In the Dead of Winter by Abbey Pen Baker

Review by Chris Redmond

For years we've had fiction featuring the "son" of Sherlock Holmes, so it was inevitable that his daughter would come along at some point. Here she is: Myrl Adler Norton, offspring of the great man and the necessary Holmesian love interest. In 1918 we find her resident in Northampton, Massachusetts, teaching logic at Smith College, and so relentless a reasoner that when events draw her into the middle of a mystery, she naturally solves it. Equally naturally, Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson make a brief appearance, in this first (but apparently not last) novel by Abbey Pen Baker.

At the core of the book is a perfectly acceptable little murder: intriguingly gruesome modus operandi, plausibly complicated motive, adequate cast of villains and suspects. Wrapped around that is the local colour associated with Northampton and also with nearby Brattleboro in the depths of a Vermont winter. The latter scene may be authentic for all I know (and we can perhaps be grateful that the author didn't insist on dragging Rudyard Kipling into the narrative somehow). The portrayal of Smith College, however, doesn't ring true — and did Smith students really have part-time jobs in that era?

Wrapped around that plot and those settings are the characters, who are really the heart of the book: not the victim, the perpetrator, the witnesses, and the red herrings, but the detective, Holmes's offspring, and her protégé and narrator, Faye Martin Tullis. Wrapped around this supposed fragment of their joint biography is a brief piece of Sherlockiana, when Holmes himself makes his appearance. And outside all these elaborations is yet another layer, the introduction at which readers of pastiches have come to smirk, in which "Abbey Pen Baker" explains the finding of Tullis' manuscript in an old oak desk.

The publisher appears to think that it's all very clever and postmodern, with the assertion that Tullis' nonexistent books "are among the most popular in the history of detective literature." In sober fact, books and author alike are the creation of "Baker," who is in fact (the copyright page gives it away) Rebecca Morean, a professor of English at Sinclair Community College in Ohio. The present book is published by something called the "Irregular Special Press," based in Cambridge, England.

Virtually every page of this novel contains annoying errors in grammar and punctuation, and there are a number of malapropisms; the author does not appear to know, for example, what "diatribe" means, and believes "obstinance" to be a word. The characters mostly speak as though English were their second language. "It's a mystery built on all that which is absent," Myrl Adler Norton tells her listeners. "I am not positive, but I carry a high suspicion that this is, indeed, the case." And again: "The ability to lie here and think a bit on all these problems has been, indeed, a luxury." An editor, if only there had been one, could surely have flagged such awkwardnesses, fixed the failures in parallelism, moved commas from where they don't belong to where they do. There is apparently going to be a sequel (the cover identifies this book as "a Myrl Adler Norton mystery"), and readers must hope that it receives greater care before it sees print.