The Dead Assassins
Review by: Mark Palm
About a year ago I read and reviewed The Revenant of Thraxton Hall by Vaughn Entwistle. It was the first book in a series called The Supernatural Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and it essentially cast the Scottish author and creator of Sherlock Holmes in the role of his most famous creation, with his friend Oscar Wilde as a rather reluctant Watson. In that novel the two investigate the case of a medium who foresees her own death, and the mysterious mansion of the title. I enjoyed it quite a bit.
Well the two famous writers are back in The Dead Assassin, and Mr. Entwistle has upped the ante this time, with the Monarchy, and perhaps all of the Empire hanging in the balance. Bombs are exploding all over London, and that isn't the only danger; a rising tide of paranoia means that every foreigner is a potential Anarchist, and along with a wave of horrific fogs, the whole country is ready to go up like a tinderbox.
Dr. Conan Doyle is caught up in an uneasy relationship with the young and single Miss Jean Leckie. Although he loves his wife, her lingering and terminal case of Consumption threatens to tear their marriage asunder. In the middle of all of this (in the middle of a dinner with Miss Leckie, in fact) Conan Doyle is summoned by Scotland Yard to help them with a seemingly impossible problem; a senior government official has been murdered in a spectacularly bloody fashion, and the body of his attacker is that of a man who had been hanged weeks before.
Conan Doyle and Wilde begin their investigation but immediately run afoul not only of higher authorities, but a secret branch of the government run by a mysterious man known only as Cypher. Also looking askance of their actions is a cabal of businessmen, and the shadowy unknown figures whom actually plan the coup. With so many schemers and plots within plans it would be easy to get confused, but Mr. Entwistle does an excellent job of keeping his threads untangled, mainly by keeping the focus on his leading men. Both Conan Doyle and Wilde are fascinating characters, and Mr. Entwistle makes them even more interesting but so solidly grounding them in historical reality.
Most of the other characters in the book are solid, and Mr.Entwistle writes with an assured, solid hand. There are a few times where some more experimental sections get away from him, but he remains in firm control for most of the way. The big, busy plot flies along, and there is plenty of action. I was fond of the way Mr. Entwistle conveyed the protagonist’s valor without turning them into action-movie heroes. So all of the derring do is more satisfying when you realize that it’s being performed by a couple of well-intentioned writers.
The first novel had a group of interesting scenes where Holmes showed up to the day-dreaming Conan Doyle to act as a back-seat driver concerning Conan Doyle’s detective skills, or lack of them. Mr. Entwistle jettisons those sections here. I found them enjoyable, but their absence has little effect on the final product. It just goes to show that an author doesn’t have to follow a formula for a book to be a success, and The Dead Assassin is solid proof.