Occasionally the question comes up about any books I would like to see adapted for the screen. My immediate response needs no contemplation at all. Caleb Carr’s The Alienist is one of my favorite novels ever. The characters, Doctor Laszlo Kreizler in particular, leapt off the page to occupy a place in my mind that they simply will not leave. Not that I want them to. The cases, yes. I’m quite happy to have any of those deathly details slip away to never be recalled again. The Alienist and the other Kreizler novel, The Angel of Darkness, delve deeply into the psychology of Victorian serial killers…darkly, gruesomely, and almost too realistically. A writer of Carr’s caliber is capable of drumming real fear and loathing into a reader. His talent is what makes the characters thrum with life and the readers shiver with dread. If only he were as prolific as Anne Perry. Since he isn’t, I’m just glad to have read the two and hope for a third someday.
I was recently trawling Goodwill shelves and stumbled across a cool looking cover. Then I noticed the author’s name and grabbed it. It was The Italian Secretary, a new Sherlock Holmes novel by Caleb Carr. Of course I bought it, thinking it would have to be cool to read Carr’s take on another Victorian detective, the most famous of them all no less, and see how he handled Holmes’ Victorian London and Scotland compared to Doctor Kreizler’s New York. And it was.
The Italian Secretary centers on mysterious deaths at Holyroodhouse, the scene of the violent murder of David Rizzio, a close associate of Mary, Queen of Scots. Holmes and Watson are brought in on the case by Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, and much adventure, deduction, and danger ensue. Historical information about Holyroodhouse, Queens Mary (of Scots, not the current Majesty’s grandmother) and Victoria is woven into the fictional tale deftly and fascinatingly.
There is a heavy element of the supernatural here, with much pondering of the nature of such things. I am not at all fond of that topic normally, but I like Carr’s writing so much that I forged ahead anyway. It was spooky at times, without being crawl under the couch scary. As much a study in why and why not as how. The only real complaint I have is that Carr referred to Holmes’ brother as Mycroft Holmes too often for my taste, after having long established his name and their relationship and often also referring to him as simply Mycroft. I can see that it can be tricky, with two heavily used characters being brothers and one often referred to as simply Holmes, in pop culture as well as this book. So it’s a minor thing that might not even bother other readers.
I really enjoyed The Italian Secretary. Probably mostly because I like Carr so much, since I’ve never read much Conan Doyle. I did enjoy the PBS series, starring Jeremy Brett, and I’ve just started watching Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch…love that. Regardless of whether a person is an avid reader of Conan Doyle, the path Sherlock Holmes cuts through the eras since he was first created is wide and unavoidable. Even if that were not the case, Carr does an excellent job of bringing these characters to life for himself and anyone interested in a fascinating look at history, detective work, Victoriana, and storytelling.
The Afterword was a little thrill for fans of The Alienist. Its author, Jon Lellenberg, does a very cool piece of speculation. What if Sherlock Holmes and Laszlo Kreizler met? Would they be able to work together? How would Watson fit in? Or Kreizler’s reporter counterpart John Schuyler Moore? I haven’t a clue, but I would love to find out. Hopefully, someday the possibilities will tempt Caleb Carr to take us on a unique and thrilling literary ride, with Holmes and Kreizler working a case together. The result might not be elementary, but that would be half the fun of watching the potential unravel.