To Conan Doyle, he was always the brute.” Sir Arthur, genius though he was, thought little of his most famous creation Sherlock Holmes. “You may marry him, murder him or do whatever you like with him,” was his famous response to a plea to revise a Holmes play.
Happily, the rest of the world thought otherwise and the “thinking machine” of Baker Street continues to be resurrected and reinvented for each new generation. Currently, he is everywhere, in the blockbuster Guy Ritchie films and, as a modern-day hero, in the BBC’s Sherlock which I co-created with Steven Moffat.
Doyle, neglectful genius that he was, bequeathed us only 56 short stories and four novels featuring the imperishable Holmes and Watson. Ever since, writers as diverse as John Dickson Carr and Stephen King have attempted to fill the contents of the famous dispatch box containing the unpublished adventures. Now the Doyle estate has, for the first time, officially sanctioned the continuation of the great saga and it is to the always excellent Anthony Horowitz that they have turned.
Horowitz, has, as Inspector Lestrade might say, form. As well as his hugely successful Alex Rider spy novels for children, he wrote many of the early television adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Poirot as well as the sometimes spectacularly grisly Midsomer Murders. The result of his Holmes-work is the handsome, authentic and stylish The House of Silk.
As a dyed-in-the-blood Holmes addict since childhood, one of my greatest pleasures has always been the search for what we might call the ultimate pastiche. The one that is just so. Almost all effectively position themselves as missing parts of the canon but this isn’t quite Horowitz’s aim. The House of Silk begins with a long-retired Watson, writing up one last case from the comfort of a retirement home, and with the Great Detective himself dead. “It is a year since Holmes was found at his home on the Downs, stretched out and still, that great mind forever silenced.” This does lend the whole adventure a background note of melancholy that is slightly at odds with the amount of fun we have elsewhere.
Most pastiches also seek either to elaborate on one of the cases teasingly referred to in the original stories (DO Smith’s wonderful Adventure of the Silver Buckle, for example, finally reveals what went on between the politician, the lighthouse and the trained cormorant) or to pit Holmes against some dark new menace (often Jack the Ripper). Some, usually the rotten ones, elect to stuff every single character who has ever climbed the 17 steps to Baker Street into one story, producing a kitchen-sink effect that rather robs the idea of its charm. The House of Silk, however, succeeds terrifically by being, for most of the time, so wonderfully right.
A neat bit of deduction on a freezing November night leads to a mysterious Baker Street visitor and queer conspiracy concerning Irish-Americans known as the Flat Cap Gang. Doyle, with his huge and hearty love for the New World, would have approved heartily and the echoes of “The Dancing Men”, A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear immediately put the reader at ease. We are in the best of hands here and there are passages that, in their fluidity and narrative pace, beautifully evoke the great Doyle’s muscular and thoroughly modern style. There are a couple of curious errors, such as when Holmes’s brother Mycroft appears, who “had never visited us at Baker Street before and, indeed, never did again”. Readers of “The Bruce-Partington Plans” would, of course, beg to differ. These, though, are minor quibbles.
Horowitz has room a-plenty, too, for nicely judged bons mots of his own, such as Watson’s description of the shabby Baker Street Irregulars, the street urchins who are Holmes’s eyes and ears in the teeming streets of London. “He could not have been more than 13 years old and yet, like all of them, he was already quite grown up. Childhood, after all, is the first precious coin that poverty steals from a child.”
The Irregulars prove to play a larger part in the case than at first appears, as Holmes and Watson are drawn into a shadowy and genuinely creepy conspiracy involving the mysterious House of Silk itself. The exact nature of their business, I must confess, strikes an oddly discordant note. But for this perhaps I, like the world viz the giant rat of Sumatra, am not yet prepared.
There’s a seedy opium den and a terrific sequence in which Holmes is accused of murder and imprisoned (leading to a lengthy Baskerville-like absence from the story that somehow only serves to reinforce the novel’s verisimilitude). The final revelation, while straining credulity, is as gleefully outré as anything Doyle – who saved Holmes from the Reichenbach Falls via a misspelled form of Japanese martial art – ever got away with.
Bravo, then, Mr Horowitz. Let us hope that the famous dispatch box contains many more cases for him to unearth. “L’homme c’est formidable – l’oeuvre aussi,” as Gustave Flaubert might have said to George Sand.
Mark Gatiss is co-creator of BBC1’s ‘Sherlock’. A second series of three episodes is due to be shown in early 2012
House of Silk: The New Sherlock Holmes Novel, by Anthony Horowitz, Orion, RRP£18.99, 304 pages