Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders
by Larry Millett
Published by Viking Press
336 pages, 1998
Holmes for the Holidays
edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Jon L. Lellenberg and Carol-Lynn Waugh
Published by Berkley Prime Crime
304 pages, 1998
Sherlock on Ice
Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
Arthur Conan Doyle could hardly have been more wrong when, in 1894, he decided that the world would be better off without Sherlock Holmes, the eccentric British "consulting detective" he'd introduced to the reading public just seven years before.
A Scotland-born physician who wrote fiction to supplement his otherwise modest income, Doyle felt that Holmes -- who'd debuted in the novel A Study in Scarlet, but become especially popular through a series of short stories in The Strand Magazine -- was distracting him from penning more serious historical novels, such as Micah Clarke (1889) and The White Company (1891), which he believed were the key to his lasting fame. So at the end of a Strand installment called "The Final Problem," Holmes, locked in a struggle with his longtime nemesis, the defrocked mathematics professor James Moriarty, was sent plunging -- apparently to his death -- over Switzerland's Reichenbach Falls.
Doyle wrote to a friend of his relief at being shed of Sherlock: "I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do towards pâte de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day."
His fans, though, were disappointed, at best, and irate, at worst. Doyle received hundreds of letters imploring him to resurrect Holmes and his resolute chronicler, Dr. John H. Watson. "Let's Keep Holmes Alive" clubs were established all across America, and the author was offered what at the turn of the last century were exorbitant payments for new Holmes yarns. He ignored these protests and pleadings for most of a decade, content to compose Napoleonic tales and science fiction, as well as study spiritualism (an interest that would dominate his later life). But then, Doyle relented, producing a pre-Reichenbach story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, which came out in book form in 1902. A year later, "The Adventure of the Empty House" appeared, telling how Holmes had miraculously survived his tumble in Switzerland and inaugurating yet another string of his exploits.
"From this point onward," explains Julian Symons in Mortal Consequences: A History of the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, "[Doyle] made no attempt to abandon Holmes, but he still resented the importance with which the detective's exploits were regarded. When, a year or two before his death [in 1930], he was giving a talk on spiritualism in Amsterdam and was asked to say a few preliminary words about Sherlock Holmes, his reaction was one of anger and dismay."
Considering the eventual repute of his protagonists -- in print, on the radio and in movies, on stage, and finally, on television -- it's easy to forget that, during his lifetime Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as he was known after being knighted in 1902, published only four novels and 56 short stories about the sleuths from 221B Baker Street. (Half a dozen other Doyle works starring Holmes and/or Watson have been printed posthumously, with two more reportedly being kept under wraps at the insistence of Doyle's heirs.)
In fact, over the last four decades, hundreds more books and story collections have appeared featuring Sherlock and his fictional comrades (or foes) than ever sprouted from Conan Doyle's fecund imagination. Each month now seems to offer readers additional investigations by "the greatest of the Great Detectives," written by modern-day fictionists. These tales may involve either rascals or royalty, and they could be set in places as familiar to the Holmes enthusiast as London's Hyde Park or as far away as Rio de Janeiro. Many contain real-life figures in secondary roles, and some are based on cases that Doyle mentioned offhandedly in his books, but about which he never wrote more. Often these recent adventures pale in comparison with the original Holmes oeuvre. Yet together they have helped make Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as popular today as they were a century ago.
Surprisingly successful in appropriating this pair for his own novelistic uses has been Larry Millett. I say "surprisingly," because in neither of his two Holmes pastiches thus far has Millett allowed Doyle's creations to spend more than a handful of pages dawdling about their Baker Street digs or let them chase a single crook around Piccadilly or the West End. Instead, 99 per cent of the action occurs in a place that Holmes never visited, at least under Doyle's supervision: the state of Minnesota.
Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon (1996) found Holmes and his Boswell being summoned to America's upper Midwest in 1894 by real-life "Empire Builder" James J. Hill, who needs their expertise in running to ground a sanguinary arsonist responsible for threatening Hill and his powerful Great Northern Railway. Chock-full of colorfully wrought frontier characters, including puissant lumberjacks and high-spirited backwoods prostitutes, and incorporating actual events (most prominently the deadly and still-mysterious Hinckley, Minnesota, fire of 1894), Red Demon was a careful tribute to Doyle and a welcome elaboration of the Holmes legend. Although its prose didn't always quite capture Doyle's cadences, and it was more episodic than the original books, the story had enough drive and drama to maintain the interest of both Holmes devotees and those folks who prefer the pacing of more modern crime fiction.
If anything, Millett's second novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders, is even more enjoyable. The setting this time is the winter-encrusted Minnesota capital of St. Paul, which in 1896 -- when the events of this narrative are supposed to have transpired -- was booming, thanks to its location at the headwaters of the Mississippi River and its function as a transportation hub for the region. A writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper and the author of three books about his area's architectural heritage (among them, the delightful Lost Twin Cities), Millett makes good use of his town's historical sites and secrets. He limns Gilded Age St. Paul as a spot "where privilege is everything and money counts above all else," a burg in which young swells ignored laws with impunity and industry moguls tolerated police corruption -- as long as the moguls were the ones buying the cops' loyalty. Millett is especially adept at bringing to life St. Paul's annual Winter Carnival, which in the last century was a most splendiferous affair. Riding through town in a sleigh, Dr. Watson finds himself transfixed by the ways in which weather and local residents have conspired to turn what in other seasons would seem a less distinctive locale into an artistic showplace:
The scenery as we drove through St. Paul proved to be quite remarkable, for a storm some days earlier had cast a silvery spell over the entire city, which gleamed and shimmered in a carapace of ice. Ice clung to trees and power lines, coated windows and doors, spread into thin shining sheets on streets and sidewalks, and glinted from rooftops and steeples. Meanwhile, every building wore a necklace of icicles, as though dressed for the great winter celebration to come.
It's the Winter Carnival grounds that become the focus of Sherlock's attention, after he's invited by magnate Hill to solve the peculiar disappearance of Jonathan Upton, the 25-year-old scion of a wealthy St. Paul businessman, who'd been scheduled to wed a stunning heiress inside the Carnival's huge-domed and multi-turreted Ice Palace. Watson suggests that there may be no mystery here at all ("Perhaps that young fellow Upton has simply decided that he's not quite ready for connubial bliss"). But when Upton's severed head is found frozen in a block of ice at the palace, with his men's club pin positioned suggestively beside it, doubts of a crime's existence give way to investigative deductions. Who would have committed such a foul deed, and to what end? Did Upton's bride-to-be, Laura Forbes, know of some dastardly aspect of Upton's past that might explain such a homicide? Is that why she so coldly returned her wedding dress before her fiancé's remains were found? And is there any connection between Upton's slaying and a $10,000 discrepancy in the Ice Palace's account books? Or the subsequent killing of Upton's father?
In pursuit of answers, the condescendingly didactic Holmes and the warmer-hearted Watson are assisted here by one Shadwell Rafferty. A hard-fisted, grudge-hoarding Irish saloonkeeper and sometimes-private detective, Rafferty has a mouthful of blarney and a discerning eye for clues that, considered in tandem, threaten to make him an even more appealing personage than our two heroes. (It would be interesting to see what author Millett could do with a novel in which Rafferty is the chief protagonist.) The book also contains some superb tertiary roles, such as that of Billy Bouquet, a "footpad" (thief) who dresses up as a woman and fakes being hurt on St. Paul's streets, in order to lure and then rob unsuspecting Samaritans. There's even a cameo appearance by novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald's parents, who were St. Paul residents in the 1890s.
If these sorts of people and predicaments aren't precisely what you've come to expect after reading the Holmes "canon," well, that's because this tale is clearly not intended to be a direct imitation of Conan Doyle so much as it is Millett's rather more lighthearted slant on Doyle's series. That doesn't excuse the fact that Millett sometimes has trouble reining in the length of scenes and too frequently eschews original imagery in favor of clichés ("darkness already drooping around us like a black curtain"; "he was slightly stooped at the shoulders, as though worn down by the cares of the world"). Nor does it explain why, like Nicholson Baker and David Foster Wallace, Millett so gleefully overuses footnotes. Some are interesting in their own right (where else, for instance, is one to learn the definition and disposal methods of "night soil"?), but most add little to the reader's understanding, while detracting from the narrative flow.
However, these are minor caveats about a satisfying yarn that generally moves at a breakneck clip, its plot buttressed by often-witty dialogue and a few scenes (including a nocturnal chase across the frozen Mississippi) that stay with you even after you turn the book's last page. Doyle would surely have hated Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders, for it is destined to draw a whole new crop of fans to the character he came to resent.
Since we're talking about Conan Doyle in the immediate wake of the holiday season, I'd be remiss if I didn't note the recent paperback release of Holmes for the Holidays, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Jon L. Lellenberg, and Carol-Lynn Waugh. Originally published in 1996, it's a better-than-average assemblage of 14 Holmes knock-offs by well-recognized writers, all of them set around Christmas, but few of them wholly merry.
Among the treats here are Anne Perry's "The Watch Night Bell," about a daughter scheming to do away with her father, and Reginald Hill's "The Italian Sherlock Holmes," in which the London detective is in Rome, seeking to unravel the case against a convicted murderer currently on his way to the gallows. Elsewhere, Loren D. Estleman has Holmes (in one of two entries inspired by Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol) exposing an intrigue against a grown-up Tiny Tim; Carole Nelson Douglas recounts the prankish theft of a magnificent emerald; and the late William L. DeAndrea throws Holmes into the midst of a conspiracy involving a stolen Christmas tree and international negotiations for African mineral concessions.
All of which go to prove that, as Holmes puts it at the beginning of one story here, "Nothing is more sinister... than the city of London under a fresh coverlet of new-fallen snow." | January 1999
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.
Take a peek at some other modern-day novels and short-story collections featuring Doyle's detective.
Hands down, the best Internet resource for information about Holmes and Watson, as well as their literary imitators and competitors, is the Sherlockian Holmepage, edited by Chris Redmond. The Mysterious Home Page also provides a list of Web links to the fictional world created by Arthur Conan Doyle.