Friday, June 14, 2013

Brian Freemantle's "The Homles Inheritance"

Occasionally, I begin reading a book in which the premise is quite intriguing, the characters themselves interesting, but the writing gets in the way.  In this case, I've come close to putting the book down for good on several occasions, but have, so far persevered; I'm about 2/3 of the way through it as I write this.

The book is Brian Freemantle's The Holmes Inheritace.  I've read a fair amount of Freemantle's writing, and like (with some reservations) most of the Charlie Muffin books.  So when I learned about his books featuring Sebastian Holmes, son of Sherlock and nephew of Mycroft, I searched ABE and found both books, The Holmes Inheritance (2004) and The Holmes Factor (2005). 

I started, of course, with The Holmes Inheritance, and it's driving me nuts.  The premise is this:  Sherlock Holmes fathered a son--Sebastian--while recovering from the Reichenbach Falls incident.  He decided that he could not acknowledge the child, and left him to be raised by Mycroft (the mother died in childbirth).  Now, some 20 years later, on the eve of World War I, Mycroft (working with/for Winston Churchill) needs someone to undertake a confidential mission in the US.  He and (reluctantly) Sherlock agree that Sebastion should be asked to undertake it, and he does.

So the situation is interesting, the activities of Germany in the US are a very good starting point for such a story, and if it's more of a spy novel and less of a detective novel, that's OK.  But the writing is something I would never have expected of Freemantle.  Here are the examples I've run into so far:

Freemantle seems to hate to use the word "said," instead substituting some other verb for it, and these all appear on p. 100:

insisted (twice, in successive paragraphs)

That's probably the single most glaring stylistic issue I have, although there's also this:

"...he left, no longer feeling pretentions with the swordstick..."

And similarly awkard, or (as in the use of "pretentions") just wrong uses of language occur throughout.  There are also cases of getting the historical setting or facts just flat wrong.  For example, early on, a character is referred to as a "venture capitalist," a term that did not come into use until the 1970s at the earliest.  In 1913, someone who looked for places to make investments would have been called a "capitalist," with no modifier needed.


"Sebastian's excursion to Long Island...this time [he] travelled [sic] from Penn Station in a scheduled first-class carriage..."

Now I realize that railroad passenger cars in England and on the Continent were separate classes of accommodations, but that was not true in the U.S. at that time; there were sleeper cars and private cars but no separation of classes of carriage in ordingary coaches.  (And from Penn Station to Long Island, no sleeper cars, either).  This may be somewhat specialized knowledge, but it's not all that arcane.  I'd expect an American author, writing about using English trains, to know that there were separate classes of carriage.  So why shouldn't I expect a British author to get it right about the US?

In another scene--a birthday reception in honor of Kaiser Wilhelm II at the German Embassy, we are told that the U.S. Secretary of Defense, the Undersecretary of Trade, and the "senior permanent advisor at the Treasury" are present.  That should be the Secretary of War (the department and the title were changed to Defense only after World War II) and the Undersecretary of Commerce (the Ministry of Trade is the English equivalent).  As for the "senior permanent advisor at the Treasury," no such positon exists in the U.S., and never has (although the Permanent Undersecretary of the Treasury is, in England, a civil servant and not a political appointee; the highest-ranking civil service position in the Treadury Department in the U.S. today is the Fiscal Assistant Secretary, who is three levels down from the Secretary of the Treasury).  (What the comparable position would have been in 1913, I don't know, but all of the Assistant and Under Secretaries were then, and are now, political appointees.)

Then, we have this:

"...continuous radio news programme..."

Complete with remote broadcasts of an interview on the Capitol steps.  There were no radio stations in the U.S. until at least 1916, and the early ones were on-air for only a couple of hours a day.  There were no radio news programs, although what was then called the "radio telegraph" was used to transmit news to newspaper offices.  And the notion that a hotel room would have had a radio receiver in 1913 is laughable.

Now, writing historical fiction is hard.  And I suspect that most English readers of the book would not really notice them.  But the events of the early 20th century in the U.S. are not that difficult to discover, and many, if not most, potential readers of this sort of book are likely to be fairly well informed.  So such elementary errors as these have a tendency to pull the reader out of the story.  Which is too bad for me, because I spent a hot $4 on this book (and on the sequel).