Detection and the City: The Baker Street Letters, by Michael Robertson

I love the Sherlock Holmes stories and many of their spin-offs. My PhD dissertation included a chapter on the detective’s ability to “read” the urban landscape.

While I was reading The Baker Street Letters (published by Minotaur in 2009), the Vancouver Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. Rioting followed.  The riots began at the intersection of Georgia and Hamilton, which is surrounded by public buildings and plazas where fans had gathered to watch the game.  I often take students on a walking tour that begins at that intersection, where we talk about the importance of public space and public life for a livable city. That conversation will go a bit differently now, I expect.

So reading Michael Robertson’s book, I had cities on my mind. The Baker Street Letters is inspired by the real-life letters sent to Sherlock Holmes.  Lawyer Reggie Heath has just rented offices at 221b Baker Street (the address was fictional in Arthur Conan Doyle’s time, but now houses the Holmes museum). His lease requires him to send form responses to the letters that arrive for Holmes. Reggie gives this task to his younger brother Nigel, who soon becomes concerned about one of the letter-writers and flies off to Los Angeles to find her, followed by Reggie, who’s worried about what trouble his somewhat unstable brother might get into.

Given the premise, I expected a “London” mystery, a clever Sherlockian puzzle of a book.  Sherlock Holmes can do what he does because his London works by a set of legible rules: people dress and behave according to their gender, class and occupation, for instance.  Holmes’s encyclopedic knowledge of these rules, and the map of London he carries in his head, make him a master of deduction. 

But most of the action takes place in Los Angeles, which is a hard-boiled/noir city. The hard-boiled detective (think Chandler’s Philip Marlowe) is a lone knight-errant in a corrupt world. His city isn’t legible, or at least he fails to see the patterns until too late. He’s at the mercy of the world around him: he’s always getting beaten up; he may figure out the crime, but justice often doesn’t prevail.  The Baker Street Letters is more in this vein. The plot revolves around a corrupt development deal that reminded me vaguely of Chinatown

Ultimately, this book didn’t work as either a London or an LA mystery.  Reggie’s the main point of view character, which could make him a Watson, but there’s no Holmes whose brilliance is displayed by his failures, just a few Sherlockian moments (Nigel notices some dirt of the wrong color; Laura, Reggie’s girlfriend, notices furniture slightly off-kilter).  Reggie isn’t a hard-boiled hero, either; he is kind of a self-important, oblivious jerk, really, and his sudden turn to heroic moral center at the end isn’t really believable. The mystery plot wasn’t nearly byzantine enough for noir.

This is a first novel, and I thought it showed; too much telling, not enough emotion. I liked it enough that I might try the second, which my library has on audio.  I don’t think I was the most receptive reader just now:  watching a brutal Cup loss and the even more depressing aftermath really take it out of a girl.

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