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THE DEAD ASSASSIN
by Vaughn Entwistle
Minotaur Books, June 2015
338 pages
$26.99
ISBN: 1250035066


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In 1895 London, a particularly "nasty" and "baffling" murder calls for the city's most skillful detective duo: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and Irish wit Oscar Wilde. Like a Victorian Scully and Mulder, these literary giants bicker their way through British-born Vaughn Entwistle's novel THE DEAD ASSASSIN, the second in his series THE PARANORMAL CASEBOOKS OF SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE. Entwistle's cocktail of literary allusion, counterfactual historical fiction, and paranormal activity recalls Seth Grahame-Smith (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES; ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER). However, the novel's most intriguing mystery is its reason for existence.

In this version of 1895, things come back from the dead. In particular, antiquated monsters do. I mean not the titular assassin, nor his shadowy controllers, but rather more mundane creatures. When Wilde first appears, Doyle thinks he sees "a small bear" until he realizes it is a "large Irishman." For some reason, the English and Scottish characters are more impervious to misprision as nonhuman animals. The urban poor, too, are monstrous. Demanding reform, and lured like sheep to revolution by an aristocratic demagogue, they are described as a "mob"; their children as "urchins."

Structurally, the novel does not make sense. Supposedly one in a series of Dr. Conan Doyle's "casebooks," it does not noticeably observe any conventions of the medical case history genre and is written not from Doyle's first-person viewpoint, but in the omniscient third-person.

The two heroes' struggles with their unravelling family lives could have provided some fodder for psychological development, even suspense, but Entwistle does not go there. Conan Doyle feels some twitches of guilt for his betrayal of his ill wife Touie for the cardboard virgin Jean Leckie. The dissolution of Wilde's marriage and his estrangement from his two young children gets more ink, but his then-lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, never appears and is never directly mentioned, despite their having spent a great deal of time together in public and despite a possible allusion to Douglas's controlling father, who became Wilde's nemesis. In fact, Entwistle refuses to explore Wilde's sexuality at all on a level beyond innuendo. While Conan Doyle and Leckie's romance shapes the plot, with Conan Doyle compelled to rescue her from melodramatic villainy, Wilde's stock rescue fodder is not Douglas, nor any of the other young men with whom he became fatally entangled, but his eight-year-old son Vyvan. Yes, Conan Doyle rescues his love interest, while Wilde becomes a kind of Victorian Jean Valjean, whose kindness to children takes the dramaturgical place of desire for other adults.

While the characters disparage the productions of "Fleet Street hacks", they tussle with one-dimensional evil: terrorists with designs on children, the queen, the government, and the Empire. When Conan Doyle declares himself "no longer certain" that the continuation of "the British monarchy" is a good thing, this reviewer empathized. This reviewer felt the same way about THE DEAD ASSASSIN. Even a fan of Wilde, Doyle, crime fiction, and Victoriana will have trouble understanding why the continuation of this clunky series would be a good thing.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She specializes in nineteenth-century literature. https://uwgb.academia.edu/RebeccaNesvet

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, May 2015

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