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by Larry Millett
University of Minnesota Press, February 2017
226 pages
ISBN: 1517900867

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In the universe of Larry Millett's seven Sherlock Holmes spinoff novels, the eminent Victorian detective knows how to find trouble–generally, in the wilds of Minnesota. Millett's latest, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE EISENDORF ENIGMA, is no exception. In this novel, it's 1930, and an elderly Holmes has left his Kentish beehives for the United States. He's trying to give up the "demon weed," tobacco, so as to save his life, at the expense of his iconic pipe-smoking silhouette. But his battle with addiction isn't his biggest problem. He's being chased by a ghost–or, rather, "geist"–whom he had failed to apprehend long ago, in 1890s Munich. A German double of Jack the Ripper, the "Monster of Munich" was known for murdering prostitutes, just like his London equivalent. He chose male prostitutes, and, once Holmes started to pursue him, also began to seek revenge. In Minnesota, where he's turned up, ahead of Holmes.

Specifically, Holmes pursues the Monster of Munich in the small town of Eisendorf. Founded in the nineteenth century as a planned community, intended as a utopia on earth, it has long since become nearly a ghost town, with a dwindling population more tightly intermarried than the Hapsburgs, and only two barely-functioning businesses. Eisendorf is a ghost, lingering after its death, because it has unresolved business.

Millett's construction of this nineteenth-century dystopian commune feels real, and communicates eerie echoes of similar nineteenth-century experiments, such as Coleridge and Southey's unrealized "Pantisocracy" and the earliest days of Salt Lake City. Like those communities, Eisendorf suffers from the clash of idealists and reality. When people get together to make a perfect community, they sometimes end up fighting over the little things. Also the big ones, as Holmes finds out.

While the story of Eisendorf's dissolution and its entanglement with the Munich murders is riveting, it's an unusual sort of Sherlock Holmes adventure. The tall, patrician British detective is there, and he eventually teams up with his very much estranged old friend Dr. John Watson, who writes up the adventure. But Holmes does not display any dazzling feats of instantaneous deduction, delivered brusquely to people who think he ought to defer to them. He doesn't struggle with his lack of interest in (most) women. In fact, he is rather entranced, in a paternal way, with Wilhelmina ("Willy") Eisen, the beautiful, developmentally disabled descendant of Eisendorf's benighted founding family. A child's mind in a woman's body, she might have been the perfect cliche of idealized Victorian womanhood, had Millett wanted to go there. Instead, she is a bit of a cliche–the disabled girl who represents the innocence that Eisendorf has otherwise lost.

On the other hand, people change over time. Characters should, too. This mellow, grandfatherly Holmes makes sense for 1930. It's unreasonable to expect the Holmes of 1930 to be a ghost of his Victorian self.

In short, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE EISENDORF ENIGMA is a good adventure, told with detailed attention to historical and cultural plausibilities.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, February 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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