Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The House of Silk

I’ve loved the Sherlock Holmes stories ever since I first saw the Basil Rathbone films when I was eight or nine years old, and, not long after that, devoured first the short stories and then the (generally less satisfactory) longer stories. The Hound of the Baskervilles is the only one of the novels that really worked for me, and even that is structurally flawed. Among other things, it’s far too easy to spot the culprit.

Why did Conan Doyle find it more difficult to write longer stories about Holmes? I think that the answer is, at least in part, due to the fact that many of the elements of Holmesiana that so appeal to us work most effectively in the context of a short story. We don’t worry too much about depth of characterisation; what counts is a dazzling set-up, and the atmospheric quest for a solution to the mystery, with Watson always lagging several steps behind the Master.

The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz, is therefore an ambitious venture – an attempt, approved by the Conan Doyle estate, to put Holmes in a novel that is true to the original, but compelling and well-structured from start to finish. Horowitz is a very talented writer, and his way of solving the problems that defeated Conan Doyle is to weld together two very different stories. One concerns a threat to an art dealer who has recently been mixed up with a criminal gang in America, the other involves the killing of a young recruit to the Baker Street Irregulars.

I found this book a fast and agreeable read. Watson’s style of writing is always appealing, and I enjoy trying to imitate it myself. The Sherlockian pastiches I write from time to time are always a lot of fun, though I’ve never been brave enough to try my hand at a Holmes novel. There are, inevitably, a few quibbles (would Watson use the phrase “at the end of the day?”, would Moriarty really have acted as he did?) and one impersonation stunt did stretch my credulity to breaking point. At least one reviewer has argued that this is a mixture of a detective story with inadequate clues and a thriller with a easily foreseeable outcome, and there is some truth in this, although I should also add that most reviews have been hugely positive. Overall, I was left with the feeling that Horowitz had enjoyed writing the story as much as I enjoyed reading it – that is, a great deal.


Lauren said...

I had a similar feeling. It may not have been great literature (whatever that means), or completely authentic Holmes, but I raced through it and had an enormous amount of fun along the way. Horowitz's afterword is also very good.

Patrick said...

I really, really liked this book. If only Watson had been a little bit more intelligent at times -- there really are only two or three moments like that, but they're big ones -- this would have been one of the greatest Holmes pastiches of all-time. I thought it was an excellent read, and there's no shame in that. Horowitz stays true to Holmes and manages to really bring him to life, IMO, although I can't swear how faithful it is to the established Canon. (Though frankly, I don't care as much about that as other Holmes fans.)

J said...

According to some Amazon reviewers, there are numerous canonical and historical howlers. I didn't spot any of them, and enjoyed the book very much,.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Lauren, good to hear from you again. I agree about the afterword (almost always a very useful addition to a novel.)

Martin Edwards said...

J and Patrick - thanks. A few things didn't quite seem right, but not enough to be problematic as far as I was concerned. And achieving total fidelity to the canon n a novel is a big ask.