Monday, April 11, 2011

The Brothers of Baker Street, by Michael Robertson

This is the sequel to "The Baker Street Letters," which is reviewed just below, and this book starts just after the previous one ends.  Reggie and Nigel Heath are brothers who practiced law together in London.  Reggie had recently leased office space for his chambers in the building that comprises the 200 block of Baker Street in London, and it is a condition of that lease that Reggie answer and archive the letters that are delivered there for "Sherlock Holmes."  This remains a clever and potentially delightful conceit for a series, as there is no end to the kinds of requests that these letters could bring to the protagonists.

As a result of one of those letters, Reggie is now broke--he personal assets were eaten by his obligations to Lloyd's of London and his participation in the insurance syndicate that covered the Bad Guys in the previous book.  His legal practice has also suffered, and he is down to a single employee--a secretary/clerk/administrator who doesn't have much to do because there are no cases coming in.  The Sherlock letters still arrive, however, and as Reggie wants to have nothing to do with them, he packs them up and mails them to Nigel to answer.

(Incidentally, does this make any sense?  No, it doesn't.  Nigel is supposed to reply to each letter with a form provided by Dorset House, and then archive the letters at Dorset House.  He has neither of these things in LA, because Dorset House is where Reggie's chambers are, and where Reggie has a secretary with nothing to do.  So why does he do this?  So Nigel can have some presence in this book?)

Reggie's personal life remains unresolved.  He's been dating the gorgeous and successful actress Laura Henson for some time, but can't seem to be anything but a douche about it.  (This has now become a character trait for him as far as I am concerned.)  Laura has left London, and is currently in Phuket filming a movie.  She has also been seeing the fabulously wealthy media mogul Lord Buxton, who owns a particularly annoying London tabloid.  As the story begins, this tabloid has published a picture of Laura and an unidentified man together in Phuket, and the man's hand is doing something to her bikini top that seems to involve some intimate contact.

Reggie recognizes the hand as belonging to Lord Buxton, so he promptly goes to Buxton's enormous media headquarters and punches the man in the face.  This is captured by a photographer and published the next day.  Reggie may be a barrister, but he really isn't very smart, is he?  He also doesn't seem to ever consider that this kind of obnoxiousness is why Laura is choosing to spend time with Buxton rather than him.  Because god forbid that a woman have any agency when it comes to relationships.  Douche.

Anyway--an aggressively good looking solicitor shows up at Reggie's chambers with a brief for him.  Her client is a cabbie, a driver of the iconic Black Cabs of London, and he's been accused of murdering a pair of American tourists.  This is a major problem for London, as well as all the other cabbies, because Black Cabs are known for their absolute safety and their drivers' encyclopedic knowledge of London.  Their reputation is threatened by these murders, as well as by a series of robberies that led up to this outrage.  This is the kind of case that--if Reggie wins it--will bring him so much publicity that he could bounce back to his old busy legal practice.  Plus, there is an obligation (we are told) that barristers are like taxi drivers at a cab stand--they are required to take the next fare that presents itself.

But Reggie, in addition to being a douche, is also a prig.  (There!  Multifaceted character development!)  He won't take the case unless he is personally convinced that the client is innocent.  See, it all goes back to his childhood. . .and here we find ourselves adopting a ridiculous German accent and playing Freud.  Because Dad took little Reggie to a football game, to which he insisted on wearing the cap of his beloved Man U team.  Sadly, however, their seats were in the opposing teams section, and when Man U lost, the footie hooligans stole his cap, Dad snatched it back, fist fights broke out, and somehow Dad ended up arrested, which somehow caused him to lose his painting business and his will to live and life became dark and short.  So little Reggie grew up determined to become a barrister so he could protect innocent men like his Dad and correct the balance of the universe.  Again--he really lost his house painting business because of a footie scuffle?

Well, Our Little Prig Reggie has to meet the client, whose name is Walters, and learn about his life long dream to be a Black Cabbie, and how nothing else in the world is like it, and how much money he has had to invest to become one, and all the Secret and Arcane Knowledge of the Benevolent Order Of Black Cabbies and Freemasons.  Which is to say, Walters needed cash, so has a motive for the robberies, but he loves his job so much he wouldn't do anything to jeopardize it.

Reggie is unsure.  Is cab driving really such a great job?  Is it really like all the work he had to do to become a barrister?  So while riding in a Black Cab to another appointment, he casually chats up the driver and so becomes convinced that Walters must be innocent!  He will take the case!  Justice will be served! 

Yes, by this kind of logic, finding one man who loves his wife and would never murder her brutally with a dull kitchen blade means that there are no abusive husbands or wife-murderers.

So, back to chambers Reggie goes, to try to find a defense for Walters, the Tragic Cabbie.  What is the case against?  Well, if you are going to make a habit of holding up your fares, murdering them and then dumping the bodies, it's probably not a good idea to have a vanity license plate that is easily identifiable and memorable.  Which Walters has, and which was in fact seen and remembered by two separate sets of  eyewitnesses.  One of whom even called the police to report reckless driving by that cabbie.  Walters' alibi?  He was already home, alone, so he couldn't have done it. 

But wait!  There is a new letter to Sherlock, signed by "Moriarty" which gives Reggie an idea!  Check the traffic/security CCTV cameras to confirm Walters' claim that he was driving home to the other side of London at the time of the murders.  And in front of a clearly skeptical judge, the tapes show the distinctive cab with the memorable license plate somewhere completely else from the crime scene!  Walters is released until trial!  That night, more eyewitnesses see a Black Cab with the same license plate stopped on a bridge over the Thames, dumping a body into the river!  What has Reggie done?  Has he loosed a murderer from custody only so he can kill again? 

The good looking solicitor, Darla Rennie, places a frantic call to Reggie--something is wrong with our client!  You must go to his home and meet me there!  Reggie goes, finds the front door ajar, no sign of Darla.  He cautiously enters, finds the gold Rolex watch taken from the murdered American tourist sitting in a bag in the front parlor.  He follows the sound of machinery through the flat to the laundry room in the back, where Walters is lying dead, bloody shirt indicating he was stabbed.  Of course Reggie opens the washing machine to see what is inside, because. . .Plot Requirement.  There is the long kitchen knife that was the murder weapon, and a pair of wineglasses in the washing machine--presumably to remove the finger prints.  Reggie, having as much sense as god gave a rock, pulls out the knife to look at it and cuts himself on the broken wineglass.  All so that when the police arrive, he can be standing over the corpse, holding the murder weapon and dripping blood.  Because that's how you prepare a case for trial in England.

Reggie gets arrested, and Laura comes to his rescue, bringing Nigel back from LA.  He immediately makes a connection between the unhinged letters to Sherlock Holmes written by "Moriarty" and concludes that Reggie is being targeted by a mad person who has become convinced that Reggie is actually Sherlock Holmes and has to pay for killing  his/her ancestor at Reichenbach Falls.  He goes to chambers, and finds Darla Rennie's business card wedged between the cushions of an office chair, and it is also drenched in perfume, which Nigel remembers as belonging to someone who was in his therapy group the previous year when he took some time off for a rest cure/nervous breakdown.  (We don't know the specifics of this, despite it being referenced in both books.  Fodder for future books, probably.)  Fortunately, he can identify this woman by her legs, and realizes that Darla Rennie isn't actually a solicitor, but probably somebody with a grudge out to get Reggie. 

Yes, this is truly what is happening.  Poor schizophrenic Darla has been taken off her meds for nefarious purposes by her doctor, leading her to lapse into the delusion that she is the great-great-granddaughter of Professor Moriarty, and that Sherlock Holmes killed her ancestor, then discovered cryogenics, preserving himself for nearly two centuries in order to come back as a London barrister.  This delusion is then hastily cobbled together with her jealous hatred of Black Cabs, since she wanted to be a driver but was cursed with no sense of direction. 

But wait!  There's more to the plot!  Because the treating psychiatrist is also a software entrepreneur who is trying to sell a system of GPS devices to be installed in Black Cabs!  Which the cabbies totally oppose, since it messes with their foundational mythos.  Why devote yourself to the Knowledge if you can have a computer installed that does it for you?  But in a further twist, the proposed GPS has surveillance video and audio, so anything talked about in the back of a cab--stock tips, celebrity misbehavior, ordinary indescretions--can be recorded and used for insider trading, blackmail and/or sold to tabloids!  Because there are actually three Black Cabs with the same distinctive vanity license plates, and two of them were used for crimes while Walters was paid to drive a route that would establish a CCTV alibi!

There is another murder of a co-conspirator, there is the discovery of the second Black Cab with the same license plate which was driven into the Thames, but discovered at low tide.  (Why didn't they just remove the license plate?  Plot Requirement I guess.)  Reggie gets out of prison and goes to confront the doctor/GPS developer, ends up being held at gun point, figures out the surveillance scheme, and then watches in horror! as Laura gets into the third cab run by the Bad Guys.  And Darla's the driver!  And she is going to murder Laura to exact revenge on Sherlock/Reggie, by driving the cab off the Tower Bridge while it opens to let a ship through. 

There is a problem with this part of the plan, however, because Laura is never going to just sit passively in the back and ride to her doom, nor is it clear how Darla was going to escape being killed at the same time.  But!  it's cinematic!  The iconic Black Cab straddling the gap as the Tower Bridge rises open!  Laura, the gorgeous actress dangling from the tip of the bridge before losing her grip and sliding down the angled roadway!  The Black Cab breaking open and Darla falling to her death (?) into the Thames!  Reggie who managed to call Nigel before the battery on his cell phone died, Nigel rallying the other Black Cabbies, who linked arms at the base of the Bridge and saved Laura when her grip gave way!

As I was reading this, I found myself thinking that this read like a novelization of a TV series.  You know, some striking images, built in recurrent episodes and characters, enough action to distract you from the fact that the plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  And then, on the publisher's website I found this information about Michael Robertson.
MICHAEL ROBERTSON works for a large company with branches in the United States and England. His first novel in this series, The Baker Street Letters, has been optioned by Warner Bros. for television. He lives in San Clemente, California.

Oh yeah, give me a pipe and call me "Sherlock Holmes!" I wouldn't be surprised to find that he was a television writer, or something similar.

Again--a fine enough book to read in paperback, to pick up on a second-hand table, to take to the beach.  Definitely NOT worth $25 in hardcover.  I read the e-book version, which was half the hardcover price, and probably not worth that either.  Would I watch a TV series?  I'd certainly give it a shot.  Would I recommend these books to my friends?  Probably not without some serious caveats.

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