Book Review: The Amateur Executioner

AmateurExecutionerby Timothy Lane   3/19/14
by Dan Andriacco and Kieran McNullen  •  This short historical mystery novel features guest appearances from a number of significant historical figures, both political (such as Winston Churchill) and cultural (such as William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Alfred Hitchcock), including Sherlock Holmes and company. I bought it Saturday at a Holmes/Doyle symposium in Dayton from one of the authors (who autographed it). It proved to be quite entertaining.

The main viewpoint character is an American journalist, Enoch Hale, working for the Central Press Syndicate in London, though there are some scenes from other viewpoints (and all in the third-person). It starts when he finds himself reporting on the apparent suicide of a music-hall escape artist billed (exaggeratedly) as the “British Houdini” (the original making his own appearances at a rival theater; he’s often mentioned in the story, but never appears on stage). Chief Inspector Henry Wiggins (whose career in detective work started in the Baker Street Irregulars) quickly realizes that it was no suicide at all, but murder – and for that matter, Ezra Pound probably caught a glimpse of the killer. Hale keeps involved in the case, particularly given his interest in one of the singers (who returns the interest, though she’s very reticent about her past).

In time, another hanging occurs, this one to a local Tarot reader with a considerable clientele (and a shady past, which the first victim also had). Some of her clients were one-time visitors skeptical of fortune-telling (particularly the tendency to tell people what they would like to hear), such as Churchill (for whom she predicted a future as Prime Minister), Shaw (for whom she predicted a Literature Nobel), and one Lord Sedgewood (whose prediction was less pleasant; he and Lord Carnarvon were financing rival Egyptological expeditions, and she predicted that the latter would find a major discovery a few years down the road). On the other hand, Yeats (always something of an Irish mystic) was more willing to believe (she also predicted a Nobel for him). Interestingly, a tobacconist who lived and had a shop downstairs from her flat disappeared right after her body was found, which is unfortunate since he’d make a fine witness.

Later a third hanging victim turns up, a printer who has some interesting supplies in his shop (as well as the usual shady past, or maybe still present, as a possible counterfeiter and forger). One thought that occurs to several people that the killer might be a vigilante, executing criminals who seem to be able to escape the law’s reach. One of those quietly interested in the case is Sherlock Holmes, who had discussed it briefly when Dr. Watson visited his cottage on the South Downs in Sussex. Another is a mysterious man known only as M who meets Hale at the Diogenes Club to warn him not to get too curious about the case, especially the printer.

Things actually take a more interesting turn when a fourth victim turns up, an actor who (unlike the previous victims) has no known shady connections. What, then, is the link? That’s what Sherlock Holmes is for, and he turns up at the right moment to provide exactly that – though not entirely to Hale’s satisfaction.

This tale of Holmes’s retirement has its share of references to the Canon. Wiggins’s superior is Commissioner Stanley Hopkins (who obviously fulfilled Holmes’s hopes in the end). When Hale and his girlfriend visit Holmes’s cottage (he turns out to be absent), some of the neighbors tell him about a case that clearly is the “Lion’s Mane”. One of Hale’s acquaintances at the CPS is Horace Harker, who tells him about his own Holmes story (“The Six Napoleons”). And of course there are Holmes and (if only very briefly) Watson, not to mention M. (Hale mentions having read the Holmes stories, but obviously hadn’t studied them well enough to realize that M was clearly Mycroft.)

But the authors have a little more fun that that; one of M’s subordinates is named Bond, and Holmes mentions that His Majesty is undoubtedly aware that some of his agents have a license to kill enemies of the state. (M also has someone to come up with all sorts of interesting devices.) Then, too, they also plunder a bit of history and Holmes pastiche at one point. In one of the John Gardner Moriarty novels (decent works, but not fully satisfying), there’s a scene in which Moriarty (disguised as Holmes) encounters Holmes (disguised as Moriarty). This was probably inspired by the actual World War I incident in which the German liner Cap Trafalgar disguised itself as the British liner Carmania after fitting out as an auxiliary cruiser – only to run into the Carmania disguised as the Cap Trafalgar and also equipped as an auxiliary cruiser. (The Carmania won the resultant battle.) Something similar happens here – and that’s as close as I can get (maybe too close) without a spoiler alert.

Like any good pastiche, this is a fine story definitely written with tongue firmly planted in cheek, and definitely well worth reading. • (1436 views)

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5 Responses to Book Review: The Amateur Executioner

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    That sounds quite interesting, Timothy. I see it’s available for the Kindle so I downloaded a free sample of it.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    I mentioned this review in an e-mail to one of the authors (Andriacco), since he was the one who sold me the book last Saturday. He said he would include the review on his Facebook page, so if he includes the source it might lead to more interest in this website. (We can always hope.) A sequel will be out soon, and a third is already written.

    I also picked up a couple of other Holmes books at the symposium, one of which I just read (Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Sabina Hall by L. B. Greenwood, a nice pastiche set right after A Study in Scarlet, though the author seems to confuse events there and in The Sign of Four) and another of which will be my next read (a collection of stories based on 1930s scripts by Anthony Boucher and Denis Green).

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      That’s the way to do it, Timothy. We mean to share the best and spread the word on it. I definitely plan to at least try reading that book.

  3. A great thank you for your kind words. -the other author.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      You’re most welcome. I dealt with Dan Andriacco because he was the one I met (and bought the book from) at the Holmes/Doyle event in Dayton last weekend.

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