Sherlock Holmes reopens the case

The sleuth of baker street returns with the first authorized novel post-Conan Doyle
(L-r) JUDE LAW as Dr. Watson and ROBERT DOWNEY JR. as Sherlock Holmes in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ action adventure mystery “SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.Photo by Daniel Smith
Sherlock Holmes reopens the case
Daniel Smith/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Since his first appearance in print in 1887, Sherlock Holmes has never fallen out of pop culture’s good books. But sometimes he’s hotter than usual, as he was in the 1970s, with Billy Wilder’s film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Nicholas Meyer’s novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solutionand as he is now. And just as the Holmes of a generation ago reflected that era’s concept of the iconic detective—a hint of homoeroticism between him and his faithful John Watson in Wilder’s film, drug addiction and Freudian analysis (by Freud himself) in Meyer’s novel—so too does today’s Sherlock suit our times.

In 2009’s Sherlock Holmes, and surely in its sequel, A Game of Shadows (which opens in theatres next month), Robert Downey Jr.’s incarnation of the sleuth of Baker Street defeats his opponents as much with mixed martial arts as with his wits. In the brilliant British TV series Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch’s title character has been literally updated: Holmes, more overtly Aspergian than ever, and Watson (Martin Freeman), as loyal and as damaged by war in Afghanistan as the original, roam 21st-century London. All that was missing from Holmes’s contemporary resurgence was more of the real thing, more Holmes à la Arthur Conan Doyle—an absence Anthony Horowitz has now filled with his sublimely Holmesian novel, The House of Silk.

It’s the first post-Conan Doyle novel to receive the imprimatur of the author’s estate, and for devotees of the canon—as the 56 Holmes short stories and four novels are known—the estate couldn’t have chosen better. Horowitz is a prolific writer for TV (Foyle’s War, Agatha Christie adaptations) and novelist (35 mostly young adult titles) and an impassioned Sherlockian since age 16. He’s crafted a superb, note-perfect Holmes story that races along like a runaway hansom cab, but Horowitz’s smartest work may have come before he wrote a word, in the cunning way he structured The House of Silk.

Holmes dwells “naturally in the short story,” Horowitz notes in an interview, unlike, say, Christie’s Hercule Poirot, “who faces six suspects, all of whom have to have their possible motives explained.” Holmes, in fact, doesn’t have suspects, just problems—the works consist of short how-dunits rather than novel-length whodunits. Horowitz’s solution was to fit two Holmes-style mysteries into Silk, stitching them together so seamlessly that readers, their attention riveted the whole way, can’t see the join until the end.

Horowitz’s other stroke of structural genius—he calls it “my best decision”—was to have Watson narrate the tale in his old age. That allows him to look back, with regret-tinged wonder, on aspects of the canon where current readers find fault, but without anachronisms intruding into the tale. Late in life, Watson is sorry he never spoke more with Mrs. Hudson; he has no idea how she came by 221B Baker Street or exactly why she put up with a lodger who fired bullets into her walls.

Watson wonders too about Holmes’s casual unconcern with the dangers faced by the Baker Street Irregulars (poor children he employed as spies and shadows), an indifference Watson now realizes was simply a mirror of Victorian society’s indifference to street kids. “I couldn’t write about the era without mentioning that,” says Horowitz, the patron of an anti-bullying society who works to promote literacy among young offenders in Britain. (He is also quite explicit in his hatred for his former London school, Orley Farm: it’s no coincidence the brutally Dickensian school in Silk is called Chorley Grange.)

Throughout Silk, Horowitz matches Doyle—a great descriptive writer—atmosphere for foggy gaslit atmosphere. And Professor Moriarty appears, as of course he must: “He’s the most famous fictional villain in history,” says Horowitz, “and I knew he had to be there, but not as the prime villain.” Horowitz manages to pull that off in a way both startlingly original and entirely plausible (who knew the Napoleon of crime had moral standards?), the final Sherlockian triumph in perhaps the finest Holmes pastiche ever written.