The Surragate Assassin - Because Sherlock Holmes apparently is connected to every historical event in his lifetime!

The Surrogate Assassin - Christopher Leppek

This will be a difficult review for me to write as I am not only seeing this book through the lenses of both nostalgia and current reading but also different portions of the book. A large part of me feels like giving this book 1/2 a star more, as I really do like the ending...but at the same time...


Well, I'll try to explain.


The Gush

I will read just about anything with Sherlock Holmes in it. I may be all but heretical but I often find the pastiches in some ways better then Doyle's because I've always been able to see how much Holmes' creator hated his character. He cared little for the stories and it shows. The fact that they are as amazing as they are says more for Doyle's writing ability then anything else he wrote. And he did something else right, he created two of the most enduring and intriguing characters: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. There is a reason these above so many others have been able to all but leave their literary world and enter our own. So many authors, some very well known, have tried their hand at writing a tale with wildly varying successes and many, many actors have breathed their own life into these iconic men (and for one recently, a woman).


Many of these pastiches I read years ago when I first discovered the Holmes novels and short stories and as I got them from a library in a city I no longer live in, many have been forgotten or barely remembered. This one, however, this one stuck in my head and I'd been looking for it ever since. All I could remember was "it's the one where Holmes is given a case by Edwin Booth, who amazingly is his cousin!, and he investigates John Wilkes Booth." Try typing that into a search engine; I won't tell you what I found.


For years I kept my eye out...until I chanced on a list of Holmes pastiches Must-Reads...and almost that exact summary was listed next to the title! I was so happy. I basically bought it immediately with Christmas money and set to read it. Oddly enough, at the same time, I was listening to Bill O'Reilly's Killing Lincoln, which lined up with this nicely. I didn't set out to do it, it just happened.


And yes, the nostalgia is there. The story, the bare bones of it anyway, came back to me though I could not remember the ending. A rather good thing, as it was as if I was reading it for the first time yet with nostalgia (an odd feeling indeed). The author writes well and far better then others, brings Watson's writing style to the story to near letter perfection. The story is intriguing, particularly if you know little about Edwin Booth, far better known by his contemporaries then his brother, but eclipsed by him in history. Making Holmes a cousin is not as badly done as you no doubt fear and fits in nicely with history, as his second 'wife' was actually named Holmes. This also gives both Holmes and Watson as well as the reader the chance to connect with the man in a far more personal manner then possible otherwise. This also helps later on in the story with plot points.


The history is plentiful, particularly for a reader who knows the story rather well already, but it is necessary to set up the rest of the book. As this takes place some years after, we are able to meet Dr. Mudd and others who lived through the time and were profoundly changed, mostly for ill, by the events. The mystery, while interesting enough, does rather get lost in the rest of the facts, story, surprising twists, etc. The clues are there, but there is little actual mystery in the book.


And the The ending is what, I think, made me want to read this book again. Whatever my feelings for the book before hand, the ending does a fantastic job of wrapping some ways rather bizarre tale into a credible and moving finale. The ending is a good reason for why I will read this again.


The Rant

Okay, I'm going to try to explain why I had/have some ambivilent feelings towards this book without spoilers and then briefly with them. Read whichever one you wish depending on whether you wish to be spoiled or not.


The Lincoln Assassination, as with the Kennedy Assassination, is rife with conspiracy theories. This may surprise some people as they are not discussed as openly or often as the Kennedy ones (partially because of the amount of time that has past), but they are there. By and large, I find them ludicrous, though even someone completely against conspiracy thoughts has to admit that some of Stanton's actions were strange. Make of that what you will.  So Sherlock Holmes investigating the death of the President all but begs for all sorts of odd and bizarre ideas to be batted around. To be fair, the author doesn't go for some of the more truly strange ones, but he does go there. Further, his explanation of what...didn't happen is...makes me both cringe and angry. Just my gut reaction. And while his explanation of what did happen (i.e. the ending talked about above) goes a long way, it doesn't completely wipe away my feelings. It almost seems trite and all but screams wish fulfillment.


Now for the full explanation:

Basically, Holmes figures out half way through that Booth (John) is still alive. So he tracks him down, brings him with him to see Watson and Edwin Booth, and gives them the remarkable news: John Wilkes Booth did not kill Abraham Lincoln! WHAT!!!!! The story the younger Booth tells is...barely plausible, in my opinion, given what is known about his personality. When you take away the idea that he was mad (and I don't think he was mad; he was actually rather calculating for all that he had few ideas what he was doing), the author seemed to believe that this dramatic, showy, and narcissistic man would hide and be capable of concealing his identity for the rest of his life. Um, no. Sorry, don't buy it. If innocent, John Wilkes Booth would have proclaimed his innocence to the sky; he needed an audience, that was just his way. The explanation given by the true assassin, and I won't spoil that part, does actually seem plausible and does go a long way to bringing my feelings for the book back to something better...except a part of me can't quite suspend my disbelief that much. Never mind that it is not until far after we get to know him as a character that I am able to divorce my view of the historical Booth with this fictional one. I'm rather like Watson in that regard (which might help somewhat, actually). Also...doing that, on some level, seems to trivialize what occurred; particularly taking into consideration the real murderer's true reason for killing the president.

(show spoiler)



When it's all said and done, I'm glad I bought this book and I will read it again. Despite some real issues with it, it's one of the better Sherlock Holmes pastiches I've read. It is a bit heavy on historical fact for some readers and don't be surprised if you have a visceral reaction to certain aspects of it, but I say, give it ago and keep reading to the end.


It is worth it.



Note: This particular copy turned out to be an interesting treasure trove. Not only did I find a ticket stub from a plane flight from Denver to Baltimore...(okay, that is actually quite Twilight Zone-esque given travel itineraries in the on February 22 of an unknown year, but I found a bookmark advertising the very book I was reading near the back. I'd forgotten they use to have those for certain books. And apparently (cuz I just checked) it is also a signed someone else of course but that is still kinda cool. So far, I'm keeping both of them but I consider the bookmark to be epically awesome!