“It’s surprising how few of the stories in the first collection, ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ contain murders,” wrote Anthony Horowitz of the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle recently. Indeed, for a modern crime writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories must seem missives from a gentler time: few detective stories are now complete without a grisly corpse or two, and Horowitz’s own new Holmes novel, The House of Silk, is no exception. By its final page, Holmes and Watson have stood sadly over several dead bodies, one of them particularly gruesome, and solved a mystery involving many more. What is impressive about this and every other aspect of Horowitz’s Conan Doyle estate-endorsed volume, however, is that such a deviation from the usual Holmes template doesn’t feel gratuitious or even out of kilter with the canon.
To be sure, the pre-release hype that Horowitz had written The House of Silk in Conan Doyle’s style was misleading: the Watson of this novel, writing from a retirement home after the death of his oldest and dearest friend, is too reflective, and the narrative too economical, to remind one of the four canonical novels, or even any of the short stories. Horowitz is a little above Conan Doyle’s old trick of withholding information from the reader, too, and this makes his mystery a little easier to solve than many of Holmes’s cases. Crucially, however, Horowitz writes in the way that you might fondly remember Watson sounding: erudite but at times dogmatic, with an eye for the ladies but morally resolute, focused on action far more than context. Writing in 2011, on the other hand, Horowitz can’t let Watson get away with his flaws as a narrator, and has the good doctor criticise his own stories for ignoring the poor or the young, for skipping over the mise en scene in favour of the hackney chase. The gambit undoubtedly pays off: this is a nonagenarian Watson looking back on his life, writing the last of his reminscences of Sherlock Holmes, and allowing a suppler, more intimate, style to emerge.
All the details are here: the Persian slipper, the game proving to be afoot, Lestrade’s mixture of defiance and respect. Horowitz admitted in that Telegraph piece that he took Conan Doyle’s lead in paying little heed to chronology, and Baring Gould would indeed find it impossible to place The House of Silk in a chronology: the novel is set in 1890, and the ‘Adventure of the Red-Headed League’, we are told, happened just seven weeks ago; by the same token, one character tells Watson he recently read and enjoyed the ‘Copper Beeches’ which, though set in 1890 (according to Brad Keefauver, though Baring Gould puts it in 1889), wasn’t published until 1892. Indeed, many characters refer to their knowledge of Watson’s stories, and of course this plays total havoc with any journeyman attempt to play the Great Game; at the same time, however, the novel plays that game with abandon, making Watson’s publication history explicit in a way Conan Doyle never did – Waston and Holmes both have fans, and past adventures frequently receive a reference.
So, too, do past characters: from minor ones, such as Dr Trevelyan from the ‘Adventure of the Resident Patient’, to more major and predictable appearances from Mycroft and others. For the most part, bar one rather egregious appearance from the character you might expect, this is done well; other puns, such as an appearance by ‘Ephraim Hardcastle‘ seem a bit gauche. Still, Horowitz is having huge fun, and for by far the most part this transfers to the reader: The House of Silk is a thoroughly good read, and though Horowitz only works out how to make a Holmes story last as long as he needs it to by splicing two mysteries together, the final reveal is terrifically neat – and involves enough of the standard Sherlockian ingredients, from exotic backgrounds to double lives, to ring true.
I imagine, therefore, that the book will be read with pleasure by those who’ve never read a Holmes story in their life. It should also be read happily by Holmes enthusiasts, though no doubt some will find a purist’s reason for a glum face. For instance, at times Holmes seems to one side of this novel – in fact, Watson is probably its main focus. If this is Horowitz’s solution to tackling the most intimidating detective in fiction, one should give him a pass – and hope for another novel with more Holmes for its buck, because when Horowitz does zoom in close, he nails the characters brilliantly: “Show Holmes a drop of water and he would deduce the existence of the Atlantic,” Watson opines at one point. “Show it to me and I would look for a tap.” [pg. 180] This is a novel with precisely enough both of respect and of cheek to do the job. In a few weeks, Robert Downey Jr, one suspects, will give us rather more of the latter. Eat this up while you can.