Anthony Horowitz

 

The House of Silk

A Sherlock Holmes Novel

 

A brave/hubristic undertaking - but hardly a new one: how many versions of Sherlock are out there by now? I read somewhere that his character was the most represented in films (and have recently had mixed feelings about Guy Ritchie and Steven Moffat/Mark Gatiss' interpretations - maybe some room for some venting there too. In fact I suspect this review will turn into a comparison of the latter with this book).

Still, I loved Foyle's War (and the original Conan Doyle stories!), so I was tempted.

And I think, in essence, Horowitz pulled it off. Which is pretty damn impressive. The demand for Sherlock Holmes stories is huge - back when Conan Doyle was writing them (hence his Riechenbach attempt on Sherlock's life to try to get people to read his other stories instead - and his concession to public feeling in `The Return'), and now: what a gold mine for publishing houses and studios; what a pleasure to imagine there are some authentic Sherlock stories you haven't yet read or seen. Of course it'd be wonderful if someone unearthed some unknown stories by Conan Doyle himself, but here I'm going to use `authentic' in a more dodgy (less, well, authentic) way. Did Horowitz capture the spirit of the original? I'm even more indulgent here - I'm open to contemporary versions that drop the Victorian context: there were some lovely moments in the Moffat/Gatiss that really chimed (and, so much as with Dr Who, some equal or even greater disappointments).

Anyway, to start with the positives - which in the Horowitz are enough. I'd been reading my kids `The Adventures', and when I mentioned to my daughter that someone had written a new Sherlock Holmes story she was initially incredulous ("Can they do that?"), and then sceptical. But after reading her the opening chapter - a down the line classic of Sherlock bamboozling Watson by seemingly knowing the impossible, his revelation of his methods, and then - surprise, surprise - a client knocking at the door ... she had to acknowledge that, yes, this did really feel like a Conan Doyle story Horowitz, as you'd expect both with this particular author and this reputation-risking project, has done painstaking homework, and the evidence of him saturating himself in the originals permeates the mood, prose, settings, and characters.

It's enough, and reading the book was a pleasure.

Now for the `howevers'.

The first relates to me reading the story to my 11 year old daughter (who, after I'd read her the `Adventures', quietly scaled our bookcase to devour the rest of the series, so I was both impressed and disappointed the next time I suggested reading another Holmes story to hear that she'd already finished them). Spoiler, and more to come: a major difference between the originals and `Silk' is that this is the only Sherlock Holmes story I wouldn't want to share with her because the climax centres on a paedophile brothel. Unnecessary, and a shame that Horowitz, in other ways so careful to keep with the spirit of Conan Doyle, denied readers the added pleasure of enjoying a family story. Not family in the Disney way, but a story that actually can entertain both adults *and* children.

This criticism could also be made of the TV series (far more so: odd that in enlightened, post-feminist times liberation means that Irene Ardler moves from sophisticated, independent and classy (and about the only foe to ever best Holmes) to nude prostitute needing his rescue - yeah, boys, that's a real advance from those unenlightened mysogynist Victorians), and Horowitz' weakest points were where he slipped into some of the same traps into which Moffat and Gatiss plummet. I probably would have been less irritated by them if I hadn't so recently been so disappointed by the TV series. Some of the chagrin was because I wanted to love it: I thought there were some great ideas, clever contemporary resonances, nice production, decent casting, and enjoyable alternative spins (like picking up on something Conan Doyle doesn't labour - just how irritating a Sherlock Holmes could be). But for all their vaunted love of the originals, they missed some absolutely crucial aspects of what made them work - of why they're worth revisting. Most particularly (cf. Dr Who) their mistaking of scale for potency. Notice how most of Sherlock Holmes' original cases hinged on relatively minor figures - at times when there may not even have been a crime committed (`The Man with the Twisted Lip,' for example, would never have got past the suggestion phase with this series). I remember Sherlock himself commenting in one of the original stories how often he was bored by cases involving the rich and powerful: the implications may have been larger, but the cases themselves were less novel and engaging. Definitely less charming: if you had a recipe anywhere you read `charm' in the original you could replace it with `shouting'). Moffat/Gatiss never got this. Conan Doyle didn't need the safety of the free world/Sherlock's entire reputation/the uber-villain with the doomsday device to delight his readers. They could get that from any `Penny dreadful'. A good writer can do more over tea and scones than a poor one with Armageddon. A clincher for me is simply the amount of shouting that goes on in the TV series (and that times ten with Dr. Who), as if because the characters are excited we should be too (well, no, not if they're shouting inanities). CAPS LOCK only works for so long: didn't someone tell Moffat back in school that writing "BANG!!!!!!!" in his story really wasn't as powerful or effective as he thought it was? Sure there were Conan Doyle stories where lives were at risk, but there were plenty when they weren't. Moffat/Gatiss don't so much teeter on the brink of melodrama as hurl themselves headlong over the edge.

This misunderstanding of scale is particularly evident in the tragic over exposure of Moriarty. Why, if they are going for the spirit of Conan Doyle, do they not seem to notice that, like Sauron, an important part of his potency is that we never meet him. Moreover, he takes a up a very small amount of space in the entire Holmes canon. Conan Doyle carefully did not base his story around some DC comic nemesis: he had plenty going on without it. Yet in the Moffat/Gattiss world you can barely take a step without getting some (stock Batman villain: motiveless, ex nihilo, superpowered, infinitely resourced - actually, even Batman villains actually generally have more backstory) Moriarty on your shoe (oh, damn, there he is *again*). A teasing hint in Conan Doyle becomes a constant annoyance on TV. Horowitz' cameo is mercifully short, but utterly self-indulgent, and does nothing to advance the story (and, indeed, makes both Sherlock - as unaware - and Moriarty - whose actions ultimately mean nothing - diminished: Sherlock would not have been Sherlock if he was so clueless as to fall in the trap so easily; Moriarty would not be Moriarty if he had no control over this major criminal conspiracy - as puppet master, he could just click his fingers). I can see what Horowitz is trying to do: fans relish Moriarty, so if you're writing a whole book to let them indulge their pleasures, why stint at a favourite character? And this multiplied several times with the TV version - we get great lashings of Mycroft and Moriarty, losing all their charm and suspense through overexposure. A mistake Conan Doyle never made. At least Horowitz' version of Mycroft is vastly superior to the gauche caricatures of both the film and TV versions: I could have done without the sinister governmental conspiracy elements (this doesn't merely deviate from Conan Doyle, but draws on an entirely different - and overdone - genre), but the scene where Sherlock seeks some more keen analysis than his own is deftly handled.

Like I say, Horowitz is good, better than good, but I think he should have backed himself a bit more in trusting that he (like Conan Doyle) didn't need to throw in both of these characters, a conspiracy that goes right to the highest levels of Whitehall and the Royal family, and Holmes' entire career and reputation (very cf. Moffat/Gatiss). This is an underconfident step, a misstep, as if Holmes and Watson investigating a lost cat couldn't be made to work in the right hands (hang on, didn't Conan Doyle *do* that in an entertaining case centring on returning someone's lost Christmas goose?). Instead this borrows from your far more stock/standard thriller tradition, something we're awash in - and a reason we turn to Conan Doyle for a refreshing break. This is Sherlock Holmes, not yet another Hollywood by-the-numbers flick: "They took everything he had. His reputation. His freedom. His future. Coming this summer, only one man can overcome a dark conspiracy that goes right to the top..." Ugh.

I also felt uncomfortable with how utterly easily Holmes was outwitted in his frame up: Phillip Marlowe, sure, he'll deliberately wander into a dangerous situation without plan or backup and improvise (or get sapped and drugged) - but this is not Holmes' method (Watson in a nearby pub with a revolver doesn't match the scale of known danger: in the original stories Holmes had no qualms in calling in Lestrade and a dozen constables when required, rather than take silly risks). Holmes, in contrast, is generally a step ahead. He does his research; he can pull off a disguise; he plans; he calls on extra manpower when needed: the original Holmes would have been invisibly hidden in the opium den for a week or two beforehand, not just bumbled in to be easily overcome by a couple of relatively minor thugs.

The criticisms get smaller and smaller now. I can see the pleasure in imagining a future Watson, but, again, I don't know why if you love the original stories, and are specifically writing for people who also love the original stories, that you feel you have to *improve* on Conan Doyle: isn't there enough in the originals that you feel you need a DVD extra? Horowitz handles it competently, but even this idea feels more like fan fiction novelty (again, echoes of the TV series) than professional fidelity. And sure, OK, the climactic (carriage) chase scene was clearly written by someone with a much greater awareness of a potential film version than Conan Doyle, but I'll give him that (aren't I nice, condescending to a bloke who is so hugely talented :).

Otherwise, as I said, Horowitz does an impressive job. I could feel my hackles rising here and there, but overall my feeling was satisfaction - and that'll do with a `new' Sherlock Holmes story. My feelings with the TV version were more extreme: a couple of moments of absolute relish, but - particularly in the last episodes of each series, overwhelming disappointment and irritation.

 

March 2012