Saturday, December 03, 2011

The game's afoot!

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me, filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before.
     Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven

We’ve had something of a Sherlock Holmes revival in recent years. This is mainly due to the release of Sherlock Holmes, a Hollywood blockbuster starring Robert Downey Jr. as the immortal sleuth and Jude Law as Watson. I highly enjoyed the movie, but have major reservations about the sequel, the trailer to which is even worse than the misleading trailer for the first film! But I digress. Along with this Hollywood revival of detective films (The Thin Man is due for a Johnny Depp remake, and Downey Jr. is set to star as Perry Mason—not to mention the money-grubbing Disney studio out to reimagine Miss Marple as a sexy young Jennifer Garner), we’ve seen the Holmes stories reissued and pastiches of all shapes and colours. And the highest-profile one at the moment is Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk, which has been billed as the first novel to get official approval from the Arthur Conan Doyle estate. (But wasn’t Caleb Carr’s The Italian Secretary also approved by the estate?)

The House of Silk sounds like a typical Holmes pastiche, thanks to the cliché wording of the cover and (on one occasion) Dr. Watson, which claims that the events could “unravel the very fabric of society”. Which basically means Professor Moriarty is part of a world-wide conspiracy to steal the Queen’s underpants during her Diamond Jubilee. Right? Wrong! I was pleasantly surprised. The story begins as a typical Sherlock Holmes adventure, but it slowly expands into an investigation of the titular house of silk.

A Mr. Carstairs comes to Holmes for help. He is being persecuted by a man in a flat cap. He suspects the man is a notorious American gangster who blames him for the death of his twin brother. Holmes, however, finds the revenge-bent gangster’s behaviour most peculiar— not only does he avoid killing Carstairs when he has a perfect opportunity, he makes an appointment for a private meeting and never shows up! Holmes takes the job and sets the Baker Street Irregulars to work finding the mysterious stranger. By chance, two of the boys run into him on the street and follow him to his hotel. One of the boys, Ross, stays there and keeps watch. The other, Wiggins, leaves to fetch Sherlock Holmes. When Holmes and Watson arrive, Ross is absolutely terrified and runs off with his money the first chance he gets. Holmes does find the stranger at the hotel— stabbed in the neck... And then the case takes a supremely dark turn when Ross goes missing. Before long, Holmes is tracking down the House of Silk— but there seems to be no connection between these two cases!

The plot is solidly constructed and paced. You move fluidly from one aspect of the adventure to another, and the transition is seamless. It’s only when you reach the solution that you briefly get a bumpy ride—the secret behind the House of Silk is a letdown, but Horowitz redeems himself with his solution to the other half of the puzzle and the connection between these two apparently unrelated halves.

Holmes solves the case in great style, but the finale is a mixed bag. On the one hand, Holmes does have some great moments of deduction, and the solution has its surprises. However, some of Holmes’ conclusions are supremely obvious, and Dr. Watson manages to completely overlook them. At times, it makes the poor man look positively laughable. I wouldn’t have been surprised at times if, confronted by a machete-wielding madman, Watson smiled approvingly and said “A most charming individual— he clearly has nothing to do with this most ghastly affair.” Particularly bad are the moments where Watson manages to overlook Obvious Villains No. 71 & No. 113 and when he fails to realize the trick behind an apparently-impossible disappearance from a prison.

Now we get down to it: I am a fan of Sherlock Holmes. I owe him a debt of gratitude at the very least— it was through him that I discovered Golden Age mysteries. Since then, I’ve read many books and I confess I haven’t memorized all the details of the Holmes canon. I can’t tell you what Professor Moriarty’s birthdate is or what Holmes’ favourite colour is. So I won’t be able to tell you if Anthony Horowitz has Holmes go to a restaurant he wouldn’t have been caught dead in, or anything of the sort. However, Horowitz does a splendid job bringing Sherlock Holmes to life. It is the same genius, that same brilliant mind— he has some moments of apparent-clairvoyance that are absolutely dazzling.

Dr. Watson is not as great, but he’s done very well. It only helps that I relied heavily on an audiobook recording that featured the brilliant voice of Derek Jacobi, who sounds like Nigel Bruce’s Watson if he didn’t bumble around so much. These sound like the original characters, apart from a few moments from Watson where he philosophizes excessively about the state of the world he lives in. These frankly seem out of place, but due to Jacobi’s brilliant reading, I did not particularly notice. The only real problem with Watson is his surprising stupidity at times.

There is one mathematical flaw in all this. The book is treated as a manuscript of Dr. Watson’s, unreleased for 100 years. The year is given as 1890 and Watson refers to his writing this story twenty-five years after the event, while war is raging in Europe. That places it as written in 1915, during World War I. The scientist within me rebels—we must have a time machine I know nothing about, because 100 years after 1915 does not equal 2011.

Apart from this, The House of Silk is a surprising success. I was somewhat sceptical approaching it, but when I finished the book, I was satisfied. If Watson was a little more intelligent (or at least less stupid), this could have been one of the greatest Holmes pastiches of all-time. As it is, it’s merely an excellent read, but there’s no shame in that. I unreservedly recommend it to fellow fans of Sherlock Holmes, especially Derek Jacobi’s brilliant reading.


  1. Definitely one to put on my Christmas list I think. I am not normally a huge fan of Horowitz as a scriptwriter or novelist, usually finding his plots somewhat unsatisfactory, but from what you say I am intrigued - especially after George Mann's decidedly unimpressive REIFICATION OF HANS GERBER audio play which I just got through and which I had hoped to like much more.


  2. Horowitz's best work by far is "Foyle's War."

  3. I think the stories that make up The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes were also meant as a (semi) official continuation of the canon, with approval of the estate and Doyle's son as co-author.

    Anyway, in spite of your well-balanced and honest review of its strength and weaknesses, I will not be placing an order for it anytime soon, however, I probably won't be overly disappointed if I will ever read it.

  4. @TomCat
    I didn't mention "Exploits" because it's not a novel. I was hoping to dispel any qualms about the book's quality-- doesn't seem like that worked...

    No argument on this front from me. As much as I liked this book, there's no comparison.

    I think you'd enjoy it.

  5. I liked this pastiche as well. Great story, nice cameos and a vintage climax!

    PS: Love your blog. Lot of great posts about Sherlock Holmes :)