It is not too much of a spoiler to say that most of the action of this tale takes place in New York, where it involves the affairs of financier J. P. Morgan as well as several players for the Brooklyn Bridegrooms baseball club. I looked the Bridegrooms up, but it wasn't really necessary, as it's evident from the text that Brown does his research thoroughly. The Bridegrooms (previously or subsequently the Atlantics, Grays, Superbas and Robins) were the forerunner of the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers, who now regrettably play in some place called Los Angeles. Brown includes a description of Eastern Park, the team's home 1891-1897, which was in some respects less luxurious than today's Dodger Stadium.
Like so many pastiches, this one has a tendency to deliver more local colour than strictly necessary, at the cost of slowing down the narrative considerably. The author does not want one bit of that research to go to waste! Mrs. Hudson in New York also commits another customary sin of novel-length pastiches, which is to introduce a historical personage — in this case it's Mark Twain — to play a minor and totally unnecessary role. (The presence of Morgan, in his opulent Madison Avenue house, is justified since an assassination plot against a tycoon is quite plausible; Twain's flirtation with Mrs. Hudson, on the other hand, is irrelevant.)
In part because of such indulgences, this book is some 90,000 words long, far longer than any of the canonical Sherlock Holmes novels (twice as long as A Study in Scarlet). The reader wearies a little as it goes on; judicious pruning would certainly have made it livelier.
However, it has notable strengths as well, including a plot with about the right number of suspects, red herrings, settings and complications, in which the correct solution is not evident to the reader until near the end of the drama. The main characters (suspects and witnesses as well as detectives) are well-rounded. The dialogue is convincing and easy on the ear, although there is less of it than in most of the authentic Sherlock Holmes stories. (It is not entirely easy on the eye: considerably fewer apostrophes would still be enough to give a sense of Mrs. 'Udson's accent.) And the prose is, I think without exception, professional, grammatically correct, readable and appealing.
Brown does have to devote a brief passage now and then to reminding the reader about the central conceit in all of his series of narratives, which is that Sherlock Holmes is subsidiary to Mrs. Hudson as a detective. She is not merely the landlady but the brains of the operation, dispatching Holmes and Watson to gather evidence and instigate action, while staying genteelly behind the scenes and thinking everything through. In one amusing scene, Holmes realizes with some trepidation that he is in for a scolding from the boss when he gets home to her parlour in the Waldorf Hotel. (And by the end of this volume, Mrs. Hudson is realizing that Holmes has now learned so well that she will have to give him greater responsibilities hereafter. This is a flashing neon sign indicating the likelihood of sequels to come.)
It is always a pleasure to recommend a Sherlock Holmes novel that retains reader interest to the very end. This one did.
Copyright © Chris Redmond 2015