Review: Murder in the Vatican, The Church Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes

I recently discovered that this blog post disappeared from the blog.

It needs to come back.


When I was thirteen, I started reading through the collected stories of Sherlock Holmes. I made it about halfway through. I had been stopped dead by “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott”—one of two times that Holmes was the narrator.  I wasn’t the only one who had a problem with that story. Another author of the day, G.K. Chesterton, said that the Gloria Scott showed why Watson was relevant: because Holmes was an awful storyteller.

Since then, I have been critical of anything about Sherlock Holmes written after the death of Arthur Conan Doyle. Some stories went wildly off track. Others were riddled with so many anachronisms it was painful. Of the vast quantity of Holmes-related material published, my family of readers owns only a fraction.


When Robert Downey Jr. starred in Sherlock Holmes, I crossed my fingers and hoped it didn’t suck … instead, I got a checklist of what they did right.

When Doctor Who scribe and show runner Steven Moffat created a show called Sherlock, I also crossed my fingers. It was surprisingly awesome.

Then I heard about Murder in the Vatican. The Church Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes on the newsletter for the Catholic Writers Organization. It had an interesting premise: author Ann Margaret Lewis takes Watson’s offhand references of Holmes working on cases for the Pope, or involving religious figures, and turns them into entire stories.

I experienced the same feeling of dread. How off would the narration be? Would someone try converting Holmes? How lost would a detective from Victorian, Anglican England be in Catholic Rome? How many different ways were there to screw this up?

I stopped worrying when I read the first sentence.  And, oh my God, this book is awesome!  I loved this book….

Lewis caught the voice of Dr. John Watson as though she had taken it, trapped in a bottle, and used it to refill her pen into as she wrote. I liked the voice. I liked Watson, the doctor, trying to diagnose an ailing Leo XIII (85 at the time of the events of the first story). I like the brief sketch of the political situation between the Vatican and Italy. I even enjoy Watson’s discomfort at the Pope slipping into “The Royal We” when he speaks of himself as The Pope.  Even the artwork was as though it had been lifted from issues of The Strand magazine.

Someone had fun here, and it shows.

Thankfully, there is no overt attempt to convert Holmes, evangelize or proselytize him. There is only enough theology in the entire novel that explains to the casual reader exactly what the heck the Pope is doing. The closest the book comes to exposing Holmes to theology is a page-long sequence that ends with Leo saying, “Perhaps you should spend some of your inactive time pondering that conundrum [of Jesus] instead of indulging in whatever narcotic it is with which you choose to entertain yourself.”  That is the best zinger I’ve ever seen a character use on Holmes regarding his drug use.  Even the most secular person I know can appreciate a page of theology for one of the better one-liners I’ve ever seen.

Also, the little things were entertaining for a nerd like me. For example, the casual mention of John Cardinal Newman, referred to as “a recent convert.” The political situation at the time is given just enough of a sketch to explain what’s going on, but nothing obtrusive; history nerds like me can be satisfied, but you don’t have to have a degree in it to comprehend what’s going on.

There are truly parts where the novel seems to merge all the best qualities of Sherlock Holmes with those of G.K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown short stories …

At this point, I must make a small confession. I write these reviews as I read the book. There is plenty of backtracking, to fill the blanks, and rewrite it as the book goes. I wrote the above line when I finished the first tale. In fact, the interview questions I sent to Ann Margaret Lewis were written before I even received a review copy of the book.  I then read “The Vatican Cameos,” and discover a Deacon, named Brown …

I swear I didn’t see that coming.

The first story in this collection is “The Death of Cardinal Tosca.”

In this memorable year ’95 a curious and incongruous succession of cases had engaged his attention, ranging from his famous investigation of the sudden death of Cardinal Tosca — an inquiry which was carried out by him at the express desire of His Holiness the Pope  . . . .

—Dr. John H. Watson, “The Adventure of Black Peter

Imagine Sherlock Holmes on vacation … if you see that vacation turning out like an episode of Murder, She Wrote, with a body hitting the floor at some point, you pretty much have the setup. It has a poison pen letter, with real poison, some Masons, references to two different cases in the space of two paragraphs, and a Papal commando raid with a real pontiff. This story is so delightfully odd and over-the-top, but still preserves as much reality as any other Holmes tale. I enjoyed every moment of it. And I can’t argue with any story where the pope gets most of the amusing one-liners.

Heck, even the murderer gets in a good line.  When confronted, our first killer sneers.  “Let me guess. You’re going to explain, to the amazement of your friends, how I did the deed?”  Holmes replies, “I’ve already told them that. It would be old news. They already know you blundered badly.”

I think the story concludes on a nice, solid note.  As Holmes tells Watson, “[Leo XIII] is genuinely pious. He is also imperious, but in a most endearing way.”

Watson merely replies, “Yes, well. I’m used to that.”

The second tale, “The Vatican Cameos,” is a bit of a flashback episode to when Holmes first met the Pope. Leo XIII has sent a collection of cameos to Queen Victoria. The cameos are secured tightly in the box they’re delivered in, but upon their arrival in London, the box is empty. The Queen has a simple solution: send Sherlock Holmes. Watson is busy with a medical emergency, so he wasn’t around.

When Watson asks Sherlock about the incident, Holmes says, quite clearly “Watson, I am incapable of spinning a tale in the way you do. The narrative would read like a scientific treatise.”

Madam Lewis certainly read “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott.”

So, there is only one person left who can narrate this tale … the Pope himself. This was the story that truly showed that the author did her research, assembling little details of Leo XIII’s interests and hobbies and putting them together into a rich, vibrant character. He is shown here as witty, humorous, and bright.

The byplay between Leo XIII and Holmes in this story was marvelously entertaining. The Pope is shown to be about as smart as Watson … maybe a little smarter. When Holmes first meets the Pontiff, and rattles off conclusions in his usual rapid-fire manner, the Pope takes a minute, and deduces how Holmes came to most of them. Not all, but most. This is a wonderful inversion of what is so typical of early Sherlock Holmes films—in the Basil Rathbone movies, whenever Holmes walked onto the screen, the IQ of everyone in the room dropped about ten points. Making Leo this smart only serves to make Holmes as impressive as he should be—yes, everyone else may be smart, but Holmes is smarter.

Also, having Leo XIII using Thomas Aquinas to talk with Holmes of reason and science … it works for me.

And the scene with Holmes, the Pope, and the gunman was fun, too.

“You know that I am preoccupied with this case of the two Coptic Patriarchs, which should come to a head to-day.”

Sherlock Holmes, “The Retired Colourman”

“The Second Coptic Patriarch”: The third and final tale is from yet another throwaway line of Arthur Conan Doyle’s.

In this case, a former criminal comes to Holmes to solicit his services; the priest who converted him away from his life of crime is in jail for murder. A bookstore owner has been murdered with a book (“The Rule of Oliver Cromwell–weighty subject, no doubt,” Holmes quips), and the priest will only say that the victim was dead when he arrived.  It’s almost Sherlock Holmes meets Alfred Hitchcock … I didn’t know someone could do I Confess like this. It’s a fun little read, and possibly the most traditional of the Holmes stories — it’s a good tale.  From the perspective of the overall book, it’s a perfect cap to the character arc.

Now, after reading Murder in the Vatican, I think I’m going to go back and finish the Sherlock Holmes series — and keep Murder in the Vatican handy, so I can read them all in chronological order.

Ann Lewis said that the book was “meant to be fun and lift your heart for a short time. I had a blast writing it, and I hope you have a blast reading it.”

Mission accomplished.

At the time I read this book, I had been reading another recent work of Sherlock Holmes-related fiction called The Sherlockian.  It was written by a Graham Moore, and it was about a Sherlock Holmes nerd who was sucked into a murder mystery.

Between the two of them, read Murder in the Vatican.

And, now, a surprise …. a sneak peek of the novel.

Enjoy.

An Excerpt

From “The Case of Cardinal Tosca”

“Good Lord.” Harden’s face grew pale. “Rosalinda—!”

Pope Leo blanched as well. Tapping his right fist in his opposite hand, he turned to look out the window behind him. The rain clouds had now blotted the sun, making it seem as dusk in the early afternoon sky.

The pope turned back to us, his dark eyes flashing with decision. “Giocomo!” He commanded suddenly. “Come here.”

Father Dionisio came quickly to his master’s side.

“Remove your cassock.”

“Holiness?”

“Subito!” As Leo spoke, he lifted the pectoral cross over his head and set it on the table. He then unwrapped the sash from around his waist and tossed it on his chair. “Presto! Presto! We have no time to waste.”

Hurriedly, the young man unbuttoned his cassock even as Leo unbuttoned his own. Holmes came around the table and knelt to help Leo with the lower buttons.

“What on earth —?” I asked.

“You’ll see,” said Holmes.

Dionisio removed his cassock and stood in simple black shirt, clerical collar and black trousers. Holmes helped Leo slip out of his white cassock and into the black gown provided by Dionisio. The black was almost the right size, though fuller through the midsection due to Dionisio’s thicker frame.

“You’re not serious, Holiness,” said Harden. “You’re not actually leaving the Vatican. Someone may recognise you—”

“‘If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship,’” Leo replied, quoting what I later learned was Aquinas. “‘He would keep it in port forever.’” He buttoned the top of the cassock while Dionisio crouched to fasten the bottom. “We must go. An innocent child is in danger for my sake.”

“Signore Harden is right, Holiness,” said Dionisio from floor. “This is madness.”

Basta.” Leo pulled the young man from the ground by the elbow. He gestured emphatically with an open hand to the top of his head. “Portami un cappello. Presto!” Dionisio dashed into the next room. “And black stockings and shoes—ah, never mind I’ll find something.” The pontiff marched with remarkable energy into a side room that I guessed to be his sleeping area and returned promptly with black calf-length boots. His gentleman servant now trailed him protesting in rapid Italian as His Holiness moved. While the pontiff sat on a small bench to kick off his red slippers and pull on the boots, the agitated servant knelt beside him rambling so quickly that neither Harden nor I could decipher any meaning from him.

Apparently the meaning didn’t register to Leo either. “Basta, basta, BASTA!” He barked, stomping his boot-covered foot. He pointed a thumb to his chest. “Ego sum Petros!” He made sweeping gesture to drive the man from in front of him. “Vai!” Struck with terror, the butler dodged from the old man’s path as Leo charged to a baroque style cherry wood cabinet. From it he removed a worn, black leather case that he tucked under his arm. He finished buttoning his cuffs and Dionisio returned with a small, wide-brimmed black hat, which Leo snatched from him. He then plucked off his white zucchetto and slapped it into the bewildered priest’s hands.

“Allora, Signori,” Leo said to us, dropping the black hat on his head. “Andiamo.”

“You’ve forgotten one detail, Padre,” said Holmes, in reference to the pope’s new attire.

“Che?”

“L’anello.” Holmes held up his right hand and pointed to his fourth finger.

“Ah.” Leo pulled the fisherman’s ring from his finger and dropped it into the left pocket of the black cassock. The young priest then handed him a tall black umbrella, and Leo set its end to the floor with authoritative thud.

It is amazing how clothes can change the appearance of a man. Where once stood the proverbial Vicar of Christ on Earth, now stood a simple, venerable Italian priest. Strangely, he resembled the aged Italian cleric persona Holmes once adopted to avoid the notice of Professor Moriarty.

I glanced at Holmes and saw him giving me a knowing grin. “Very well then,” he said. “As the man says—let’s go.”

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