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A Study in Revenge: Winking HyperHistorical Mimicry

As I began reading A Study in Revenge: A Novel by Kieran Shields, I was willing to overlook the literary mimicry of Arthur Conan Doyle. Archie Lean, a well-meaning workaday detective in the late 1800s who needs outside help to crack a case, is clearly a mix of Inspector Lestrade and John Watson. The dapper, detail-oriented whiz Perceval Grey is a dead ringer for Sherlock Holmes, needed by the police despite his amateur status for his ability to leap to astoundingly detailed conclusions from the merest scraps of evidence. There is a mystery to be solved in this book, and the elements of mystery should be familiar to any Sherlock Holmes fan. I thought that if these similarities were used as a point of departure for further development, the book might be interesting,

I was also willing to overlook Shields’ obsession with period historical detail regarding his hometown of Portland, Maine, where the novel is largely set. Shields acknowledges his tendency to describe his settings with unnecessary literal detail:

“I found it hard to get through even a couple of pages without getting sidetracked onto issues about whether a certain phrase was used in 1892, how did gas lighting work, what brands of cigarettes did people smoke, or how long did it take to travel somewhere by train.”

Passages in A Study in Revenge show this photo-specific approach to period:

“‘So much for Mitchell’s Restaurant. On to Fore Street it is,’ Grey said. They walked on, passing by the front of the post office, where three round-arched entryways led into a narrow portico. Above this, fronting the second and third stories, a series of Corinthian columns supported a low-pitched triangular pediment that completed the look of a Greek temple. The white marble glistened in the sun, giving the building a formal, aloof air and setting it off from the familiar, ruddy brick that dominated the other buildings nearby.”

These details, followed in the next paragraphs by descriptions of local businesses of the time and various buildings, further the plot in no way. They perhaps lend atmospherics, but when they occur page after page I begin to feel like I’ve been invited to a distant uncle’s basement to admire his model trains. Uncle Frank loves his trains, Aunt Lois is tired of hearing about them, and so I’ve been sacrificed for the afternoon.

If I could tolerate Sherlock Holmes mimicry and picture-postcard scenery, I drew the line at fanboy historical figure inclusions, the most striking of which involve the character of “Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.” A few snippets:

“‘But why?’ Lean wondered aloud. ‘What in the world would possess an otherwise sensible, scientific man to do something like this?’

‘It strikes me as an instance of that phenomenon where a mind once stretched by a new, alien idea can never again manage to recpature its original dimension,’ Justice Holmes said.”

“‘We are all tattoed in our cradles with the beliefs of our tribe, and for better or worse itis a basic human reaction to battle for the survival and primacy of one’s own band,’ Justice Holmes said. ‘Sadly, you cannot educate a man wholly out of the superstitious hopes and fears that have been ingrained in his imagination and so often prove to be indelible marks, no matter how utterly reason may strive to reject them.'”

“Justice Holmes stepped forward and clapped a hand onto Lean’s shoulder. ‘I can’t speak to that, Deputy, but don’t lose heart. While our acquaintance has been brief, I find comfort in your clear determination to see the villain brought to justice. If this should prove our farewell, then I would speak these few final words to you: Have faith and pursue the unknown end.'”

‘Thank you, your Honor.’

Enough. When characters give way to Hallmark card quotations (one misattributed), I close the book.

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