Authors: Dan Andriacco
Tags: #Sherlock Holmes, #mystery, #crime, #british crime, #sherlock holmes novels, #sherlock holmes fiction
Talking in the Library
The rare book room of the Lee J. Bennish Memorial Library looked smaller with Sebastian McCabe on the loose in there.
He dominated the place, not so much by his physical bulk - although Mac has a triple helping of that - but by the force of his energy as he moved from person to person. My brother-in-law was in his element, as buoyant as I'd ever seen him.
Finally I managed to pull him to one side.
“This morning I worked with a TV crew, almost got plowed into by Dr. Queensbury, visited Decker, talked with Judge Crocker and Matheson, and came up with a couple of good candidates for our thief,” I said. “How's your day going?”
“I,” declared Mac, “have been thinking.”
“Now there's a stunning announcement.”
“The unknown means of entry continues to interest me greatly. And I find it instructive that only a few books were taken - a handful.”
“What do you think it means?”
“I am not ready to say.”
“The creator of the great Damon Devlin can't do any better than that?” I jeered. “I thought you'd know whodunit by now.”
Mac stroked his beard. “I could enumerate suspects aplenty, if that is what you crave. My friend Woollcott, for example, could have stolen those books out of simple avarice, though one is hard pressed to explain why he would not have simply held back the books from his donation. I don't believe he is in that dire a need of a tax deduction.”
“Scratch him,” I agreed.
“We must turn then to other collectors, for surely it was someone of bibliographic sophistication who did this deed. The name of Hugh Matheson springs instantly to mind.” He nodded toward the attorney, who was talking with Renata while Lynda took their picture. “Not for greed so much as for revenge. Even wealthy and famous individuals such as he have been known to avenge repeated slights or insults.”
“Well, Matheson has suffered plenty of those, according to his own account.”
Mac nodded. “If cupidity is the motive, however, the director of the Library of Popular Culture warrants a hard look.”
“Graham Bentley Post?” I said.
The surprise was mutual.
“You know about him, then?” Mac said. “I do not suggest it is likely that he himself is involved. However, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that some less scrupulous person, hearing of his late-blooming interest in Sherlockiana, looted the Chalmers Collection with the hope of peddling the materials to the Library of Popular Culture. Might I suggest an interview-”
“I'm already on it. Gene gave me Post's cell phone number and his hotel. No answer yet, but I'll get him eventually. I'll interview this dude, like any good PI would, while you're sitting on your fat rump listening to people talk about Sherlock Holmes. And I'll do it for myself, not for you.”
Mac shrugged his mountainous shoulders. “Not for me the rushing to and fro of the peripatetic private investigator, Jefferson. I intend to unravel this puzzle without incurring physical exhaustion. Besides, I have other responsibilities today, one of which is to get this presentation moving now that the reprehensible Ralph has arrived.”
The provost stood just inside the entrance to the rare books room, making a painful attempt to look at ease. It didn't work. There were too many sharp angles about the man, from the creases in the pants of his pinstriped suit to his nose. His slicked-back hair was shiny under the fluorescent lights.
Mac glad-handed him. “Thank you for being here to accept this important gift, Dr. Pendergast.”
Ralph managed a tight smile. “Let's just get this over with, McCabe,” he said,
With Ralph in tow, Mac moved to the center of the room, stealing Woollcott Chalmers away from his wife along the way. He cleared his throat, a sound not unlike the rumble of a subway train. Silence descended on cue. Without benefit of a podium, notes or microphone, my brother-in-law delivered an introduction that was part biography, part eulogy. He made it clear that Chalmers was one swell Sherlockian.
Chalmers seemed to draw strength from the applause that greeted him, as if he were feeding on it.
“Sherlock Holmes, though a natural-born actor, was not a man given to public speaking,” the old man observed in a firm, loud voice, “and I always try to emulate the Master. Consequently, you can be sure this will be brief.”
And it was - just three pages in the little notebook where I was recording events for an article in the alumni magazine. Having already exceeded his Biblically allotted three score and ten years, Chalmers said, it was only natural that he began to think about what would ultimately happen to the Woollcott Chalmers Collection when he had gone to that great Baker Street in the sky. At the urging of Professor Sebastian McCabe, he had decided to donate the collection before his death to a fine institution where he could spend his final years helping to catalogue it. He knew, he said, that the collection would be in good hands. Somehow he managed to deliver that last line with a straight face, which was not only remarkable but gracious considering what had happened last night.
Ralph was equally gracious, for him.
“St. Benignus College is honored indeed to be the new home of the Woollcott Chalmers Collection,” he declaimed. “This makes us number one in the Midwest as a research resource for, uh, Sherlockiana. And let me add that we are fortunate indeed to have generous outside funding, primarily from the Altiora Corporation and from the Burger Castle Company, to maintain the Collection.”
He really said that, and I can prove it: I got it all on video with my iPhone, figuring I could post it later on the St. Benignus website.
Ralph then called on two dyspeptic corporate types in the crowd to take a bow for spending the shareholders' money so wisely.
Lynda stepped forward, crouched, and snapped what I figured would be a satisfying shot of Ralph, Chalmers and the corporate sponsors shaking hands all around. Ralph would love it.
That concluded the ceremony. The crowd broke up into little groups knotted around various exhibits as at a cocktail party. Matheson chatted with Gene Pfannenstiel, Judge Crocker and Dr. Queensbury huddled around the wax bust of Sherlock Holmes, and my sister and Renata listened to Al Kane hold forth.
A few people even looked at books. One of these was an older man, about six-three in height if he would stand up straight, with thick whitish-blond hair falling over one eye. Maybe I noticed him at first because he was by himself, even seeming aloof as he walked among the display cases with his hands behind his back. Or maybe it was the way he repeatedly mumbled exclamations as some title caught his attention. For whatever reason, I was already eyeing him with suspicion when he reached over as if maybe he were going to try to open the display case.
“I know what you're up to, T.J.”
I whirled around and grunted at my sister, “Not exactly a secret. My job description says public relations. This is the public and I'm relating.”
When I looked back the bent-over bookman was moving on to the next display.
“You know what I mean,” Kate said, stepping around to get in front of me. “You're playing detective.”
“Who isn't?” I grumped. “Mac insists he's going to solve this caper using his great brain, even if he doesn't leave the colloquium for the next two days. Dr. Queensbury is running around in his deerstalker cap trying to ask revealing questions. Even Al Kane has a theory. It's like they've all been infected by the Sherlock Holmes virus.”
Kate absent-mindedly fingered her copper tresses. “Apparently you weren't immune from the awful contagion yourself.”
“This is no game to me, Sis. There's an issue of job security, for one thing. If I can retrieve those stolen books or goose Decker into doing it, there should be enough positive media coverage in that to make even Ralph happy for a while.”
The older gentleman with the hands-on approach to the Holmes display was next to Mac now, still stooped as though he were permanently bent from years of reading book titles on the lower shelves. Mac simultaneously slapped him on the arm and stole the watch off his wrist, magician-style. My brother-in-law thinks that that kind of thing is funny. What a card. Apparently the guy was a friend of Mac's. At least I hoped he was, although I hadn't noticed him at the party last night or earlier in the Hearth Room.
“I'm sure Ralph is being his usual irksome self,” Kate said, “but I wonder if that's the only reason you're on this sleuthing kick?”
Thirteen lousy months - that's all that separates my sister and me in age. But she insists on being Big Sister, which includes the right to psychoanalyze me like she's Sigmunda Freud or Carla Jung or some other shrink. I wish she would stick to illustrating children's books.
“What other reasons could there possibly be?” I said, foolishly holding the door wide open for her.
“Why, to compensate for your unsuccessful attempts at mystery writing, of course - especially if you can out-sleuth Sebastian in the process. We both know it drives you crazy that his amateur detective books keep selling while your private eye novels can't find a publisher. You should try self-publishing on Kindle, by the way.”
Thanks for the advice, sis.
The implication of pettiness on my part stung. That was unworthy of Kate.
“You think this is some kind of ego contest between Mac and me? That's a laugh.” I forced a laugh. “Besides, there isn't going to be any contest. I'm going to beat his oversized posterior.”
I turned away from my sister, looking around the room for that suspicious character I'd last seen with Mac. Instead I spotted Lynda with Ralph, a truly strange duo. He was pontificating and she was getting it down in a notebook, her pen flying across the pages.
“You still look at her the same way, you know,” Kate said.
“Lynda? You're imagining things. I'm just happy she asked Ralph a few questions. I'll be even happier if his deathless quotes are part of her story in tomorrow's paper.”
“Don't try to tell me that lovesick expression on your face has anything to do with business. I'm an artist, remember? I've been trained to observe what I see.”
“Oh, for... Quit trying to get into my head, will you? There's barely enough room in there for me, let alone the rest of my family.”
“And it isn't just the way you look at Lynda, either,” Kate persisted. “I've seen the hairy eyeball you've been giving Hugh Matheson every time he gets close to her. If looks could kill...”
“Sure, I've been watching him,” I acknowledged. “Matheson happens to be a choice suspect in this little caper, that's all.”
Kate just looked at me. That woman could stare down Svengali.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “How am I supposed to feel when I see a woman I used to be pretty close to chumming it up with a guy like that? I've read all those stories about Matheson's three ex-wives and too many bimbos to count. He may be rich and famous and handsome, but I don't think he'd be any good for her.”
“There you go again, T.J., deciding what's good for Lynda. You know she-”
“I know she's through with me for good. Oh, except that she wants to be friends. Don't forget that part.” Did I sound bitter?
I moved to leave on that exit line, but Kate tugged on my shoulder. “She still looks at you the same way, too, T.J. And not like a friend.”
“Nick Carter, Alias Sherlock Holmes” - Professor Malcolm Whippet, Licking Falls State College
“Sherlock Holmes in Scandinavia” - Lars Jenson, Lund, Sweden
“Holmes and Drugs: Was Sherlock's Coke the Real Thing?” - Dr. Noah Queensbury, BSI, Cincinnati
Interval: Field Bazaar
“Disguise in the Canon” - Barry Landers, St. Benignus College
“And Ladies of the Canon” - Kathleen Cody McCabe, Erin, Ohio
I Can't Believe This
Listening to Professor Malcolm Whippet of Licking Falls State College, the first speaker of the afternoon session, was like suffering a Chinese water torture of words.
Whippet was a frail figure in his late sixties, medium height, thin, with a high forehead, fringes of gray hair, age spots on his head and hands, and gray-green eyes. He was so slight he hardly seemed to be there at all.
Whenever he had to turn the pages of the paper he was reading, he stopped his nasal monotone to lick his fingers. After a few introductory comments (“Let us begin with the obvious - Sherlock Holmes was an American”), Professor Whippet's presentation on “Nick Carter, Alias Sherlock Holmes” turned out to be a pastiche, an imitation Holmes story. Whippet lacked, however, a few tools of the storyteller's art, such as a sense of pace, an ear for dialogue, and a rudimentary notion of plot. Also, he couldn't write.
“âYes, my faithful Watson, it is quite so!'” he read. “âAll these years I have concealed my true identity even from you. I am indeed Nicholas Carter, the famous American detective!'”
Putting a hand over my mouth to stifle an impolite sound, I looked around the room to see how this was going over with the Sherlockian set. A lot of people were shifting in their seats, including Lynda and Matheson. They were still sitting next to each other and Lynda wasn't sending any lovesick looks
way, contrary to my sister's observation.
Mac had deposited himself in a wingback chair next to me at the back of the room. I leaned over to tell him, “I can't believe this. How do this guy's students stand it?”
“Students?” Mac repeated with dismay. He raised an eyebrow. “Surely you jest. Professor Whippet has tenure, not students. Do not demean the man's achievements, Jefferson. It takes considerable talent to make Sherlock Holmes this boring. I had no idea he had it in him.”
Whippet droned on. I looked at my watch: two-eleven. When it seemed like half an hour had passed, I looked at it again: two-fourteen. Would it never end? It did, finally, but not until the speaker had run five minutes over his allotted time and brought into his story Mycroft Holmes (revealed as one of Nick Carter's operatives), Grover Cleveland, Fu-Manchu, Jack the Ripper, Count Dracula, Oscar Wilde, the Prince of Wales, and Tinker Bell.
When the concluding clichÃ© had been uttered, the applause of a grateful crowd shook the room. Nobody called for more.
Next up on the program was a man Mac introduced to my surprise as Lars Jenson, the most prominent Swedish publisher of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I'd known he was coming, of course - from a conference in New York, not directly from Sweden. But I had never connected his name with the stoop-shouldered fellow from the rare book room, the one with the whitish-blond hair hanging over one eye Ã la Carl Sandburg. Dressed in a double-breasted blue suit, pink shirt, wide paisley tie, and socks with little clock designs on them, he didn't look like my idea of a publisher.
When he opened his mouth, Jenson sounded like the Swedish Chef on
The Muppet Show
. Approximately every other word started with either a “y” or a “v” sound, which made it hard to figure out what he was saying. There was something about Sherlock Holmes helping the King of Scandinavia on two occasions, and Holmes and Watson visiting Norway at the end of one of their adventures. And Holmes, if I caught it right, once adopted the guise of a Norwegian explorer. But don't expect me to give you quotes.
All the while he talked, Jenson kept playing with a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. He'd put them on, yank them off, put them on, yank them off. There seemed no rhyme or reason to it, since he didn't use the glasses to read from notes. For awhile I was fascinated, trying to figure out a pattern. But it started giving me the heebie-jeebies until finally I couldn't stand it anymore and I left.
Out in the corridor, haunted by that Swedish Chef voice coming over the loudspeaker, I flipped out my iPhone. After posting a quick tweet (
“Last two speakers at Doyle-Holmes colloquium truly unbelievable”
), I called a certain cell phone number. Graham Bentley Post answered with his names - all three of them - on the third ring.
“This is Thomas Jefferson Cody,” I informed him, not to be outdone in the multiple names department. “I'm calling from St. Benignus College and I'd like to talk to you about the Woollcott Chalmers Collection.”
“Indeed?” His voice turned warmer, say three degrees. “I have already had some discussions of that nature with Mr. Pfannenstiel. They have not been fruitful.”
“I know,” I said. “When and where can we meet?”
He suggested six-thirty and dinner at the restaurant in the Winfield, which is top-notch, but I planned to stick with the colloquium right through the seven o'clock banquet in the President's Dining Room. Post had an appointment at a private home on Everly Street until after five o'clock, so we agreed to meet at five-thirty at the nearby main branch of the Sussex County Public Library.
“I hope you'll have some news for me, Mr. Cody,” Post said.
“That goes double,” I assured him.
As I disconnected, I wondered why Post hadn't even mentioned the theft last night. It seemed a remarkable oversight - unless he'd been deliberately avoiding the subject.
My spot on the couch at the back of the Hearth Room had been swiped by a man in a string tie, so I slipped into a chair in the last row. I was in front of Mac and lined up almost exactly behind Lynda and Matheson, who leaned over to whisper things to her with alarming frequency - alarming to me, anyway.
Dr. Queensbury had the lectern, discussing Sherlock Holmes and cocaine. Still wearing the deerstalker cap, he paced and postured like the great detective himself as he quoted alternatively from the Holmes stories and from the British medical journals of the day. I wrote down some of his more memorable points:
“Watson mentions Holmes's use of cocaine only five times, and all of them in stories appearing between 1890 and 1893.”
“In 1890 cocaine was still considered a therapeutic agent. It was a non-prescription drug. Not until the middle of the decade did Freud reject it.
“It has been questioned, however, whether Holmes really used cocaine at all. Perhaps he was just having Watson on.”
Queensbury's talk had at least one outstanding virtue: It was only about fifteen minutes long. Even after he took questions from the floor the program was running ahead of schedule. Queensbury sat down, amid applause, and there was an awkward gap when he wasn't replaced at the lectern. I looked behind me but the master of ceremonies, Mac, was no longer there either. Finally, my sister Kate stood up and announced that it was time for an “interval” or break between sessions.
The flow of the crowd went in two directions - either out the doors (heading for such amenities as coffee, the restroom, or a place to smoke outside) or toward the back of the room, where the bald man was selling books and what I would call trinkets.
As I stood up to stretch my longish legs, I heard somebody behind me at the book table say:
“I have that book!”
“British or American edition?” another voice asked.
Stirring stuff, but where in the world was Mac? I wanted to tell him about my appointment with Graham Bentley Post. Queensbury's talk coming up short obviously had caught Mac off guard. Looking around the room I still didn't see his huge form.
I sure liked that voice. Renata Chalmers, flashing that thousand-watt smile at me, nudged her way through some of the reveling Sherlockians until she stood at my side. She pushed a wild strand of black hair out of her eye and stuck her hands into the pockets of her dress-for-success suit.
“What do you hear from the campus police?”
“Nothing worth repeating.”
“No theories at all?”
“Oh, there are theories galore,” I said, lowering my voice, “but not from the cops.”
“Really?” Oh, that smile. “Please tell me. I just love theories.”
I shook my head. “No way am I going to name names. I could be slandering somebody.”
And considering who one of my hot suspects was, a legal battle was the last thing I wanted.
I could have sworn Renata was about to resort to feminine wiles - something about the man-eating look in her brown eyes as she opened her mouth - but just then her husband limped by and she buttoned up.
“Hello, Cody,” he said, giving me one of the man-to-man slaps on the arm that I've always hated. “The program seems to be going well despite last night's unfortunate curtain-raiser.”
He leaned on his cane and we exchanged pleasantries. I told Chalmers how much I enjoyed his morning talk. He said he was quite pleased with the way the Chalmers Collection looked in our library. I assured him that Campus Security was doing everything possible to recover the rest of the collection. After a minute or two of that, the Chalmerses left to powder their noses or whatever and I was left pondering the books for sale. Some were old and possibly rare, while others were new or even paperback. How could there be so much written about one thin guy with abominable taste in headgear?
The bald bookseller smiled, showing a gold tooth, and pointed to one slim volume with a garish cover. “There's a new one,” he said helpfully.
I picked up the book and checked out the title:
The Adventure of the Unique âHamlet.'
“It's actually an old story, of course, the famous Vincent Starrett pastiche, but a new edition with some cool illustrations,” the dealer said. “You've probably read it.”
“I'm afraid not.”
“Well, it's about a bibliophile who asks Holmes to solve the theft of his rare edition of
“How timely,” I said dryly.
The bookman nodded. “In this story the client did it himself - to hide the fact that the supposedly rare volume was a fake.”
From behind me a familiar voice said: “An excellent volume you have there, Jefferson! It was one of the early pastiches, and it remains one of the finest.”
I whirled on my brother-in-law.“I set up an interview with Post. Where the hell have you been?”
“I the hell have been conversing with Lieutenant Decker, asking him the key questions that will solve this elementary case.”
“Oh, yeah? Such as?”
He shook his hairy head. “On that point I remain coy, Jefferson. Perhaps my little idea is all wrong and you would think less of me later.”
“You? Wrong?” I forced out what I hoped was an obviously faked chuckle.
“Yes, the notion is risible, is it not?” Mac gestured with the unlit cigar in his hand. “Let us say, then, that I will not answer that question because no good amateur sleuth would - not Ellery Queen, not Amelia Peabody, not Damon-”
“Oh, just stuff it, Mac. You can't hand me that crap.”
“I just did, old boy.”
The lights in the Hearth Room flicked off, on, off, on. Somebody was trying to tell us something.
“Not another word, Jefferson,” Mac said. “We shall have to recommence this verbal ballet later. The interval is over.”