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Jim McWilliams <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 28 Dec 1995 09:17:42 -0600
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        _Death on the Mississippi: A Mark Twain Mystery_.  Peter J. Heck.
        York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1995.  Pp. 291.  Paper, 6" x 8-1/2".
        $10.00.  ISBN 0-425-14939-0.

        Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:

                Jim McWilliams <[log in to unmask]>
                Southern Illinois University-Carbondale

        Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1996.  This review may not be
        published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

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
     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.

Jim McWilliams
Southern Illinois University