Category: Book Review

Book Review: Night Watch

Note: A version of this review originally appeared in 2009:

What would happen if the immortal detectives, Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown met with a brutal murder to solve?

This is the fascinating question posed by Rev. Stephen Kendrick’s 2001 Book, Night Watch. The plot of the story is that Sherlock’s Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, the British’s government’s most indispensable man as Sherlock Holmes described him, calls his younger brother in to investigate a murder. The rector of an Anglican Church is found dead in his church, with his body mutilated. The prime suspects: leaders of the world’s major religions who’d gathered in Britain for some inter-religious dialog. Father Brown is serving as an interpreter for a visiting Italian Cardinal.

The murder and its solution are fantastic. However, the story is dragged down because of some errors in Kendrick’s writing mechanics and also because Kendrick’s story was frequently derailed from the story to Kendrick’s religious agenda. In part, the book was written to back up Kendrick’s assertions in Holy Clues: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes which seems to suggest that in Holmes later days in became someone who could best be described as “spiritual and not religious.” Unfortunately, the author seemed to work too hard on this angle, which distracted from the main point that readers who weren’t enthusiasts of Universalism picked the book up the for: a murder mystery.

Kendrick’s treatment of Holmes, Watson, and Brown was good, but in places uneven. I found some of the conversations between Holmes and Watson not entirely believable and out of place in a mystery novel. Kendrick’s Holmes was a cut below Doyle’s in solving the case, and Kendrick tried a cheap out by simply saying that Doctor Watson’s accounts had been exaggerated or unrealistic. To be fair, Kendrick is hardly the first author of a Holmes pastiche to use that out. What Arthur Conan Doyle created in Holmes was a bit of a mental Superman, and like Superman, it’s very hard to come up with a worthy opponent for him. So, it’s far easier to move the character closer to reality.

His portrayal of Brown, while not having the flair of G.K. Chesterton, and leaving the character a little flat was still essentially the same orthodox Catholic priest that readers have come to know and love. Given that Kendrick, as a Unitarian Universalist, comes from a completely different theological perspective than Chesterton, he deserves to be commended for not trying to tamper with the character, as some interpretations have tried to change Brown into their vision of what a Christian should be rather than the character Chesterton created.

Of course, in a two-detective story, one detective usually draws the short straw, and Brown clearly has the back seat to Holmes. However, in Chesterton’s books, Brown off hung around in the background until coming forward to the solution to the crime.

Kendrick’s deserves credit for the audacity of it all. He’s the first author I know of to try and bring these giants of detecting onto the same stage. And he produces an interesting, albeit not completely satisfying tome. Here’s hoping that others will follow Kendrick, and this isn’t the last Holmes-Father Brown crossover we see.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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Book Review: The Norths Meet Murder

This is the first Mr. and Mrs. North mystery novel by Richard and Frances Lockridge and was published in 1940. It would start a Mr. and Mrs. North mystery franchise that would include numerous books, a play, a movie, more than a decade on the radio, and two seasons on television.

Pamela North gets permission from her landlady to host a party in a vacant apartment upstairs. However, the Norths were shocked to find a naked body in the bathtub. (I guess the Lockridges figured if it worked for Dorothy Sayers…)

The police are called in and Lieutenant Weygand of the NYPD proceeds to investigate. One of the in the most surprising thing about the book is that for most of it, the Norths have very little to do with the proceedings. The bulk of the book is Weygand carrying on an investigation, making very little progress, and then coming for a visit to the Norths, during which Pam gives Weygand a helpful clue or hint to carry the investigation forward.

The Norths had actually been created by Mister Lockridge for some light comedy short stories and this book tosses them into the middle of a murder mystery, so that’s why they aren’t sleuthing.

The story avoids being stupid or annoying at any point, but at the same time seems to ride a tide of okayness throughout. The only annoying thing is the Lockridges’ habit of expositing dialogue and by that I don’t mean something that summarizes some information that’s too tedious to review. (ex: She spent four hours discussing her hat.) But rather information that could just as easily be quoted, (ex: He told her that he would be back tomorrow.) They do this a lot.

However, the book gets really good in the last couple of chapters when Pam decides to throw a dinner party for the suspects and finally realizes who the murderer is. It was a surprisingly tense and suspenseful climax that’s a really nice payoff for the entire book.

Overall, it’s not bad. While all the supporting characters are flat, the leads are enjoyable enough. If you listened to the radio show or watched the TV shows and were curious about how the Mr. and Mrs. North mystery franchise got started, this will give you the answer. Still, I have to imagine that given the sheer number of books in this series that there were better books in it than this one.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

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Book Review: The Sign of Four

A version of this review appeared in 2011.

The Sign of Four begins when a young woman comes to Sherlock Holmes with a problem. Her father disappeared from his hotel in London on returning on leave from India. She began receiving a pearl a year for the past six year from an anonymous benefactor. She wants Holmes and Watson to accompany her to the mysterious rendezvous. The benefactor informs the party of a fabulous treasure that the young woman is entitled to. However, the benefactor’s brother is found dead and Scotland Yard jumps to conclusions and charges the kindly gentleman as the murderer.

Holmes has to uncover what really happened, free the innocent man, and find the real killer.

The story is wonderfully paced with plenty of excitement, from chasing down the criminals through the use of a dog to another appearance by the Baker Street irregulars, and a thrilling boat chase for the climax of the story.

More than a century after it was first written, the novel shows little sign of its age.  The Sign of Four is well-paced, exciting, and even action-packed story.  It represents Doyle at his finest in many ways.

The puzzle has a touch of the bizarre with its use of exotic weapons and strange footprints, but not too bizarre as seemed to me to be the case in some later Holmes stories such as “The Creeping Man.”

While in Study in Scarlet, we learned about Holmes, in this book we begin to see Holmes’ personality: the genius driven to avoid a hum drum existence, who seeks out trouble to find some problem to keep his attention.

The novel is also noteworthy for its focus on Holmes’ use of cocaine.  Dr. Watson (and by extension Dr. Doyle) were concerned about the use of cocaine in the late 19th Century and its negative effects. However, Doyle wasn’t heavy handed in his approach, and so Watson’s concern sounds more like a modern doctor’s concern with eating too many trans fatty foods. And Holmes is blaise about it, leading to some interactions and statement that may seem surreal or humorous to the modern reader.

If you can get past that, Sign of Four is truly a classic that every fan of detective fiction should read.

Rating 5.0 stars out of 5.0

Note: You can download this book free for your Kindle here. It also should be available for free for other e-readers.

Book Review: Murder on the Links

Murder on the Links is the second Poirot novel by Agatha Christie and entered the public domain in the United States on January 1 of this year. Poirot is summoned to France by a wealthy man needing his urgent assistance. Poirot arrives to find the man murdered and sets out to solve the case.

There are some marked improvements from the first Poirot book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. For one thing, the action gets going far more quickly. We have the dead body at the end of Chapter One.

The plot itself is clever, with a nice collection of red herrings and misdirection for Poirot, Hastings, and the reader to sort through. In addition, there’s a mysterious woman who Hastings is smitten with and may have something to do with the murder.

In this book, Poirot is still developing into the man he’d become in the later books, but he does take several steps away from the more Holmesian feel of the first book as he indicates his focus is more than the psychological than physical evidence. Captain Hastings in love is also an interesting character, even though he complicates Poirot’s efforts because of his feelings for the young woman twice (though he only did it intentionally once.)

The one thing I think didn’t work awas the idea of giving Poirot a rival investigator to play off against. Though in the book it doesn’t bother me as much as it did in the TV and radio adaptations.

Overall, this was a well-crafted mystery with a clever solution. It’s nice to see Poirot’s development as a character, and this book holds up pretty well.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

If you’re in the United States You can download Murder on the Links for free from Project Gutenberg

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Graphic Novel Review: The Prisoner: The Uncertainty Machine

The Prisioner, Volume 1:The Uncertainity Machine collects Titan’s four-issue Prisoner mini-series . Set in modern times, an MI-5 agent resigns in disgust when his partner (and romantic interest) is left behind on a mission in the Middle East and he finds himself captured and taken to the Village.

There’s some good things to say about the book and most of it has to do with the art. The art is pretty good throughout, with some really nice high points. The big two-page spread when our hero wakes up in the Village is spectacular. The writing isn’t bad. Each individual chapter throws our hero and the readers for a new loop, so there’s cleverness behind these stories.

What doesn’t work is  the big picture stuff. What writer Peter Milligan really fails to capture with the Village is the dissonance of it. In the TV show, it was a place that appeared to be the most pleasant place you can imagine, but it was contrasted by a sinister secret. In addition, the nice feel of the Village is designed to make it easy and comfortable to turn traitor. In this book, the Village never tries to make itself seem alluring. Instead, it’s full of people who do nasty things while wearing 50-year-old clothes for no good reason.

In addition, the book’s explanation of who is Number 1 is not only nihilistic, it’s also a bit daft. Overall, if you’re looking for a psychological spy thriller comic, this is not a bad one to read. However, as a comic book take on the Prisoner, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0

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