The following review appeared 16 March 1998 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Janice McIntire-Strasburg <firstname.lastname@example.org>
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
A Connecticut Yankee in Criminal Court, one of a series of Mark Twain Mysteries, makes for a pleasant break from more scholarly academic works, but at the same time contains enough biographical and thematic references to Twain and his work to enhance a good mystery story for avid Twainians. Although Heck has taken considerable license with Twain's whereabouts in the mid-1890s (a fact that he adequately acknowledges and explains in his Historical Notes and Acknowledgments), the leap is neither so wide nor so high that it detracts from his purpose of positing Twain as a deductive logician and solver of unsolved crime.
As in other titles from the series, Twain's fictional secretary, William Wentworth Cabot plays Watson to Twain's Holmes, and together they solve a murder through the use of deductive logic with a little help from voodoo. Other historical characters abound, including George Washington Cable as Twain's guide during his New Orleans visit and the instigator of Twain's interest in the murder; Buddy Bolden, an early New Orleans representative of the Jazz era; Eulalie Echo, one of many famous hoo-doo women and godmother of Jelly Roll Morton; and Tom Anderson, an influential though unofficial political figure in the area of New Orleans later to become Storyville.
In his Historical Notes, Heck states that Mark Twain, to his knowledge, never solved a murder mystery. However, Twain's work contains many instances in which logical reasoning plays a part and demonstrates him to be a master of this style of argumentation. The most obvious of these would be Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894). David Wilson uses a combination of deductive logic and the introduction of the relatively new concept of fingerprinting to solve the Judge's murder by Tom Driscoll. But even as early as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)--and later in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), the book from which Heck derives his title--Twain presents his characters using deductive logic in their dealings. In particular, Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) demonstrates Twain's interest in and facility with the logical syllogism. Tom, Huck, and Jim expend a major portion of their dialogue creating and then attempting to refute fallacious logical arguments.
The most interesting part of Heck's novel, however, is its depiction of Wentworth Cabot as a Yale-educated but naive Yankee who is transported to New Orleans in his capacity of personal secretary to Twain. While Twain actually solves the murder, Cabot emerges as an erstwhile Innocent Abroad whose commentary on Southern culture manifests itself as a re-creation of Twain's more famous Innocent. The first lines of the novel solidify his point of view and predicate him as a veritable innocent, destined to misunderstand the culture by which he is presently surrounded:
My instructors at Yale always spoke confidently of preparing their students for life. I believe that, in general, they did their job well. Upon my graduation, I felt that I had learned many things, both practical and theoretical, and had gone out to confront the world confident of my abilities and my training. But as I soon realized, nothing could have prepared me for the position of traveling secretary to Mr. Samuel L. Clemens...Cabot's education begins with his introduction to Creole cuisine. Faced with an oral menu of unfamiliar items, he accedes to Cable's suggestion of gumbo as luncheon fare. His insular point of view compares it to chowder, a familiar item from his New England experience, although he states that, "of course, the recipe would probably not be as good as the real thing from good old New England, but I was willing to take my chances."
Cabot's Southern education climaxes when one of the major suspects in the murder case challenges him to a duel. Though he is ignorant of proper dueling etiquette and Southern tradition, Cabot's Yankee sentiment parallels the notion of masculine honor, which culminates in neither man backing down. Cabot fires into the air and is saved from death or injury by his antagonist's fortuitous collapse. He is arrested and arraigned, saved from imprisonment only by Mark Twain's fame and his formidable talents at argument. Cabot's successive re-education into a more cosmopolitan point of view mirrors Twain's portrayal of himself in The Innocents Abroad and enhances the mystery format.
The Twain depicted in the novel retains many personality traits that will be familiar to Twainians. The story is interspersed with near-aphorisms that sound like Twain even if they are not. His mock lecture, although tailored to fit the plot of the novel, creates an authentic flavor of Twain's platform style. His more notorious eating, drinking, and smoking habits as portrayed in this novel mirror the public image of the popular culture Twain from the time period. While the construction of the racial issues surrounding the murder appears simplistic and perhaps stereotypical, given Twain's own more intricate and often ambiguous portrayals in Huck Finn and Pudd'nhead Wilson, the format of the traditional ratiocination novel does not demand a more complex treatment, and the treatment does not detract from the novel's purpose as intellectual entertainment. For those with a penchant for mystery and a historical interest in either Twain or New Orleans, A Connecticut Yankee in Criminal Court is a fast and entertaining read.