The centre of the story here is Shadwell Rafferty, a burly Irish saloon-keeper in 1890s St. Paul. A friend and to some extent a disciple of Holmes, he dabbles in detection, and here in The Magic Bullet he takes on the murder of a prominent local businessman, in his virtually inaccessible office high in the city's tallest building. The cover designers at the University of Minnesota Press, which laudably produced The Magic Bullet, must have worked hard to get the cover blurb exactly right: "A locked room mystery featuring Shadwell Rafferty and Sherlock Holmes." For the record, Rafferty does have a Watson of sorts, the black locksmith George Washington Thomas, but he is a minor figure and is not the narrator.
Yes, Sherlock Holmes does play a cameo role. He is retired now (the case takes place in 1917, during World War I hysteria that Millett must surely have intended should be read as a reflection on today's political climate). There is no suggestion that he should make another trip to Minnesota. But he advises Rafferty through a couple of well-phrased telegrams, and the book includes a fragment of a Watsonian narrative explaining how Holmes was able to assist.
The few halfway plausible solutions to locked-room mysteries were used up long, long ago, and even in the golden age of the genre practitioners such as John Dickson Carr had to reach for absurdly convoluted tricks. Millett is well within that tradition — no more should be said here, of course. What should be said is that Rafferty continues to be an intriguing and appealing character. There are other lively and interesting figures in the story as well, such as newspaper reporter Isabel Diamond. Also plausible, in a most unpleasant way, is the security official John McGruder, a man straight out of Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here or today's headlines.
Millett's writing is excellent (that goes without saying) and the book can be highly recommended. It should, perhaps, have been fifty pages shorter. The later books in successful series tend to get longer, presumably as authors feel less obligation to give their readers only their very best sentences. In any case, there will doubtless be more Shadwell Rafferty mysteries, as Millett hits his stride once more.
Copyright © Chris Redmond 2012