A Halloween Mystery: Sherlock Holmes and the Italian Secretary in Scotland
Mystery: Supernatural vs. Reason
The Italian Secretary: A Further Adventure of Sherlock Holmes
-- by Caleb Carr; Carroll & Graf Publishers
This is a welcomed addition to the Sherlock Holmes case files and a rollicking good ghost story for Halloween. It features both Holmes brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft, as well as the inimitable Dr. Watson in a double murder mystery and political intrigue at the Royal Residence at Holyroodhouse. Humor as well as horror are everywhere.
The interplay of the Holmes brothers, complete with childhood embarrassments and the special relationship Mycroft has with the Queen of England are quite engaging, reeling in the reader to be shocked by the midnight blood and gore that follow. Turn out the lights in your own castle and read this by candlelight. Ignore the Italian Aria you hear coming from your attic.
An Irresistible Series Reboot
The beginning chapter of The Italian Secretary is somewhat a shock in that Dr. Watson's vocabulary and thought construction is more intelligent than in previous cases! He is quite the bumbling medical sidekick we have seen before. This Watson still defers to Holmes (both of them) but also makes his own contribution.
Conan Doyle was himself a doctor who based Sherlock on one of his medical professors., a man with unmatched skills in intuition and deduction.
Caleb Carr has ramped up the original characters in an entertaining way in a venue that his background of historical expertise and research abilities have solidified: Scotland and Holyrood Palace.
A professor of military history with a number of non-fiction texts to his credit, Mr. Carr has created a believable historical fiction in The Italian Secretary.
The Doctor-Investigator Trope
The doctor-investigator has been featured in books and television before (recently in Diagnosis Murder), but this time we find one in a thrill-packed Halloween tale.
Carr's investigating Dr. Kreizler (the alienist) has become immensely popular and the Conan Doyle estate, as well as the mystery and suspense reading public, would like to see Holmes and Kreizler in the same novel.
Jon Lellenberg writes in the Afterward of The Italian Secretary as the American representative of the Conan Doyle estate, that he hopes that Carr will create such a story.
Italian Ghosts in Scotland
Halloween is traditionally the time for a good ghost story, but this is one for any time of year.
In the 16th Century, David Rizzio, a private secretary and music teacher to Mary, Queen of Scots, was stabbed to death and his ghost seems to haunt Holyrood (Holy Cross) castle in 19th Century Scotland, seeking revenge.
Holmes and Watson receive a coded telegram at Baker Street from Sherlock's older brother, Mycroft, described as "a senior but anonymous government official" and the head of Intelligence. He is also a confidant of Queen Victoria and the Queen may be in danger.
Mycroft meets his brother and Watson outside Edinburgh after their train is attacked by a would-be bomber and a horde of Scottish nationalists.
Once at the castle, the trio finds that the source of danger to Victoria becomes muddled. It may be a German desire to off the Queen in the style of the beheaded Mary, Queen of Scots or all drudged up from old political jealousies or it may be a ghost.
Double Homicide at Holyrood
The dead men in this story were renovating the West Tower of Holyrood, the residential wing where Queen Mary had entertained members of her staff, including secretary David Rizzio.
In real history, Rizzio was snatched and dragged away, murdered almost before her eyes outside her dining room.
Certain government officials were convinced of a romantic liason between queen and secretary, although Mary was carrying husband Lord Darnley's child.
Darnley was murdered in the near future and Mary was later captured in a political coup and beheaded.
Within a few months of Mary's marriage, Lord Darnley’s true nature became apparent. Darnley proved to be spoilt, obnoxious and violent. He grew jealous of the attention that Mary paid to Rizzio and, encouraged by a group of Protestant nobles, he murdered Rizzio.— Murder of David Rizzo
David Rizzio was stabbed 56 times on 9 March 1566 by Lord Darnley and his friends. He was accused of leaving Mary Queen of Scots pregnant.— Alcehtron
Murder still seemed to inhabit the West Tower in Queen Victoria's reign as a curse. Midnight footfalls and puddles of blood were still be be heard and seen. Tales among the local townspeople even today say that Rizzio, humming Italian opera, seeks revenge for his own wrongful death.
Indeed, Holmes, Watson, and the castle staff do hear and see this menacing evidence at work. A never ending fresh blood stain clearly exists a rivalry between two other brothers might result in the murder of yet other people besides the Queen. A pregnant servant is held captive in the West Tower with food and water for days, driven out of her wits by Rizzio. The game is afoot, but so it death, and it's gaining ground.
Is there a ghost, a political scheme, or a group of townsmen perpetrating a haunted sideshow at the castle? The possibility of ghosts lingering on earth is given credence that builds page by page. Conan Doyle was himself interested in ghosts and an afterlife; Sherlock Holmes was not. However, in this case, Holmes speaks several times of the power of ghosts - or the power of belief in ghosts.
Caleb Carr must have written this book by angel light, if not by ghostly muse --
Suffering from a chronic illness and the loss of his father to death at the time of writing The Italian Secretary. Caleb Carr still wrote. Perhaps writing helped.
Carr set out to compose a short story for a Holmes anthology and could not end it so abruptly and readers are glad that he continued. Read The Italian Secretary as a companion to The Hound of the Baskervilles for a set of great ghost stories.
This book is one of my favorites, by an author of whom I never tire. His research is impeccable for depth and fact checking. Then, he weaves it all into a wonderful tale of mystery that has you turning pages all night. This story is as good as "The Alienist" and I read both of them over and over again.
- Murder of David Rizzio - Renaissance, Reformation and Mary Queen of Scots - Scotland's History. www.sath.org.uk/edscot/www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/renaissancereformation/davidrizzio/index.html retreived May 12, 2009
- Scotland: The Murder of Lord Darnley: At 2 o'clock in the morning the night air was torn by an enormous explosion, and Kirk o' Fields was reduced to rubble. www.aboutscotland.co.uk/mqs/kirko.html retreived May 12, 2009.
- Selvais, P. L. (1996). A study in white: Dr. Watson in the medical press. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 89(6), 329–331.
- The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, 1587An eyewitness account of the death of the "star-crossed" Queen. www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/maryqueenofscots.htm Retrieved May 12, 2009.
© 2009 Patty Inglish MS