(Adapted from the original published in Sherlock Holmes magazine, Issue 46)
Sherlock Holmes wasn’t very good. So said Marcel Berlins in an article in the The (London) Times. According to the British journalist, author, and former lawyer, Holmes’ spectacular deductions about a person’s occupation and life gleaned from just a few seconds observation “don’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny.” Furthermore, “[Holmes’] methods of detection veered from the merely unscientific to the ludicrous.”
Admittedly, methods of crime investigation have changed in the hundred years since the Holmes classics were published. The FBI didn’t even collect fingerprints before 1924, and DNA analysis was unknown until the late twentieth century.
But Berlins’ complaints go beyond quibbling with the skills and methods attributed to Holmes in Doyle’s tales. Of Doyle’s fifty-six short stories and four novels featuring the famous detective, Berlins said, “[They] have far-fetched plots and utterly unconvincing characters.”
Holmes-bashing—and even Doyle-bashing—is a time-honored tradition. More than sixty years ago, Raymond Chandler administered both glove and champagne when he wrote, “Conan Doyle made mistakes which completely invalidated some of his stories, but he was a pioneer, and Sherlock Holmes after all is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.” The author of The Big Sleep and creator of detective Philip Marlowe was tough on other fictional detectives, as well. He called S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance “the most asinine character in detective fiction,” and even took fellow Briton Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to task for “breaking the [investigative] process down into a series of simple operations, like assembling an egg beater.”
But when asked to name the top mystery novels of all time, the professional writing members of the Mystery Writers of America voted the Sherlock Holmes canon number one. (Chandler’s The Big Sleep came in eighth in the list of one-hundred.) Doyle’s novels and short stories were proclaimed “the most consistently brilliant…works of fiction ever produced.”
Even Berlins, in the Times article, awards Doyle a dollop of respect. “More than a century after his creation,” he says, “Holmes is still the only fictional detective with an international reputation, his name instantly recognized—and the books read—from Beijing to Bogota.” But then he adds, “We revere Holmes today not for his skills, but as a symbol of a nostalgically attractive bygone age.” Is not such faint praise less than the whole truth about Doyle’s protagonist, not to mention the novels and short stories that have brought Doyle more than a century of acclaim?
Critic’s concentration upon the detecting skills of fictional investigators presupposes the worth of what is called ‘realistic’ in the narrative’s presentation, as popularized in the promotion of today’s crime/mystery novels. It’s true that an aura of realism is created, for example, for Patricia Cornwell’s fictional medical detective Kay Scarpetta, in this exchange with forensic anthropologist Dr. Vessey (they are examining a murder victim’s finger bone in All That Remains):
Vessey: ‘I can tell you without hesitation, Kay, that this is not a postmortem cut…The way the lip of the cut is bent back tells me this wasn’t inflicted on dead bone. Green bone bends. Dead bone doesn’t.’
Scarpetta: ‘A defensive injury?’
Vessey: ‘A very unusual one, Kay. The cut is dorsal versus palmar.’ While it may be true, as Berlins complains, that Cornwell’s novels feature “…every gruesome scalpel cut of an autopsy,” the technical patter used confers a realistic patina to the story, thanks largely to the authority Cornwell conveys as a result of her years as a computer analyst in the chief medical examiner’s office in Virginia.
It should also be said that the intuitive brilliance, investigative skills and criminological arcana displayed by fictional detectives from Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade in 1929’s The Maltese Falcon to Kinsey Millhone in the latest of Sue Grafton’s mysteries are frequently effective in lending believability to their stories. As John M. Reilly remarked in his preface to Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers, “With all narrative, mystery and crime fiction shares the necessity of supplying the illusion that the story conforms to a reality other than the text.”
But to identify these trappings of reality—generically termed ‘verisimilitude’—as the backbone of the fiction is to confuse subject with treatment. The idea that the Sherlock Holmes stories—or any other fiction, for that matter—should be valued based on the adequacy of skills displayed by its protagonist is less an insightful leap than a baby step toward an appreciation of a single aspect of the writer’s skill.
The late Ruth Cavin, dedicated senior editor at St. Martin’s, said of the mystery genre: “Today’s mystery writers need an absorbing plot, real and complex characters, fresh and accurate writing, [and] a well-defined and believable atmosphere, both physical and psychological.” Parenthetically we may add that she might as well have been identifying the components comprising every worthwhile fiction.
This brings us to the crux of the matter. While fictional detectives’ intellectual gravitas and investigative schemes on display in nineteenth—and even early twentieth-century—stories may today strike us as ineffective, quaint, or even laughably unscientific, we may always turn to the Sherlock Holmes canon to witness not the ineptness of a bungler, but rather Arthur Conan Doyle’s first-rate integration of plot, character and atmosphere into a fluent display of virtuosity that defines masterful storytelling—regardless of the century in which it appears.
(Published in Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine—Spring, 2003)
It wasn’t just the floor lamp with a pleated shade and cast iron feet in the shape of lion’s claws that worried me. Or the heavy lace curtains. Or even all the overstuffed chairs with those rounded arms straight out of the 1930s. Mrs. Del McBade, her overstuffed body crushing the upholstery opposite me in the McBade living room—she worried me.
Her husband Del had inherited $870,000 from his uncle Carl, a carpet wholesaler who’d died a closet millionaire. The $870,000 had disappeared quicker than a meth addict’s high, yet Mrs. McBade didn’t seem to mind.
I said, “Eight-hundred-seventy large. That’s a bunch of toaster strudels.”
She shrugged. “Easy come, easy go.”
“Money’s just money, Settler. I don’t care about it. I want you to find Del. Find out what happened. Maybe he’s just drunk. Why’d you think I called you?”
“Sure. But gone three months and you not hearing? Unlikely that’s a binge. With all that cash gone, he could be out there living it up. Florida, Vegas, you name it.”
She shook her head. “I know Del. Last thing he said was, ‘Brian Lynnbert stole my money, and I’m gonna kill him.”
“He could’ve just made that up, that Brian Lynnbert conned him out of the money.”
“I watched Del sign the papers. Del said it gave Family Investors Services the “power of turning,’ whatever that is. Family Investors promised it would put the $870,000 to work, turn it into a real fortune. But six months later, this Lynnbert fella calls Del, says the ‘vestment didn’t work out, the money’s gone.” She gave me the eye. “Besides, Del’d never lie about killing a man.”
“Sure. But Lynnbert’s body hasn’t shown up. And that’d count as murder. Del wouldn’t murder a man, would he?”
“He was right upset.”
“Okay, but there’s my fee. I don’t look into missing persons for nothing. Settler’s got to live too, you know.”
“Get the fee from Family Investors Services. Or Lynnbert, if Del ain’t killed him yet. Some of that money’s bound to be around somewheres.”
“You don’t care about the return of the money? At all?”
“We gots along just fine before Uncle Carl passed and Lynnbert talked Del out of the money. But I’m not sleeping, not knowing about Del. Dead of drunk, I gots to know. Ain’t that what the Settler’s supposed to do?”
“All right, Mrs. McBade. I’ll find him.” I got up to leave.
She didn’t smile. She didn’t get up. “I’ll be waiting,” she said.
It was the end of the week before I had enough to move on the McBade case. I went to the Howard building, where Family Investors Services occupied a corner on the ground floor. Inside the outer office, I questioned the receptionist. She wore a wide belt that cinched her waist worse than a ravenous anaconda.
“Vice President Lynnbert is only in the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” she said, twirling her mini-braids with one hand’s worth of two-inch-long fingernails.
“So who handles his scams when he’s out?”
“I beg your—”
“Lynnbert’s at home then, enjoying his country estate?”
She lifted her chin a good inch, gazed down her nose. “I’m sure I wouldn’t know.”
I headed for the door. “I’m sure you wouldn’t.”
Button’s taxicab was parked in front of the Drack’s Pizza-by-the-Slice. I opened the rear door.
“Hi, Settler,” Button said, leaning over the back of the seat and displaying her arms. She’d had her sleeves pushed up beyond the elbow before I’d even gotten the door open.
“There’s something awful pretty about unbroken skin,” I said. “But how about the nights?”
A year ago Button was weeks away from a numbered grave in the county plot. She wanted off the needles and away from the motel beds. I offered her a deal. If she’d clean up, I’d stake her to a ’90 Imperial I’d won on a sports bet and enough money for a taxi ticket. She’d already paid a third of the stake back, counting the credits for all my no-charge taxi rides.
“John’s bothering you much?” I asked.
She gave me a proud grin. “They still come around.”
I closed the Imperial’s door. Button said, “Like this short blond guy from Boston comes up the other day and says he’ll pay me half a hundred to eat my underwear.”
I smiled. “What’d you say?”
“I told him okay, but if he’d bump the fifty up to three-hundred I’d actually wear the underwear.” She laughed. “He didn’t seem to appreciate my humor.”
She pulled away from the curb. “Where we off to today?”
“Let’s take a ride in the country.”
Lynnbert’s country estate owed something to South Fork, that ranch on reruns of TV’s old “Dallas” show. It was big and opulent and there wasn’t another house within a half-mile in any direction. Out front, I told Button to turn around, drive a mile down the road and park. If I didn’t show up within the hour, she was to leave.
“If you don’t show up, I’ll worry myself sick,” she said.
I patted the car’s fender. “Look at it this way. If my string runs out today, you’re the debt-free owner of the city’s only ’90 Imperial taxi.”
As I trudged toward the big white house at the end of the drive, a roar got my attention. A man in a ten-gallon hat was driving his tractor toward me at a good clip. Clattering behind was a five-gang mower with grass-catcher bags flapping in the wind.
He braked and cut the motor back so you could almost hear yourself think. “Howdy,” he said.
“Howdy, yourself. Is Mister Lynnbert around?”
“You’re looking at him.”
“Some kind of rig you got there, Lynnbert.”
“It’s a sweet one, all right. Diesel power and all.” Brian Lynnbert tilted his hat back. A wave of brown hair fell over his forehead. “I see you come all the way out here by cab. Must be important business.”
“I’m here about Del McBade. And $870,000.”
Lynnbert wiped his hands on the legs of his jeans. “You a friend? Or a lawyer? You ain’t the law, are you?”
“Not law nor lawyer, more like a friend of a friend. Maybe we could talk.”
He chuckled. “Oh, sure. Hop on the mower and I’ll drive you to the house.”
“Thanks. I’ll walk.”
He tore off, black spitballs jetting from the exhaust. I scanned the house’s windows. There was no sign of activity inside.
Lynnbert parked the mower next to a Porsche 911 Turbo at the side of the house and waited for me with hands stuck in the rear pockets of his jeans. “We could knock down a beer on the back porch if you like.”
I nodded. “That’s neighborly. But then I’m sure the lady of the house—or the maid—wouldn’t appreciate having the house tracked up by a stranger.”
“Oh, there’s nobody here but me.” We started toward the house. “I suppose you wonder what a guy living alone needs with six bedrooms and nine baths. But hell, I got twenty-three cars, too, and you can only drive one at a time.”
“One at a time,” he repeated, roaring a big laugh at the merit of his observation.
We traipsed into the side entrance and through the kitchen on the way to the back porch.
“Twenty-three cars,” I said, thumbing toward the two barns behind the house. “I suppose that’s where you keep those.”
“You got it. Want to see?” Lynnbert hauled a six-pack of beer from the refrigerator.
We strolled across the back porch to the nearest barn. He asked my name.
“Settler’s the name. Just call me Early.”
“Early Settler? You’re kidding.” He opened two beers and we entered the nearest barn. “That’s got to be a made-up name.”
“That’s right,” I said. “My momma, Mrs. J. D. Settler, made it up. She thought ‘Early Settler’ had a nice American ring to it.”
Inside the barn there were heating ducts overhead and lots of bright lights. The first car I saw was a mint Lincoln Continental, the classic with the humped trunk. Nearby were other classics including a few Jaguars, a vintage Ferrari, a BMW “M” roadster, even a Lamborghini, all of them parked neatly in rows.
He motioned for me to follow him to the far corner, next to the big double doors. “Here’s my latest gem,” he said, gesturing at a deep black Mercedes roadster. “Looks like an ordinary SLK but it’s not. It’s a Brabus V-8.” He climbed in and twisted the key. A wonderful growling rumble rattled the double doors.
He shut the motor off. “Four-hundred-fifty horses. It’ll keep a Ferrari F355 in your rearview mirror for as long as you like.”
I indicated the second barn. “More?”
“Oh, routine stuff,” he said. “A couple of Rolls, a Hummer, a Bentley, more Porches. Nothing that would interest a true collector.”
Back on the porch, I said, “Pretty expensive hobby. That Brabus SLK had to set you back at least two-hundred large.”
“You got a good eye for machinery, Early. Two-hundred thousand and change.”
“Looks like Del McBade’s $870,000 came in handy.”
His head jerked back to balance a sudden pout. “Oh, now, you don’t for a minute think…Listen, you have to realize, sometimes investments go south. An investor not only has to be patient, he has to be—make no mistake—lucky. That’s how I accumulated all this, the cars, the house, it’s all come from nothing. With a few smarts and more’n average luck.”
“You don’t say.”
“Yessir. I started as day labor in an Idaho lumber mill, worked my way to field man. I haven’t forgot my lumbering skills. I’ll show you.” He went to the nearby woodpile and pried a double-bladed ax from a huge old stump. “But all the time, I invested my wage learning how markets work.”
He pulled a small log from the woodpile, set ion end on the stump. “Sometimes I gained, sometimes I lost. I’d be a fool not to say I was lucky.”
He picked up the ax. “Watch,” he said. Using one hand alone, he swung it overhead and brought it down clean and fast. The blade split the log neatly into two halves. He grabbed his beer, drained it and laughed.
I tossed him another beer. “So poor McBade, you’re saying he was just unlucky?”
“Yeah. And you know, he wanted to kill me.”
I went over, picked up one-half of the log he’d split and balanced it on end on the stump. I looked at Lynnbert and nodded that he should demonstrate his skill again by splitting the half in half. “So what happened?”
Lynnbert popped the beer. With his free hand he fingered the ax handle. “He came out here. He had a gun, accused me of stealing his inheritance.”
“That’s not too surprising.” I pulled a folded paper from my jacket pocket. It was a copy I’d made in the library from back issue of the Wall Street Journal. I unfolded it and read aloud: “on January 26, Brian Lynnbert, a broker, was fined $25,000 and suspended for six months without admitting or denying findings that he participated in private securities transactions and made omissions or misrepresentations in his solicitations of securities to customers.”
Lynnbert chugged some of his beer and stared at me. “Yeah, well,” he said, “sometimes the paperwork gets snarled up.” He swung the ax with one hand and again neatly split the wood.
I said, “It’s what the National Association of Securities Dealers—NASD—call a Disciplinary Action. But the average person might say it’s just fancy language for thievery.”
“Sounds like it’s you now that’s accusing me of stealing.”
“I’m not done.” I pulled a second paper from my pocket. “This FAX is a court order from the county of Riverside, California, signed by Judge Mary Farnsdown, changing your name from Edward L. Czapcher to Brian Lynnbert.”
He threw his beer can down and snatched the paper from my hand. “How’d you get this?”
“Court orders are public documents.”
“Yeah, well, if your name was Czapcher, you’d change it to something people could say without stumbling, too.”
“Okay. But the reason you changed it, Ed, was because you wanted to hide the fact you’d done seven years and four months in the Indiana State pen for armed robbery, assault, conspiracy and—”
He had turned away but now he whirled back and the ax was coming. I barely sidestepped as the blade flashed by. I flicked my Glock 9mm from my rear waistband and fired twice. Both slugs penetrated his middle.
He looked surprised. He gripped the ax with both hands and began to lift it overhead. Blood was spreading across the belly of his shirt but he kept coming.
I fired again. This time the wadcutter hit something vital. He crumpled forward, the ax thudding to the ground behind him. He stared at me from the ground while his hands were busy trying to keep the blood inside him.
I said, “You’re not going to make it, Ed. So tell me what happened to Del McBade.”
His surprised look faded. “He had a pistol with a long barrel. He shot it at me. Point blank.”
Czapcher managed a weak chuckle. He whispered, “But he missed.”
“Your good luck again, I suppose. So where’s Del now?”
“You’re standing on him,” he said, smiling through his pain. “Pieces, anyway. Nothing bigger than kindling.” His voice faded to a strained whisper. “Buried. All around.”
I glanced at the grass. It was patchy, darker green in splotches. I sighed and thought about what I’d have to tell Mrs. McBade.
I picked up the three ejected cartridges and stowed them in my pants pocket. I picked up the beer cans and crushed them one by one and stuffed them in my jacket pockets. Then I trudged to the nearest barn. At the door I glanced back. Czapcher, AKA Lynnbert, had stopped twitching. I guessed he’d expired.
Inside the barn I opened the double doors at the far end. The V-8 motor fired right off. I eased the transmission into drive and moved the Brabus SLK out into the daylight where bright reflections danced along its black mirrored surface.
I hated to leave all those other fine automobiles behind. But like the man said, you can only drive one at a time.