Sunday, September 17, 2006

Carr: The Italian Secretary

Oops! It's been a month. I have been getting reading done, but, due to technical difficulties at work, haven't had much chance to blog when I'm home. Things were resolved last week, so with luck I'll be a little more frequent.

Today's post is about a book I didn't really like. Yeah, I didn't mean to do negative reviews, and I'll still mostly focus on recommendations. Caleb Carr's The Italian Secretary, however, is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, which means some readers might enjoy it anyway, so I'll go ahead.

The thing to know about Carr's book is that it originated in a request to contribute a short story to an anthology of Sherlock Homes pastiches centering on ghost stories. Yeah, you read that right. Carr's contribution was too long, but the publishers liked it so they put it out as a novel. It does, in fact, read more like a long story. Holmes and Watson get called up to Edinburgh to investigate two murders in Holyrood House that resemble the ancient slaying of Mary, Queen of Scot's music secretary, David Rizzio. They spend the train ride in exposition and back-story, have a mildly interesting interlude, and arrive in Edinburgh. When Watson wakes up the next morning, Holmes has solved the case. This lack of any development in the mystery is OK for a short story, annoying in a novel. True, several more chapters ensue in which our heroes try to trap the villain, etc., but as a mystery this isn't terrifically successful.

Holmes has suddenly developed a belief in ghosts, in direct opposition to his comments in Conan Doyle's original stories (the Canon, for those of you not familiar with the term), but that's not Carr's fault since it's the premise of the original collection. I think this could have been successfully cut back to a short story, rather than spun into a novella. Still, it's Holmes and if you're like me and you'll read just about anything with that character, it's probably worth picking up in a used bookstore.

Carr also has a bad habit of using "being as" instead of "because" or just "as." I will be honest with you all and admit that this is a pet peeve of mine. It's annoying in vapid teenagers. It's pretty poor in published novels, which ought to employ the fewest words possible. It's inexcusable in a book written in the first person before "being as" entered the language as a common speech tick. Shame on you, Carroll and Graf. This is something your editors should have caught.

Carr's own series of late nineteenth-century mysteries are far superior. He's a better writer than this; the premise was just too silly. I'll tell you about a good book of his next time.

The Brits can put curry in anything. I heartily approve. Here's my own suggestion for how your life can be improved through curry paste:

My Mom's Beer Cheese Soup

<>½ stick butter (4 Tbsp)
4 Tbsp flour
¼ - ½ cup finely diced onion
1/8 – ¼ tsp dry mustard
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper
1 can (aprox. 2 cups) chicken stock
1 to 1½ cans beer
½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup finely dices carrots (optional)
¼ cup finely dices celery (optional)
¾ - 1 lb. shredded (or hunked) cheese (sharp cheddar or Velveeta)
½ cup (or so) broccoli floweret’s, chopped
2 – 3 slices bacon, crumbled
Shredded cheddar cheese
Green onion, chopped <>

Sauté onions in butter. Add flour, salt, pepper and dry mustard. Stir until bubbly. Gradually add chicken stock, beer and Worcestershire sauce. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Add carrots and celery, if desired. Simmer 5 – 10 minutes until vegetables are tender. Add cheese, stirring constantly until melted. Add broccoli and simmer until just barely tender (2 - 4 minutes?). Garnish with sprinkle of bacon, shredded cheese and green onion (optional, of course). Serve with bread sticks or garlic bread. Enjoy!

Mom Notes: I prefer the flavor of sharp cheddar, but Velveeta melts a little smoother. If you use Velveeta,reduce or eliminate the salt added to your white sauce. I add enough cheese to make the soup a pretty light yellow color. Use more or less as you like. Better flavored beer makes better soup and you get to drink the 4½ cans left over so get a decent one.

My note: Try adding 1 tsp of curry paste when you add the dry mustard. It gives the soup a very nice flavor--not too overpowering. The only downside is that it makes the soup a bright orangey-yellow color that makes it look like you're using some weird preservative.


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