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The following review appeared 3 November 2016 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Tim Champlin, the author of more than 38 western adventure novels, dedicates this "what if" story to well-known Mark Twain scholars Kevin Mac Donnell, Kent Rasmussen, and Patrick Ober--who, he hints, share some of the blame for it. Champlin has incorporated Mark Twain or his characters in several previous novels, including Fire Bell in the Night (2004) and Tom Sawyer and the Ghosts of Summer (2010). Still more Mark Twain spinoffs lie in Champlin's future, including a story about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in which a twenty-first century boy travels back to their time that will come out next year.
Champlin's latest published adventure story tackles one of the Holy Grails of Mark Twain scholarship, the lost Edison cylinders containing recordings of Mark Twain's voice. In Champlin's tale, these cylinders contain much more than just the recordings of Mark Twain dictating his works. They also contain clues to solving both a decades-old murder and a paternity mystery.
The novel opens in the year 1961 at a small college in Hannibal, Missouri, where a forty-six-year-old adjunct English teacher, John Milton Morrison, is lecturing on Mark Twain when a chance meeting changes his life. A former civil servant and somewhat of an academic misfit, he drives a beloved 1937 Packard with a Corvette engine and is having trouble making ends meet. He has been working on his doctorate but has struggled to come up with a dissertation topic. After his lecture, he meets middle-aged Frank Ashcroft, the (fictional) son of Mark Twain's secretary Isabel Lyon and business manager Ralph Ashcroft. The younger Ashcroft convinces Morrison that Mark Twain's lost voice recordings exist and might be found. Ashcroft's primary interest in them is that they may contain evidence that Mark Twain was his natural father, but Morrison sees them as a possible answer to both his dissertation-topic problem and his financial woes. Together, the two men begin a fantastic quest that moves through the archives of the Mark Twain Papers at Berkeley, to the household landfill near the site of Mark Twain's last home in Redding, Connecticut. Morrison and Ashcroft follow a trail of cryptic clues that take their search to a time capsule in a Hannibal jail cornerstone, the internal workings of the last remaining Paige typesetter, and Hannibal's famous limestone cave. Along the way they deal with coded puzzles, high-speed chases, and gunfights suitable to every fast-moving adventure tale.
Chock full of Twain trivia, Champlin's novel should entertain casual readers and Mark Twain buffs alike. It also contains entertaining zingers, such as: "Bad bosses are everywhere--nowhere worse than in higher education." Not surprisingly, perhaps, a corrupt college president, Jordan Forrest Beckley, whose father had been an adversary of Mark Twain, is a dark force in this tale. Much of the fun in the novel derives from the bravado with which its protagonists pursue their unlikely quest. That bravado is perhaps best summed up by this comment from Morrison: "We've come this far ... I'm not about to let a little thing like total ignorance baffle me now."
To reveal the final outcome of the quest for the lost recordings would fall into the realm of "spoiling" the story. However, if you are a collector of Twain fiction or a Tim Champlin fan, then this is one to read and add to your bookshelf.