Like many Minnesotans, I first came across Larry Millett’s writing during his stint as a St. Paul newspaperman and as an architectural historian. His chronicle of Louis Sullivan’s jewel-box bank in Owatonna, Minn., “The Curve of the Arch,” and his tragic look at treasures felled by the wrecking ball, “Lost Twin Cities,” are worthwhile mainstays on any shelf or coffee table.
And it is with an architect’s eye that Millett has crafted his seventh Sherlock Holmes mystery, “Strongwood.” Dubbed a “crime dossier,” Millett uses fictional newspaper accounts, trial transcripts and entries from a defense attorney’s journal to take the reader back 110 years to a Minneapolis courtroom packed with drama.
Addie Strongwood, 22, has shot her well-to-do lover twice with aderinger, killing him in self-defense. Or so she says. Hennepin County prosecutor Frederick Boardman tells jurors a different story, insisting Addie was not a rape victim fighting back, but “a scheming blackmailer who murdered the scion of an industrial fortune in cold blood.”
Millett starts each chapter with Addie’s serialized account of her own story, which ran in the Minneapolis Tribune before the trial. The story’s backdrop explores the class rift between Addie and her dead beau, Michael Masterson — a well-rendered look at the haves and have-nots of Minneapolis, circa 1904.
Here’s how she describes the gulf between their stations: “I was someone from a place so far across the tracks … that no bridge of sufficient length could ever be built which would deliver me … [across] a chasm, as wide in its way as the great canyon of the Colorado, that separated our circumstances.”
Holmes doesn’t appear in the first 70 pages, but happens to be visiting Dr. Will Mayo in Rochester because his sidekick, Dr. John Watson, needs some gallstones removed. Holmes will later make a breakthrough discovery involving a photo of a nude woman, its face torn off, clutched in the dead man’s grip.
The best parts of the book are the excerpts from the cross-examination between Addie and the prosecutor, as Boardman tries to rattle her for “those little memory lapses you occasionally suffer from.”
To which Addie, shoots back: “I make no claims to perfection.”
Indeed, the reader is left wondering whether to sympathize with her or to see through her cool sanctimony.
“I am no rock,” she testifies. “But I do not believe there is any benefit to be gained in this world by acting the part of a weak sister. If I were a man and were weeping here before you now, you would think me spineless, but you expect that as a woman I must do so in order to convince you of the depth of my feelings.”
She’s tough, that Addie Strongwood.
Finally, a note on Millett’s footnotes, sprinkled through the text: They are the ornamentation of this architectural narrative. When a witness testifies about attending a play called “The Mummy and the Hummingbird,” Millett spins delightful real-world tangents, in this case about the play’s star opening the Gilmore Comedy Theatre in Duluth in the middle of the last century.
Staff writer Curt Brown’s nonfiction account of a 1905 Duluth gale, “So Terrible a Storm,” was published in 2008 by Voyageur Press.