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Review: The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, John T. Edge

John T. Edge’s book The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South explores a culinary history of Southern food from the Civil Rights era to the present day. What is potlikker? According to Edge,

Like great provincial dishes around the world, potlikker is salvage food. During the antebellum era, slaveholders ate the greens from the pot, setting aside the potlikker for enslaved cooks and their families, unaware that the broth, not the greens, was nutrient rich. (6)

What Edge sets out to do in this book is explain how the cuisine we think of as Southern food emerged from black cooks. Edge also explains the ways in which Southern cuisine has changed over the years and discusses some of the major movers and shakers in the world of Southern cooking. In addition, he discusses issues related to access to food and poverty as well as movements in fast food and farm-to-table cooking and the gentrification of Southern food (and restaurants), ending with discussion of the influence of immigrants to the South on Southern cooking.

Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which “documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South” (read more here). He was recently featured, as was Michael Twitty, whose book The Cooking Gene comes out later this year, on the Gastropod podcast.

I found this book fascinating from start to finish, and I enjoyed it the whole way through. I gained a lot of insight into Southern food, and I also learned quite a lot of history that I didn’t know. One really interesting story that Edge shares early in the book concerns President Johnson’s commitment to civil rights. I had always assumed that he really had to be prodded quite a lot to sign the Civil Rights Act, and probably to an extent, he did, but he as he tried to garner support for civil rights, he often told the story of his cook, Zephyr Wright, being unable to use the restroom during a stop on a cross-country trip. He varied the story to suit his audience, but like many of the people who heard the story directly from Johnson’s lips, I found it to be quite moving. As Edge explains, “The Zephyr Wright story reduced a national issue to a personal one. It moved the argument from the senate chamber to the cloakroom and then to the kitchen” (27).When Johnson signed the Act, Zephyr Wright was there, alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. He handed her one of the pens he used, saying “You deserve this more than anybody else” (28).

I think it’s hard not to see things differently when you hear someone’s personal story. It’s one of the reasons politicians bring up everyday Americans during conventions or on the floor of Congress. We are moved by stories. To a certain extent, this book stitches together the stories of Southern cooks from Georgia Gilmore, who fed Civil Rights Movement leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. in her home/restaurant to Michael Twitty, who recently attempted to engage Paula Deen in conversation after her infamous declaration that she had used the n-word. Twitty invited Deen to learn “why so many people were so upset by her comments” (278). He wanted her to know that “the unwillingness to give African American barbecue masters and other cooks an equal chance at the platform, is far more galling than you saying ‘nigger,’ in childhood ignorance or emotional rage or social whimsy” (279). As far as I understand, Twitty never received a reply from Deen. It’s a shame because it might have gone a long way to repairing the damage she caused.

Edge’s main point, I think, is captured when he says “The adjective Southern and the noun Southerner have, since the nineteenth century, referenced the white South and the Confederate South. Those limited categories failed the people of the region. The South was never monochromatic” (2). As Natasha Trethewey, poet laureate of the United States, says “Who can lay claim to the South?… I don’t want to take it away from anyone. I just want them to recognize that it’s mine, too” (309). That South included black barbecue pit masters and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Stephen Gaskin’s commune the Farm and chefs Paul Prudhomme and Nathalie Dupree. It included grits, boiled peanuts, fried chicken, okra, hoppin’ john, biscuits, cornbread, and yes, pot likker. I think anyone interested in food history would enjoy this book, but I think it will speak especially to anyone who has called the South, with all its messy contradictions, home. As Edge says, “In this modern South, the likkers at the bottoms of those vessels sustain many peoples. And they remind Americans of the vitality that drives regional foodways” (308).

Rating: ★★★★★

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Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Greek Interpreter

Illustration for “The Greek Interpreter” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

“The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter” is perhaps most famous for its introduction of Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, whose powers of deduction Sherlock claims exceed his own. Mycroft has an interesting puzzle for Sherlock: a man named Mr. Melas, a Greek interpreter, has relayed his story of abduction and meeting with a Greek man and woman who are clearly being held captive by criminals. Determined to help them, he seeks the help of both Mycroft Holmes and the police. Knowing Sherlock will be able to do the legwork (Mycroft is what we might charitably call “lazy”), Mycroft has Melas tell his brother the story.

This story is pretty good, mainly for its characterization of Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. Sherlock and Watson do not successfully bag the criminals and save the day, though by the end of the story, the reader does discover justice has been served, after a fashion. The BBC series Sherlock doesn’t have an episode strictly based on this story, but in “The Empty Hearse,” we see Mycroft and Sherlock engage in a battle of deductive wits similar to the one we see in this story. Also, one of John Watson’s blog entries is entitled “The Geek Interpreter.” In the episode “The Abominable Bride,” which is set in Victorian London, we see Mycroft in his element in the Diogenes Club, and Mr. Melas is mentioned.

Rating: ★★★★☆

I read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is eighteenth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is The Sign of Four.

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Review: The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee, Stewart Lee Allen

The description of Stewart Lee Allen’s book The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee would have prospective readers believe that Allen was on a quest to answer two big questions: “Did the advent of coffee give birth to an enlightened western civilization?” and “Is coffee, indeed, the substance that drives history?” I’m not really sure either question was answered, but I did learn a few things about coffee, and I was entertained.

Allen begins his journey in Harar, Ethiopia, said to be the birthplace of coffee.As he claims partway through the book, “Coffee and humanity both sprang from the same area in eastern Africa.” Next Allen treks through Yemen, Turkey, Austria, France, and from there to Brazil and finally across America on Route 66, following the course of coffee-loving mystics and adventurers and the coffee plant itself. It’s a little bit like what might happen if you put Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in a blender. It wasn’t what I was expecting, which was more a straight history of coffee, and though there was some history, it was equally Allen’s memoir of his trek around the world in search of coffee’s history.

However, I did learn a few things, such as why coffee dominates in America and tea in Britain (it really has a lot to do with the American Revolution and the Opium Wars), how coffee houses have fomented revolution, and about coffee’s origins among Sufi mystics. For a self-professed coffee fanatic, Allen holds some surprising views. For instance, he doesn’t rag on Starbucks like most coffee snobs I know. Instead he says:

Sure, they’re a megacorporation destroying hundreds of mom-and-pop cafés. But that’s just something large corporations do. The important thing is that they serve fine coffee. Their baristas are generally first-rate.

 

I actually really like Starbucks, but a lot of people don’t describe their coffee as “fine.” I realize that’s partly because it’s really uncool to like anything that’s popular. Hipsters seem bent on making everyone unhappy about liking anything. I am admittedly not a real coffee aficionado, so perhaps that explains why Starbucks and Dunkin and the like taste good to me. I am also not a hipster—not even close.

This was entertaining, quick read, and most of all, it was fun to read with a nice cup of coffee in the morning, but if you’re looking for the straight history that the book’s title suggests, look elsewhere.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I’m counting this book as the “object you might hunt for” for the Wild Goose Chase Challenge because, not only because Allen spends a lot of the book hunting for various types of coffee and stories about coffee’s history and travels, but also because I have sure spent time on a quest for a good cup of coffee on occasion, myself.

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Review: The Scribe of Siena, Melodie Winawer

Neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato books a flight to visit her historian older brother Ben, who raised her after the death of their mother, in Melodie Winawer’s debut novel The Scribe of Siena. Ben dies suddenly of a heart ailment before her flight, but she decides to go anyway, this time to settle Ben’s estate. He had seemed so happy in Siena; he had finally found his home. Ben’s studies involved medieval Siena during the Plague (1347-1348). He had apparently uncovered some interesting information and was preparing to publish it before his death. Beatrice feels compelled to take on his work and protect it from rival scholars. As she takes up Ben’s research, she finds herself entranced by the story of fresco artist Gabriele Accorsi. She has Accorsi’s journal from the 1340’s, and as she studies one of his frescoes, she is stunned to find her own likeness in the corner. Before she knows what is happening, she is swept into the past, to Siena in the summer of 1347… right before the Plague is about to devastate Siena. Beatrice must figure out how to avoid catching the deadly disease and return home safely, but she finds herself even more entranced by the real Gabriele Accorsi than she was by his journal, and she establishes ties in medieval Siena as she becomes a scribe in the Ospedale, today a museum called the Santa Maria della Scala.

A few of the details and mechanics involved with time travel might bother some readers (admittedly me among them), but this was a pretty good read. For one thing, Winawer is a doctor herself, and the descriptions of Beatrice’s surgeries and medical knowledge rang true. Often when I read time-travel novels, the past is romanticized to such a degree that the parts when the protagonist is in the present are irksome (Diana Gabaldon is pretty guilty of this), but I found Beatrice’s present as interesting as the past she travels to. In fact, maybe a little bit more (but not by much). Winawer argues in her book that one reason Siena has maintained its distinctive “medieval” character is that its evolution was stunted by serious losses to the Plague. Siena may have lost up to half its population, more than other comparable cities in Tuscany. Winawer comes up with an appropriately sinister explanation for why, too. If the mechanism for time travel is a little fuzzy, at least the historical details are mostly accurate (admittedly, I found one big historical error that really bothered me), and the story moves along at a nice clip. Ben’s discovery, which Beatrice must uncover, makes for a page-turning mystery. The characters are well-drawn, though one in particular is quite a lot more credulous than seems logical, and in general they feel like real people (with the possible exception of a few caricatures, and you’ll know them when you see them). A Library Journal review touted on the book’s cover proclaims that “Readers of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring will be swept away by the spell of medieval Siena.” I can’t disagree with that assessment. In many ways, the setting of this book was as much a presence as the people that inhabit it, and I just love it when books have settings with strong character.

I received this book as part of my Cozy Reader box subscription. I’m not sure it would have been on my radar this soon (and perhaps not at all), if not for that subscription.

Rating: ★★★★☆

 

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Review: Heartless, Marissa Meyer

Marissa Meyer’s novel Heartless tells the story of how the Queen of Hearts from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland became the heartless monarch Alice encounters after falling down the rabbit hole. Meyer’s Queen of Hearts is Catherine Pinkerton, daughter of the Marquess and Marchioness of Rock Turtle Cove in the Kingdom of Hearts. More than anything, Cath wants to be a baker, and she dreams of opening a bakery with her maid, Mary Ann. Cath’s parents, however, have other plans. When the King of Hearts sets his heart on marrying Cath, she can’t figure out how to make her dream come true without disappointing her parents. Meanwhile, a court joker named Jest shows up at the palace and is employed by the King. Cath finds herself strangely drawn to Jest. The kingdom has bigger problems as a Jabberwock, a beast not seen in Hearts for centuries, returns and wreaks havoc on the kingdom. Cath’s dreams slip further and further from her grasp as she is drawn towards her inevitable fate to be the notorious villain we first meet in Alice in Wonderland.

I have to admit this book surprised me by the end. Partway through it, I was having trouble keeping going with it because I really wasn’t all that interested in Cath’s burgeoning interest in Jest. He’s your classic YA-novel charmer, and if I’m being honest, I’m bored with that guy. I assume the book’s audience (teenage girls) would find that part of the story more interesting than I did. However, after Cath bakes a pumpkin cake to enter into a baking contest with some devastating results for a new turtle friend of hers, the story grows more interesting. Cath is drawn to travel to the neighboring (and mythical) land of Chess to help Jest and Hatta (the Mad Hatter) in their quest, and she meets her fate precisely because of her heart—her inability to be heartless and put her mission before her loved ones. At that point in the story, I found it more difficult to put down and finished the book in one gulp. I admit this book was sitting on three stars for me until the last half, so my advice is if the premise intrigues you, but you are not digging it yet after 50 pages or so, maybe give this one longer.

I think I would have enjoyed the story even more had I re-read Alice in Wonderland first. Meyer brought in all the important characters and elements from that book and also explained the origins of few of those beloved characters as well. I know some of the references went over my head because it’s been too long since I’ve read Alice in Wonderland.

Meyer says this book began when she wished aloud to her agents for Gregory Maguire to “write the origin story for the Queen of Hearts.” Her foreign rights agent Cheryl Pientka replied, “Marissa, why don’t you write it” (453). I think some of the best books are born when writers wish the story existed, and because it didn’t, they decided to create it.

I haven’t read any of Meyer’s other YA books, though I understand they are popular, and she has sold film rights to the first of her Lunar Chronicles, Cinder. YA books certainly have become hot Hollywood properties lately. I am not sure if I’ll read Meyer’s other books. I might not have read this one had it not arrived in my Owl Crate box with a special edition just jacket just for Owl Crate subscribers back in November of last year. My copy is going right into my classroom library, where I know some of my students who like fantasy may enjoy it.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Because this book’s been on my backlist since it arrived in November, I’m counting it for the Beat the Backlist Challenge.

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Review: Bread Toast Crumbs: Recipes for No-Knead Loaves and Meals to Savor Every Slice, Alexandra Stafford with Lisa Lowery

Bread Toast Crumbs

Image via Alexandra Cooks blog

I have not reviewed cookbooks on this blog before, though I have been collecting cookbooks for a few years, and I have some really good ones that I should share with you all.

Cooking is not really something I have a ton of time to do, but I actually do like cooking. I am a very slow cook, and I make a great big mess when I cook, but I enjoy the process.

Bread, however, is something I have always shied away from, especially after some failed attempts. I tried to make a pie crust for my pumpkin pie and failed. I made a white bread recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, and it was okay, but certainly nothing to write home about. The only bread successes (discounting breads like zucchini bread and pumpkin bread, which didn’t use yeast and did not need to be kneaded) were my Thanksgiving dinner rolls. I credit the really excellent instructions for that success.

Everyone knows bread is picky. You have to knead it just right or else it will not turn out well. You have to have to fuss with the yeast, and everyone knows how finicky yeast is about how it’s handled. So, like many people, I was always a bit afraid to experiment with bread. A few weeks ago, that changed when I found Alexandra Stafford’s mother’s famous peasant bread recipe at her blog Alexandra Cooks. I read over the recipe. I watched one of the videos. It didn’t look hard. So I tried it with all wheat flour, not knowing (because I am not a bread baker) that I was going to get a denser loaf of bread. But you know what? It was still amazing. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. I hit on Alexandra’s advice to keep the flour weight at 512 grams, and the next time I made bread, I used about two cups of wheat flour and made the rest of the weight up with unbleached white flour. It was perfect. Measuring by weight was the trick. The consistency was just like Alexandra’s pictures, and the bread was not too dense. That’s how easy the recipe is. No kneading. The time you spend actually fussing with the bread is maybe five minutes. The rest of the time is just letting it rise. It’s a very forgiving recipe in that even if you mess up on a step, it still seems to turn out just fine.

My family loved the bread, too. The recipe makes two loaves, and twice, I’ve come into the kitchen to find my son has taken half a loaf before I could even cut it. I knew I wanted to try the variations on the recipe in Alexandra’s book Bread Toast Crumbs: Recipes for No-Knead Loaves and Meals to Savor Every Slice. I have read through the book, though I haven’t made many of the recipes yet. The recipes are straightforward and easy to follow. Alexandra offers some tricks and advice for those of us who don’t often bake (for example, toast nuts before using them in breads—this is a trick I had picked up from a friend of mine at work, but it was nice to see it validated in the book). The book has many variations on the peasant bread recipe in the Bread section. In the Toast section, Alexandra shares recipes for spreads, jams, soups, sandwiches, entrées, and desserts that use the various bread recipes. In the Crumbs section, she shares salads, soups, side dishes, pasta, entrées, and desserts that use crumbs made from the various breads. Each section has its own introduction with more tips.

The photography in the book (like most cookbooks) is beautiful and serves as a nice guideline for bakers. I can’t wait to try more of the recipes. I’m especially eyeing the Roasted Garlic Bread. Today, I tried out the Oatmeal-Maple bread on p. 41. Here are some pictures of one of the loaves I made today. It’s already been eaten, by the way.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Sherlock Holmes: A Case of Identity, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A Case of Identity

Illustration for “A Case of Identity” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

In “A Case of Identity,” Sherlock Holmes receives a visit from client Mary Sutherland, who is looking for her missing fiancé, Hosmer Angel. Sherlock Holmes has some fairly immediate (and as it turns out, accurate) suspicions about the missing Hosmer once he discovers that Mary’s mother and her mother’s much younger husband enjoy an income bequeathed to Miss Sutherland that they will no longer receive upon her marriage.

Years ago when I first read all the stories, I remembered there were a few that were pretty easy for the reader to solve right away. Also, it’s true the more you read the stories, the more you notice the clues and the more easily you solve the mysteries alongside Sherlock Holmes. In this case, it’s fairly obvious from the start who Hosmer Angel is, and there isn’t a whole lot to the story, but it is fun to see Sherlock Holmes admit there isn’t anything that can legally be done to the stepfather but that he can knock him over the head with a fireplace poker.

The BBC series Sherlock adapted a quick version of the story for its episode “The Empty Hearse.” Sherlock has asked Molly Hooper to fill in as his “John Watson” while Watson is stewing with anger over discovering Sherlock faked his death. A woman and her stepfather are consulting with Sherlock about the woman’s missing online pen pal (or boyfriend, if you like). Sherlock deduces that the online boyfriend was really the woman’s stepfather posing as the woman’s love interest in order to string her along so he could benefit from her wages. Sherlock whispers to Molly that the stepfather is a “complete and utter” and then the scene cuts to Watson saying “piss pot” as he offers one to a patient. This is similar to Sherlock Holmes’s reaction upon confronting the stepfather in the print story. The main focus of the episode, however, has nothing really to do with this story. It’s more of a quick allusion or call-out for Sherlock Holmes fans to catch. I will say this: it’s clear to me that Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, the show’s creators, are true Sherlock Holmes fans who have worked very hard to bring the detective stories into the modern day.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is seventeenth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Greek Interpreter.”

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Review: 13 Rue Thérèse, Elena Mauli Shapiro

I found a copy of Elena Mauli Shapiro’s novel 13 Rue Thérèse at a used bookstore in Northampton, MA, where we spent my birthday weekend last year. As such, I suppose this book was a birthday present for myself. I loved the cover, and in flipping through the book, I was intrigued by the premise.

An American historian named Trevor Stratton is given a box of artifacts belonging to a woman named Louise Brunet, who lived at 13 Rue Thérèse in Paris with her husband Henri after World War I. He discovers through piecing together her story that she lost a cousin with whom she was in love and whom she wanted to marry in World War I. She married a man who worked in her father’s shop, and she was desperate for a child. She embarks on a flirtation with a new neighbor, a teacher, who surprises Louise by taking her up on her suggestions. Meanwhile, Trevor can’t explain why he knows things about Louise’s life that don’t appear in the artifacts. How can he know, for example, so intimately how Louise feels and what she does as she goes about her life in Paris in November 1928?

This book is based on an interesting idea. Shapiro apparently has a box of relics belonging to a real-life Louise Brunet who died alone. The landlord of 13 Rue Thérèse allowed the residents to claim her belongings, and Shapiro’s mother selected this box. From the artifacts in the box, Shapiro constructed this story. I’m not sure how I feel about her taking that kind of license with a real person’s life, especially when so much of the story is speculation and doesn’t necessarily cast Louise in a positive light. She is a likable character, but I wonder what her descendants, had she had any, would have thought about her fictional treatment. There is a time-travel element that is not quite gracefully handled as well. One wonders about the necessity of including Trevor Stratton at all. His story seems somewhat superfluous, perhaps because it isn’t woven into Louise’s story as seamlessly as it might be. I love a good time travel story, but I wonder if this book might not have been better as strictly historical fiction. In addition, I would have liked to have seen the plot hang together a bit more tightly.

Despite some flaws, I didn’t give up on it, and it was a very quick read, if not a gripping one. I think in the case of this particular book, I am probably just not the right audience because many reviewers seem to have liked it more than I did. The QR codes in the back of the book are a nice touch; they allow the reader to see higher resolution photos of the artifacts. I found the color images in the book sufficient. The book is a beautiful book, as well, with a gorgeous cover and thick creamy pages and a pleasant font. It isn’t quite like any other book I’ve read before. You might enjoy it if you like quirky French films.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I’m counting this book for several reading challenges. It’s Paris setting makes it my French book for the European Reading Challenge. I’ve had it on my backlist at least since September when I bought it, so I’m also counting it for the Beat the Backlist Reading Challenge. Finally, it is set mainly in 1928, so I’m also counting it for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

European Reading Challenge 2017 Beat the Backlist

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Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Bohemia, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A Scandal in Bohemia

Illustration for “A Scandal in Bohemia” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I’ve been looking forward to the moment when the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge would reach “A Scandal in Bohemia.” It’s one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories for a variety of reasons, and Irene Adler is at the top of the list.

Sherlock Holmes is visited by the King of Bohemia, who is about to marry and fears a scandal and the end of his hopes of marriage if a photograph featuring himself with his former mistress actress Irene Adler were made public. Holmes agrees to take on the case. He gains entry into Adler’s house at Briony Lodge under disguise as a clergyman. Using the ruse of a false fire alarm, he discovers where Adler has hidden the infamous photograph. Because he can’t take the photo at the moment, he resolves to return the next day. However, Adler outwits Holmes and escapes with the photograph. In her letter to Holmes informing him of her departure, she sends a photograph of herself for the king. Sherlock Holmes takes the photograph as a reward for his services.

This story has some great lines, starting with the opening line:

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.

After one of Holmes’s deductions, Watson quips:

You would certainly have been burned, had you lived a few centuries ago.

Holmes also explains his powers of deduction to Watson:

You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.

He also refers to Watson as his “Boswell,” and there is an indication in the story that the two had not been seeing each other much as of late. Again, the chronology of this one confuses me (its placement at this point in the chronological list of stories, that is). I should probably give up the idea that the chronology is going to work.

This story was made into one of the best episodes of the BBC Sherlock series: “A Scandal in Belgravia.” In the series’ version of the story, Irene Adler is a dominatrix who has incriminating photos of herself with a member of the royal family. Holmes’s brother Mycroft enlists Sherlock to help with the case. The story follows the basic plot of “A Scandal in Bohemia” while modernizing it for a 21st century audience. The connection between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler is deepened. A connection with Moriarty is also established in this episode. Lara Pulver is brilliant as Irene Adler. Watson jokes with Holmes, who protests when Watson writes about one of his failures, that people like to see that he’s human. A little hint about what is to come in the episode. I also noted the spray-painted “yellow face” on the wall. Sherlock wears the distinctive “deerstalker” cap to hide from paparazzi (it doesn’t work, and the cap becomes a running joke for the rest of the series so far). Watson’s blog posts make reference to several other stories as well, including “The Geek Interpreter” (“The Greek Interpreter”), “The Navel Treatment” (“The Naval Treaty”), “The Speckled Blonde” (“The Speckled Band”), “The Illustrious Client,” and “The Priory School.”

All in all, an excellent short story and adaptation, and one of my favorites so far.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is sixteenth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “A Case of Identity.”

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Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Valley of Fear

Illustration for The Valley of Fear by Frank Wiles for The Strand

The Valley of Fear is the second Sherlock Holmes novel I’ve read for the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. Holmes and Watson receive a strange message in cipher and divine that it reads “some devilry is intended against one Douglas,” the wealthy owner of Birlstone Manor in Kent. Sure enough, Inspector Macdonald turns up and tells the dynamic duo that Douglas has been murdered. Holmes is sure his nemesis Professor Moriarty is involved. Holmes and Watson travel to Kent to investigate, and Holmes quickly deduces that, as usual, the local constabulary has overlooked some important details and that there is a great deal more going on in the case than the murder of the gentleman of Kent. And also as usual, he’s right. Douglas’s murder is at the center of the Pinkertons’ infiltration of the Scowrers, a murderous gang affiliated with the Eminent Order of Freemen, a union/fraternal order that is somewhat harmless is some areas of the country, but which has a stranglehold on the Vermissa Valley in California. In the denouement, Holmes is more convinced than ever that Moriarty is at the heart of even this far-flung criminal organization.

I find myself perplexed again by this novel’s placement in the chronology adopted. I know I have mentioned this issue several times, but it feels so clearly late that it doesn’t seem right here; however, I should mention that in this novel’s case, there’s nothing to put my finger on really except writing style, and that’s explained by Conan Doyle’s having written it later. I enjoyed it more than I thought, especially after I caught wind that Conan Doyle was once again going to try to set part of the novel in America. My previous experience is that he doesn’t really understand Americans all that well. This novel, however, didn’t betray the usual issues (inaccurate dialect, being chief among them). It’s also based on the true case of Pinkerton agent James McParland’s infiltration of the Molly Maguires. Perhaps it’s the additional research Conan Doyle did that lends more of air of authenticity to the story. Once again, however, I found the parts of the story set in England to be far more interesting. Conan Doyle is clearly interested in America, but he writes more engagingly about his own home soil.

The only mention of this novel I found in the Sherlock series is in “The Final Problem” episode, in which Moriarty’s brother is described as being a station master, though in this case a broadcast station and not a railway station. I wouldn’t put this book as up there among the essential or the best, but it wasn’t bad. I found a few passages earlier in the book that I enjoyed, and this one the most, as it captures the characters in a way so many adaptations don’t seem to capture:

I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals; but I’ll admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. “Really, Holmes,” said I severely, “you are a little trying at times.”

Tell me you couldn’t hear Martin Freeman saying that to Benedict Cumberbatch.

Rating: ★★★½☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is fifteenth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition) and second novel. Next up is “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

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