The following review appeared 10 March 1998 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1998 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Jim McWilliams <email@example.com>
Troy State University
In his latest Mark Twain Mystery, The Prince and the Prosecutor, Peter J. Heck supposes that a murder occurs aboard the ship taking Mark Twain to Europe to begin one of his lecture tours of the early 1890s. Also aboard are Twain's private secretary, Wentworth Cabot, and his friend, Rudyard Kipling. The mystery is a sticky one: how can Twain solve the riddle of the Germanic passenger who claims to be the Prince of Ruckgarten (a locale that Twain knows doesn't exist), who has been falsely accused of pushing a young Philadelphia socialite overboard during a storm? While the mystery proves to be a tough one to crack, Mark Twain solves it through some creative thinking and good luck.
The Prince and the Prosecutor is the third in Heck's series of Mark Twain Mysteries, following Death on the Mississippi (which I reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum in December 1995) and A Connecticut Yankee in Criminal Court. As in Death on the Mississippi, Heck's latest mystery proceeds at a deliberate pace, delaying the murder until the midway point of the novel. Personally, I prefer such a pace to the breakneck, body-a-minute tempo of some mysteries since it allows ample time for character development and description.
Indeed, Heck succeeds particularly well with the latter as he has done a great deal of research into the period. Early in his novel, for example, he describes New York's harbor in such a way that it could be an account from a newspaper of the period. Furthermore, while I have no idea whether or not Twain's ship, the City of Baltimore, really existed, it is so well described that I can easily visualize its decks and staterooms.
Similarly, Heck gives vivid descriptions of the ship's crew--from its captain to the "black gang" (the coal stokers). In fact, nearly all of the characters in the novel are lifelike, with only one exception, that of the murdered Philadelphian, Robert Babson. While I understand that this character must be disliked by more than one person so that there will be a handful of people suspected of his murder, I found him to be as flat as cardboard. If Heck had portrayed him with some subtlety (a bully who outwardly seems to be kind, for instance), then his character would have had some depth. As it reads now, however, Heck has gone overboard to ensure that everyone taking passage on the City of Baltimore thoroughly detests the young man.
More than making up for this uninspired characterization, however, is the characterization of Wentworth Cabot, Twain's personal secretary, who narrates the story. Like Holmes' Dr. Watson, Cabot serves as a gofer and a sounding board for Twain's various theories about the murder. Also, like Watson, he asks the questions of the detective that the reader would like to ask and, of course, these questions usually demonstrate that the sidekick and reader are a step behind the detective in solving the mystery. But while his primary purpose may be to serve as a lens through which the reader sees Twain, Cabot is not without his own charms. Even when he is away from Twain--whether it is when he deals with a librarian who is eager to get Twain to lecture for free or when he flirts with Babson's sister--Cabot's scenes are entertaining.
The focal point of the novel, of course, is Mark Twain, and here Heck also succeeds. Heck is obviously a fan of Twain's life and works, for there is enough biographical information to keep Twain fans like myself happy. When Twain complains to his secretary that copyright pirates are the "plague" of his life, for example, all Twain fans know that he indeed spent much of his time in these years fighting to protect his copyrights. Elsewhere in his novel, Heck has Twain use the punch line to old jokes ("Is he dead?" when the subject of European artists comes up) and pontificate on various political and literary topics.
In his first Mark Twain Mystery, Heck tried to imitate Twain's voice, a task at which he was doomed to fail. (Who, after all, can imitate that voice?) In The Prince and the Prosecutor, however, Twain speaks in a more pedestrian tone, with only some occasional colloquial expressions for spice. I found this approach to the dialogue more convincing, since it allowed me to shift from focusing on Twain as a historical figure to Twain as a character in a novel. In other words, instead of finding myself comparing the voice of Heck's creation with the authentic voice, I could concentrate on the plot.
All in all, then, Heck's novel is an appealing read. While The Prince and the Prosecutor is not intended to be "scholarly," it is factual enough to hold the interest of this Twain fan and, even more significantly, it proved to be a welcome diversion from the soul-sapping drudgery of grading a batch of freshman compositions.
In answer to my query about future Mark Twain Mysteries, Heck replied that his contract runs to three more books, which are tentatively titled, The Guilty Abroad (scheduled for publication in December 1998), The Mysterious Strangler (scheduled for 1999), and Tom's Lawyer (scheduled for 2000). It seems that the next few years will continue to yield these entertaining novels, and I'll certainly look forward to reading them.