Sara Paretsky’s “The Curious Affair of the Italian Art Dealer” is the second short story I’ve plucked from the In the Company of Sherlock Holmes collection as one of my Short Story Saturday offerings. The other story I used, Michael Connelly’s “The Crooked Man,” took an entirely different approach in paying homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories than the approach chosen by Paretsky. Connelly decided to use Holmes-like and Watson-like characters in a modern setting, where Paretsky has chosen instead to use the actual Holmes and Watson characters in their natural setting. She even writes very much in the Doyle style to tell her story.
As the story begins, Holmes is in the midst of one of those dangerous moments when he is bored with life because he cannot find a crime investigation that challenges him, much less one that even sounds interesting. He is content to just stay at home, usually sleeping the day away until rousing himself in the early hours of the new day to annoy his neighbors with incessant hours of sawing away on his violin. And now Watson fears that Holmes’s drug habit is about to rear its ugly ahead again if he can’t find something for Holmes to tackle.
Coincidentally, Watson’s wife Mary has “been called to the bedside of the governess who had been almost a mother to her,” freeing Watson temporarily to move back into his old room inside Holmes’s apartment where he can keep a closer eye on his friend. Watson, though, has regular patients he still needs to see and an arrangement with a local hotel to call him when their guests need medical attention. As it turns out, it is one of those hotel patients, a man who claims to have been accosted in his room overnight, who presents Watson with just the crime mystery that might draw Holmes from his stupor.
The hotel guest is an American in the city to have an old family painting authenticated and appraised by a respected London gallery-owner. The family believes the painting to be the work of the sixteenth-century artist Titian, and that it is worth a fortune – a rather large fortune, at that. And now the painting is apparently in the hands of the unidentified thief who pummeled the American in the process of wresting it from his hands during the night. Fontana, the American, remembers Watson saying that he could be found at the Sherlock Holmes residence if any follow-up treatment were required, but when the man shows up on Holmes’s doorstep to ask his help in reacquiring the painting, Holmes smells a rat.
The case turns out to be a complicated one that sees Holmes having to pull out all the stops to solve it, including the use of disguises for himself and Watson and his gang of young “street rabble” to keep tabs of the various suspects. Holmes is even a bit shocked to meet his intellectual and investigatory match in the guise of Miss Butterworth, the godmother of one of the story’s victims.
(As the story notes at the very end, Amelia Butterworth was the detective assistant created by novelist Anna Katherine Green (1846-1935) to aid her detective character Ebenezer Gryce, an investigator who used methods similar to those of Holmes to solve his mysteries. It should also be noted that the first Gryce novel was published almost ten years prior to publication of the first Holmes story.)