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Thursday, September 19, 2013

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

Mulholland Books, 304 pages, $14.99 (c2011)

There's a joke Abraham Lincoln apocryphally used to tell: How many legs does a sheep have if you call a tail a leg? Answer: Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one.

Calling The House of Silk a Sherlock Holmes story and not a pastiche does not in fact make it a Sherlock Holmes story, as it would have been written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Even if you have the imprimatur of the Conan Doyle estate. Sorry.

There isn't a single nod to all the arcana and trivia that Sherlockians and Holmesians adore, there's a veritable head-banging symphony of references to all those wink-wink Sherlock-isms (e.g., the 17 steps up to SH's rooms). That's pastiche wetting a toe in the sea of parody.

Having refused to call a tail a leg, what did I think of the story?

Anthony Horowitz is a genius. He is the man responsible for "Foyle's War," one of the best television mystery series (ever?). His storytelling and dialogue for that show is endearing, precise, informative, and enviable. If only he weren't such a fan of Sherlock Holmes, perhaps he could have stepped back, divested himself of the trivia, and made this book a true Holmesian wonder. Even so, it is a very entertaining tale, and amazingly clever in many instances (e.g., Sherlock and Mycroft trying to one-up each other on observations of the other).

The House of Silk starts out with Holmes and Watson temporarily reuniting when Mrs. W goes off to visit friends. In walks a man who claims he is being stalked by a criminal from America. While helping to locate the mysterious man, a Baker Street Irregular is gruesomely killed. (Doyle would never, never so graphically describe a death.) Holmes has a secondary goal: to avenge the young lad's death. And that, dear readers, eventually leads Holmes and Watson to try to find the House of Silk and what, if anything, it had to do with the young boy's death.

The case grows convoluted. Holmes is tossed in the gaol. Even with Mycroft and Lestrade on Team Sherlock, it is difficult going trying to unravel how everything is somehow related.

In fact, this is a very modern tale, with a modern focus on the crime. Watson writes from the perspective of old age, after Holmes has (actually) died. The come-on is that the story has been cached for 100 years because the tale is so shocking. I cannot imagine that Doyle would ever have written such a tale, even one that he buried for 100 years.

Again, letting go of the authenticity poppycock, what's left is a very good story. Horowitz uses Doyle's tactic of creating outrageous situations that eventually have real-world explanations, however improbable. Horowitz has parts for all the characters you've come to love in the Holmes Canon. He takes his readers credibly back to the fog-shrouded London that Holmes and Watson inhabit. He dangles a few clues. And he writes a story that's probably twice the size of anything Doyle would have created, but the extra is not padding.

One of the blessings of Horowitz's narrative is that he makes everyone more human. For instance, Watson speculates on what happened to the criminals after he and Holmes caught them, what fear and remorse they may have felt. Even Holmes is shown in a more vulnerable light. 

The House of Silk is different, not the same, so stop pretending it is. That way Horowitz can receive his proper and well-deserved accolades for creating a wonderful Sherlock Holmes world of his own.

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