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Dave Wood's Book Report, May 20, 2009

It's fashionable these days to write "sequels" to literary characters whose original authors are long dead.

One example is St. Paul author Larry Millett, who has brought Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes to Minnesota to solve the mystery of the Hinckley fire, to help railroad magnate James J. Hill crack a murder case in St. Paul.

Another example is Californian Laurie King, who also writes about Holmes and his wife (!) Mary Russell. Her latest is "The Language of Bees" (Bantam, $25) which is told in a most humorous way by Holmes's bride.

They've returned from a seven-month trip and Holmes is in a foul mood, as he most usually is:

"Holmes slumped into the seat and reached for his cigarette case again ... I recognized the symptoms, although I was puzzled as to the cause.

Granted, an uneventful week in New York followed by long days at sea -- one of our fellow passengers having been thoughtful enough to bleed to death in the captain's cabin, drop down dead of a mysterious poison, or vanish over the rails -- might cause a man like Holmes to chafe at inactivity. Nonetheless, one might imagine a sea voyage wouldn't be altogether a burden ....

"'Holmes [I said], if you don't slow down on that tobacco, your lungs will turn to leather. And mine.'"

Laurie King fleshes out her story about Holmes's beekeeping, his brother Mycroft's drug addiction with news from the period. It's now the 1920s, the Loeb-Leopold murder trial is in session and the Allies are demanding huge war reparations from Germany.

It's lots of fun and Mary Russell makes a great substitute for Dr. Watson, who, if you're interested is vacationing in Portugal.

"Sweet and Sour Pie: A Wisconsin Boyhood," by Dave Cherone (University of Wisconsin Press, $19.95 Cloth) takes its title from Wisconsin author Cherone's view of the 1950s:

"What a sweet and sour decade it had been: The Korean War and McCarthy. Nixon and Checkers and Pat's "respectable Republican cloth coat." A missile gap and "duck and cover" and fallout shelters. We had cars with tail fins and Firedome engines and a powerful thirst for gasoline. We had Rosa Parks in the back of the bus and Emmett Till on the bottom of the Tallahatchie River."

"But we also had the Milwaukee Braves and Henry Aaron, Elvis Presley and Miles Davis, James Dean and Ozzie Nelson, Jack Kerouac and Dave Brubeck and Billy Graham.

We had factories that made televisions and coffee pots and shoes. It seemed like everyone had a good job, and a house with a 4 percent mortgage and a union card that meant something.

We had won the war and we believed in ourselves. We had cold winters and cool summers and good fishing. And every August, the county fair.

"Maybe it was the best of times."

Cherone, who moved from industrial Lorain, Ohio, to Manitowoc when he was a kid brings a special insight into Wisconsin as a newcomer.

He and his parents are shocked to note all the taverns in Manitowoc, compared to Lorain, where folks apparently drank at home.

Sherone has written a charming memoir about that time and even includes a glossary to help young uns understand what he's talking about, definitions of what a Hudson was (a motor car) that the A&P was a grocery store. You get the picture.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at (715) 426-9554.