This was the CWA Gold Dagger winner in 1976, but surprisingly does not appear on their 1989 top 100.
The set-up is simple but ingenious. Professor Moriarty is a harmless professor of mathematics persecuted by the delusional, cocaine-addict Sherlock Holmes. Watson, convinced of Holmes’ desperate reliance on the drug, conspires with Mycroft to lead the great detective to Vienna in the hope of a cure by the up-and-coming psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.
The initial meeting between the two great thinkers leads to a classic Holmes moment of deduction:
‘Beyond the fact that you are a brilliant Jewish physician who was born in Hungary and studied for a while in Paris, and that some radical theories of yours have alienated the respectable medical community so that you have severed your connections with various hospitals and branches of the medical fraternity – beyond the fact that you have ceased to practise medicine as a result, I can deduce little. You are married, possess a sense of honour, and enjoy reading Shakespeare.’
Holmes’ cure is traumatic (for Watson too, especially when he is forced to knock his friend unconscious). However, for my money, it’s a bit too straight-forward, and (I never thought I’d write this) I think I would have enjoyed more psychoanalysis along the way. Holmes does have a long-buried secret, but it is too easily won.
The final section is a decent Holmes story in itself, with a high-speed steam-train chase across Austria and Germany which more than rivals the final scenes of The Sign of Four.
The book falls firmly into the Sherlockian tradition, which light-heartedly accepts the Sherlock Holmes stories as factual and regard Watson as an unreliable and inconsistent biographer. In this case, the events described in ‘The Final Problem’ and ‘The Empty House’, the Moriarty stories, were fabricated to cover up Holmes’ breakdown.
Along the way, the narrative addresses many of the questions asked by Sherlockians in their many essays and books. Where did Sherlock and Mycroft grow up – Yorkshire or Sussex? Did Sherlock put up with Watson because he supplied his cocaine? Who exactly was Watson’s wife? It also finds room for Toby the sniffer-dog and his remarkable nose.
I haven’t read House of Silk yet, but I’ll be interested in how the two compare.
If you like this…
Meyer has written two sequels, The West End Horror (1976) and The Canary Trainer (1993).
In his acknowledgements, Meyer lists some works by prominent ‘Sherlockians’. W. S. Baring-Gould’s ‘biography’ Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street is cited as a classic, along with Trevor Hall’s Sherlock Holmes – Ten Literary Studies.
I’d add to these (if you have a bookcase strong enough) the three weighty volumes of the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes edited by Leslie S Klinger. These are beautiful books and well worth putting on your Christmas list.