I recently read the steampunky Sherlock Holmes: The Spirit Box for Euro Crime, which reminded me that I hadn’t even so much as opened my copy of the ‘authorised’ Sherlock Holmes novel, 2012’s The House of Silk.
Anthony Horowitz has possibly done more for popular crime fiction and thrillers than any other writer. He started the TV show Midsomer Murders, came up with Foyle’s War, and wrote the Alex Rider thrillers admired by thousands of teenagers. He’s not for connoisseurs, necessarily, but it’s hard to deny his reach. So I imagine the Conan Doyle Estate thought he was a safe pair of hands, and I think they thought right.
An elderly Dr Watson decides it is time to record a hitherto-untold Sherlock Holmes story (in fact a story-within-a-story) dating back to a year before the great detective’s first demise at the Reichenbach Falls. A fine art dealer named Edmund Carstairs calls on Holmes and Watson at Baker Street to ask them to find out why a suspicious-looking man in a flat cap is standing outside his house. Is he the Irish-American gangster Keelan O’Donaghue, seeking revenge for the killing of his twin brother? And if so, why did he invite Carstairs for a meeting and then not turn up?
From an intriguing start, Horowitz brings all the usual suspects and set-piece deductions together in a story which exposes some of Victorian London’s seamy underbelly. And the seamy underbelly is really my problem with The House of Silk.
It’s a decent pastiche, and I think Horowitz captures Watson well enough. The strategy of bringing in some introspection, even some regret, add sophistication that was perhaps missing from the original stories. I enjoyed reading it.
But I wish that writers would move on from this trope of Victorians hiding their sexual iniquities under an outward veneer of respectability. We get it. The instant we read about mutton-chop sideburns, top hats in the fog, or those mythical pianos with bits of fabric concealing their knees for fear of inflaming the servants, we know that somebody is doing the dirty, and not for the purpose of procreation. Crucially, for a mystery novel, it’s not surprising. It’s so obvious that I don’t even regard this paragraph as a spoiler. I think somebody should start writing books in which Victorians are all exposed as either terribly nice chaps or paragons of femininity. Especially the vicars. I want to read a book in which a Victorian vicar spends his days drinking tea with old ladies and his evenings agonising over next Sunday’s sermon. While his wife prepares food baskets for the poor.
Anyway, using a Holmes story to inspect Victorian London’s seamy underbelly is exactly what a safe pair of hands would do. I just think I prefer a more radical take on the classics. What did you think?
Richard and Judy: [Judy] I’d say The House of Silk is virtually indistinguishable from the genuine article. Horowitz’s tone, style, and plotting could be that of Conan Doyle himself. Horowitz says in his acknowledgements that the Sherlock Holmes Society have been supportive of his efforts ‘so far’. I would imagine that after reading his efforts, the chairman of the S.H.S. will have done back-handsprings of delight down the stairs. The House of Silk is a minor masterpiece.
Mugglenet.com: Horowitz builds his original Holmes novel on what must be an amazingly detailed knowledge of canon Holmes, organized so well that he makes it seem simple. Even though his narrator—Sherlock’s sidekick Dr. John Watson—admits that the present case is unlike any other that he has chronicled; even while he points out the limitations of the type of tidy detective stories represented by Conan Doyle’s work; even while he admits that in real life, the story of a crime does not end when a sleuth deduces who done it; even while the detecting duo explores a darker, drearier side of London life than Conan Doyle ever touched on—nevertheless the personality of this novel’s hero is distinctively Holmes.
Lynn’s Book Blog: There is also a certain element of charm missing but I can’t quite put my finger on why – maybe it’s just in that this novel feels a little bit more modern and so misses some of the olde world character of past novels or maybe it’s because it feels a little tentative – almost as though the novel is saying ‘hey, I’m trying to be a new Sherlock Holmes story – will I do?’