Strongwood by Larry Millett

Review by Chris Redmond

In my opinion Larry Millett is the best contemporary writer of Sherlock Holmes novels — pastiches, one might call them, although that label associates them a bit too intimately with “Philosophers' Ring” junk and vanity press fanfic. Despite the handicap of setting his stories in Minnesota, which is rather more than a hansom cab journey away from Baker Street, Millett has managed to marry complex, interesting and believable plots with an entirely authentic Holmes and Watson. For good measure he throws in elaborate historical detail (the buildings, the magnates, the neighbourhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul in the later Victorian era) and has invented a detective who can stand on his own, Holmes's saloonkeeper friend Shadwell Rafferty. So strong a character is Rafferty that Millett's The Magic Bullet, published in 2011, included only a hint of Holmes.

And that brings us to Strongwood, published in early 2014 by the University of Minnesota Press. Not many university presses are in the business of publishing mainstream mysteries, but then again not many universities are as committed to Sherlock Holmes as is the University of Minnesota. This volume is billed as "a Minnesota mystery with special appearances by Shadwell Rafferty and Sherlock Holmes" — that is to say, even Rafferty plays only a small role here, while Holmes and Watson are involved only at a distance. The distance in question is only 85 miles, admittedly; the Baker Street duo are not in foggy London during the book's events, which take place in 1903-04, but in Rochester, Minnesota, where Watson is being treated for gallstones at the Mayo Clinic.

Strongwood calls itself not a novel but "a crime dossier", and some readers, judging from online commentary, have taken it at face value and read it as the retelling of an actual turn-of-the-last-century homicide. It's not — Millett made the whole thing up — but the misapprehension is easy to understand. Not only is the writing brilliant (pitch-perfect excerpts from newspaper articles, court testimony and other documents) but the principal events are exactly what one thinks might have happened when a strong-willed young woman met a lecherous young man from a very different social class. Indeed, the very successful 2013 book The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial That Shocked a Country by Charlotte Gray tells very much the same story, but that one actually is true.

A couple of reviewers have said that it takes a little while to be drawn into the narrative (although readers used to the density of, say, Sherlock Holmes stories may not find much difficulty) but that eventually it is exciting and compelling. From beginning to end of the narrative, the reader vacillates, as Millett's fictional jury vacillates, between believing Adelaide Strongwood's version of what happened in that lonely office that November evening and believing that the evidence proves her a consummate liar. Eventually a verdict is brought down, and even after that there are one or two more surprises.

Strongwood is not, in any very important way, a Sherlockian book, but let it be noted that for all the various minds that are brought to bear on the death of Michael Masterson and the career of Addie Strongwood, the mind that eventually solves the mystery is that of Sherlock Holmes. His involvement is the cherry on top, but the rest of the cheesecake is absolutely worth reading.