The Jury Box

by Steve Steinbock

Happy Birthday Sherlock Holmes! By all accounts, the Great Detective was born on January 6, 1854, making him 166 years old this year. To celebrate, we bring you a Baker Street Dozen books for your consideration. We begin with four Sherlockian novels and fill out the column with other new titles, including several books set in Victorian and Edwardian England.

***** Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse, Mycroft and Sherlock: The Empty Birdcage, Titan Books, $25.99. After getting expelled from Cambridge, nineteen-year-old Sherlock Holmes assists his brother Mycroft catch a killer who is terrorizing all of Britain, targeting victims with apparent randomness and killing them by some invisible means. The only thing linking the murders is a strange calling card left near each body. With Mycroft focused on the kidnapping of the fiancé of the woman he loves, Sherlock is asked to step in and use his profound reasoning skills to identify and help capture the killer. This third novel by Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse is brilliantly written and intricately plotted, while filling in details of the Holmes brothers’ back story.

**** Bonnie MacBird, The Devil’s Due, HarperCollins, $26.99. In MacBird’s third novel featuring Holmes and Watson, the Great Detective clashes with a critical journalist, a new police commissioner, and the heavy hand of his own brother. A man is found in bed in his nightclothes, drowned, but completely dry. In his hand is a tarot card revealing the Devil. Then, while listening to a fire-and-brimstone preacher in Hyde Park, Dr. Watson discovers that the same type of card has appeared in his pocket. What follows is a bizarre series of “Alphabet Murders” in which the cause of death mimics the career of each victim.

**** Nicholas Meyer, The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols, Minotaur, $25.99. The author of The Seven-Percent Solution brings us a new story which pits the Great Detective against one of the most pernicious hoaxes in history. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was a booklet, first serialized in Russia in 1903, purporting to be the transcript of Jewish leaders plotting global domination. In Meyer’s depiction of the story behind this hoax, the body of one of Mycroft’s agents is found floating in the Thames with a bloodstained copy of the “Protocols” in her hand. Mycroft enlists his brother to learn the story behind the Protocols, how this copy ended up in London, and whether it is connected with the death of Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl. The story is a fascinating look at the origins of the famous fraud and features several notable historical figures, including Israel Zangwill, Chaim Weizmann, and NAACP cofounder Anna Strunsky Walling.

**** Leonard Goldberg, The Disappearance of Alistair Ainsworth, Minotaur, $26.99. In Conan Doyle’s short story “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” Sherlock Holmes demonstrated his deciphering skills. In Goldberg’s new novel, Holmes’s daughter, Joanna Blalock, demonstrates similar code-breaking talents. It’s 1915, the second year of the Great War. A British naval strategist has gone missing. It’s believed that he is being held captive by German agents trying to pry military secrets out of him. Dr. John Watson, Jr., narrates an adventure in which he and his father assist Joanna Blalock in finding the missing man and guiding police to his rescue.

***** Will Thomas, Lethal Pursuit, Minotaur, $27.99. Will Thomas’s Barker and Llewelyn series is set in Victorian London and features a great detective and his narrator sidekick. Private “enquiry agent” Cyrus Barker gets the job done, but in the process, he isn’t shy about using his talent to manipulate and provoke those around him. The Prime Minister has hired Barker and Llewelyn to deliver a valise to Vatican officials in Calais. In the valise is a valuable first-century manuscript: the Q Gospel that may have served as the source for Jesus’ sayings in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. But several secret societies, religious extremists, and foreign spies would like to get their hands on the document for their own nefarious reasons. The storytelling is filled with action and wit, and Thomas handles complex religious topics with objectivity and intelligence.

***** Bella Ellis, The Vanished Bride, Berkley, $26.00. During their brief lives, the three Brontë sisters—Charlotte, Anne, and Emily—left behind a literary legacy including classics like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In The Vanished Bride, author Rowan Coleman (writing as Bella Ellis) casts the Brontë sisters as amateur sleuths. Learning of a horrific murder at a nearby estate, the sisters visit their former schoolmate who works there as governess. When the governess discovered the blood-spattered bedroom of her mistress, the young mother’s body was nowhere to be found. With the help of their brother, the Brontës inspect the mansion, investigating a local gypsy encampment as well as reports of the husband’s violent outbursts. Elements from various Brontë novels (and a hint of Du Maurier) work their way into the plot of this well-told story.

***** Anne Perry, Death in Focus, Ballantine, $28.00. With over a hundred books already to her name, Perry has launched a new series set between the wars featuring intrepid photojournalist Elena Standish. While on a working holiday in Amalfi, Elena meets a young man whom she accompanies on a train to Paris. But in a tragic turn of events, she finds herself tasked with delivering a message to the British embassy in Berlin. While in Germany, she witnesses the beginning of Nazi brutality and becomes embroiled in an assassination of one of Hitler’s underlings. The story is moving and exciting. With its action, suspense, and train scenes, Perry’s new novel was like discovering a lost Hitchcock masterpiece.

**** Peter Lovesey, Killing with Confetti, Soho Crime, $27.95. What happens when the son of the deputy chief constable becomes engaged to the daughter of a legendary crime boss? The wedding is planned to be held at Bath Abbey and a reception at the historic Roman Baths. The bride’s father has many enemies, so in order to forestall violence by rival gangs, Detective Peter Diamond is enlisted to provide security. Diamond is not pleased. The pacing of this novel is unusual, with the first fifty pages describing a prison hostage crisis. Diamond doesn’t make an appearance until a quarter of the way into the book. But as fans might expect, there is a reason for everything, and Lovesey has several surprises up his sleeve, including an impossible murder at the Roman Baths.

**** Colin Cotterill, The Second Biggest Nothing, Soho Crime, $27.95. It’s 1980, and foreign journalists and dignitaries have gathered in Vientiane to celebrate the Lao People’s Democratic Republic’s five years of independence. Amidst the celebration, retired national coroner Dr. Siri Paibun discovers a death threat tied to the tail of his dog Ugly. The note, written in English, promises to kill Dr. Siri and all those he loves in retaliation for something Siri did in the past. But what did he do, and who wants to punish him? In three flashbacks, Dr. Siri recalls his past and tries to determine who wants him dead.

Rounding up this installment of The Jury Box, here are four more titles worthy of your attention. In The Darwin Affair (Algonquin Books, $27.95), first-time novelist Tim Mason explores why Charles Darwin was never knighted despite being nominated for that honor. Mason’s hero is Chief Inspector Charles Field, a character inspired by Mr. Bucket from Dickens’s Bleak House. In Victoria Thompson’s City of Scoundrels (Berkley, $26.00), set amidst the Great War and the Great Influenza Epidemic, American scam artist Elizabeth Miles tries to help a young bride whose husband was reported killed in battle, but whose last will and testament has mysteriously disappeared. Set in 1851, Laetitia Rodd and the Case of the Wandering Scholar by Kate Saunders (Bloomsbury, $17.00) is the second mystery featuring a charmingly unlikely detective, Mrs. Laetitia Rodd, who searches Oxford for an eccentric scholar who went missing fifteen years earlier. In Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May: The Lonely Hour (Bantam, $28.00), the body of a man is found hanging beneath a willow on Hampstead Heath surrounded by a pentacle, a goat’s head, and other accoutrements of devil worship, making it a job for Bryant, May, and the Peculiar Crimes Unit.   

Copyright © 2019 Steve Steinbock

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