A manuscript has recently appeared from the dusty depths of a London solicitor’s firm, where it has lain hidden for 100 years. But could this be true? Could the author really be Dr John Watson? Yes and yes.
The House of Silk purports to be Dr Watson’s final recounting of one of Sherlock Holmes’s investigations, a case so shocking that he has not dared put it in writing until after the death of Holmes and which he is not prepared to release to the world until a hundred years have passed.
That time has arrived and, so, once again, the game is afoot.
It is November 1890. London is “in the grip of a merciless winter, the streets so cold that the very gas lamps seemed frozen solid.....” and Watson has moved back to 221b Baker Street whilst his wife, Mary, is away. Mrs Hudson shows in an unannounced guest, who is in a state of agitation.
And so Anthony Horowitz’s new Sherlock Holmes tale begins. Who is the mysterious scar-faced man who has been haunting this gentleman? The trail leads from London to Boston, via the opium dens of Limehouse, as Holmes and Watson, seeking the stalker are drawn into a quest to find the House of Silk where they will uncover a truly vile crime that will shake the very core of the Victorian establishment. Along the way, there are plot twists aplenty and the inconceivable happens as Holmes is arrested for murder.
There have been countless pastiches, spoofs and reworking of Holmes and Watson over the years, some good and some bad, but, as the publicity blurb for The House of Silk puts it, this is a new Sherlock Holmes novel. Indeed, as far as I am aware, Horowitz is the only author to have been officially endorsed by the literary estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which actually approached him to write the book.
And, if truth be told, I actually think The House of Silk is better than most of the Conan Doyle originals. There were only four of them and The Hound of the Baskervilles is the only one that I really enjoyed totally. I’ve always much preferred Holmes and Watson in short story form, which may set me out as being a philistine but that’s just the way it is.
Horowitz is a longstanding TV writer and is best known as the author of the YA Alex Rider novels. This pedigree comes through loud and clear as The House of Silk has more action and more murders in than any other Conan Doyle novel or story I can think of. Although this is a departure from the Conan Doyle model (did you know there are three Holmes short stories without any crime at all?), it works well for a more modern mindset and, because Horowitz does a magnificent job of replicating Conan Doyle’s writing style and voice, it doesn’t jar in the slightest.
The plot, to be fair, is vaguely implausible, as are many of Holmes’s deductions but, if we are being honest with ourselves, that is an accurate reflection of the Conan Doyle originals. Nevertheless, Horowitz fills the book with plot twists that keep the story moving at pace and the denouement is completely unexpected. he also does an excellent job of balancing action, ratiocination and description.
But, the glory of Conan Doyle was his characters and they are, with the notable exception of Irene Adler, out in force here. Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, Mary Watson, the Baker Street Irregulars, Mycroft and even Moriarty are all present and correct and Horowitz’ characterisations are spot on. One of the best things about the Conan Doyle stories for me is the depiction of foggy, gas-lit London. Again, Horowitz hits the nail on the head here.
But, despite all these virtues, the thing that sets The House of Silk apart from all other post-Conan Doyle Holmes stories is the seriousness with which he treats it. There are no homo-erotic references, no over-embellishments or little jokes, which might have toppled it into pastiche or parody. Horowitz gives the material the respect it deserves and it is all the better for it.
I read it in two sittings and didn’t want it to end. This could have been a disaster but, instead, is simply wonderful. The introduction to the book claims that it is the final Holmes story but I sincerely hope that Horowitz manages to dig out another gem from that dusty old solicitor’s office.