Mysteries have been around for many years. I thought what I would do tonight is take three mysteries which have been written at various times in history and see how past and present collide. From the far past we have Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the first Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet. One of America’s mystery giants was Tony Hillerman and he is represented by the 1971 story The Fly on the Wall. From the present we have one of England’s most revered writers P.D. James with her new book Death Comes to Pemberley.
A Study in Scarlet is actually two stories combined into one. The first story concerns the case of the death of E.J. Drebber that Scotland Yard calls Sherlock Holmes in on. The other is the story in America of Jefferson Hope and the Mormons in Utah.
This is the story where Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson first meet. The story is structured in a way that we will become familiar with in other stories. Holmes makes deductions that Watson can’t follow and we the puzzled reader come along hoping like Watson that it will all make sense in the end.
Many critics have felt that the entire story in Utah was really unnecessary and the story would read better without it. I disagree. Of all the stories about Sherlock Holmes this is the one where the background of the villain humanizes the book. The story concerns a scout named John Ferrier and the child Lucy who were rescued from certain death in the desert. It is also a love story between Lucy and Jefferson Hope. The book depicts Mormons and their history in a very prejudicial light.
When the story moves back to London it takes on the familiar feel of a Sherlock Holmes story. Holmes immediately deduces poison and continues to make fools of Scotland Yard. Holmes uses what we will come to recognize as his usual trickery to get the killer in his grasp and to confess.
What makes the story most interesting for me is the introduction of the characters. We get our first look at the eccentric Holmes. It is also the first introduction to Watson. We realize that Watson is more than a sounding board and narrator for the stories. Without Watson the stories would be virtually unreadable because Holmes by himself becomes a very irritating character and it is the humanity of Watson that makes him tolerable to the reader. The couple of stories without Watson proved that he was essential to the stories.
John Cotton is a respected political correspondent for a paper somewhere in the American heartland. A colleague, Merrill McDaniels comes in as Cotton is writing his daily column. McDaniels is in a “happy” drunk state and tells Cotton he is on to a major story. He offers to let Cotton in on it. A little while later McDaniels is dead on the rotunda floor and a mysterious man is rifling through his papers looking for his notebooks.
Cotton finds a hidden notebook and decides to see if he can figure out what his colleague was working on. A second death follows a day or so later when a friend borrows Cotton’s car and is run off of a bridge in a hit and run accident. From this point on it becomes a race for Cotton to keep alive from people threatening to kill him while he tries to find out what the real story is that McDaniels was working on.
Like all of Hillerman’s books the characters are very well drawn out. You get to know and understand Cotton and the people who surround him in the book. Hillerman never retreats to cheap theatrics in his writing. He was one of the authors I could give to my Mom to read because he never used sex or profanity. What he did best was good crisp dialog and stories that were intriguing.
The book was written in 1971 so the technology is dated but the political intrigue is timeless. It is a good introduction to Hillerman’s novels.
The story soon goes into the arrest of Wickham, the trial, servants, intrigue, a baby of dubious antecedents, and everything that is typical of Masterpiece Theater.
I am a fan of P.D. James but I have to admit that this book just didn't do anything for me. It was meant for Jane Austen fans and I’m not a reader of her books. The story was slow moving and there really were no surprises in it. Unfortunately my main impression of the book was boredom. I have read most of James books and liked them. I can appreciate what she was trying to do here. I imagine if people are big fans of Jane Austen they will enjoy the book more than I did.
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