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SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE KING’S GOVERNESS

by Barrie Roberts           

New York: Severn House, 2005. $28.95

 For those of us who love Sherlock Holmes, the sad part is that there are a limited number of stories and novels by his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  For "new" adventures we must turn to pastiches. Unfortunately, most pastiche writers are not up to the task. Barrie Roberts is. Roberts excels at imitating not only Doyle’s style, but also his plotting and characterizations, and he is back in excellent form with a new book entitled Sherlock Holmes and the King’s Governess.

It is 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  Holmes’ client is Mrs. Diana Fordeland.  Years earlier she had been governess to the King of Mongkuria and had since written several books about her time there.  (As Roberts points out in his copious and entertaining "footnotes" to the story, Mrs. Fordeland is actually Anna Leonowens of Anna and the King of Siam and The King and I.)  Mrs. Fordeland has come to London with her granddaughter for the Diamond Jubilee and to see King Chula of Mongkuria, her former pupil.  She has come to Holmes because she is being followed by two men, who are in turn being followed by a man and a woman.  Being an artist, she has made sketches of them for Holmes.  He recognizes one of her followers as Major Kyriloff of the Russian Embassy, an enforcer for the Tzar. Holmes tracks the man and woman (the second set of followers) to the estate of Agatha Wortley-Swan, a wealthy woman who says that the two of them, Professor Gregori Gregorieff and his sister, are helping her to learn Russian. As Holmes investigates, he learns that the case has its roots in the tragic pasts of Miss Wortley-Swan, Mrs. Fordeland, and Professor Gregorieff, and also has connections to the Tzar—whose business Mycroft has been instructed to keep him out of.

The story is well told, and has a very satisfying ending.  This book comes highly recommended, and I eagerly await Mr. Roberts’ next foray into the world of Sherlock Holmes.  Even if you do not like pastiches, you should try this one. I know you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
—Martin Friedenthal

 

THE EXCURSION TRAIN

by Edward Marston                                                        
London: Allison & Busby Limited, 2005. $25.95

 England.  1853.  A special excursion train is taking Londoners to see an illegal prizefight between the London favorite, The Bargeman, and Mad Issac from Bradford.  After the passengers leave the train, a railway guard discovers one passenger still on board—a man who has been strangled to death with a wire.  Scotland Yard is contacted and Inspector Robert Colbeck, nicknamed "The Railway Detective" by the press, is called in, along with Sgt. Victor Leeming.  In speaking to the man’s widow, Colbeck discovers that the man had been living under an assumed name, and was really Jacob Guttridge, a public hangman. Universally detested for his trade, he had been subjected to many threats and several earlier attempts on his life. Using the most recent threatening letter as a starting point, Colbeck deduces that Guttridge’s murder is tied in with his execution of Nathan Hawkshaw for the murder of Joe Dykes. Many believed Hawkshaw was innocent. Colbeck determines to find out not only who killed Guttridge, but also if Nathan Hawkshaw was indeed innocent of the crime for which he was executed. When a second murder takes place, and an attempt is made on Colbeck’s life, he knows he is on the right track.
The Excursion Train is an excellent sequel to Edward Marston’s first Inspector Colbeck book, The Railway Detective, and one which readers can enjoy without having read the first adventure, as the story stands on its own and doesn’t give away the ending of the first book.  There are many pleasures here, not least of which is an excellent mystery that will keep readers guessing until the end. Marston does a good job of recreating the England of the 1850s and portraying the prejudicial attitudes of that time towards hangmen, criminals, and the innocent families of those on the wrong side of the law.  There are also many interesting and well-drawn subsidiary characters, as well as a budding romance between Inspector Colbeck and Madeline Andrews—a railway engineer’s daughter whom he met in The Railway Detective.  Edward Marston is the author of several other historical mystery series, and this one is on the way to becoming one of his best.  Hopefully we will see much more of Inspector Robert Colbeck and Sgt. Victor Leeming in the future.
—Martin Friedenthal       

 

GROUCHO MARX, KING OF THE JUNGLE

by Ron Goulart 
New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2005. $22.95

 Good news everyone!  Groucho has returned! Groucho Marx and screenwriter Frank Denby are back in their fifth adventure as amateur detectives in 1940s Hollywood, and a fast-moving, funny, intriguing time is in store for all.

Groucho and Frank are on the set of Ty-Gor and the Lost City (for which Frank has written the script and Groucho is making a cameo appearance as African explorer J. Darwin Underbrush) when Randy Spellman, who plays Ty-gor (a Tarzan-type character), is found shot to death in front of his trailer.  The police find a threatening note in the trailer from stuntwoman Dorothy Woodrow, who then becomes the prime suspect. 

Though Frank has promised his pregnant wife Jane not to have anything to do with amateur detection until after she gives birth to their soon-to-be-born first child, it is actually Jane who asks him to investigate the case because a friend of theirs has been seeing Dorothy.  Frank and Groucho soon discover that Spellman, aside from being a not very nice man, was also a blackmailer. And the list of suspects starts to grow.

There are many joys in this book.  The mystery keeps readers interested, the background of 1940s Hollywood rings true, and you never know which famous person is going to show up next.  But the most enjoyable element of the novel is Groucho just being Groucho (the screen Groucho we all know and love).  Was Groucho Marx like this in "real" life?  Who knows?  Who cares?  His constant quips make for a great romp.  If you haven’t read the earlier books in the series, you can jump in with Groucho Marx, King of the Jungle without feeling lost.  If you’ve read the earlier books then you know what a good time is in store for you.  In either case, get a copy and enjoy.

—Martin Friedenthal  

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