SHERLOCK HOLMES AND

THE RUNE STONE MYSTERY

From the American Chronicles of

John H. Watson, M.D.

By Larry Millett

Viking. 317 pp. $23.95

Reviewed by Guy Amirthanayagam

My main credentials for reviewing this book are the eagerness and delight with which I read Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries during my school days, and my having re-read them in later years when I lived a block away from 221B Baker Street in London, an address that, though fictional, is one of the best-known in the world.

Two questions arise when a writer attempts a reincarnation of a well-known character and tries to model his style and methods on those of the original creator: Is the imitation successful, the avatar as good as the original; and is the story well-told?

To answer the latter question first: Larry Millett's prose is direct, easy to read, unadorned with any heightening or complication. But the style is not distinctive, certainly not quotable in extracts or paragraphs -- a matter of considerable disappointment.

Apart from Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, who in Millett's series make various trips to the United States, the author offers other engaging characters, notably Rafferty, an Irishman who is a charming mix of bonhomie and machismo, a raconteur, saloon keeper and private detective. There is also Mrs. Mary Comstock, a beautiful and calculating woman who is suspected of having pushed her husband out of a moving train but has not been brought to book for this or other crimes and misdemeanors: She is admired by Holmes as a woman worthy of his steel. All the persons in this drama are brought together by a Minnesota farmer's discovery of a rune stone, which purports to show that America was first discovered by the Scandinavians. The question whether it is a fake or genuine becomes a cause celebre.

Is Millett a successful imitator of Conan Doyle? He is not. The pace of the detection is slow, and the final unraveling is the result as much of coincidences as it is of Holmesian acumen. Unlike in most of Conan Doyle's stories, there is no mounting tension and no frightening malevolence: What motivates the criminals and would-be criminals is greed, of the common or garden variety.

A blurb of an earlier work by Millett avers that that novel is "the best Sherlock Holmes since Hound of the Baskervilles . . ." Apart from the fact that America is not England and Dartmoor is not Minnesota, Conan Doyle's novel has a strong physical ambience, treated as a symbol of evil and the search for it, of the need to confront it, and emerge from it safe or overcome and trapped. The plot of The Hound of the Baskervilles is an inexorable march to a climax. Besides, Conan Doyle's other interests enter the novel: his concern with spiritualism, with the evolution of the species, its progress and retrogression, its moral throwbacks, its atavism -- all are linked to his metaphors of evil. No such complications, alas, enter into Millett's novel.

So my advice to the reader is to enjoy Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone Mystery as a fairly good yarn and to desist from making misdirected comparisons with Conan Doyle, who was an accomplished literary artist and a cunning student of evil.

Guy Amirthanayagam is a poet and critic. His next book, "The Marriage of Continents: Multiculturalism in Modern Literature," will be published this month.