (or, for all we know, Watson needs the income).

There are seven stories in all, some of which are explicitly set shortly after Watson’s marriage to Mary Morstan, but only one of which is given a specific date (1898).  Gilbert deftly avoids making those distracting canon or research errors by simply not referring to canon much at all. Unfortunately, in one of the few instances, which has Holmes mentions a previous conversation regarding evil in the countryside, “Beeches” is misspelled, a mistake for which, hopefully, some editorial associate was severely punished.****

Nit-picking aside, however, each of the chapters is a full serving of pure Sherlockian comfort food. It’s all there: cold nights and warm fires, pipes and breakfasts, sleepless chain-smoking nights and presumptive notes sent to a newlywed’s home.  Sometimes, Gilbert might overdo it a tad. Holmes is more routinely dismissive of new clients than I think he typically was,†  meaning that Watson exclaims “Really, now, Holmes!” and “You’ve gone too far!” rather frequently. Watson, for his part, is a little on the sensitive side, and easily insulted, but for Granada fans, their interactions will be so familiar it’s as if they’ve turned on the television to find that their wishes have come true and Rebecca Eaton and Co. have discovered a secret stash of un-aired episodes.††

The Files vary in their complexity. In the first offering, “The Adventure of the Connoisseur,” for example, the reader gets a fairly straightforward mystery, which includes an apparent nod to Rathbone and Bruce’s Dressed to Kill (1947). “The Missing Don Giovanni” is another puzzle the reader may figure out before Watson, but Holmes does a nice turn of deduction with a pair of trousers and his attitude towards a stricken woman contrasts nicely with the scorn he shows his arrogant client. “The Hooded Man” is creepy, with a Doylean rumination on sin coming home to roost. “The Old Grey Horse” takes us, not to the track but a tavern, and in it Gilbert touches on some of the horrors of London poverty–conditions which Holmes no doubt saw constantly, but which tend to go unmentioned in the canon.

These stories are all quite serviceable; however, as in any anthology, certain chapters stand out. Try as I might, I cannot think of a way to discuss “The Adventure of the Conscientious Constable” without giving away the twist, but if you’re a fan of Shinwell Johnson, disguises, and the London underworld, you’ll get your fix.

Fine, upstanding citizens of the Empire’s greatest city.

The collection’s final story, “The Adventure of the Dying Gaul” takes Holmes and Watson across the channel to Rome, where they help Inspector Gialli locate a missing statue….

Which is, actually, a real statue. See–here it is!

This is great, particularly for Gialli’s career and art lovers everywhere. However, the most important part of the story takes place on the train between Paris and Turin, in which Holmes shares with Watson the results of a disturbing chain of research and deduction that have convinced him that the events of 4th May, 1891, were not as final as they had long believed. Watson, of course, thinks his friend has come unhinged, and even wonders how much of this is due to the contents of little glass vials, but Holmes’ reasoning is impressive; it made me wish Doyle had used it himself, because if there’s anything the original stories need, it’s more Moriarty.

The Lost Files’  most interesting, and possibly most controversial story, however, is its second: “The Mystery of Avalon.” It starts out typically enough, with a slightly boring Colonel braving a wintry journey from Cornwall to London to consult Holmes regarding two murderous attacks on his wife. Col. Masterson’s ancestral home lies close to Slaughter Bridge, where, according to legend, King Arthur fought his final battle, and as a result, his family has taken the Arthurian association to  extremes. During Masterson’s story, Watson notes, to his amusement, that Holmes has never read Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. After their client leaves, however the detective decides to remedy this deficit, assuring his friend that the story will only reside in his brain-attic “temporarily.” It makes a stronger impression than he anticipated, however, because a page or so later, Holmes declares to Watson:

The parallel [between Arthur’s Dark Ages and their own time] is now obvious, when you consider the darkness that our regular police force is constantly stumbling around in. Not quite barbaric in method, perhaps, and yet their ignorance and ineptitude is tantamount to barbarism! Yet in their darkness shines a tiny light. The light of reasoning, logic, observation, and method. This small room and my practice is the modern, judicial realm of Logres and I, of course, the guiding light of Arthur.†††

It’s easy to dismiss this little pomposity as Watson does: an amusing display of Holmes’ overinflated ego. But keep it in mind for later.

At this point, I feel I must warn you: EVERYTHING YOU READ AFTER THIS PARAGRAPH MAY BE A SPOILER!  I am not kidding. So, if you don’t want to know what happens in the story, now is the time to leave. For your convenience, I will tell you that The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes is now available on Kindle, receives 4 1/2 stars, and if you like a strong, traditional Holmes, or are a Granada fan, you will thoroughly enjoy it. Now go.

Run, Gentle Reader, while I keep the Spoilers from escaping!

Holmes and Watson arrive in Cornwall to take care of what seems to be a standard (for them) case with a hint of the outré.  Holmes has already begun his investigation by inquiring into Alice Masterson’s background, and a telegram is waiting for them upon their arrival. Typically, a wire means suspicions confirmed and a happy detective. This one, however, has a remarkable effect upon Holmes and he retreats to his room, telling the footman they’ll be leaving for London in the morning, and leaving Watson to deal with their client as best he can. When Watson, after enduring yet another strange outburst–this time from the Colonel– goes up later to check on his friend, Holmes, obviously under emotional duress, asks if,  “Perhaps it has occurred to you this [my] supposed abhorrence of both female kind and the idea of close attachment, is nothing less than a fear of the same.”

Pretty much no, says Watson. And then it dawns on him.

Just that little bit of self-disclosure, along with a bitter condemnation of the woman who is now Alice Masterson, seems to give Holmes new strength, and he decides to continue with the case after all, under the condition that the Colonel never learn he’s hired another of his wife’s dupes.

In the end, the array of lies spread out to view in this sordid episode is astounding. Watson’s agreement to conceal Holmes’ conflict of interest is perhaps the most benign, although upon reflection it, too, contributes to the tragic ending. In the end, we’re in the carriage with a dark, silent Holmes, a sweating, anxious client, and an oblivious Watson, on our way to fetch the Colonel’s faithless wife and bring her back home.

No one is going back to Avalon.

Later, Watson wonders if Holmes had known what Alice Masterson’s fate would be. How the Colonel would avoid the gallows. He loves his friend, and so he cannot credit it. It is not the same thing as when Holmes had pardoned James Ryder, just a few months before, or when he and Watson together will serve as judge and jury for Captain Crocker years later. No, it is not at all the same.

This is a dark, disturbing little story. No doubt it will put off many readers who prefer to see Holmes as, first and foremost, a creature of logic who is able to consistently rise above any of the passions, should he feel them at all. Others, like myself, who are quite willing to let him have his “hidden fires,” may balk at the idea that, not only was he unable to rise above his own pain to forgive the woman who damaged him, he was also able to allow a fellow victim to proceed to his own destruction without a word. Avalon, if you remember, was destroyed (in part) by adultery, as Guinevere cuckolded an adoring husband with his best friend. In at least one version of this story, Arthur, pressured to execute his wife for treason as required by law, begins the process with the desperate hope that Lancelot will come to save her (which he does). The pain is deep, but love and forgiveness between the three are there as well, elevating their story above the tawdry. Centuries later, in this Avalon, evil begets only pain and more evil, and when this Arthur has the chance to illuminate the darkness, he does not. While his friend looks the other way, we are forced to consider how even the best and wisest parts of us live together with our demons.

After a few days’ ruminating, I went from disliking “The Mystery of Avalon” to believing it the best story in the book. Still, many readers may find Holmes to be too far out of character for their tastes. If this describes you, never fear–The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes contains six other very traditional stories perfect for a blustery fall evening by the fireside.

The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes was once out-of-print and only available on Amazon and other sites for a ridiculous amount of money. I will never reveal what I paid for it. Within just a few months of that purchase, of course, it became available on Kindle. Learn from my mistakes, oh impetuous book lovers! Mr. Gilbert’s newest book, The Annals of Sherlock Holmes, will be released on October 31st, 2012. Mr. Gilbert is available on both Facebook and Twitter.

Star Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 “Well worth your time and money.”

Footnotes:

*Make this happen, somebody. Please!

**Actually, Gilbert’s Watson voice is very good, too.

***To which our reaction is to cover our ears and go “LALALALALALALA!”

**** The famous passage, from “The Copper Beeches”:

“‘Do you know, Watson,’ said he, ‘that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and the impunity with which crime may be committed there.’

“‘Good heavens!’ I cried. ‘Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?’

“‘They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.'”

†You know, in real life.

††So, if you had Three Sherlockian Wishes….

††† The Lost Files,  p. 44

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Filed under Collection (Stories by the same author), Paul D Gilbert, Traditional, Uncategorized

Crowe, Michael J., ed. Ronald Knox and Sherlock Holmes: The Origin of Sherlockian Studies. Indianapolis: Gasogene Books, 2011.

Msgr. Ronald Knox (2/17/88-8/24/57) was a prolific author whose other work included detective fiction, religious works, satire, and a translation of the Vulgate.

When I look at my Sherlockian bookshelf, that sacred space in the “dining” room, upon which all are forbidden to place toys, Pokemon cards, MTG decks, Lovecraft volumes or–horrors! cups–I see several books I will never be clever enough to review. There’s the one with Sherlock Holmes and chess, another one with logic,¹ and yet another on Victorian detective novels and the “nature of evidence” which is not, as I assumed, about police procedure.² At some point, I will order Umberto Eco and Thomas Sebeok’s book, The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce (Advances in Semiotics) because I used to work with Peirce’s writings, but I wont be able to get beyond names I know in the acknowledgements and appreciating the hard work it took to make all of those equations and diagrams.³ Today’s review book fits into this category as well, and not only because it’s smart. Instead, I find it daunting because it’s written by Msgr. Ronald Knox.⁴ As I tried to explain to my husband, being asked to review something by Ronald Knox feels akin to being asked to review, oh, I dunno….The Gospel According to John (God, post-33 AD). In the immortal words of gobsmacked people on Twitter, “I can’t even.” But I can tell you all about it, and that’s better.

If you’ve been a Holmes fan for very long at all, you’re undoubtedly aware of “The Game.” Players work under the (true) assumption that Holmes, Watson, and Co. are real people,⁵ and that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was simply Dr. Watson’s literary agent. They then use whatever information they can gather from the canon to divine all sorts of facts about such mysteries as Holmes’ childhood, Watson’s love life (and vice versa), or the true identity of Irene Adler *koff!*Lillie Langtry*koff!*. They puzzle out chronologies, actual places, true crimes…whatever strikes their fancy, and it’s all fine as long as one can produce the evidence. That Dr. Watson was, for whatever reason, not the most detail-oriented of Boswells meshes perfectly with what seems to have been, from the beginning, a detail-oriented fandom.

According to editor Michael J. Crowe’s excellent introductory essay, Knox began playing The Game very early, when he and his three older brothers  actually wrote to Sir Arthur  pointing out some problems with the bicycle tire deductions in “The Adventure of the Priory School.” His seminal Holmesian⁶ work, however, is the essay, “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,”  written to fulfill Oxford’s requirement that its dons read papers of their own composition to their colleges’ undergraduate societies. Originally meant as a satirical look at contemporary developments in Biblical scholarship and their impact on religious teachings, the paper proved very popular among both theological and secular groups and was eventually published several times, first in the 1912 Oxford Blue Book. It is this essay scholars consider the foundation of The Game and all of the Holmesian/Sherlockian scholarship that came after, making Ronald Knox the founder, in 1911, of the world we’ve now enjoyed for a century.

Crowe tells us Knox wrote “Studies” at a time in which he and others were struggling with the direction Biblical textual criticism was heading. What had seemed a fresh, intellectual, even scientific approach some thirty years ago had led to a widespread questioning of essential doctrine which many, including Knox, found disturbing. If, like me, you are of a religious bent, you’ll find this section of the introduction fascinating. Nothing changes. Old soldiers give way to new, but the battles are the same.

Knox’s views eventually led him to Roman Catholicism. But at this point, the figuring-out stage, he attacked those serious questions with wit. After all, what better way to point out the flaws in your opponents’ approaches than to make them ridiculous? And applying textual criticism to popular detective fiction–how much sillier can you get? Thus we are treated to “proto” and “deutero” Watson, the eleven “distinct parts” of a Sherlock Holmes tale, and questions of chronology, legitimacy, and influence. There are Greek words. There is a “true Holmes.” There is a death and a questionable return. Even without knowing which scholars Knox skewers so relentlessly, I could feel the flames under the spit. And should one choose to look at the piece as simply an exercise in The Game, well…. Here is one (marvellous) example for your perusal:

Although the Study in Scarlet is, in a certain sense, the type and ideal of a Holmes story, it is also to some extent a primitive type, of which elements were later discarded. The Exegesis κατα τον ϕευγοντα⁷ is told for the most part, not in the words of the criminal, but as a separate story in the mouth of the narrator; it also occupies a disproportionate amount of the total space. This shows directly the influence of Gaboriau: his Detective’s Dilemma is one volume, containing an account of the tracing of the crime back to its author, who is of course a duke; the second volume, the Detective’s Triumph, is almost entirely a retailing of the duke’s family history, dating back to the Revolution, and we only rejoin LeCoq, the detective, in the last chapter. Of course, this method of telling the story was found long and cumbrous, but the French school has not yet seen through it….⁸

Yes, the entire essay is like this. You’ll learn why Knox believes Watson’s stories vary so much in quality, what Holmes has in common with Socrates, and the role of the Greek chorus in the canon. The bowler hat is examined in great detail, much as a certain “hard felt hat” was in BLUE. Holmes’ humanity is considered, as are his methods. He would be gratified to know that LeCoq is always depicted as his inferior. “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” is at once so tongue-in-cheek and so serious that it’s mesmerizing, and it’s easy to see how others were inspired to apply these same methods to their own investigations.

“Studies” is the longest piece in the book, but it’s not the only one. Next we have Knox’s “Introduction,” written for The Best Detective Stories of the Year 1928, in which he delineates the ten “specialized rules” for this genre. As he writes:

And the detective author, alone among authors, cannot even in this libertine age afford to break the rules. The moderns will attempt to write poetry without rhyme or metre, novels without plot, prose without sense; they may be right or wrong, but such liberties must not be taken in the field of which we are speaking. You cannot write a Gertrude Stein detective story.”⁹

After discussing the analytical nature of the genre and its need to provide answers, he then posits it as a game in which the author must play fairly. This means, among other things, no twins, no ghosts, and no secret passages unless they have a reason to be there. As for chemistry, technology, medicine, etc., he reminds readers of Dr. Thorndyke, who requires readers “to go through a long science lecture at the end of the story in order to understand how clever the mystery was.” * It’s a very witty examination; his observations ring just as true today as they did in 1928. Fortunately, however, writers are clever (or readers tolerant) enough that his prediction that the genre’s possibilities will be exhausted has not yet come to pass.

“A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose….” Apparently you can write “a Gertrude Stein detective story.”

The third essay is entitled “The Mathematics of Mrs Watson.” The title is a bit misleading: this is a double book review, rather than an investigation of just how many women Watson met at the altar. Knox reviews works by two prominent colleagues in canon: H.W. (Harold Wilmerding) Bell’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes, Fact or Fiction, by Thomas Blakeney. All right, he doesn’t so much review them as he combs them for inaccurate details and errors in reasoning. I must say that, after reading this, I didn’t feel like such a pedant. Are his conclusions correct? Definitely, in the whole number-of-pearls question. As to the others? You can judge–or dispute. After all, as Knox quotes faux-scholar Sauwosch, “Watson has this genius, that, however deeply we probe his work, he always has fresh inconsistencies to reveal, which will be the basis of fresh theories.”**

If you’re going to argue, be sure to choose your “disputatious” pipe.

“Studies in the Literature” is a remarkable effort. But I have to say that the next essay in the book is my favorite, for three reasons. It’s incredibly clever; it takes everything you think you know and turns it on its head; and, finally, it takes a theory I once dismissed out of hand and convinces me that it may well be true. Thanks to Granada, myriad pastiches, and now, BBC Sherlock, we’re accustomed to think of Mycroft Holmes as a brilliant spymaster, but nonetheless a decent man who cares (advantage or no) for his younger brother. Knox doesn’t disabuse us of this. Not…exactly. But what if everything you thought you knew about Mycroft were slightly, well, skewed? And what if the evidence for this could be found in the canon itself? If “Studies” introduced The Game, “The Mystery of Mycroft” shows us how it can be played by a true master, without even a hint of the ridiculous. To share is to spoil in this instance, but after reading this, I felt both a strong desire for jam, and awe at the fictional possibilities waiting behind this particular curtain.

I felt like this, actually. (from Baker Street Bijou)

Msgr. Knox was a prolific author who tried his hand at detective fiction, including Holmesian pastiche. The collection ends with a story which appeared in the February, 1947 issue of The Strand with the descriptive title “The Apocryphal Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the First Class Carriage.” It’s very short, and doesn’t contain every element listed in “Studies,” but it has an excellent “Watson voice,” and no one ventures the slightest bit out of character. Holmes solves the problem quickly, but early on, Knox presents a tell which, if you catch it (as I did), will pretty much give you the whole story. Believing in fair play as he did, I have to believe the good monsignor provided this intentionally.

Up until now, I’ve only briefly referred to Professor Crowe’s “Introduction,” but it’s an essential and fascinating part of the book. Rather than providing a straight biography, Dr. Crowe shows how Knox’s life and theology are interwoven with his forays into the Holmesian world and, further, how the seeds he unwittingly planted in 1911 came to full flower (by 1934) and continue to propagate, even now. Chances are excellent that, if Ronald Knox hadn’t written “Studies,” or hadn’t written it in such a brilliant, meaningful way, everything we love about Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t exist. Or, rather, it would, but perhaps only to a very small group of enthusiasts–like, say, the current fans of Carnacki the Ghost Hunter.*** Whether or not you care for The Game, its infinite possibilities keep the Great Detective and his Boswell as active as any royal jelly ever could.  It’s painful, then, to read that Knox observed, “it is so depressing that my one permanent achievement is to have started a bad joke.”† For one thing, given Knox’s influence as a priest and scholar, that’s probably not true. And even if it were, so what? Most of us probably think, at some point, that we should be doing something with a little more gravitas. We’re aware that the jobs we work at every day are not going to make us any more than cogs in the great machine of life and we’ll be forgotten, just as we’ve forgotten the names of our great-great grandparents and must therefore pay Ancestry.com a subscription to learn them. But while we’re here, we can enlighten and, better yet, lighten the burdens, of those around us, using the talents we’re given. So a flower arrangement will wither, but while it flourishes, it cheers or comforts or makes one feel loved. A batch of cookies does the same. The person whose gas cap you replaced at a stop light will always remember you, your red ball cap, and your old Ford truck. And the men and women who must get up and spend their days serving coffee or looking for IEDs, teaching preschool or performing CPR, delivering TPS reports or mopping floors–if those people can go home and rest their minds awhile in 1895 or one of its many versions, and afterwards feel able to go out the next day and do it all again cheerfully…. Well, then, that isn’t a joke. It isn’t a joke at all.

It’s the best kind of legacy.

Ronald Knox and Sherlock Holmes: The Origin of Sherlockian Studies  is currently only available from Wessex Press (of which Gasogene is an imprint). Follow this link to order: http://www.wessexpress.com/

Star Rating: 5 out of 5 “This is a wonderful book which gets it right.”

Footnotes:

¹These are: Raymond Smullyan’s The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes (Dover Recreational Math, 2012) and Colin Bruce’s Conned Again, Watson: Cautionary Tales of Math, Logic, and Probability (Basic Books, 2002). Both are available on Amazon for you geniuses out there.

²Lawrence Frank, Victorian Detective Fiction and the Nature of Evidence: The Scientific Investigations of Poe, Dickens, and Doyle (Macmillan/Palgrave, 2003). According to the back blurb, the book “engages in a form of intellectual paleontology, tracing the genealogy of a genre through a model based on the Origin of Species read as a form of postmodern historiography,” and  “investigates [detective fiction] as a genre promoting a secular worldview in a time of competing visions of the universe and human situation.” Which is a fascinating, multi-disciplinary approach…but be warned, it’s a trifle jargon-heavy.

³Tons. Those little symbols slide everywhere.

⁴Not to be confused with the shinigami, Ronald Knox, of Kuroshitsuji manga tales. Which I learned about in an image search.

⁵There is also a very strong (accurate) belief that Holmes, Watson (and often Mycroft and Mrs. Hudson) are still alive, Baring-Gould, Mitch Cullin and other presumptious writers notwithstanding. The reason for this belief is typically that none of these obviously prominent individuals have had an obituary in the Times (London), so they must be with us yet. And really, if an obituary showed up tomorrow, would you believe it? Not after EMPT I wouldn’t.

⁶Although nowadays people often use “Holmesian” to mean canon Holmes, and “Sherlockian” to refer to the BBC version, I try to hew to the traditional meanings: “Sherlockian” is an American enthusiast, while “Holmesian” designates the British variety.

⁷This is story element nine, “the criminal’s confession.” The Greek words, translated, mean “at the fleeing” and should have accurate diacritical marks, only I couldn’t figure out how to do that on WordPress.

⁸ See p. 42. Knox is, of course, referring to the whole Mormon digression in STUD. For a look at how this aspect of the story is still bemusing readers, see: http://finalproblem.tumblr.com/post/29632219151/acd-trolls-kindle-users-with-his-narrative

⁹ “Introduction,” pp 62-3

*”Introduction,” p.65

**”The Mathematics of Mrs. Watson,” p. 83.

***Not to disparage him unduly. The guy is creepy as heck. And we’ll be discussing him shortly.

†Introduction, p.28

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Filed under Collection (Stories by the same author), Five-star reviews, Gasogene Books, Michael J. Crowe, Msgr. Ronald Knox, Non-fiction, Satire, Sherlockian Beginnings, Sherlockian Studies, The Game

Roden, Barbara. The Thames Horror. Ashcroft, B.C.:Calabash Press, 2011

Bees, Boring? Perish the Thought!

If Sherlock Holmes ever gets bored with his bee hives out there on the Sussex Downs and decides to pick up one of the many new adventures in which “he” is featured (let’s not flatter ourselves; he probably won’t), chances are, he won’t recognize himself.  After all, since the very first pastiche appeared (J. M. Barrie’s in 1893), Holmes and (sometimes) Watson have been to Mars, Moscow, and Minnesota. They’ve battled vampires, Cthulhu, and the Phantom of the Opera, and in one exploit even encountered a Time Lord.  The good doctor may have “an experience of women that extends over many nations and three separate continents,”* but when all is tabulated, his friend may have him beat.  After so many adventures exotic, chaotic or erotic, even the easily bored Detective probably yearns for the familiar. His many fans are no different. Fortunately, BSI member Barbara Roden’s short story collection, The Thames Horror, contains four stories sure to appeal to fans of both the traditional and the outré, all told in an impeccable Watson voice.

Dr. John Watson: Often Imitated, Never Duplicated

Of course, Watson never hesitates to include a little supernatural frisson when the story warranted, even if his friend is a scoffer. Ms. Roden does the same, beginning with the gorgeously titled “The Things That Shall Come Upon Them.” We begin, as we often do, with Holmes going through his pile of newspapers and sharing his discoveries with his friend. He observes, with a mixture of vanity and irritation that, since Watson began chronicling his adventures for the public, a plethora of similar detectives, all followed by their own faithful Boswells, have appeared. There’s Max Carrados, Martin Hewitt (whose “doings..appear with almost monotonous regularity”) and myriad others, including the fantastically named Flaxman Low, who specializes in cases “beyond the understanding of mere mortals.”** Holmes must have gotten used to the spiritualist talk of Watson’s agent, Arthur Conan Doyle, because he admits that Low may not be “quite the charlatan he might seem.” A good thing, too, because when Holmes and Watson board the train to investigate some disturbing incidents at Lufford Abbey, they find themselves sharing a compartment–and a case–with Low himself. It seems that while Holmes’ client, Mrs. Fitzgerald, believes these events have a natural explanation, her husband is not so sure.  To their credit, the two detectives don’t waste time arguing over whose approach is best. They investigate together, and let the results speak for themselves. Is Lufford Abbey haunted by a spirit conjured by the late black magic expert, Julian Karswell, or simply a little more open to treasure hunters than it should be? In the end, everyone finds the results satisfactory. See if you agree.

The supernatural thread continues with the remarkable “Of the Origin of the Hound of the Baskervilles.” You may believe that, with all of the film and print versions of HOUN available, there is nothing more to be said on the matter of the vicious glowing dog and its owner’s schemes. You would be wrong, just as Holmes was, every time he told Watson he had no talent for dissimulation. For it seems that, all this time, what we thought we knew about the Hound was only illusion, and in his final days, Watson is driven to explain what really happened. What follows turns everything you thought you knew about the Baskerville curse on its head, and even if you get the twist early on, you’re still in for a rich, atmospheric tale that has to be the truth.

After all that running about on the moors, you might be in the mood for something calmer.  Ms. Roden supplies this  Holmesian equivalent of chamomile tea in “The Adventure of the Suspect Servant.” Here, she presents one of those tantalizing cases which never made it to print–the little matter Holmes handled for Mrs. Cecil Forrester.*** A cautionary tale of vice’s unintended consequence, it gives Holmes the opportunity to exercise both his deductive skills and his compassion.

The final story, “The Thames Horror,” is my favorite. Derived from actual unsolved cases of the period, it takes Holmes and Watson into the dirty London underbelly they’re used to, and far darker recesses of human nature they’ve yet to encounter. In June of 1889,  Scotland Yard Inspector Alex MacDonald prevails upon Sherlock Holmes to help him discover who has been dropping brown paper packages† containing surgically mutilated body parts into the Thames. Fortunately for the Yard, this killer is neither as public or prolific as Jack the Ripper, who terrorized the city the previous autumn. He seems to be content with one victim per year, so London has been spared the panic and unrest that surrounded those crimes. That could end as soon as some clever journalist connects the dots, however, so a quick solution is essential. Using both traditional methods and the new profiling theories put forth by Police Surgeon Dr. Thomas Bond, Holmes and his comrades track the killer to his deceptively quiet office. I’ll go no further, for fear of spoilers, but if you enjoy shocking moments, you won’t be disappointed.

No matter how you like your Holmes, The Thames Horror has what you’re craving. Ms. Roden seamlessly combines pastiche and canon detail, and her Holmes and Watson remain in character throughout. Those of you who avoid pastiche for fear of the unexpected goofy moment or emotional outburst need not worry. The one exception may be Watson’s retelling of HOUN, but it could be argued that Holmes is eminently reasonable throughout, and typically fearless. It’s the situation itself which is shocking and irrational. Each story has its own atmosphere. “The Things That Shall Come Upon Them” is a creepy puzzle with some moments of dry humor, while “Baskerville” is almost unrelievedly tense. “The Adventure of the Suspect Servant” provides a change of pace; it’s a charming domestic piece which ends with everything right in the world. “The Thames Horror” combines accurate historical and forensic detail with the action, urgency, and melancholy that, for me, marks a truly wonderful pastiche.

Another common complaint of readers who stick strictly to canon is that “no one can tell a Holmes story like Watson.” And that’s true. I would argue that there are writers who can do just as well using their own voices, but I realize that most of you won’t believe me. Unfortunately, Watson seems to be busy enough that he’s left writing behind, and many books purporting to be from his pen patently are not. Ms. Roden, however, has a marvelous “Watson voice,” avoiding all the clutter that frequently crops up when someone tries to imitate 19th century writing. Although she avoids the popular “provenance” story, one has to believe that the author pulled these tales directly from the tin dispatch box.

Many people think it must be easy to write pastiche. After all, someone’s already done the hard part for you; they’ve created the characters, done the world-building, even found an appealing style.  All you have to do is throw in a plot they haven’t thought of (and in Conan Doyle’s case, he’s done a lot of that footwork as well). But it isn’t that simple. Writing pastiche is a bit like walking through someone else’s house blindfolded; it’s awfully easy to stub your toe and break something valuable. With The Thames Horror, Barbara Roden successfully navigates 221B Baker Street, with a five-star result.

The first three stories in The Thames Horror have all previously appeared in other anthologies, while “The Thames Horror is original to this collection.  The book is available as an e-book only. You can purchase it for Kindle on Amazon, or in electronic format (suitable for your Nook or Kobo) directly from the publisher, Calabash Press (ash-tree.bc.ca/calabash).

Star Rating: 5 out of 5 “This is a wonderful book that gets it right.”

Footnotes:

*From “The Sign of Four.” It seems reasonable to assume from the canon that Watson had at least two wives, possibly three. One researcher, Brad Keefauver, claims to have found evidence of six!

**Created by Hesketh V. Hesketh-Prichard (1876-1922), a friend of Conan Doyle’s, Flaxman Low is  the world’s first psychic detective.

*** Mary Morstan served as the Forresters’ governess, and it’s probable Watson held back on this one to protect the privacy of his wife’s friend and former employer.

†Tied up with string, and also mohair boot laces and Venetian blind cord.

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Filed under Barbara Roden, Calabash Press, Collection (Stories by the same author), Crossovers, Five-star reviews, Holmes out of his Element, Supernatural, Traditional

The Lyme Regis Horror, Part 2

My last review was devoted to Ruffle’s novella, “Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror.” However, his book contains plenty more. Let’s have a look, shall we?

Sherlock Holmes asleep/paget

Watson must be talking about cricket again….

Watson is to cricket as George Will is to baseball. For him, the sport is the embodiment of everything that is good about the British Empire: “honour, an inherent sense of duty and fair play,” as he declares in “Horror.” So when famed Australian batsman Victor Trumper shows up at 221B, asking Holmes to look into a kidnapping threat, he’s both shocked and eager to help. “The Trumper Affiar” (previously published as an e-pub on Amazon) is a solid story, written along more traditional lines than “Horror.” Ruffle provides accurate historical details, both in the setting and characters (actual cricket players), and his end notes are a nice touch for history aficionados. Holmes and Watson are also nicely in character and we’re treated to some nice running jokes as Watson continually bores the Great Detective (and occasionally the reader) with lengthy explications of cricket matches, and Holmes finds that the doctor’s novelistic touches have given him some unexpected anonymity. The story is not as atmospheric as “Horror,” but Ruffle performs a very nice sleight-of-hand in concealing the villain, the denouement is darker for its realism, and the ending is quite poignant.

Victor Trumper, safe and sound

Ruffle takes us back to the supernatural in “The Mystery of Loch Ness” and “The Runes Affair.”  In the former, a gruesome death forces the reader to apply Holmes’ famous maxim, “that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In “The Runes Affair,” three highly nervous paranormal researchers ask Holmes to help them fend off what seems to be an evil author’s attempt to exact vengeance for poor reviews and rejection slips through supernatural means. Holmes and Watson take on the case to assuage the mens’ fears and meet with unexpected results; one has to wonder whether they might have been manipulated into unwittingly carrying out revenge themselves.

Other stories have a supernatural bent as well. Set in more modern times (the 1930’s and the recent past, respectively), “Forever 1895” and “A Lyme Ghost Story” suggest that Holmes dislikes partiers and inappropriate over night guests, but has a soft spot for pastiche writers. “Timeless in Lyme” is not about phantoms…at least from one perspective.  In each of these pieces, Ruffle mixes past and present with the deft touch essential for a satisfying ghost tale.

Christmas is another favorite topic. In “Christmas at Baker Street,” Holmes explains to Watson the very best reasons for refusing a knighthood. He exposes even more of his heart in the incredibly charming “Henrietta’s Problem,” giving credence to Jeremy Brett’s view that “Holmes loved children.” My personal favorite in this collection, however, is “Christmas with Holmes,” which has an aging Holmes and Watson spending the holiday together in Sussex in 1916.  The end scene is beautiful and while I realized, upon a third reading, that it could have a darker interpretation, I’ll go with my first, sad-but-fitting one. Ruffle ends the book with a lovely poem dedicated to his son, Duncan.

So, my final conclusion? Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror is a well-written collection with “the charm of variety,” deserving of a place on your bookshelf or in your e-reader. I look forward to reading more of Ruffle’s work.

Sherlock Holmes and The Lyme Regis Horror is available from major online booksellers, and is offered on Kindle. “The Trumper Affair” is available as a solo work on Kindle as well. You can also buy the book directly from MX Publishing, or from independent bookstores such as Poisoned Pen.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5

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Filed under Collection (Stories by the same author), David Ruffle, Four-star reviews, Holidays, Supernatural, Traditional, Uncategorized

Ruffle, David. Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror. (Expanded 2nd ed.) London: MX Publishing, 2011.

The Harbor and the Cobb

January is a time for new beginnings. This book experienced a rebirth of sorts late last year, going from a well-received self-published story to a revised and expanded edition with the Holmesian publisher, MX, complete with a gorgeous new cover. The first edition cover features a view of the sea at either sunrise or sunset. It’s  pretty, but not exactly evocative of the word “horror” (although, come to think of it, the contrast does bring to mind Holmes’ particular view of beautiful scenery).* The new cover, done in rich browns, looks like the negative of a sepia photograph, and is fittingly ominous without being over-the-top. The lettering is lovely, calling to mind age, sand, and…dust?
The contents, however, are ultimately what matters, and Mr. Ruffle manages to fit quite a bit into 265 pages. So much content, in fact, that in the interest of brevity, I’m dividing this review into two parts:  “The Lyme Regis Horror,” and the other, shorter stories.
“Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror” begins, not surprisingly, with a provenance story. You know how people who are not you are always finding exciting things in their old houses? Instead of mouldy utility bills and smelly polyester, Mr. Ruffle found the literary Holy Grail in the walls of his Lyme Regis home: a Watson manuscript.  Although his attempts to authenticate it remain inconclusive, he’s nice enough to share it with us.
Like most stories Watson thought best to hide in dispatch boxes or walls,  this one has sensational elements. And, like most of his tales, it starts quietly enough, with Watson boring Holmes with cricket, worries about the morocco case, an invitation from an old school friend/teammate and, finally, the doctor convincing his friend to accompany him on a brief holiday to Lyme Regis. Watson, of course, is eager for sea air, good friends, and relaxation. Holmes is tempted by an exhibition on paleontologist and Dean of Westminster, William Buckland; fossil-hunting, and his favorite pet project, using local dialect to connect people in the southern sea-faring regions of Britain to Phoenician traders.**  As they get off the train at Axminster, neither has any idea his world is about to be emotionally and spiritually upended.
Watson is shaken first, when the landlady of their boarding house turns out to be the very image of his late wife, Mary. Beatrice Heidler, widowed by the Boer War, is focused on her teenaged son, Nathaniel, and has never considered  remarriage. The attraction between the two is instant, however. Their courtship is realistically tentative, and we get to see why Watson is such an appealing suitor.***
Holmes, of course, has other interests. Despite his professed enthusiasm for ancient worlds, he must be harboring some fears of ennui, because once Watson’s friend Dr. Jacobs mentions “most curious events,” he’s on it like a pitbull and won’t let go until Jacobs describes them and “omits no detail.” The events (without  details) are these:
  • A mysterious schooner appears during a storm (some believe it brought the storm with it). There’s no evidence of a crew and by the morning it has vanished, leaving behind three boxes of earth. These are later claimed by a Count Orlana, who is staying at Haye Manor. Said manor belongs to Sir Peter Rattenbury, an expert in Eastern Europe, currently away in Italy.
  • The “Black Dog of Lyme” has been seen recently, both in its traditional haunt of Haye Lane, and throughout Lyme Regis.
  • 18 year-old Rose Hannington, patient of another area doctor, has recently died of a wasting illness, possibly an exotic anaemia, yet has been seen, apparently quite solid, in the cemetery and near her family home.
Within 36 hours, Dr. Jacobs calls on our friends to examine a body on the beach, Rose’s cousin Elizabeth takes ill,  and we are off to the races.
Holmes and Watson may not know what’s going on, but by this time, the reader certainly does (if you don’t, consider this a spoiler warning). The only mystery left is whether or not Ruffle can put his own twist on a match-up which has been done countless times in the pastiche universe.
I was dubious, I’ll admit.  And vampires don’t particularly scare me, so I wondered how Ruffle would keep me in the story. The answer lies in his ability to put across the challenge this villain poses to the heroes’ views of the world and the evil it contains. This is not someone to turn over to the police, to send away to Australia, pardon de facto, or deliver to Divine Justice through shipwreck. This is Moriarty redux, with the disturbing difference that they can’t have been the only men in 500 hundred years to have taken him to the ledge.
“The Lyme Regis Horror” begins sedately enough.  Ruffle knows Holmes and Watson very well; canon devotees will find plenty of insider references and familiar-sounding (though not verbatim) phrases. The Watsonian voice is decently done and witty; Ruffle stays in his narrator’s head the entire time. Holmes is mellower than he is often portrayed, particularly when he quickly catches on to Watson’s fascination with Mrs. Heidler; perhaps his experience with Watson’s first (second? twelfth?) marriage has assured him that he will not be displaced. He also seems to know more about Jane Austen than one would suspect of a man who sneers at softer emotions. On another interesting note, Holmes (using his impossible/improbable line of reasoning) is convinced early on that the culprit is supernatural, while the two physicians take some convincing. I never felt, however, that either Holmes or Watson was veering out of character.
One of Ruffle’s great strengths is his ear for dialogue; it rarely rings false, and is often quite funny such as when   Watson informs Mrs. Jacobs that his writing is not for children, or the Inspector advises everyone not to “quibble with small details.”  If a little too much time is spent delineating incidents in local history which don’t relate to the plot, it can be forgiven; Watson does like travel guides.
When it’s time to bring the suspense, Ruffle delivers as well. The atmosphere changes perceptibly when Sarah Jacobs opens the door to the Count. The following confrontation is electrifying, and reminds the reader that Holmes is truly master of the “and the horse you came in on” speech. The feeling of dread continues as Holmes, Watson, and Jacobs ready themselves for battle; they don’t know whether or not they’re coming back, and neither do we. In fact, as they walk towards the manor in dark of early morning, Ruffle’s description is so skillful, the chills are palpable.
Ruffle’s ability as a writer is, finally, evident in his deceptively simple denouement. In it, he takes up a thread I had thought dangling and superfluous, using it to pull the physical and emotional parts of the story together. I won’t divulge any more except to say that, as a writer, I admired the skill with which he accomplished this, and found myself thinking about it all day.
As a writer, reader, and reviewer, I have learned not to disparage self-published work. Sure, Mr. Ruffle is now working with an accepted publisher;  remember, however, he first published “Horror” on his own. It’s a perfect example of how one should never be afraid to take a chance on an unknown. You’ll often be glad you did.
*Holmes famously said, “…the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” (COPP)
**It may sound silly. However, the ancient Greek geographer Strabo mentions that the Phoenicians traded in tin brought from Britain.
***He tells her “the laundry can take care of itself.” Who doesn’t love a man like that?
Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror is available on Amazon and other online bookstores. You can buy it in a Kindle version, but not for Nook.  It can also be purchased directly from MX Publishing, or from independent bookstores, such as The Poisoned Pen.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5

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