The Dead Assassin by Vaughn Entwhistle is the 2nd book in the Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle where the author sets out to solve an ill-fated assassination (available June 9, 2015).
I am a great fan of Barbara Hambly’s James Asher novels, urban fantasies of Victorian vampires that place the protagonist—a former spy—right in the center of mysteries that often have political implications. The Dead Assassin reminded me of Barbara Hambly’s books in the very best way.
This is the second of Vaughn Entwistle’s Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novels but the first I’ve read. I needn’t have worried that I’d be hopelessly lost, however, or scrambling to get up to speed with the series. In just a few elegant paragraphs, Entwistle catches everyone up and sets the stage—not only for his mystery but also for the milieu in which that story takes place:
A murder. Something nasty. Something twisted. Something baffling and bizarre. Why else would the police have sought me out?
Such thoughts rattled through the mind of Arthur Conan Doyle as he watched Detective Blenkinsop of Scotland Yard step into the Palm Room of the Tivoli restaurant and sweep his blue- eyed gaze across the crowded tables, searching for something.
Searching for him.
Go away blast you! Not now. Not tonight!
Thanks to the fame Sherlock Holmes had bestowed upon him, Scotland Yard often consulted Conan Doyle on crimes that confounded all conventional means of detection. They dragged to his door the most difficult cases. The inexplicable ones. The conundrums.
The impossibly knotted yarn balls the clumsy fingers of the police could not unravel. Ordinarily, he was flattered to be consulted on such cases. But on this occasion, he wished he could throw a cloak of invisibility about his shoulders.
The reason Doyle’s unhappy that Blenkinsop is intruding on his meal is that his companion is the lovely Miss Jean Leckie, a beauty of only 24 whom he met when they were seated next to each other at a meeting of the Society for Psychical Research. And with that information, we know that this story is not going to be a pastiche of a Holmes book but something else altogether. Unlike Holmes, who never met a conundrum he couldn’t explain in realistic terms, Doyle finds himself confronted here with a situation that defies all reason just as he’s dining with a young woman who has admitted to being a medium.
And just like that we are introduced to the mania for Spiritualism and the occult that was sweeping England at the time, as well as the little details of the lives of a certain class of people. (Doyle and Miss Leckie are dining on crab-stuffed courgettes, braised parsnips and fowl a la béchamel.)
This is a mystery that can be further broken down into subgenres—historical, Holmsian—but I’d designate it a “Gaslamp Fantasy” if I had to file it in a library. Gaslamp has its roots in Gothic literature and hearkens back to a dark tradition that gave birth to both Edgar Allan Poe and Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden.
Poe would recognize the situation here. As Blenkinsop approaches Doyle and Leckie’s table, he appears like something out of “The Masque of the Red Death,” a ghastly figure stalking a festive occasion and bringing horror in his wake:
Blood . . . Blood . . . Blood . . .
. . . and so much of it: an angry, violent crimson under the Palm Room’s cheerful lights. The detective’s regulation dark blue rain cape was drenched in pints of it, runneling fresh and sticky down his front and dribbling a crimson trail across the elegant marble floor.
As Blenkinsop arrived at their table, Miss Leckie stifled a shriek behind her hand, averting eyes rolling with horror.
That imagery also brings Shakespeare to mind, specifically Macbeth, which is essentially a murder mystery, although we know who committed the crime at the outset. It may also remind readers of the most famous Gothic novel of all time, Dracula. Dracula would have been well-known to the real Doyle, for he was a friend of its author, Bram Stoker.
So Entwistle brings all of this into play in this novel and the result is great entertainment. It is full of Gothic atmosphere—the pestilential fog and men carrying torches to light the way to the grisly crime scene—and a 21st century spin on 19th century class investigatory techniques and social class distinctions.
We’re intrigued by the crime—an aristocrat has been murdered and the only suspect lies dead nearby. Aside from the mystery of who killed “the dead assassin” Charlie, there’s another more pressing question. How could Charlie have killed Lord Howell, the country’s minister for war, when he himself was hanged at Newgate Prison several weeks earlier? And could Charlie really have been the perpetrator of a crime so heinous that it sickens all who look upon it?
The corpse had a face both men recognized from the newspapers:
Lord Montague Howell, hero of the battle of Alma and the siege of Sevastopol— amongst a score of Crimean campaigns. Miraculously, the handsome features had escaped unscathed; the blue eyes retained a calm gaze, the lids drooped slightly, a rictus- smile drawing back the lips, showing strong white teeth beneath a scrupulously groomed brown moustache. However, Lord Howell’s head was unnaturally kinked upon his neck.
With his years of medical experience, Conan Doyle was used to blood and death, but as he stepped closer, his gorge rose and invisible needles tattooed his face as he saw, to his horror, that the body was lying chest down.
If you’re like me, you’re thinking “orangutans” at this point because the macabre scene is definitely something Poe might have staged.
Somebody staged it for sure and the how of it and the why of it are just as interesting as the who of it. And all, as they used to say in the old Gothic melodramas, will be revealed in time.
There are no orangutans here, although there are four zebras. Oscar Wilde makes a special guest appearance as well, and very nearly steals the book from Doyle.
If you like your mysteries with a supernatural element, you’ll be in your element with The Dead Assassin.
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Katherine Tomlinson is a former reporter who prefers making things up. She was editor of Astonishing Adventures Magazine and the publisher ofDark Valentine Magazine. She edited the charity anthology Nightfalls. Her dark fiction has appeared in Shotgun Honey, A Twist of Noir, Luna Station Quarterly, and Eaten Alive, as well as anthologies, including Weird Noir,Pulp Ink 2, Alt-Dead, Alt-Zombie, and the upcoming Grimm Futures, which she also edited. Her most recent collection of short stories is Suicide Blonde. She sees way too many movies.