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Bloody Sunday

The Centennial Sherlock Holmes

November 01, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Sherlock Holmes, that most famous and durable of all detectives, is kept alive not only by the passionate attentions of the Baker Street faithful; his life and casebook continue to be extended, 57 years after the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, by a whole platoon of neo-Holmeses. The very first Holmes, "A Study in Scarlet," appeared in 1887, and the centenary is being marked by still more new work.

Michael Hardwick's The Revenge of the Hound carries the imprimatur of the Conan Doyle estate. Hardwick earlier wrote "Sherlock Holmes: My Life and Crimes." The year in the new novel is 1902; Dr. Watson is engaged, Holmes is not and feels his day is over. But a mauled body is found on Hampstead Heath, and the inevitable guess is that the Baskerville beast has somehow reappeared. How better to re-energize Holmes? Then there are the matters of a love letter likely to embarrass the newly enthroned King Edward, the theft of Oliver Cromwell's bones, a mad peer and a subversive organization, confrontations in a country manor and a crypt in Highgate Cemetery.

Hardwick's detailing of Holmes' life as we have read of it is predictably perfect, and the Irregulars should take to the book as to comfortable old slippers. The plotting is in fact a good deal more diffuse than Doyle's, the pace hesitant, the denouement melodramatic but short of the ingenious surprises Doyle could bring off. But the affection of writer and reader for the icon is all that matters. One guesses Hardwick will be let off easy.

Affection is multiplied in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 16 new Holmes pieces by authors as various as Stuart M. Kaminsky, Dorothy B. Hughes, Peter Lovesey and Stephen King. The stories approach parody, but pastiche is the better word, because the emulations are never rude.

King contributes a clever locked-room puzzle involving a trick-of-the-eye painting, and his Holmes really cries, "Quick, Watson! The game's afoot!" John Gardner (busy extending the 007 casebook these days) writes a factual article about the real London underworld of Holmes' (or Prof. Moriarty's) day. Dorothy B. Hughes offers a swift, adventurous tale about stolen diamonds and even manages a ringing prophecy of educational equality for women.

A well-mixed and amusing assortment, a pleasant birthday gift for the master.

Back in the present day, AIDS is becoming as endemic in literature as in the society. In Early Graves, Joseph Hansen's homosexual insurance investigator Dave Brandstetter finds the body of a murdered AIDS victim on his doorstep, and there appears to be a serial killer at work who specializes in AIDS sufferers.

The solution Brandstetter discovers is more complicated but not less tragic. In this ninth Brandstetter mystery, Hansen as always writes about the gay world with a calm sensitivity and candor that neither exploits, advocates nor condemns. His capturing of the new grief and fear in that world transcends the crime genre.

Murder in the CIA is Margaret Truman's ninth Washington-set mystery. She is very good and it is very good. Here she invades the turf of John Le Carre and the others who write about the shadowy, double-dealing world of spies and dirty tricksters.

She draws on her close knowledge of government as seen from the White House and she does not mind bringing her father into the wings, if not onstage. Indeed she lets one of her characters vindicate Harry Truman's establishing of the CIA and describe the corruption from within of Truman's limited intentions for it.

"He got snookered," a character says. "Allen Dulles . . . thought Truman's views on intelligence were too limited. . . . He sent a memo to the Senate Armed Services Committee undercutting Truman's view of what the CIA was supposed to be." Congress awarded the agency new powers and a freedom from accountability. Now, says the character, "At best it's disorganized and ineffectual. At worst, it's evil."

The Company is strewn with evil in the novel, which begins when a bright young woman who runs a literary agency dies at Heathrow Airport. Truman's heroine, Colleen Cahill, herself a CIA person, is suspicious and, of course, rightly so. The victim was not all she seemed to be and neither is much of anybody else.

Truman's complex plot is crowded with events and with small, authenticating details (e.g., the pleasures of an offbeat "in" hotel in London, 11 Cadogan Gardens, and a sunset seen from the roof terrace of the Hotel Washington).

Lullaby and Good Night, ostensibly based on a real case (not otherwise identified) in New York in the '20s, is a potboiler that never gets to the boil. It is peopled with historical figures, like Madam Polly Adler, Texas Guinan and Mayor Jimmy Walker, but it is woodenly written, with unsayable dialogue. Its tale of a young actress-wife betrayed by her husband, sent to prison, deprived of their child and ultimately driven by circumstances to work for Adler (at top prices) is unpersuasive and unmoving.

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