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A Halloween Mystery: Sherlock Holmes and the Italian Secretary in Scotland

Updated on October 24, 2018
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty has successfully reviewed thousands of books, films, products, and vacation/retirement cities around the world.

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.

Scottish Royal Residence at Holyrood circa 1878.
Scottish Royal Residence at Holyrood circa 1878.

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.

Built beside Holyrood Palace in 1168, damaged in the Reformation. Painted by Jane Stewart Smith in 1868. [Photos this page, public domain.]
Built beside Holyrood Palace in 1168, damaged in the Reformation. Painted by Jane Stewart Smith in 1868. [Photos this page, public domain.]

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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. September 1893, in the Strand Magazine; by Signey Paget (1860-1908).
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. September 1893, in the Strand Magazine; by Signey Paget (1860-1908).
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. September 1893, in the Strand Magazine; by Signey Paget (1860-1908).

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.

Holyrood Palace and Abbey, 1789.
Holyrood Palace and Abbey, 1789.

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 Holmes, drawn by artist Sydney Paget for the Strand Magazine, 1893.
Mycroft Holmes, drawn by artist Sydney Paget for the Strand Magazine, 1893.

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
Click thumbnail to view full-size
"The Murder of David Rizzio" by John Opie in 1787.  "The Murder of David Rizzio" by William Allan in 1833.
"The Murder of David Rizzio" by John Opie in 1787.
"The Murder of David Rizzio" by John Opie in 1787. | Source
"The Murder of David Rizzio" by William Allan in 1833.
"The Murder of David Rizzio" by William Allan in 1833. | Source

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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
David Rizzio, the Italian Secretary.Mary, Queen of Scots.Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley
David Rizzio, the Italian Secretary.
David Rizzio, the Italian Secretary. | Source
Mary, Queen of Scots.
Mary, Queen of Scots. | Source
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley | Source


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.

The Italian Secretary
The Italian Secretary
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. 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. 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. Retrieved May 12, 2009.

© 2009 Patty Inglish MS

Comments and Opinions

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    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 

      10 years ago from UK

      This is delightful. As a fellow holmesian, I love this hub. I collect sherlockiana and I do have this book... you do impeccable research.

    • KJRaider profile image


      11 years ago

      I will check this book out. I love Sherlock Holmes.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      11 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Caleb Carr did a highly entertaining job of this one and I was engaged by the wit among the Holmes brothers and Watson. Very well researched too. I hope you all get a chance to read it.

      JYOTI - I'm on my way to the second 1000, I think :)

      Dohn121 - pretty sure it's in most libraries now if you want to have a look.

    • Sandyspider profile image

      Sandy Mertens 

      11 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      I remember watching some of the old Holmes movies on TV. This is loaded with information.

    • dohn121 profile image


      11 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      Great hub as always Patty. This is certainly a great book to welcome the coming of Halloween. It sounds like you enjoyed the book very much. I'll have to peruse it a bit more (not that I don't trust you!) Thanks again.

    • Godslittlechild profile image


      11 years ago

      I'll have to grab this book and give it a read!

    • JYOTI KOTHARI profile image

      Jyoti Kothari 

      11 years ago from Jaipur

      Hi Patty,

      Nicely summarized. Again an excellent hub. Enjoyed 1010th.


      Jyoti Kothari

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      11 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      I hope I summarized it well enough - If you check out any of the links, you find pages and pages of related history. It's overwhelming, but interesting. Thanks for posting!

    • Lisa Luv profile image

      Lisa J Warner AKA Lisa Luv 

      11 years ago from Conneticut, USA

      I remember seeing a program on this, but they did not cover all this info. Thank you fore the well wrtten info=)

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      11 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Thanks Don. I saw this on the shelf of my local book store and grabbed it up. Not sorry that I did.

    • dusanotes profile image


      11 years ago from Windermere, FL

      Delightful Hub. Don White


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