The Short Version: Sealed up for nearly one hundred years on account of it being too shocking for immediate publication, Dr. John Watson brings us a ‘lost’ tale of Sherlock Holmes from 1890 that features perhaps the most horrifying crime they ever dealt with. What starts off as a rather ordinary Holmesian mystery quickly takes a darker turn as the companions are overwhelmed by a shadowy organization at every move. Holmes is imprisoned, Watson kidnapped, and even Mycroft is unable to bring his considerable influence to bear – because the House of Silk is a special group, catering to a special perversion, and they hold blackmail on all of their clients. It will take all of Holmes and Watson’s considerable skills and nerves to bring down the heinous institution… and even then, there’s no guarantee that they’ve fully succeeded.
The Review: I’ve read a handful of Holmes-continuation novels over the years (even reviewed one here) but I can safely say that none of them have ever measured up to the original – or even, happily, to this story. This is the best Holmes novel since Sir Conan Doyle was writing them. It’s not ACD but it is truer in letter and spirit than almost any adaptation or continuation since. I say this with a deep love for the Moffat-led BBC Sherlock, Guy Ritchie’s just-plain-fun films, and even the classic I-grew-up-watching-them Basil Rathbone films. All of those capture certain aspects of the characters or the scene… but this is the first time since reading the complete works (which I’ve done many times over, I daresay) that I can honestly feel truly satisfied.
Everything is there. Watson’s unique narration, Holmes’ quirks (the Strad, the cocaine, the awesome intellect), Mrs. Hudson, 221B, The Irregulars, Lestrade, Mycroft – even Moriarty makes a surprise appearance. The elements are all there, but that’s simple enough to do. I’ve done it in this paragraph. The real question is: does the tone work? It most certainly does and this is Horowitz’s biggest success. Sure, there are some issues with some of the comments an older Watson makes – his reflections are a little maudlin and a little too “looking back on the canon” worshipful at times. We all know Lestrade and how Holmes appreciates him – what we don’t need is commentary on his future. We don’t need to know that Mycroft is still alive and teaching. This ‘continuation’ feels much more like an epilogue because of those moments and that, if anything, is disappointing: what the world needs now is more Sherlock Holmes novels, let me tell you. I’m all for more Holmes and more Bond – although Bond is re-updated to the 21st Century and while that’s okay for Bond, Holmes is Holmes and thus can never leave the late 1800s. As the famous quote says, it’s always 1895 for John and Sherlock.
But on the whole, Watson’s voice is as clear as ever. Holmes, too, is the same as he has ever been. In fact, having seen so many versions of Holmes stories of late, I found myself imagining the characters as a cross-section of their filmed counterparts. Rathbone is, of course, Holmes (although perhaps without the deerstalker). Jude Law is our Watson, Una Stubbs our Mrs. Hudson. Stephen Fry’s portrayal of Mycroft, if played with Mark Gatiss’ sharpness, is perfection – and Jared Harris (were he a bit taller) is a perfect Moriarty. As for Lestrade… well, take your pick. The characters are all there and we can see the way the modern interpreters have paid their forms of homage to the originals – in fact, those homages are all the more clear thanks to Horowitz’s pitch-perfect pastiche. It’s as though this was, in fact, a lost ACD story from years after he retired the detective for good.
I will say that the plot is a tad shocking, especially for a Holmes novel. Child prostitution is the hip thing (sorry, bad way to phrase it) in mystery novels these days and so I was initially a little concerned when that point raised its head in this story. But it is not as though it is a new phenomenon. Indeed, this novel sheds more light on the remarkable man’s incredibly complicated inner life in the same way “A Scandal in Bohemia” does. Where that story sheds some light on his feelings towards women, this one examines his feelings towards children. Holmes is wracked by the death of one of his Irregulars and he takes numerous occasions to reflect on the ethics of sending these children, no matter how street-wise, into danger. His fury at the end of the novel is a sight to behold as well – because it fits so perfectly with the man we all know exists inside of the Sherlock presented to the rest of the world.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. It does carry on a bit – the bits with Watson getting all nostalgic could’ve gone, for certain – but it is still one hell of a novel. We won’t see the likes of ACD again – but I’m stunned by the success of Horowitz’s pastiche. It isn’t like Devil May Care, where Faulks was ‘writing as Ian Fleming’. There are no pretensions about who is writing and that it is an Anthony Horowitz novel. But there’s also a reason this is the first authorized new Holmes novel from the Conan Doyle estate – it’s the first one to fully recapture the spirit of Baker Street in 1895, with the fog swirling about and the sound of a violin wafting down to the street. If you pull your coat around you a bit tighter against the London chill, you’ll see a Doctor limp up to the door and moments later, through the open window, a familiar voice cries “The game is afoot, Watson” – and it’s like the magic never went away.