#14 – The Italian Secretary, Caleb Carr BOOK REVIEW

January 31, 2018
krauserpua

I bought a multi-volume hardback special collection of Robert E. Howard’s Weird Tales some years ago. Each volume had an editor’s introduction and one in particular stuck with me. He was commenting how many literary sorts would poo-poo Howard’s prose style as being unsophisticated. In Howard’s defence, the editor said (and I paraphrase): You can either tell a story or you can’t. If you can, the reader will forgive you all your literary errors. If you can’t, no amount of literary polish will bring him onto your side. Howard tells a great story [1]

Italian Secretary

Caleb Carr, in this book at least, can’t tell a good story. I’m shocked at how inept it is because, in contrast, the prose is polished. Carr isn’t a buffoon, he’s just a terrible storyteller.

This book made me angry. Actually angry. That is most unlike me as I tend to be extremely charitable to writers, respecting anyone who puts forth the effort to write a decent book. I don’t demand talent or excellence every time out. Just a decent effort and a little ability. If this book had been subtitled, “A further adventure of Laszlo Kreizler” [2] I’d have accommodated myself to his position. I’d attempt to understand what world view he was attempting to represent, what his characters’ actions show about themselves, and I’d let him unfurl the plot at his own pace and with his own preferred machinations.

Thing is, this is actually subtitled “A further adventure of Sherlock Holmes.”

It was marketed as being in the Holmesiverse, and I handed over my £12.99 [3] and committed my seven hours reading time upon that promise. I know who Holmes and Watson are, how their stories progress, and what to expect. This book betrayed that, and I’m angry because I can’t have those hours back.

Holmes and watson

Was this too much to ask?

For the first thirty or so pages it appeared promising as his prose style imitates the vocabulary and verbosity of Conan Doyle’s Watson but then it all starts to fall apart. I began to realise he’d misconstrued Watson’s style. In the original short stories Watson gets to the point quite quickly. Although his verbiage is a little flowery and his sentences often indirect and full of sub-clauses, he is nonetheless always talking about something that moves us forwards. He doesn’t just prattle on. Watson of this book prattles on.

“This book is a short story stretched into a novel” I concluded. Hardly anything was happening but page after page of waffle overwhelmed me. It was an effort not to begin skimming pages until something happened [4]

David Mamet released a writer’s masterclass last year, which I recommend as highly as the Aaron Sorkin one, and he constantly impresses the point that a novel should throw out everything that isn’t advancing the plot.

“You are going from New York to Baltimore. That’s your plot. You don’t stop off at Boston just because it looks pretty. Get to Baltimore.” [paraphrase]

David Mammet Masterclass

Great writer, BJJ player, and a Jew. I’m conflicted

He goes on to discuss ‘location sickness’ in the movie and television business. Let’s imagine the script calls for filming a scene of some cheerleaders outside a high school. You roll up at the school location and notice there’s a really cool shoe shop across the road where the building is in the shape of a shoe.

“Wouldn’t it be cool to fit that into the movie?” asks a location manager.

No! It’s not part of the plot. You’ll kill the movie by trying to put every little interesting thing into it. Stick to the script.

I was reminded of this while reading The Italian Secretary. It is loaded with pointless details and diversions, going into the history of an old murder in the time of Mary Queen of Scots or really obvious red herring such as political intrigue in Germany. At least half of this book has no reason to be there and it builds reader resentment in being slowed down. It’s a feeling akin to the helicopter rides in Metal Gear Solid 5: offensively pointless padding.

I also watched a YouTube interview with schlock horror writer Guy N. Smith in which the interviewer asked about his fast-paced writing style. Again, I paraphrase (heavily):

“I don’t see the point of detailed descriptions” he said. “If your scene is: he strode out of the door, picked up a shovel, and struck a heavy shot to the giant crab’s pincers then that’s what you write. Nobody wants to know if the door is teak, oak or mahogany. We don’t need to know it’s two metres high or two inches thick. Or if the door knob is polished brass with scratches and rust. Just have your hero stride out of it and hit the bloody crab.”

Killer Crabs

Can you tell a story?

Here’s an example from Carr’s book, where Holmes, Watson and a servant creep into a castle tower at night:

“There was no ambient light of any kind: The window shutters in each of the rooms – starting with the antechamber, into which the stone staircase disgorged us – had been closed and fixed generations earlier, and far more efficiently than in the rooms immediately below. They had been covered with much heavier curtains, such that we continued to see solely by the light of Hackett’s relatively small torch: although what we saw was, in truth, far less important than what we felt. The basic appointments of the chamber – panelled walls and ceilings, wooden floors, rotted textiles, decrepit furnishings – were proportionally more unnverving than those below, the more so for being Tudor rather than baroque in style. And yet, as I inspected the appointments further, it occurred to me that there is, in houses, a certain moment at which decay seems to slow dramatically, so long as the building’s walls and roof remain intact (as was the case with the palace’s west tower); indeed, the process of decrepitude seems at some point almost to stop, as though not only Time, but vermin of every variety, have taken all they can take and destroyed all they can destroy, leaving behind what amounts to the bleached bones of a formerly warm, living habitation. And Queen Mary’s rooms had, apparently, long ago reaches this archaeological nadir.” [p. 198-199]

Admit it, you started skimming didn’t you? I’d rewrite it as follows:

“Closed shutters and heavy curtains created an oppressive darkness. Hackett guided us with his small torch through a chamber thick with musty air and decrepit furnishings in the Tudor style.”

It takes Carr fully three pages to convey the action of walking up a staircase and reaching the Queen’s old room. It should’ve taken one paragraph. This is painfully slow writing made all the worse that it’s utterly boring and none of the added details does anything to add richness to the scene, the characters, or the plot. It’s junk.

Bad writing aside, this book also suffers from being nothing like an actual Sherlock Holmes story. If the characters weren’t called by the same names as Conan Doyle’s men, you’d never guess. I’ll outline the key plot events, and ask yourself “is this how a real Holmes story plays out?” [spoilers]

  • An architect is murdered in the grounds of Holyroodhouse while conducting renovations to an old tower. Two weeks later a builder is also murdered. Both are stabbed many times.
  • Holmes and Watson take a special train to Edinburgh following a needlessly cryptic note from Mycroft. This is ostensibly due to the espionage red herring, but it becomes clear Mycroft didn’t much suspect espionage so a simple note would’ve been more likely.
  • The train is held up by an explosion, then a red-bearded Scottish nationalist throws a bomb into the carriage. It turns out this was a blind. The “nationalist” was attempting to distract from the real motive, and the bomb wouldn’t go off. It’s never explained how he knew the train was coming (evidently the note wasn’t sufficiently cryptic) and when it’s later revealed to have nothing to do with espionage, it makes even less sense. If Mycroft really did fear espionage enough to send a cryptic note, he wouldn’t have tipped off the guy who turned out to be the bomb thrower in disguise. A plot hole.
  • Holmes never once inspects a crime scene. Wow.
  • Holmes recognises the facial structure of the house groundsman as being the same as the train bomb thrower, thus solving the murder within ten minutes of arrival on page 102 of a 275 page book. The rest of the time he’s just filling in the blanks without telling us or Watson.
  • It’s never explained why the two victims were stabbed many times, or why all their bones were broken. Initially it’s presented as a puzzle, but it never becomes relevant in figuring out the murderer’s identity, means, or motive.
  • Holmes discovers that two local men are running secret mystery tours of the tower in which Queen Mary’s Italian secretary was brutally murdered. Literally, tourism. This runs many years without anyone finding out (!) and makes so much money that they fill an entire mattress in the tower with gold sovereigns.
  • They just leave the sovereigns there. Because Carr needs them to in order to set up the finale.
  • They murdered the two men because they were about to stumble upon the secret tours. Yes, this entire book centres around tour guides taking tourists into a tower for thrills. Moriarty it isn’t.
  • Some dappy servant wench is hiding in the tower, pregnant with the child of one of the tour guides. She just tells Holmes who he is and about the tours. Holmes doesn’t actually deduce anything.
  • Rather than confiscate the sovereigns or arrest the men, they instead lie in wait near the tower for the murderers to break in and take their sovereigns. It’s never explained why the murderers will do it tonight. Or at all. Or why they never emptied the mattress months or years ago.
  • Rather than remove all sources of confusion, Holmes leaves the frantic pregnant girl hanging around. Later she falls off the top of the tower in a dramatic scene that had no reason to happen.
  • One of the two tour guides is a good guy, so he marries this tart who his brother got up the duff. It’s never a modern Sherlock story without some cuck being cucked somewhere in the plot.
  • The murderer’s great strategy to sneak in and get their money back is to….. build a medieval trebuchet and launch the fiery body of a murdered policeman at the castle wall, then set a bomb off at the gates. Naturally, Holmes and Watson immediately run to the site of the diversion and leave unguarded the one place which they knew the murderers had to go.
  • The main bad guy sets himself on fire by accident, without Holmes or Watson having contributed. The other bad guy escapes and is caught by police at a port, again with no input from Holmes or Watson (and not even as a scene, it’s just reported later).

It’s staggering how bad this book is. Holmes and Watson do basically nothing useful throughout. The only deduction is Holmes recognising the face of a man he meets, a couple of hours after the same man stared right into his face but had a red beard. You master detective you! He doesn’t even do anything with that deduction. He finds out about the plot because they stumble into a girl who tells them the full story. They then completely fuck up their stakeout, nearly get the girl killed, and only catch the killers because one of them is kind enough to set himself on fire and the other runs into a police cordon. Watson does nothing except bloviate.

Horrible, horrible book.

If you’d prefer a story featuring real heroes who accomplish fantastic deeds through wit, charm and good-old-fashioned pluck, then you’ll love my memoir Balls Deep, A Deplorable Cad, and Adventure Sex.

[1] His prose style is also under-rated because he’s high-t and action-heavy, which modern readers hate progressively more as their t-count gets progressively lower.
[2] The Holmes-a-like sleuth Carr invented in his earlier books.
[3] Or would have, if I hadn’t found it on a market stall for a few quid. But that’s not the point!
[4] The afterword explains that it was in fact commissioned as a short story and then turned into a novel. Bad move! A novel needs different pacing, more sub-plots, and more plot development. A short story can be hung upon a single idea or gimmick.

One Comment

  1. David Mamet, now I am going to watch Red Belt and see what the fuss is about.

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