There can be no doubt that writing a Sherlock Holmes novel, as endorsed by the Conan Doyle estate, must be accompanied by the kind of pressure and expectations that only first term American presidents must be familiar with. Not only is it a series with over a hundred years of uninterrupted popularity, but it also enjoys international prestige. It is an instantly recognisable institution with vast influence on popular culture today, the subject of many plays, series and adaptations. It produced the first fanfiction, and the fanfiction community for Sherlock Holmes grows daily. With Sherlockians being some of the most finicky of academics and the fans notorious for their purist ways, Horowitz must have felt like he was at the bottom of the sea without a submarine for the pressure.
Did he succeed? In the opinion of this less than humble reader, yes he did. Astoundingly so. And the Guardian agrees with me:
So, all of the elements are there: the data, the data, the data. Nothing of consequence overlooked. And yet can Horowitz, like Holmes, make from these drops of water the possibilities of an Atlantic or a Niagara? Can he astonish us? Can he thrill us? Are there “the rapid deductions, as swift as intuitions, and yet always founded on a logical basis” that we yearn for?
To get some arguments out of the way. A great many readers will likely struggle with the appearance of words that are no longer considered polite and acceptable, such as ‘coolie’ and ‘Arab’ (used for street children), but if Horowitz is to produce a novel as close to the original as possible, then those words will appear. Perhaps it works as a great sign of the times that people will be shocked at the appearance of these words when they were once part of common parlance. Also, in Victorian/Edwardian England, there weren’t as many substitute words as there are now. I am not endorsing such words, but it would also be ridiculous to substitute them with politically correct words that would jar with the verisimilitude of the story. Considering that this addition is at least stripped of the misogynism that plagued the originals, I think Horowitz has done a great deal to retain the spirit of adventure without as many of the hang-ups of the era.
And so to the story. Watson is old, Holmes is dead and it is time to relate their most dangerous and politically devastating case, the manuscript to only be released 100 years after Watson’s death, when all those related to the story are safely dead and forgotten. What follows this introduction is a celebration of young Holmes and Watson at their best, with blood-chilling cases, adventure (the horse-cart chase at the end would put most Hollywood movies to shame) and the most shocking of crimes revealed in their astounding links. This, more than any other moment in the canon, seems to be Holmes’ darkest hour. Even though I knew that Holmes and Watson would prevail (this is set a year before Holmes meets Moriarty in Switzerland), I was desperate to know how he would get out of such a terrible bind.
I adore the exploration of the characters that Conan Doyle never managed in his time. Horowitz fills out Lestrade wonderfully, giving him far more depth and credit than he was afforded in the canon. Sherlock Holmes’ belovedLondonis painted in dark detail, with the terrible plight of poor children brought to the forefront and a condemnation of how children were treated then and an implicit message that we still treat children as badly. Drugs, political intrigue and corruption permeate the pages and the unbeatable duo are as much as home in Horowitz’s imagining of London as they were in Doyle’s own. Holmes is entangled in a network of hideous crimes and people and we see Watson at his very best when he’s trying to save his very dear friend.
I don’t think I can really convey how delighted I am to have come across such a worthy successor to a prestigious canon. Holmes is as brave, brilliant and unbearable as Watson is devoted and determined. House of Silk addresses so many questions and answers them well. Watson’s injury? It was in his shoulder. (It wandered between his leg and shoulder over the course of the canon). Who is Mrs Hudson, really? Watson admits that he should have spoken to her more and taken her for granted less often. He also talks about the cases Holmes took, and how so many of the crimes had been committed by the wealthy in contrast to deeply embedded beliefs about class purity at the time.
There will be a purist who will whine about something, and that is a great pity. I think that Horowitz has done an absolutely outstanding tribute: his research is vast, his characterisation impeccable, his settings immensely detailed. I read all 294 pages in one sitting, unable to break away long enough to eat something and going to sleep much later than usual. (I feel appropriately tired and rotten this morning, but it was very much worth it.)
Go get a copy. First time fans of Holmes will devour the rest of the canon based on the brilliance of this one. For me, it was like meeting an old, missed friend again. I hope very much that Horowitz will write many more of these adventures. And if I’m lucky, Guy Ritchie will make this book the basis of the third Sherlock Holmes movie, and it will be the greatest movie this world will ever see.