Will Holmes and Watson foil a regicide plot that seems the work of German spies colluding with Scots Nationalists? Is the queen Victoria?
Carr returns to the period thriller genre (The Alienist, 1994, and The Angel of Darkness, 1997) with this sinuous caper, which begins when the Great Detective receives a coded message from his equally brilliant older brother Mycroft, a “solitary intelligencer” and government operative whose duties give him unprecedented access to the royal person. Before you can say, “Kindly serve the tea, Mrs. Hudson,” Holmes and Watson are aboard a train heading to Scotland (briefly distracted by bombs tossed into their compartment), where Mycroft discloses the facts about two mysterious deaths. An architect and a workman involved in restoration work at the Queen’s Edinburgh retreat Holyroodhouse have perished in frightful ways that suggest the possible presence of a vengeful spirit—that of eponymous royal servant “David Rizzio, private secretary, music instructor, and confidant to Mary, Queen of Scots”—who (Rizzio, that is) was murdered in 1566 by surly Protestants who declared him a papal agent. While never discounting the possibility of supernatural doings (to Watson’s intense annoyance), Holmes interrogates Holyroodie’s affable caretaker Lord Hamilton, a dangerous-looking butler, and his brood, along with the chaps at the Fife and Drum Tavern, then pieces together scattered clues to uncover a conspiracy rather different from the one Mycroft had suspected. It’s fun for about a hundred pages, because Carr apes Conan Doyle’s plummy storyteller’s voice quite ably, making Watson (who narrates) agreeably bluff and direct. But the successive disclosures become increasingly preposterous, as a very protracted climax incorporates flaming bodies, a (really rather tiresome) maiden in distress, “a medieval siege weapon” —and Holmes’s rather lame affirmation of all the things we cannot ever fully explain.
We needed this, from Sherlock Holmes? No thanks.