After an absence of nearly a century, the real Sherlock Holmes is back, in a new novel, the first ever authorized by the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate. Reviewed by Jim Briggs.
“The events which I am about to describe were simply too monstrous, too shocking, to appear in print,” and would “tear apart the entire fabric of society.” So runs the bold promotional blurb. And there’s more: “I will give instructions that for one hundred years, the packet must not be opened.” The narrator is Dr. John H. Watson, beloved companion and chronicler of the great consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, and the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, literary lion. But now Watson speaks under a new master. “At the end of that period,” he cautiously hopes, “perhaps future readers will be more inured to scandal and corruption that my own would have been.”
Watson’s surmise is sadly accurate. The shocking events he goes on to describe are a haunting fictionalization of the so-called Cleveland Street Scandal, which rocked London in the late 1880s. It encompassed homosexuality, pedophilia, possibly murder, and certainly the shameful exploitation of children by men of power and influence.
The vehicle is the recently published The House of Silk (Little, Brown and Company, 2011, 294 pp.), and the new master hand is that of Anthony Horowitz, best-selling British author of the popular Alex Rider spy series and creator of numerous film and television projects.
Doyle may have been writing in a more innocent time, but Horowitz is surely painfully aware of how prophetic are Watson’s words. For in that future era, our own, readers have indeed become inured by such grim spectacles as the molesting of children by prominent clergy, on a global scale; a millionaire pop star constructing an elaborate amusement park for the purported purpose of child enticement; and, at a major American university, an endowed charitable foundation supplying a succession of pre-adolescent victims under the guise of “Providing Children with Help and Hope.” This latest event dominated news coverage just as The House of Silk was being published in the United States—an appalling but revealing coincidence.
If Doyle’s readers may have proved a bit squeamish for such ghastly subject matter, Holmes and Watson, at least, had endured regular exposure to substance abuse, poisoning, disfigurement, dismemberment, and every form of violent horror men and women have devised for one another. And Horowitz, richly credentialed by virtue of his spy fiction, is the first in several generations of pasticheurs to presume to have inherited the mantle—the imprimatur of the Doyle Estate is boldly emblazoned on the dust jacket.
Thus it is with a familiar thrill of recognition that Holmes and Watson begin their brand-new, hundred-year-old adventure together—which, like several earlier ones, has its roots in America.
A London art dealer is being stalked and threatened, he fears, by sinister forces from across the Atlantic. A large international transaction has taken place; a shipment has gone awry; a Pinkerton coup has netted all but one of the malefactors, who, vengeful and dangerous, has dogged the steps of the frightened client back to England, in a scenario reminiscent of The Valley of Fear or The Five Orange Pips.
With equal parts energy and equanimity, Holmes, with Watson at his side, begins the customary round of interviews, inspections, muted exclamations and tantalizing ostensibilities. Horowitz deftly salts in several intriguing glimpses of Greater London—churches, bridges, train stations, restaurants, even street corners—and evokes Victorian England as faithfully as if he dwelt within it.
This all adds up to a most satisfying mystery in the making, but without the sense of doomsday wonderment readers had been promised.
Never fear. There is a pivot point, not quite a quarter of the way through, subtly inserted yet prompting strong premonitions. The stage is skillfully set. Intrigues are rife. Servants’ backgrounds and identities are nebulous. The scent of red herring permeates the air. Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson and the Baker Street Irregulars have already made their appearances, with Mycroft and Professor Moriarty waiting in the wings. Then, abruptly, just as Holmes and company close in on their quarry, a trifling contretemps, a small intempestivity supervenes—young Ross, a recent BSI recruit, displays an unexpected reaction to Holmes’s client; then shudders and is gone.
The incident is soon swallowed up—as Horowitz intends it should be—by the larger sweep of events. The man Holmes pursues is found—murdered, for a fact; and misidentified, for a toothsome and nourishing plot extension. For it is now, with preliminaries out of the way, that the greater, undergirding machinery of the novel may begin to wheel and churn.
As it does, the focus is drawn steadily away from the stalker mystery and toward graver, murkier depths.
The child Ross is found tortured to death. Mycroft uncharacteristically forsakes his brother and declines to assist. Aristocrats, pawnbrokers and schoolmasters rise to relevance, and none rings quite true. Moriarty, though never positively revealed as himself, nevertheless treats Watson to a closed carriage-ride evocative of The Greek Interpreter or The Engineer’s Thumb; then hosts a strange but memorable supper, and bestows a remarkable parting gift. Thugs, addicts and palm-readers play their respective roles, as do codes, disguises, and a nocturnal dog-cart chase. Dr. Percy Trevelyan, well-remembered from The Resident Patient, returns for a crucial cameo. And Sherlock Holmes himself succumbs, it appears, to another of his incautious experiments, and, in an opium-fueled stupor, perpetrates a heinous murder, witnessed by several reputable citizens!
All of this is layered on, chapter-by-chapter, with a dexterity approaching Doyle’s own. Gradually but inexorably, the evanescent House of Silk becomes the goal, the elusive prize that must surely be of immense value, looming just beyond reach and never quite materializing.
Just as inexorably, as clandestine pretenses fall away and Holmes advances toward another inevitable triumph, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel transmutes to a depraved darkness. It is here that Watson’s prophetic words must be remembered, and credited. The climactic denouement of The House of Silk is fully as monstrous and as shocking as he had given us to believe. If it appears a little less so after his enforced hundred-year interlude, it may be only because the Society for Improvement of London’s Children of his day was not subject to the media scrutiny to which The Second Mile Foundation is in ours.
Three larger questions may be whether John Watson, guided by the impeccable taste and discretion of Arthur Conan Doyle, would opt to catalogue such a horrendous tale in the first place; whether his mandated hiatus, for the reasons he presents, affords credibility to its appearance now; and whether his new proprietor, Anthony Horowitz, has rendered his hallowed voice no less resonant with the two new races—his own Holmesians and their Sherlockian cousins in America—which have propagated themselves during the manuscript’s century-long sleep in the vaults of Cox and Company.
The answers to the first two questions are a nearly-categorical yes; to the third, a more cautious one. True, there are commendably on-target historical references—to the impressionistes and their stylistic godfather John Constable, to the recent perfection of dynamite, and to the celebrated humanist Wynwood Reade, for example. There are several exquisite gems of British argot—squibbed windows, rubbish tip, “bolt the moon”—which would make Doyle proud. But the text is also strewn with prochronisms, prolepses and Americanisms which would make him cringe: bullhorn, living room, picture window, complete idiot, weekend and lousy, among others. And there are occasional lapses into overblown or clumsy diction. “This is a respectable house in which to invite a gang of ragamuffins,” gasps Mrs. Hudson. “Bad news has a way of spreading like smoke from a fire, trickling its way through every crowded room, every squalid basement, soft and insistent, smearing everything it touched.” Better that sentence had not smeared its way across the page. Then there are the outright gaffes: “I bath every day.” The use of “ribaldry” when “raillery” is probably the intended word, certainly the preferable one. Persistent pronoun/antecedent agreement difficulties. Russell Johnson’s problematic calendar. Blessington becoming Blessingdon. And an unforgivable misspelling of the great author Edgar Allan Poe.
Such distractions are regrettable, especially since they occur often enough to cause a disturbing arrhythmia in the engaged and discerning reader. Regrettable but not fatal.
The House of Silk resurrects the great detective and his biographer without devices or artifices. It resorts to none of the cheap tricks, easy dodges or showy cultural-historical overreaches so prevalent among latter-day imitators and pretenders. Holmes and Watson live again, plausibly and forcefully, set in motion, sustained and propelled in a manner most gratifying to their legions of 21st century devotees. Thanks to Mr. Horowitz, the game, once more, is afoot.