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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 3 Nov 2016 07:27:48 -0500
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_Mark Twain Speaking from the Grave: The Search for His Hidden Recordings_.
By Tim Champlin. Pp. 278. High Hill Press, 2016. Softcover. $16.95.

Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at discounted
prices from the Twain Web Bookstore. Purchases from this site generate
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Barbara Schmidt

Copyright (c) 2016 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

Tim Champlin, the author of more than 38 western adventure novels,
dedicates this "what if" story to well-known Mark Twain scholars Kevin Mac
Donnell, Kent Rasmussen, and Patrick Ober--who, he hints, share some of the
blame for it. Champlin has incorporated Mark Twain or his characters in
several previous novels, including _Fire Bell in the Night_ (2004) and _Tom
Sawyer and the Ghosts of Summer_ (2010). Still more Mark Twain spinoffs lie
in Champlin's future, including a story about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in
which a twenty-first century boy travels back to their time that will come
out next year.

Champlin's latest published adventure story tackles one of the Holy Grails
of Mark Twain scholarship, the lost Edison cylinders containing recordings
of Mark Twain's voice. In Champlin's tale, these cylinders contain much
more than just the recordings of Mark Twain dictating his works. They also
contain clues to solving both a decades-old murder and a paternity mystery.

The novel opens in the year 1961 at a small college in Hannibal, Missouri,
where a forty-six-year-old adjunct English teacher, John Milton Morrison,
is lecturing on Mark Twain when a chance meeting changes his life. A former
civil servant and somewhat of an academic misfit, he drives a beloved 1937
Packard with a Corvette engine and is having trouble making ends meet. He
has been working on his doctorate but has struggled to come up with a
dissertation topic. After his lecture, he meets middle-aged Frank Ashcroft,
the (fictional) son of Mark Twain's secretary Isabel Lyon and business
manager Ralph Ashcroft. The younger Ashcroft convinces Morrison that Mark
Twain's lost voice recordings exist and might be found. Ashcroft's primary
interest in them is that they may contain evidence that Mark Twain was his
natural father, but Morrison sees them as a possible answer to both his
dissertation-topic problem and his financial woes. Together, the two men
begin a fantastic quest that moves through the archives of the Mark Twain
Papers at Berkeley, to the household landfill near the site of Mark Twain's
last home in Redding, Connecticut. Morrison and Ashcroft follow a trail of
cryptic clues that take their search to a time capsule in a Hannibal jail
cornerstone, the internal workings of the last remaining Paige typesetter,
and Hannibal's famous limestone cave. Along the way they deal with coded
puzzles, high-speed chases, and gunfights suitable to every fast-moving
adventure tale.

Chock full of Twain trivia, Champlin's novel should entertain casual
readers and Mark Twain buffs alike. It also contains entertaining zingers,
such as: "Bad bosses are everywhere--nowhere worse than in higher
education."  Not surprisingly, perhaps, a corrupt college president, Jordan
Forrest Beckley, whose father had been an adversary of Mark Twain, is a
dark force in this tale. Much of the fun in the novel derives from the
bravado with which its protagonists pursue their unlikely quest. That
bravado is perhaps best summed up by this comment from Morrison: "We've
come this far ... I'm not about to let a little thing like total ignorance
baffle me now."

To reveal the final outcome of the quest for the lost recordings would fall
into the realm of "spoiling" the story. However, if you are a collector of
Twain fiction or a Tim Champlin fan, then this is one to read and add to
your bookshelf.