Confession time: I’ve never read a ‘proper’ Sherlock Holmes novel. I’ve read (and even taught) a few of the short stories but somehow I never got round to the longer adventures. (This is slightly less shameful if one remembers that Conan Doyle only wrote four full-length novels.) I can’t really explain the omission; I enjoyed the stories I did read, even if they are somewhat formulaic, and I much prefer cerebral detective fiction (arguably all influenced by the Holmes’ canon) to the more graphic and gory alternatives. I love the BBC’s Sherlock series (so much so that my last Year 8 class managed to distract me for a whole lesson by discussing how he faked his death) and one of my favourite aspects of House (apart from the fabulous Hugh Laurie and pretty
Billy Kennedy Jesse Spencer) was spotting the Holmes references. Jonathan Creek is fabulous too, if you ignore the ridiculous denouement in the latest episode.
Okay, now I’m rambling and using this post as an excuse to search for pictures of attractive men… The point I was trying to make is that I’m not an expert on Sherlock Holmes and any real aficionado should feel free to factually correct / vehemently disagree with or simply be horrified by what I’m about to say about Antony Horowitz’s new(ish) contribution to the saga.
Horowitz is himself a prolific crime writer (best known for Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War, as well as his children’s fiction) and he has stated that this novel was written not as a parody, modern adaptation or even an homage, but a genuine Sherlock Holmes novel in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s quite a claim and it means the book must be judged twice, so…
1. Does it live up to Horowitz’s claim?
In my non-expert opinion, it does. The structure (a formula which has been adopted and adapted by many writers of detective fiction) is faithful to the original. After a brief preface in which Watson explains why this case has never been published before, the story starts in 221b Baker Street, then a mysterious man arrives, tells his story and asks for Holmes’ help. This is followed by a visit to the man’s countryside home where Holme’s discovers clues (and red herrings) that Watson and the reader misinterpret etc etc… The language echoes the style of the originals and (despite the occasional slip) the vocabulary is convincingly Victorian. Horowitz has made it a little more accessible for the uninitiated modern reader but justifies this by setting the composition of the novel circa 1916, so Watson’s language would have evolved. The naming of the two intertwined cases – ‘The Man in the Flat Cap’ and ‘The House of Silk’ – comes just after Watson criticises a previous title, nicely linking this story to the others. Familiar faces pop up throughout the novel including Mrs Hudson and Moriarty (who is not explicitly identified and, in this case, trying to help his nemesis solve a crime even he finds abhorrent) I like that Horowitz chose to develop Lestrade’s character rather than just lampoon him, as it demonstrates the older Watson’s reflective nature. The very end, which I won’t spoil, is also a fitting celebration of the real heart of Conan Doyle’s novels – not the fiendish cleverness of Holmes and his opponents, but the partnership between the protagonists.
2. Is it a good novel in it’s own right?
My book group friends all enjoyed it, even those who don’t normally read crime fiction. Most of us tried to solve the crime before Holmes and each of us spotted a few clues and missed others. (Interestingly we probably would have figured it out if we’d pooled our thoughts.) This suggests that Horowitz pitched the puzzle well, allowing the reader to feel slightly smarter than Watson but still aeons behind Holmes, as in the originals. The two seemingly separate cases connected convincingly enough and the set-piece in which Holmes explains everything was satisfying (apart from the off-centre fountain, which I presume was just a red herring). Some readers might find the nature of the crimes rather upsetting – let’s just say the the brutal murder of a 13 year-old boy is not the worst bit – but Watson does warn us in the preface that these were crimes too shocking to be recorded at the time. While I would think twice about teaching this novel to a GCSE class, there is nothing explicit or graphic in the text. Overall it’s a good book about a great character. I’m now more likely to try one of Conan Doyle’s longer novels and there is suggestion that Horowitz may be asked to produce a sequel, which I’d certainly read.