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Jim McWilliams <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Southern Illinois University-Carbondale
Peter J. Heck has obviously read the works of Mark Twain very thoroughly, for his mystery novel featuring the humorist as detective is rife with many allusions to Twain's novels, stories, and speeches. Indeed, Death on the Mississippi, the first of a projected series of mysteries with Twain as the central character, even parodies the title of one of Twain's most famous travel books, Life on the Mississippi. Even though its style is rather pedestrian, especially when compared with Twain's own inimitable prose, Death on the Mississippi is an entertaining novel, one whose dozens of plot twists are sure to keep a reader turning its pages.
For the impetus of his story about a search for a lost treasure, Heck borrows from Life on the Mississippi an anecdote about a man who had allegedly told Twain about a cache of gold that could be found in Napoleon, Arkansas. Twain, however, wrote in his book that he could not recover the gold since Napoleon had been washed away years before by one of the Mississippi's many floods. Heck's novel assumes that Twain's version of the story in Life on the Mississippi is false, that the gold really existed but Twain placed it in Napoleon as a red herring to divert robbers from its real location in Helena, Arkansas.
Death on the Mississippi opens with Twain hiring a personal secretary, Wentworth Cabot, to assist him on a lecture tour down the Mississippi River immediately after the humorist's bankruptcy in the early 1890s. Cabot, a recent graduate of Yale, narrates the story. Before he and his employer can depart New York, however, a man is found murdered; in his pocket is a mysterious note to Twain. The humorist, suspecting that the man has been killed because of his intention to warn Twain about a plot to steal the gold, reveals to Cabot his own plan to retrieve the treasure and forward it to its rightful owner in Germany. Cabot, apprehensive but excited about the prospect of an adventure, agrees to accompany Twain on the steamboat cruise down the Mississippi River.
The novel's plot has nearly as many bends as does the Mississippi River itself, but a final denouement, in which Twain calls the primary suspects to the stage one by one before revealing the killer, neatly ties together the loose ends. As in every good mystery, although he proves to be an individual that no one had suspected, the killer has left behind a clue which results in his eventual unmasking.
Death on the Mississippi is not without flaws, however. Heck supposes, for example, that Cabot has never heard of Twain, a completely implausible supposition given the humorist's immense popularity in the 1880s and 1890s. It is more likely that someone in the 1960s could have professed ignorance of the existence of the Beatles than someone in Twain's day would be wholly unfamiliar with his works.
Such inconsistencies within the plot are thankfully rare, but more of a problem is Heck's failure to capture the spirit of Twain in his portrayal of the humorist. At one point, for example, Heck has his Twain say:
Ed, that won't wash. . . . I've been in my share of trouble, and so has Mike Fowler, and I suspect even Cabot here has raised a little hell when he didn't think anybody was looking. But it sounds to me as if your boys came looking for trouble, and went after the first easy target they spotted, a fellow who was minding his own business, which just happened to be my business, too. That doesn't fall under my idea of good fun and good nature. (81)
Quite simply, the passage quoted above does not sound like Twain; aside from the initial expression ("that won't wash"), it lacks any of the colloquialisms or wit that we associate with the humorist's written prose or speeches. To be sure, Heck's Twain sounds authentic on occasion, "I can put off the little towns with halls the size of a tomcat's coffin, but the big ones will pester me to distraction" (6), but these occasions are far too rare and only make a reader hunger for more.
Ultimately, then, while it certainly has its imperfections, Death on the Mississippi will appeal to Twain's fans primarily for its numerous allusions to the humorist's works. Remarks such as Twain's determination to repay his creditors even if he has to travel to Asia and perform the Royal Nonesuch before the Chinese are sure to cause a chuckle or two (38), especially if a reader can visualize just how Twain's performance would have been staged. While no one should expect Death on the Mississippi to equal Twain's own works (and, indeed, it does lag well behind), nevertheless it is a good read, one sure to bring good cheer over a Christmas holiday.