Imagined memoirs of the famous

'Lost' manuscripts are a staple of this burgeoning whodunit genre

Sherlock Holmes and the rune stone mystery By Larry Millett Viking 336 pp., $23.95 THE CRIMES OF CHARLOTTE BRONTE By James Tully Carroll & Graf 284 pp., $24

Given the current popularity of autobiographical reminiscences, it's not surprising that the mystery memoir is almost a whodunit category. An author finds a hidden, handwritten document featuring a well-known literary name. With footnotes, commentary, or afterword, the resulting book can be fun to read and a delight to fans of the original.

But writers who practice the art of the imagined famous-person memoir run risks. Their supposedly "lost" manuscripts may be only clever echoes of a familiar voice. Or they may stretch readers' credulity by constructing an improbable plot.

In "Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone Mystery," coming this fall, Larry Millett avoids both traps. His leading characters are true to type, and his Midwest setting allows him to create a believable background for his transplanted detectives.

This is the third volume in Dr. Watson's American Chronicles. It puts Holmes, the quintessential London sleuth, and his sturdy companion in Minnesota again. They've been sent by King Oskar II of Sweden to investigate a boulder with runic writing on it said to be a Viking relic. When they arrive, murder, of course, complicates the task.

Characters from the previous chronicles appear to help solve both the crime and the problem of placing foreigners in a situation where local knowledge is essential. Millett mixes historical facts with his fiction - there really is a disputed rune stone in Minnesota - and he uses authentic regional details to good effect.

As in the classic mysteries, Holmes solves the murders with cerebral gymnastics, some derring-do, and more than a few amazing coincidences. The plot's climax in a booby-trapped grain elevator is satisfyingly dramatic. Only Baker Street purists will fail to find this an engaging tale in the Arthur Conan Doyle tradition.

More problematic is "The Crimes of Charlotte Bront," by James Tully. The fictional source of this "mystery" is a long-hidden diary kept by the Bronts' maid, Martha Brown. Tully combines this "document" with commentary by an imagined lawyer, Charles Coutts, who "discovered" it. This design immediately creates problems. Martha's manuscript fails to capture the authentic voice of a Yorkshire servant (like the housekeeper in "Wuthering Heights"). And the lawyer, Coutts, expresses such strong dislike for Charlotte that his charges of collusion in crime lose credibility. Tully unfolds a bizarre Victorian gothic tale: The brother (Branwell) and one sister (Emily) are murdered. A plot to poison another sister (Anne) is thwarted when she fortuitously dies before the deed can be done. With full knowledge of what has happened, the remaining Bront sibling (Charlotte) marries the murderer (her father's curate, Arthur Nicholls). But then she dies. Was she poisoned by her husband? Further twists: Nicholls had an affair with Emily before he killed her, and the maid, Martha, was his mistress throughout all this mayhem.

Bront fans will recognize that Tully has used a framework of known facts. Martha Brown did serve the household from her childhood until the death of the patriarch, Patrick Bront, six years after Charlotte died. (Would that she had indeed kept a diary!) She then went to Ireland with Nicholls and was his housekeeper for several years before returning home.

And Tully may be right that a common 19th-century poison produces symptoms similar to those described for the dying brother and sisters. Contemporary medical details are murky - but murder seems most unlikely without more motive.

Poor Charlotte. What a crime!

*Ruth Wales is the Monitor's Page One editor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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