Monday, April 11, 2011

The Baker Street Letters, by Michael Robertson

Great premise, intriguing mystery set up, ultimately squandered by the poor execution.  Reggie Heath is a London barrister with a fabulous life--wealthy, a partner at Lloyd's of London (which requires some serious liquidity), Queen's Counsel, dating a gorgeous actress. He's just rented the second floor of a large building for his law chambers on Baker Street.  And yes, the block the building sits on encompasses what would be 221B, the home of fictional Sherlock Holmes.

One of the conditions of the lease, then, is that Reggie is required to answer the letters that still come in addressed to Sherlock Holmes.  Reggie's rather feckless brother Nigel is given that task, and Nigel finds himself intrigued by one of the requests for help.  Twenty years ago an 8 year old girl wrote to ask Sherlock Holmes to help find her missing father, and included something she called "Daddy maps" to aid in the search.  Now Nigel has received two letters purportedly from the same girl, now an adult, asking for return of the enclosures.  Nigel believes the contemporary letters are forgeries, and the girl is in danger.

Reggie isn't interested, being far too concerned with the challenge of the upcoming hearing to reinstate Nigel's solicitor's license.  Nigel is visibly more interested in the Sherlock letters, and Reggie nags and needles and nudges his brother to get back to his "real" career.  It's pretty well sketched that Nigel is only a lawyer because he's appeasing his older brother, and so the reader is not surprised when Nigel doesn't even turn up at his reinstatement hearing, leaving Reggie to vamp frantically as he tries to cover up for his brother's unexplained absence.  It is here we find out what Nigel did to be suspended, and even here it's more about Reggie's desperate need to "protect" his brother than anything else.

There was "that thing in Kent."  Apparently Nigel won a case in court, then subsequently found his client had lied.  Deeply remorseful, he attempted to return his legal fee to the unsuccessful parties, which apparently required him to break into the women's only dorm where he ran into the under-aged (and under dressed) daughter and reached into his pants to offer her a check, only that wasn't what SHE thought he was whipping out.  At least, that's the story Reggie tells the committee.  He also lies and says that Nigel had a sudden, horrible flu, and was unable to contain his bodily fluids long enough to attend the hearing. . . .no, it wasn't any funnier in the book.

Reggie, being a douche, can't believe Nigel would blow off the hearing, and he is especially peeved because he (Reggie) had planned to go to the airport immediately thereafter, to intercept his girlfriend Laura and say something that was (he thought) going to convince her not to fly to New York to do Shakespeare on Broadway, followed by time in LA making a movie of the play.  Because he doesn't realize she's an actress maybe?  Because while he can't treat her well or ask her to marry him or even act like he loves her, he also can't stand to let her do anything other than hang around London waiting for him to call?  Oh, and there's some nonsense about how Nigel was interested in Laura first.  This does not constitute self-awareness on Reggie's part.

Fortunately for the reader, when Reggie does go back to the office, there's a dead body in Nigel's office.  It's the obnoxious chambers clerk, his head bashed in by a large reproduction Remington bronze.  The office has been ransacked, locked file cabinets broken open, and the interesting letters about the 20 year old case are missing.  The cops arrive already convinced of Nigel's guilt, and so Reggie concludes that he has to follow his brother to LA to protect him from being found guilty of this murder.

The LA Reggie ends up in is not Beverly Hills.  It would be a series of noir cliches, except almost everything happens in the harsh daylight.  Reggie spends some time tracking his brother's footsteps, but can't figure out what Nigel has been doing until he finally meets Mara Ramirez, the girl who wrote the letter 20 years ago.  He follows her to her apartment, knocks on the door, and doesn't have any insight into what a creepy thing that is to do, not even when she threatens to set her dog on him.  So she does set her dog on him, and the dog knocks him down the stairs.

Now most people would take this as a sign that maybe they aren't equipped to do this kind of stalking/detective work, and might even go see a doctor about the possible concussion.  Not Reggie--he keeps trying to get Mara to talk to him.  There is a fax he gets from Nigel, calling a meeting at 2 AM at a deserted culvert, and Reggie goes because he is stupid.  And so of course he goes there only to find a corpse in a shopping cart and of course that is the exact moment the cops show up and of course that doesn't convince him that he doesn't know what the hell he is doing.  And he goes back and talks to Mara again.

For some (not at all convincing) reason, Mara talks to him, lets him in, and shows him the little tin box where she keeps her treasures, including copies of the "Daddy maps" she had sent to Sherlock Holmes twenty years ago.  Because of course she made photo copies when she was eight.  And not just photo copies, but two complete sets--one set she sent to Sherlock, one set she kept in her tin box, and then the originals she hid "someplace safe."  Sounds like all the eight year olds you know, right?

But the documents have been stolen--they aren't in the box.  Who could have taken them?  Maybe the creepy neighbor who got himself killed and dumped into a grocery cart in the abandoned culvert?  Must have been.  But look!  Mara didn't see this, but there is a corner of one of the documents that tore off and is wedged in the box.  So of course Reggie palms it without telling her, because. . .because. . .okay, there is no reason he behaves this way, except that he is a douche.

And it's not just a corner, like the kind of corner that you might actually expect would get caught in the seams of a tin box and would be left behind if the original pages were taken in a hurry.  No, this is a "corner" that is large enough that it contains two (illegible--of course) signatures, some identifying location data, and enough content that Reggie is able to recognize it as a geological survey (which--how does he recognize this?  Why does he recognize this?  Put it down to Plot Requirement Syndrome, where a character knows whatever is necessary to get the plot to the next scene, but no more than that).  So he goes to the geology department at Unnamed University, where the suspiciously busy head of the department can't help now, but leave the documents and he'll look at them later.

Instead, Reggie runs into a lovely graduate student who goes out of her way to look at his document, access the data base of all geological surveys ever done anywhere on the planet, where this doesn't match!  And this database search takes seconds!  And this lovely grad student serves three plot functions, being herself a victim of Plot Requirement Syndrome:
  1. She tells him that the data on his "corner" is evidence that somebody faked the survey results so that anybody using the database information to build. . .for example, a subway under LA. . .would think it was safe when it actually would blow up and kill everybody in the tunnel as soon as they hit the gas pockets.
  2. She flirts mildly with Reggie, supposedly making us think that he really is attractive and charismatic, but actually confirming that he is an ass for entertaining thoughts about this girl while he's also busy being a controlling douche to Laura.
  3. She gets to turn up dead at a time when the plot requires that Reggie get some information but also be prevented from using it in a timely fashion, so he can be discovered with yet another dead body and thus be arrested and have pointlessly hostile interactions with the local police.
Plot Requirement Syndrome is so often tragically fatal to secondary characters.  Please give generously as we fight to defeat this disease.

So now it's important to find the full documents--the originals that the 8 year old Mara hid in a safe place.  Where could that safe place be?  Let's ask Mara--but she's gone, her apartment showing signs of  her rapid departure and subsequent violent search.  But there's her art (she's an artist of course), and she paints the same thing over and over--a small yellow house with a prominent pepper tree.  Her childhood home!  And she probably hid the originals under the tree!  Reggie and Laura pretend (badly) to be a couple looking for a home, sucking in a real estate agent and wasting her time, but Laura finds the documents!  Which they take to Anne, the graduate student with PRS who says "We have to tell the Suspiciously Busy Head of the Department!" 

Soon, Reggie receives a phone call from Suspiciously Busy (and Also Nervous) Head, asking to meet at the reservoir so they can discuss the documents.  Why the reservoir?  Oh, well, Suspiciously Busy doesn't have en?ough time to come all the way to where Reggie is, and also doesn't have enough time to wait for Reggie to meet him, so they'll meet halfway.  Where Suspiciously will be running anyway, because he has enough time for that but not for an important meeting.  And Reggie will be bringing the original surveys too, right?  The ones he hasn't made any additional copies of, correct?  And where he won't tell anyone he is going? Good!

There is a tedious description of the ominous reservoir jogging path, and a too detailed description of how Reggie gets the documents stolen by a pair of roller bladers, runs a six minute mile in his business suit and shoes, ends up pushed into the water without spoiling the original documents, and gets caught with the body of the Lovely Graduate Student, who was herself obviously murdered because she told Suspiciously Busy about the forged survey documents.

The climax comes as Reggie discovers that Mara's father is one of the suspicious characters who has been lurking around the periphery of the story, and he's the one who killed the creepy neighbor and dumped the body into the shopping cart to be found by Reggie.  And Mr. Mara was the original geologist who surveyed the area twenty years ago, but agreed to fudge the numbers in order to get some pressing gambling debts taken care of.  He then ran off to Alaska for two decades, but came back just in time to find the subway approaching the area where his bad data will start killing workers.  I don't know how he found that out all the way up in Alaska, since nobody on the ground seemed to be able to figure it out.  Despite the fact that there had already been an explosion and a major underground fire.

There is a face-off in one of the gas-filled tunnels, where Reggie, Laura and Mr. Mara are to exchange the original documents (still no copies?  Just checking.  Because it would be too hard for a bunch of adults to do what an 8 year old did twenty years ago) for Nigel and Mara.  But Mr. Mara knows that the bad guys are going to try to set off an explosion and kill the five good guys, so it's important that everybody be out of the tunnels and onto the platform/elevator, because if the bad guys don't try to kill them with an explosion then Mr. Mara will try to kill the bad guys with an explosion.  In fact, the risk of explosion is so great, and it is so important that they be out of the tunnels in the event of any kind of open flame, that when one of the bad guys does light a flare--they all run down the tunnel.  And there is an explosion, and Reggie feels the flames as the fireball passes over him.  And yet all the good guys survive, and the bad guys all get killed plus burned so badly that their corpses are not identifiable.

There is a coda, where a generic corporate hack ties up all the loose ends.  Reggie gets called into an office building that was near this problematic subway site--the corporate offices of a film production company.  It turns out that it was the corporation that paid to have the survey data altered 20 years ago, as a means of recouping a bad investment in land.  Having the subway go near their real estate holdings would increase the value of all this vacant land they were holding (20 years later!), and so they sent somebody to get the maps out of Nigel's offices, plus they had planted a mole in Reggie's chambers (his secretary) and murdered the poor sap who originally answered the letters to Sherlock (he caught on and wanted a bigger bribe).  They forged the letters asking "Sherlock" to return the maps, and then hired an out-of-work actor to hang around Mara's mailbox to intercept the letter when it came.  In fact, the real mastermind (if you can use that word for such a clumsy plot) was the head of the film studio, whose giant portrait dominates the offices where Reggie is being debriefed.  And Reggie recognizes the face!  It's That Guy!  Who was inexplicably not too busy actually running a company to get personally involved in this farce of a mystery, who was on the same flight from London to LA that Reggie was on!  And was at the reservoir when Reggie was pushed!  And was the second man in the subway tunnel when the explosion happened!  Because corporate malfeasors who managed to buy land inside LA that didn't appreciate over 20 years (!) always do their own murdering and hostage exchanges.  How else will amateur detectives ever find out who was behind it all?

In a rather nice twist, the corporate goon doesn't want the company role to be made public, so he offers Reggie a substantial bribe, followed by the threat that since Reggie is a partner in a Lloyd's of London syndicate that actually insures the film company, he stands to lose his entire personal wealth if this goes public.  Carrot AND stick.  Reggie confirms that, yes, he has insured this particular company, and yes, he is liable to the full extent of his personal assets.  But he turns the documents over anyway and takes the hit.  The end.

As I said, the set up was so promising, but the execution is uneven.   The writing is drearily pedestrian so much of the time.  Action sequences are so specifically laid out as to rob them of all their drama.  Cab rides are rendered turn by turn, as if by a GPS.

The plotting is also rather poorly handled.  There is some cursory sleuthing--much of which could have been condensed if anybody in the book had ever used Google searches. Instead, Reggie calls his secretary back in London to look things up for him, which mostly serves to pad the plot. In the "climactic" explosion in the unfinished subway tunnels, the only people who end up dead are the Bad Guys, and the beautiful women who are the love interests don't even get scratched.  Yup, that's a Hollywood explosion, all right.  Believable it is not.

Robertson has also grossly miscalculated on his main characters, the Heath brothers. Nigel is clearly the more interesting brother--he's the one who is emotionally engaged by the plight of the girl/woman, the one who tries to learn the art of Holmesian deduction, the one who actually abandons a stultifying legal practice to fly to Los Angeles to solve the case. There is a potentially charming scene where Nigel assembles scraps of data to conclude that Reggie had given his secretary a raise--she is now wearing some designer clothes, there is a form for a car loan. This would have been a better scene if we had seen it dramatized, rather than have Reggie tell Laura  about it.

Since Nigel is the more interesting charcter, then he ISN'T the one we read about.  In fact, Nigel disappears for more than 80% of the book, and we are stuck following Reggie around as he tries to figure out how to make Nigel stop being so inconvenient.  This is an ongoing problem, because after bashing around LA for a hundred pages or so, Reggie finally finds Nigel, who is then immediately arrested, sent to jail,  mysteriously sprung on bail, kidnapped, blown up and left in a coma for several days.  Basically, it's as though the author has no idea of what to do with with this character so does whatever he can think of to keep Nigel out of the narrative.

Instead, Robertson has made Reggie the protagonist of this book, and Reggie is an ass.  He's judgmental about his brother, he's alternately insanely and inappropriately possessive of his girlfriend, while simultaneously unwilling to make any emotional connection with her.  He's not a very convincing detective, especially when things get rough--there is no way I believe that he would shake off all the physical abuse he receives at the hands of the various villains.  He's a London barrister, not a guy who spends his time getting knocked around physically, yet he gets up after being knocked unconscious at least three times over the course of the book and goes back for more. 

Robertson tries to give Reggie some kind of complex emotional life, revolving mostly around his failure to hold onto Laura and his (passing) guilt about having "stolen" Laura from Nigel.  That gets rather tidily resolved without any effort on his part when Nigel conveniently falls in love with Mara anyway.  Also, it's not clear why Reggie has any trouble keeping Laura as his girlfriend, since she actually joins him in LA to help him rescue his brother.  Sadly, she isn't able to save him from being a douche, and in the end their relationship is where it was at the beginning--he thinks she should be in love with him, despite the fact of his being a jerk to her at every opportunity, and he can't figure out why she might not want to spend all her time with him on his terms.

To give the book its due, though, some of it is truly charming.  Robertson has some deftness in sketching characters--the tragic Lovely Grad Student, for example, comes to life with only a few details and some good dialogue.  The premise is clever, and sets the stage for as many sequels as one can imagine, since there is no reason to run out of letters to Sherlock asking for help.  The specific details that lure Nigel into investigating--the touching letters from the marvelous eight year old Mara, the enclosed maps, then the subsequent forged letters asking for their return. . .those are beautifully done.  These are the nuggets in the trash, that make me wish Michael Robertson had given the entire book the care and attention it needed to bring the whole thing up to the level of the best bits.

I enjoyed it enough to get the second book in the series, which I'll review next.

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