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A Baker Street dozen of "new" cases featuring the imperishable sleuth.
Dr. Watson'scrisp introduction sets the stage by explaining an unexpected inheritance that enabled the pair to travel to the continent, where most of the adventures take place. The opening story, "An Affair in Ravello," though set in Italy, centers on a pair of British matrons, features a Middle Eastern suspect, and ends with a smattering of German. "The Death of Mycroft Holmes" shows the sleuthing duo traveling back and forth from Austria to England in the wake of the death of Holmes' brother, an invaluable employee of The Foreign Office. The novella-length "A Death in Venice," an eerie tale of poisoning and obsession, features Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. Another long story, "The Case of the Vermilion Face," begins in Holmes' comfy Baker Street digs, but takes the duo to Rome and features an interview with the Pope. "The Case of the Missing Lodger" and "The Case of the Plangent Colonel," set in London and Rome, respectively, are more traditionally tidy Holmes whodunits, though the latter includes a letter to Holmes by Charles Darwin. The collection closes with the more introspective "The Mountain of Fear," in which Holmes uncharacteristically shares secrets from his past as a means to solving a baffling mystery in the present.
Riccardi(The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, 2003) brings variety and clever roman à clef strokes to this volume while maintaining the core charm and panache of the Holmes oeuvre.
AN AFFAIR IN RAVELLO
Of all the adventures shared with me by my friend Sherlock Holmes, the one that follows is perhaps the most revelatory of certain elusive traits of character which, despite our deep and intimate friendship, remained well if not entirely hidden from view for as long as we knew each other. It contradicts most thoroughly the image that he assiduously cultivated of himself as a machine without emotions, a bodiless brain created solely to think. This cold façade which he put forward so convincingly, however, cracked on occasion despite his best efforts. The reader indeed may recall my observation, in the case of the three Garridebs, of the great affection that I saw move across his face when he feared that I had been fatally wounded. Despite these occasional breaks, Holmes persisted obstinately in his chosen portrayal of himself, for, even if untrue, the image frightened away fools and those who would waste his time on the trivial. In any case, let the reader know that Holmes has passed on the present manuscript with a benign smile and a laugh not devoid of irony.
I have remarked as well in past accounts that my friend's personal habits, despite his well-known disorderliness, were of the most abstemious kind, even ascetic in their nature. In that portion of his life in which many of these cases fall, tobacco was his only habitual indulgence. As to food and drink, he ate only what was necessary to keep mind and body alive and drank even less, indulging from time to time in a single peg of whiskey or a glass of wine.
In Italy, despite the wider palette of temptation afforded there, I observed little change in his habits. He still ate sparingly and thought little about the food that was presented to him, though I noted that he had acquired a taste for the strong Roman coffee and the warm crusty loaf that the servant boy brought to our table every morning at dawn. As soon as Holmes finished with that simple breakfast, he would retire for a time to consult his books, perhaps the chief area in which his natural abstemiousness had failed him.
As in London, Holmes surrounded himself with old dusty volumes, and in Rome he had found a few bookstores that were greatly to his liking. Stacks of books appeared spontaneously everywhere like large toadstools, and I dreaded the inevitable moment when I would return home to find them invading my own room.
We had found new quarters on Via Crescenzio, in the spacious residence of la signora Manfredini, a rather outlandish woman, who regularly beat her husband, a croupier in Monte Carlo, with a large broom as soon as he arrived on his monthly visits. Seeing that il signore was never seriously harmed during these encounters, we took to disregarding the commotion to which they gave rise, though the beleaguered gentleman, hoping for a place to hide, sometimes raced through our rooms with his wife in hot pursuit shouting Disgraziato! and other formidable insults as she rained blows with her broomstick on his tender bald head. On the last such occasion, Holmes chuckled softly, but did not bother to look up from his work.
Our lodgings consisted of three rooms on the top floor of a grey stone building recently refurbished. They were filled with light and looked out onto a verandah that ran around the entire residence. From there we could see the dome of the Church of the Val d'Aosta, and in the distance that of St. Peter's. The rooms were spacious and plainly furnished: a bed, a table and chair, and large almirahs were what our eccentric landlady had provided. Holmes made us each more comfortable by purchasing lamps, shelves for books, and rather worn but comfortable easy chairs on his wanderings in the flea market at Porta Portese. His own shelves filled immediately with tome after tome and music as well. Most of the latter was rare pieces for the violin, but some of it consisted of operatic scores by the newly popular verismo composers Puccini, Leoncavallo, Giordano, and Mascagni, for he had acquired an interest in these works, not for their music, which he strongly deprecated, but for their illustrations of the criminal motives that lurked in the dark recesses of the Italian mind.
One day, in the late afternoon, I returned to our quarters after a long walk in the Villa Borghese. I found Holmes poring over his latest acquisitions.
"A most surprising set of finds, Watson. Look, dear doctor, a group of rare works on the Orient which, being of little if any interest to the Italians, I purchased for a small fraction of what they would have cost in London."
I joined him on the floor in order to peruse the new purchases with him.
"Here, my dear fellow, is Maurice's seven volumes on the antiquities of Hindustan, an exceedingly rare work, for just a few lire. Note the exquisite binding. And these volumes of the Journal of Oriental Research given to me by the book dealer for nothing because he was tired of storing them in his crowded shop."
I picked up the largest of the tomes on the floor, a copy, bound beautifully in blue leather, of Monier-Williams's Sanskrit-English Dictionary.
"Holmes," I said with some annoyance, "surely this purchase was unnecessary. There are two copies of this work in our quarters in London."
"Ah, Watson, so there are indeed. Note, however, that this one is only half the bulk of the others, but has the same contents. It is a rare copy of the work printed on onionskin and thus useful for the traveler who must always pick his books carefully."
I was about to remark wryly on the improbability of his working on Sanskrit texts while traveling, but I held my tongue. Instead, I said, somewhat pointedly, "Please explain to me how and why such works find their way to Italy."
My friend looked at me with a broad smile. "You raise a most interesting question. The same query occurred to me, and I conceived of an explanation that was immediately corroborated by my book dealer. You see, Watson, many of our colonials, having spent their entire adult lives in India and elsewhere in the tropics, return after retirement to England to live their remaining years. But finding neither the dreary British climate nor the strictures of English life to their liking, they retreat to sunnier climes. Often the choice is Italy, and particularly, I gather from my learned bookseller, the coast south of Rome, in the hope that the sun and the exuberance of Italian life will bring to mind their younger days in the tropics. In this they are mistaken, of course, for it is not the sun that transmitted to them a sense of well-being, but the privilege of empire in which they participated. Nevertheless, in this mistaken hope, there has gathered, or so I am told, a small but growing number of Englishmen, who, having served in the Subcontinent and our African dominions, now live in and around the warm hills near Salerno. When the last of the family dies, the estate is disbanded, the goods sold off, the books winding up with the other family possessions in the junk shops of Rome and Naples, to my good fortune, of course."
"Most interesting," said I.
"Indeed," said Holmes, "I gather that others, rather than move entirely to Italy, have taken to a more transient existence, dividing the year between the banks of the Thames and the shores of the Mediterranean. It would be of great interest, when there is a break in the work here, to travel south to see what we might make of our compatriots settled in the Mezzogiorno."
The break that Holmes looked forward to was far longer in coming than either of us would have surmised. Indeed, it was work rather than leisure that finally took us to the Italian south. The winter had been one of constant effort for Holmes. The case of the violin forgeries in Cremona as well as the case that ended bloodily one night in Hadrian's tomb preoccupied him through the cold damp months of January and February. It was only in the middle of March, when Holmes thought himself free at last, that Inspector Grimaldi, of the Roman police, appeared in the very early morning at our quarters. He was, as usual, elegant, both in dress and demeanour, but he looked tired, as if he had not slept. Holmes offered him coffee, which he gratefully accepted.
"I am here not because of events in Rome, which have given me a sleepless night," he said, "but because I have received word from Inspector Niccolini of the Naples police. They are baffled by a case and wish to enlist your help, particularly since several of the principals seem to be British now domiciled in Italy. Because you have often mentioned your desire to travel south, I thought that this would be a good time, anzi un momento perfetto."
"Let us hear, dear Grimaldi, what the matter concerns," said Holmes.
"I can relate to you only what I know from Niccolini. On the face of it, it is a rather trivial matter that Niccolini alone might have resolved there in Ravello, but because the matter concerns British citizens as well as Italians, he has felt that your presence might prove useful. It is one of those mysteries that the police often refer to as il mostro nella soffita, the monster in the attic. This may be one of the more interesting cases of its type, though I leave that to you to judge."
Grimaldi leaned forward to sip his coffee. "Dunque," he continued, "according to Niccolini, living near the town of Amalfi is an Englishwoman, who is known locally as la Signora Indiana, the Indian lady. She is so called because she is married to Sir Jaswant Singh, an Indian gentleman who is, according to reports, one of the richest men in England. Sir Jaswant owns a villa not far from the centre of Ravello, in the hills east of the town, where he and his wife spend a few months in the spring and early summer. Three weeks ago, Sir Jaswant and his wife arrived for their usual stay. But Sir Jaswant, sometime after his arrival, was suddenly called to Switzerland on business. His wife remained behind to ready the villa and await his return. Feeling safe even without her husband in their home, Lady Singh did not ask for a guard but said she would rely on the servants, who were nearby, in case she needed help. In any event, her husband left and reminded her that his factotum, Habib, would arrive with the rest of their baggage before him himself returned.
"One week ago, la Signora was awakened by what she described to Niccolini as the sound of a wounded animal, a kind of moaning accompanied by growls. She said they appeared to emanate from within the villa, perhaps from the large vacant attic. Frightened, she rang for the servants. They came promptly, but none of them had heard anything, understandably since they sleep in a small building separate from the main residence. The servants searched the house but found nothing. Habib, who had arrived the day before, appeared only later, after the search, apparently unaware of anything strange that had transpired in the house itself. The rumours of what had happened rapidly spread among the contadini of Ravello, Positano, and Amalfi, and those living in the surrounding villages. By the time they reached Niccolini, they had been amply embroidered. Some said that a large tiger had been sighted, others that the English lady had seen a ghost and gone mad in the night. In any case, Lady Singh insisted that a guard be hired, but only one old fearless Amalfitano, one Giuseppe Amendola, was willing to stay at the villa with la Signora.
"Two nights ago, the same sounds occurred. Lady Singh called for old Amendola, but he did not appear. She then went to the landing. From there she saw the old man lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Aroused by her screams for help, the servants rushed to their aid. They found the guard still alive, but bleeding profusely from a sharp wound on the left side of his neck. They stanched the bleeding and sent for medical help. They also notified Niccolini, who arrived that evening with several carabinieri. They questioned the guard, who said that he had seen nothing. He heard the strange noises, which appeared to him to have come from the top of the staircase, but saw nothing. Then in the dark, he first felt something soft then something sharp touch him just below the ear and he began to gush blood. He fell into a swoon."
"Most interesting," said Holmes happily. "No need to continue. I should be happy to meet with Niccolini as soon as possible. The singular circumstances more than justify a trip to the Mezzogiorno."
"Benissimo," said Grimaldi. "I shall wire your agreement and the details of your arrival to him immediately. There is a train to Naples in two hours."
"We shall be on it," said Holmes.
Grimaldi left, and Holmes and I each packed a small valise and took a cab to the train station. Grimaldi was there with our tickets and we waved to him as the train departed. Three hours later we were in Naples station sitting aboard the train south, talking to Fausto Niccolini, chief inspector of the Neapolitan police.
"A very strange business, Signore," said Niccolini, as the train departed.
"Stranissima davvero," said Holmes, and the conversation continued in Italian with occasional lapses into French.
"Yesterday, we searched the entire villa from top to bottom. There is nothing. No sign of entry, no hidden rooms, no sign of a wild animal. And there is no clear motive why any one should want to frighten the poor lady."
"What is the history of the house?"
"You ask that question, Mr. Holmes," said Niccolini with a smile, "con leggerezza, with too light a heart. History in Italy is a madness from which each Italian suffers, a labyrinth in which we walk all our lives. The villa? Well, it was built by one of Naples's first families, the Alessandrini, in the early eighteenth century. By the end of the century, it had become part of the booty of the French. It became most famous perhaps for the trees that the Alessandrini planted. Now well over a century later, the trees, mainly huge Roman pines and oaks, provide a grove incomparable in the estates of Campania. Napoleon himself stayed there on several occasions, wandering deep into the forests till he came to the cliffs and the sea. After his defeat, the villa reverted to the Alessandrini, who, in a state of near destitution, sold it some ten years ago, in 1891 to be exact, to the Anglo-Indian banker Jaswant Singh. He has used it as a retreat and hunting lodge and has spent several million lire on its restoration. It was not until he married, however, that he began to use it more often, and except for recent events, nothing untoward has happened. The Alessandrini were popular here, for they were, unlike so many of their class of latifundisti, generous to the peasantry who lived on the land, and so the house has been safe from intrusions of any kind, including il malocchio, the evil eye. There is no ghost of the Alessandrini."
"And where is la Signora at present?"
"She is nearby but away from the house, in a convent watched over by a few nuns. She would not stay another night in the villa. She has sent for her sister, who is to arrive from Pienza tomorrow."
"And her husband Sir Jaswant?"
"He is on his way, but will not reach here for several days."
"And the factotum?"
"He is there and awaits his master. Singh has ordered him to watch over the Lady. He is Sir Jaswant's oldest friend. He has been employed by the banker for many years, and he is completely loyal to him. He is a bit antipatico, a stout man, one who runs slowly and perspires a lot, but of great energy."
Niccolini leaned back in his seat as the train raced forwards and said, "I must tell you that I do not trust this Habib. I am a local policeman, Signor Holmes. I have traveled little outside this place, my native Campania. I have seen deeply, not widely. And yet, despite this limitation, I can read the human soul through the face, the eyes, the gestures. I know when a man is lying to me or when he has done something wrong. We Italians are an antique people, one with long experience and, therefore, one that has a certain intuition as well. Il signor Habib is lying. There is something that he knows that he refuses to reveal. Signor Holmes, I must tell you that your countrymen and their retinues who have sought to retire here have brought a certain problematica, a tension per modo di dire, shall we say, to the region. The local peasantry is at once attracted by their wealth, but repelled by their habits."
It was just after noon when we reached Amalfi, a rather squalid little town on the sea. Niccolini had arranged our accommodations in a small hotel, the Albergo Santa Croce, in nearby Ravello and far nearer to the Villa Alessandrini, he himself staying with a cousin in Amalfi, the better to learn what he could from the observations of the local population.
Excerpted from Between the Thames and the Tiber by Ted Riccardi. Copyright © 2011 Ted Riccardi. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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Posted July 6, 2011
This is the second collection of Sherlockian tales by this author. I reviewed his earlier collection, "The Oriental Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" in 2003, when it was published. this group of stories, unfortunately, does not measure up to his earlier effort. The 'Oriental' tales were full of rich color and intriguing characters. The present tales are novellas and short stories that seem to consist more of nasty characters and problems in timing and nomenclature than of color and life. After a Preface that 'explains' the presence of Holmes and Watson in Italy, we are presented with "An Affair in Ravello," a novella about Sir Jaswant and Lady Singh and some odd events that take place at their villa near Naples. This story also introduces Lady Singh's sister, Lady Maxwell, who is supposed by the author to be engaged in a long-term relationship with Holmes. "A Case of Criminal Madness" is poorly resolved and features some 'criminal masterminds' being fiendish. "The Death of Mycroft Holmes" is a novella that contradicts events in "His Last Bow" and tangles the Holmes brothers in the mess in Sarajevo in August, 1914. "The Case of the Plangent Colonel" is an oddity. It introduces us to Holmes' interest in modern music and musical artists in Italy, but also to another criminal mastermind smuggler. "Porlock's Demise" brings a formal end to the Moriarty epic, sort of. It ends with more questions than answers and does not encourage any hopes for resolution. "A Death in Venice" is a novella about the death of Richard Wagner. It is full of musical geniuses and their relations and convolutions and it ends with his American biographer, Mary Burrell, thanking Holmes for the information that he put in her way. "The Case of the Two Bohèmes" s a novella that involves Holmes with the creators of "La Bohème" and in the complex lives of the musical colony in Italy, neither of which seem worth the trouble. "The Case of the Vermillion Face" is another novella that brings Holmes into the service of a dying Leo XIII when a papabilè (a likely candidate for the Papacy) Cardinal disappears. The investigation uncovers more than I really wanted to know about early 20th Century Vatican politics. "The Case of Isadora Persano" completely ignores the original citation in "The Problem of Thor Bridge" and tells an entirely different story in a dull fashion that involves Spiritualism and contradicts the Preface as well. "A Singular Event in Tranquebar" also tells a confused tale. Holmes deduces everything and explains it all in even more confusing fashion. "The Case of the Missing Lodger" introduces an old friend of Watson's who conveniently dies and presents a mystery to Holmes. The solution involves grave robbing and hidden treasure. "The Mountain of Fear" reintroduces the Singhs and adds a variety of frills and dressing. I lost track somewhere along the line and I suspect the author did so as well. This collection is a real disappointment. Borrow it from a library and buy it only if you like it. Perhaps you would like to buy my copy. Reviewed by: Philip K. Jones, July 2011Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.