Thinking Aloud – The New Sherlock Holmes

I’ve been listening to Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime these last few days, following Antony Horowitz’s new Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk, the first novel officially endorsed by the Conan Doyle estate

It is very enjoyable so far as it goes, even putting aside the problems of abridgement, but that is the big question: where does it go?

Authors step into dangerous territory when they take up another writer’s characters and settings, particularly with a familiar and much-loved character like Sherlock Holmes. Horowitz is hardly the first to venture down this path. Conan Doyle’s own son, Adrian, wrote a number of Sherlock Holmes stories, some with the assistance of John Dickson Carr, utilising cases mentioned in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, but never written up by Watson, and other writers also wrote stories about Holmes. Indeed, Radio 4’s complete Sherlock Holmes series features a number of non-canonical plays by Bert Coulls, who wrote the dramatisations of the canonical stories.

But when I listen to the readings, under what terms should I judge this story? I can dismiss it out of hand as not being as good as Conan Doyle’s work, obviously enough because it isn’t by Conan Doyle, but that’s hardly a constructive approach. In that case, am I expecting Horowitz to write in a slavish imitation of the style of Conan Doyle? He might, I suppose – although he has clearly chosen not to – but where would be the virtue in that, not least because he’s still not Conan Doyle.

The most sensible route, and this would appear to be the one Horowitz is taking, is to evoke the mood of the Conan Doyle stories but devise a story of his own. Horowitz apparently created Foyle’s War, and has written dramatisations of Christie’s Poirot stories, so he has form in writing period detective stories, and he is clearly familiar with the Holmes canon as well. Possibly a little too familiar; there seemed to be an irritating tendency to assemble tropes and decorative accents from a wide range of Holmes stories. Thus, for example, the Baker Street Irregulars all come tumbling into the room, rather as they did the first time Watson met them in A Study In Scarlet, and indeed there is a peculiar sense that Watson had never seen them before. And Mycroft, who never usually stirs from his normal routine, pays a visit (the first and only time, claims Watson, which is actually wrong; I can’t remember which story, offhand, but I’m certain he pays a visit to 221b in the canonical stories). Lestrade also plays a small but sympathetic part, and there are a number of familiar bits of business, such as Holmes’ extraordinary facility for disguise.

The problem is, of course, that it is all too easy to become caught up in spotting the tropes, though it has an interesting corollary in that anyone who is halfway familiar with the Sherlock Holmes stories is almost certainly engaging with The House of Silk on a meta-level, certainly if the episode I’ve just listened to is anything to go by, given I spent fifteen minutes waiting to have my immediate suspicion confirmed, as indeed it was. Except, would anyone who wasn’t familiar with Sherlock Holmes even be bothering with the novel? (Having said that, I suspect it’s a rare person who doesn’t have some idea of how a Sherlock Holmes story works.) So, is this a bonus or a feature of Horowitz’s story?

The story itself is proving difficult to determine. The eponymous House of Silk seems to be at the back of a vast conspiracy, stretching as high as the top levels of government, but no one seems to know anything about it. How this links to the mysterious persecution of an art dealer and his family is anyone’s guess but this far into the readings I have come to the conclusion that the abridgement is struggling to contain the complexity of the story. Each episode begins with a glossing passage that seems to confuse more than it enlightens, suggesting that a lot of necessary material has been lost en route.

What I do notice about Horowitz’s story is that there is a greater attention to the other people involved. They feel more ‘contemporary’, I suppose. What is equally noticeable, certainly in the abridgement, is how Holmes is absent for a large part of the story (though this has canonical precedent), and there are moments when he seems to do things that Conan Doyle’s Holmes, I think, would not have done. He is less omniscient, less prescient as well, perhaps, even a little careless.

Which perhaps doesn’t take us anywhere at all, other than to wonder as I often do about the point of sequels by another hand. The implication is that authors should provide more of the same, and that to go ‘off-piste’ is bad and wrong, though I am often inclined to suggest that sequels by another hand are in themselves bad and wrong (and here I cite the Campion stories written by Marjorie Allingham’s husband, after her death, which are a pale shadow). Where does the interest lie is reading The House of Silk if one is not a Holmes completist or obsessive? Or, is it actually more fun to read if one doesn’t have a good working knowledge of the canon? And I could probably start a whole new post about the noble art of abridgement if I had time.

The only conclusion I have reached so far is that I am going to have to buy the book and see for myself.

And indeed, Dan Hartland confirms my suspicions in this excellent piece on his own blog.

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