Few characters are as built for this column as Sherlock Holmes. I could cover a novel/anthology a week and never run out of options. The amount of non-Arthur Conan Doyle Holmes stories to ACD stories is almost staggering. And that says a lot as Doyle was quite prolific.
He was also incredibly formulaic. A Sherlock Holmes story almost always follows a familiar pattern. Holmes and Watson banter. The client shows up. They depart for the case. They investigate the scene. There’s an action beat or two. A twist that changes the case. Holmes gives his summation. Usually a cute note to close it out. Arthur Conan Doyle might’ve given us an icon of pop culture but he was kind of definitely a hack.
That formula is why Holmes is so imitated. It’s an exercise for writers to test it. Thus the many pastiches abound. Holmes is so safe he can be used for everything from the partner to a spirited young woman (the Mary Russell books) to meeting Dracula (look for this in October) to even Christian fiction (Doyle believed in things far worse than classic Christianity.) More often than not though we get classic style stories directly imitating Doyle. They’re unlicensed imitations so I can safely call them fan fiction.
There is one exception though. The House of Silk marks the first and to date only time a Holmes novel has been authorized by the Doyle estate. It’s thus as close to an official tie-in novel as we will get for Holmes.* Writer Anthony Horowitz, an acclaimed and prolific writer himself, doubled over backwards to create a theoretical fifth novel for the character to add to the canon. Did he succeed? Let’s take a look.
The book follows the template to a T, not missing a step in the formula. The book puts Holmes and Watson initially on the trail of a violent criminal out to get revenge on an art dealer for the death of his brother. Then there’s an unexpected murder. Then a child witness gets killed which puts the duo onto the mystery of the eponymous location, a secretive location which turns out to be quite a dark subject.
I’m deliberately being vague for a reason. Anthony Horowitz set out to write a Doyle style tale and missed the mark in one regard: this is a far better book than any Doyle ever penned. With the exception of A Study in Scarlet, the Holmes novels are pallid, bloated monstrosities that reflect the author’s growing contempt for his hero. Horowitz, a stellar author in his own right, has the opposite feeling. He’s giddy to write a Sherlock Holmes novel and it shows.
What Horowitz does that Doyle avoided doing in his novels was he keeps the focus tight on the heroes. We’re not in this to read about new characters. We want Holmes as seen through the eyes of his best friend. John Watson is often overlooked as a character in the canon but he’s such a wonderful voice to hear, an upbeat, constantly fascinated man who’s no slouch mentally. Horowitz nails his voice, even as things get dark.
And oh how they do. The idea behind this book is it’s been hidden because it was too shocking. It is. There’s not much detail given but we don’t need it. The answer to the central mystery is a deeply disturbing one that couldn’t have been covered in Doyle’s day. It’s the only way the book nods to its 2011 date but no more are needed. It’s also quite violent.
Oh and there’s only one bit of fan service. A massive character in the canon makes only their second onscreen turn if one assumes this book to be canon. I’ll say this: it was worth using them for this purpose. Truly brilliantly done.
Books like this exemplify the tie-in at their best. The goal one has when picking one up is to get a full dose of what they love. This is even better than that. To read this is to read the best full length Holmes story ever. That’s a minor miracle.
Next: Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America
*The TV show Elementary, an unlicensed adaptation, has spawned two novels. Don’t count those.