Review: Murder in the Vatican, the Church Mysteries of Sherlock Homes

Reviewing Murder in the Vatican requires a bit of backstory. When I was 13, I started reading through the collected stories of Sherlock Holmes. I made it about halfway through. stopped dead by “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott”—the first time Holmes was the narrator.  Even G.K. Chesterton noted that it showed why Watson was relevant: because Holmes was a terrible storyteller.

Since then, I have been critical of anything about Sherlock Holmes written after the death of Arthur Conan Doyle.
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 they created Sherlock, I also crossed my fingers. It was surprisingly awesome.

Then I heard about Murder in the Vatican: The Church Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. 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.

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 reviews as I read the book. There is plenty of backtracking, filling the blanks, and rewrite the review as the book goes. I wrote the Father Brown 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.”

Let’s see Martin Freeman deliver that line.


“I was exceedingly preoccupied by that little affair of the Vatican cameos, and in my anxiety to oblige the Pope I lost touch with several interesting English cases.”

—Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles

The second tale, “The Vatican Cameos,” is a bit of a flashback episode to when Holmes first met Pope Leo XIII. A collection of cameos is sent to Queen Victoria, secured tightly in the box, but upon their arrival in London, the box is empty. The Queen simply sends 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.” Thus, there is only one person left who to narrate this tale … Leo XIII. 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. 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.

Frankly, between Cumberbatch, RDJ, or Elementary, if you had to live with only one expansion of Holmes works, you buy Ann Lewis. Period.

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award nominated author. His “Catholic Vampire romance novels” can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does.

A Day in the Life of Joe (Blue State Edition)

NOTE: “A Day in the Life of Joe Republican” is an essay meant to demonstrate the usefulness of Progressive policies and hypocrisy of conservatives who take advantage of them. A shortened version of the original and my “re-write” are presented below.

 

Joe gets up at 6 a.m. and fills his coffeepot with water to prepare his morning coffee.

Joe gets up at 6 a.m. to prepare his morning coffee. Then he remembers that he doesn’t have any real coffee. All the coffee beans are now Free Trade and Organic, so he can’t afford to buy them anymore. He measures out the instant coffee powder into his mug and fills it with water.

 

The water is clean and good because some tree-hugging liberal fought for minimum water-quality standards.

The water trickles very slowly into the mug because his kitchen is equipped with low-flow faucets, as per the new regulations. After a couple of minutes, the mug is full and he heats the coffee in the microwave.

 

With his first swallow of coffee, he takes his daily medication. His medications are safe to take because some stupid commie liberal fought to insure their safety and that they work as advertised.

With his first swallow of coffee, he takes his daily medication. It’s not as effective as the one he used to take, but FDA banned the medication that worked for him because it could cause miscarriages. Joe tried to explain to his doctor that he was not in danger of a miscarriage, but there was nothing to be done.

 

All but $10 of his medications are paid for by his employer’s medical plan because some liberal union workers fought their employers for paid medical insurance – now Joe gets it too.

The medication used to only have a $10 co-pay, but now Joe has to pay $50 because the union negotiated the new insurance plan that covers in-vitro fertilization for female employees, and the cost had to be made up by reducing pharmacy coverage.

 

He prepares his morning breakfast, bacon and eggs. Joe’s bacon is safe to eat because some girly-man liberal fought for laws to regulate the meat packing industry.


He prepares his morning breakfast, a bowl of organic oatmeal. He misses his eggs and bacon, but a carton of eggs is $10 at his local supermarket because the eggs came from free range chickens who only eat organic corn. Bacon is illegal in his town because it offends his Muslim neighbors.

 

In the morning shower, Joe reaches for his shampoo. His bottle is properly labeled with each ingredient and its amount in the total contents because some crybaby liberal fought for his right to know what he was putting on his body and how much it contained.

In the morning shower, Joe reaches for his shampoo. It doesn’t clean his hair very well, but it’s made of bio-degradable vegetable based ingredients that are safe for the local wildlife. He takes care to finish the shower after 2 minutes to comply with the city water restrictions.

Joe dresses, walks outside and takes a deep breath. The air he breathes is clean because some environmentalist wacko liberal fought for laws to stop industries from polluting our air.

Joe dresses, walks outside and takes a deep breath. He coughs from inhaling the car exhaust fumes. His street is now much more crowded with cars because one of the two lanes is reserved for bikes. It’s the middle of winter so no one is riding a bike, but the law still applies.

 

He walks to the subway station for his government-subsidized ride to work. It saves him considerable money in parking and transportation fees because some fancy-pants liberal fought for affordable public transportation, which gives everyone the opportunity to be a contributor.

He walks to the subway station and sticks the Metro Card into the slot. It’s rejected because the fair just went up again and he needs to re-charge the card more often. Luckily, he has plenty of time because the loudspeaker just said something about a delay, and judging by the crowd on the platform, he may not even get into the next train anyway. Joe had to give up his car last year because the new 35% parking tax at the garage. At least he doesn’t have to worry about gas prices going up. The thought energizes him enough to push his way through the crowd and make it inside the train just before the doors slide shut.

 

Joe begins his work day. He has a good job with excellent pay, medical benefits, retirement, paid holidays and vacation because some lazy liberal union members fought and died for these working standards. Joe’s employer pays these standards because Joe’s employer doesn’t want his employees to call the union.

Joe begins his work day. He’s an excellent worker, but only received a 2% increase last year because he reached the top of his pay grade and can now only get inflation adjustments. His usual partner has been on paid leave for the last week to take care of a sick pet. The union fought very hard for that concession, and Joe was happy when they won. Now he’s not very happy because he needs to cover the station on with a less experienced employee, but it’s worth it to have the union benefits for everyone.

 

Joe is home from work… He turns on a radio talk show. The radio host keeps saying that liberals are bad and conservatives are good. He doesn’t mention that the beloved Republicans have fought against every protection and benefit Joe enjoys throughout his day.

Joe is home from work. He turns on the evening news. The news anchor keeps saying that conservatives are bad and liberals are good. He doesn’t mention that the beloved Democrats have passed laws and regulations that caused many of the difficulties and sacrifices Joe faces throughout the day.

 

Joe agrees: “We don’t need those big-government liberals ruining our lives! After all, I’m a self-made man who believes everyone should take care of themselves, just like I have.”

Joe agrees: “It’s a good thing we don’t have those free-market conservatives in charge! After all, I’m just a regular man who believes the government should make everyone’s lives easier, just like they’ve done for me.”

 

The Goal of the Superversive

Throwback Thursday Superversive Blog Repost:

Subversive Literary Movement

Any new venture needs a mission statement. So, what are the goals of the Superversive Literary Movement?

Well…let me tell you a brief story.

As a child, I distained Cliffsnotes. I insisted on actually reading the book. I would like to instill the same virtue in my children. But recently, I made my first exception.

My daughter had to read Steinbeck’s The Pearl for class. We read it together. She read part. I read part. The writing was just gorgeous. The life of the people involved drawn so lovingly. The dreams the young man had for his baby son were so poignant, so touching.

Worried about what kind of book this  might be, I read the end first. It looked okay. So, we read the book together.

Turns out, I had missed something—the part where the baby got shot.

Not a happy story.

Next, she brought home Of Mice and Men. We started it together. What a gorgeous and beautifully writing—the descriptions of nature, the interaction between the two characters. A man named George, who could be off doing well on his own, is taking care of a big and simple man named Lennie, who accidentally kills the mice he loves because of his awkward big strength. In George, despite his gruff manner and his bad language, we see a glimpse of what is best in the human spirit, a glimpse of light in a benighted world.

The scene of the two camping out and discussing their hopes of someday owning their own little farm, where Lennie could tend rabbits, was so touching and hopeful, so filled with pathos and sorrow, and so beautifully written. Steinbeck is clearly one of the great masters of word use.

But I remembered The Pearl.  I glanced ahead, but this time, I looked more carefully.

On the next to last page, while discussing how their hoped-for little farm with rabbits is almost within their grasp, George presses a pistol against the back of Lennie’s head and shoots.

Now, in the story, he does it with a terribly heavy heart. He does it for “a good reason”—Lennie accidentally killed someone, but…

That doesn’t make it better.

I sat there holding the remains of my heart, which Steinbeck had just ripped out and stamped on. The devotion of this good man George had led to nothing. All their golden hopes turned to dross, sand.

And it wasn’t just the end. The book was full of examples of “the ends justify the means” type of thinking – such as a man killing four of nine puppies, so that the other five will have a chance.

Very realistic? Check. Very down to earth? Check. Very “the way of the world”? Check.

Why give a book like this to children to read? What are we trying to teach them? That life is difficult and meaningless? That sometimes its okay to kill something we love for a “good reason”? That life is pointless? That dreams and hopes are a sham? That no matter how you try, you cannot improve upon your circumstance, so it’s better not to even hope? (That was what The Pearl was about.)

What possible good is such a message doing our children?

Maybe if a child grew up in posh circumstances and had never seen hardship—maybe then, there would be a good reason for letting them know that “out there” it can get hard.

But this was my daughter—whose youth resembles that of Hansel and Gretel, and not the fun parts about candy houses and witches. There are many things she needs in life—but pathos-filled reminders of how harsh life can be is not one of them.

The book was also full of cursing. I’m not sure I would have noticed, but my daughter kept complaining.

I closed the book and refused to read any more of it. I told her we’d find the answers online. She ended up getting help with it from her brother (who had been forced to read the book at school the previous year) and from a friend.

I’ve seen some of the other books on the school curriculum. Many of them are like this. In the name of “realism,” these works preach hopelessness and darkness.

They are lies!

So, you might ask, why does it matter if our children are being fed lies? They’re just stories, right?

What do stories matter?

Stores teach us about how the world is. They teach us despair, or they teach us hope. In particular, they teach us about the nature of hope and when it is appropriate to have it.

So why is hope—that fragile, little flutter at the bottom of Pandora’s jar—so important?

Because hope needs to be hoped before miracles can be requested.

In life, some things will go badly. True. Some things will go well. But what about everything in between? What about those moments when hope, trust, dare I say, faith, is required to make the difference between a dark ending and a happy one?

If we have been taught that hope and dreams are a pointless fantasy, a waste of time, we might never take the step of faith necessary to turn a dark ending into a joyful one.

Think I am being unrealistic, and my head’s in the clouds? Let me give a few examples.

Example One:

I heard a story on the radio the other day. A woman named Trisha is dying of cancer. She has an eight year old son named Wesley and no one else. No close friends. No relatives. No hope for her son.

Trisha met another Trisha…the angel who ministered to her in the hospital in the form of her nurse. When the news came that her illness was terminal, Trisha worked up the courage to do something astonishing. She asked her nurse: “When I die, will you take my son?”

The nurse went home and spoke to her husband and her four children. They said yes. They not only agreed to take Wesley, they took both Wesley and Trisha into their home, caring for them both as Trisha’s illness grows worse.

What if Trisha, laying in her bed in pain, had not had the faith, the hope, to ask her nurse this question? What would have become of her little boy?

If Trish believed the “realism” preached by Steinbeck and other “realists”, she would never have had the courage to ask her nurse for help.

Example Two:

Don Ritchie is an Australian who lives across from a famous suicide spot, a cliff known as The Gap. At least once a week, someone comes to commit suicide there.

Don and his wife keep an eye out the window. If they see someone at the edge, Don strolls out there. He smiles and talks to them. He offers them a cup of tea.

Sometimes, they come in for tea. Sometimes, they just go home. On a few occasions, he’s had to hold someone, while his wife called the police. Sometimes, the person jumps anyway.

Don and his wife figure they’ve saved around a hundred and sixty lives.

What if Don had believed that hopes and dreams are dross, and he never walked out there? What if he had spent the years standing in his living room, shaking his head and cursing the fact that he bought a house in such an unlucky place?

There are people living lives, perhaps children born who would not have been, merely because Don did not give up on those caught by despair.

Example Three:

Andrea Pauline was a student at the University of Colorado. She traveled to Uganda to study microfinancing for a semester. While she was there, she discovered that some of the local orphan children were being abused.

Andrea refused to leave the country until the government did something. She received death threats. She would not back down.

The government of Uganda took the forty-some children away from their caretakers—and gave them to Andrea. She and her sister now run an orphanage in Uganda called Musana (Sunshine). They have over a hundred children. (Matthew West was inspired by her story to write the song Do Somethinghttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_RjndG0IX8 )

What if Andrea had believed the things preached by Of Mice and Men and The Pearl?

What if she had come home to America and cried into her pillow over the sad plight of those children back in Africa? What if she pent her time putting plaintive posts on Facebook about how the sad state of the world and how blue it made her feel?

Over a hundred children, living a better life, because one teenage girl refused to give up hope.

This is what the Superversive Literary Movement is for—to whisper to the future Trisha’s, Don’s, and Andrea’s that miracles are possible.

That hope is not a cheat.

The goal of the Superversive is to bring hope, where there is no hope; to bring courage, where without courage, hope would never be manifested.

The goal of the Superversive is to be light to a benighted world.

The goal of the Superversive is:

To tell the truth.


Caption This! week #2

Welcome back! In case you missed it, Caption This is a new game on the SuperversiveSF blog.

The rules are simple: Look at this week’s picture, think of a funny/witty/amusing caption, and post that caption in the comments below! Here’s your picture, 1… 2… 3… GO!

 

 

And congratulations to last week’s winner: Astrosorceror

Tom Stranger: International Insurance Agent

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Welcome to Larry Correia’s audio book, The Adventures of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance AgentThe Adventures of Tom Stranger: Interdimensional Insurance Agent, narrated by Adam Baldwin.

Yes. Really. I’m not making this one up.

Have you ever seen a planet invaded by rampaging space mutants from another dimension or Nazi dinosaurs from the future?

Don’t let this happen to you!

 

Rifts happen, so you should be ready when universes collide. A policy with Stranger & Stranger can cover all of your interdimensional insurance needs. Rated “Number One in Customer Satisfaction” for three years running, no claim is too big or too weird for Tom Stranger to handle.

 

But now Tom faces his greatest challenge yet. Despite being assigned the wrong – and woefully inadequate – intern, Tom must still provide quality customer service to multiple alternate Earths, all while battling tentacle monsters, legions of the damned, an evil call center in Nebraska, and his archnemesis, Jeff Conundrum. Armed with his Combat Wombat and a sense of fair play, can Tom survive? And will Jimmy the Intern ever discover his inner insurance agent?

 

It’s time to kick ass and adjust claims.

Adam Baldwin (Firefly, Chuck) performs Larry Correia’s madcap interdimensional tale of underwriting and space travel, where the only thing scarier than tentacle monsters is a high deductible.


My first response? “Oh good God, what the sweet heck is this?”

But it’s by Larry, and it was free at the time, and I am both cheap and a fan of Correia’s, so why not?

I decided to play it while on a trip into Manhattan.

Happily, I didn’t crash the car.

Chapter 1: “Tom’s 9am meeting,” takes place in a dimension in which the star of the five-season libertarian space cowboy show (and three blockbuster movies) has become President Adam Baldwin. SecDef is R. Lee Ermey. They are being invaded by the attack of the flying purple people eaters on meth, steroids and rocket fuel. But, thankfully, they have coverage with Stranger and Stranger.

Also, Adam Baldwin does a great Ermey impersonation.

Chapter 2: “The Mediation”

The mediator is Chuck Norris. The awesome is hilarious, as is Baldwin’s impersonation of Norris. Just bask in the awesome.

Chapter 3: “Hell Comes to Nebraska”

This might be the best bit of the book. Not only because it blows up an SF convention, but because it stars Larry Correia and Wendell the Manatee as CFO of CorreiaTech, creator of the Combat Wombat. There are also legions of Hell invading Nebraska.

Then there’s the Balrog…

Yes.

Chapter 4: The book gets a plot!

Just when you thought that this was just a string of vignettes from a day in the life of Tom Stranger, surprise, we have a plot.

For the record, we also make fun of Kung Fu Panda.

I won’t continue with the chapter breakdown, because spoilers would happen, but the short version is that this is off the wall insane and hilarious. Granted, a lot of the humor is of the off the wall variety, but it was hilarious.

However, if you dislike having your sacred cows made into hamburger, you might have some problems. Here, Larry takes shots at Obama (Adam Baldwin does a terrifyingly good Obama), Joe Biden (or “the alcoholic clown”) call centers, squishy degrees, and even nerds to some degree, because Larry’s been to conventions where not all nerds are interesting.

But, yeah, this was a wonderful ball of strange … no pun intended.  Much.

For the record: Tom Stranger will return.

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award nominated author. His “Catholic Vampire romance novels” can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does.

Movie Night: Father Brown as “The Detective”

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For a change of pace, we now present: a movie. For free. If you’ve never heard of GK Chesterton’s Father Brown … where have you been? Seriously. Before there was Father Dowling (and you’ve at least heard of that one, yes) there was Father Brown, created by Chesterton out of thin air, one day, more or less on a lark.

While there have been some attempts at Father Brown over the years  (the most recent BBC version evoking the most homicidal reaction from me — just read the short “Hammer of God” and compare it to the more recent version), this is probably the best edition of Father Brown ever put on screen. It is not the best because of the accuracy of the scripts to the stories (for that you want the Father Brown as done by Kenneth More) but because of the best execution of character, done by Alec Guiness.

And it’s for free on YouTube.

Enjoy

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award nominated author. His “Catholic Vampire romance novels” can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does.