Review: The House of Silk (Anthony Horowitz, 2012)

First off: Arthur Conan Doyle would never have written this novel. Book length, paragraph structure, and an emphasis on over-explained historical detail mark this out as pastiche, however reverent. But that in itself doesn’t matter: Arthur Conan Doyle is dead. Much as we might like to read another work by him, we won’t (except for John Smith and the like, but, really…. no). Sherlock Holmes means different things to us now so an attempt to mimic his creator’s style, which cannot be successful, arguably shouldn’t be the most important part of the ‘first’ new official Holmes novel.

Some things did matter, though. The prose is barely edited (Since when did Watson call Holmes ‘Sherlock’? and one of the other reviewers on Amazon has pointed out flora/fauna and council/counsel); it is frankly messy. Anthony Horowitz’s style here is inconsistent, flitting between pastiche and his own unique voice. And unfortunately, Horowitz generally writes prose for children. He is a master plotter – hence his success with conservative middlebrow television viewers – but not a master prosist. While Arthur Conan Doyle was hardly Balzac, Horowitz is worse. He doesn’t just tell, rather than show; he is preachy without quite knowing what he’s being preachy about, and seems incapable of doing any historical research without drawing our attention to it.

For example: “It sometimes occurs to me now, having witnessed so many momentous changes across the years, that I should have described at greater length the sprawling chaos of the city in which I lived, perhaps in the manner of Gissing – or Dickens, fifty years before.” Yeah, this totally hooks us in and convinces us that we’re in the nineteenth century. Yeah, this is totally not written for kids…. Oh. Wait.

Although the style suggests a children’s novel – and I believed that this was one for the longest time – the novel’s conclusion (rendering it a whodunit style narrative rather than a really Holmesian adventure) is most certainly adult in content. Horowitz is very proud of this conclusion, which he reckons allows him to explore the conditions of vice and sin in Victorian London upon which ACD was ‘unable’ to reflect. Was he really unable to reflect? Really? Doyle was very involved in politics, social justice, charity, and the military. He was regularly consulted by Scotland Yard and voiced opinions on Jack the Ripper, the laws against homosexuality, the first world war, homelessness, and even the disappearance of Agatha Christie. He did not bring these things into his Holmes stories because, far from being incapable of reflecting upon them, he deemed them inappropriate, once pointing out that ‘a man passes a merry hour with a detective story’ but should never under any circumstances have learnt anything after reading it! His fiction was escapist, not provocative-for-the-sake of it, and Horowitz’s reflection on child prostitution (I won’t say more, since I don’t want to spoil the story for you) doesn’t quite know what it’s doing in this kind of novel.

Well-plotted, clichéd, intellectually vapid, and with utterly un-Holmesian characters, Horowitz’s novel resembles a children’s book that has been revised by PD James and proofread by someone from The Guardian. On two occasions, Horowitz unconsciously paraphrases Agatha Christie, who is much more in evidence (though not well-served) here than is Doyle.

And yet! What did I find in the back of my paperback edition? Only an excellent essay by the author, explaining all the challenges he faced in writing ‘The New Sherlock Holmes Novel’. His experience writing formulaic whodunits, he avers, is ‘absolutely completely irrelevant’ since ‘Doyle’s approach was completely different’. For one thing, he notes, Doyle did not really write about murder and rarely reflected on the historical and social conditions of Victorian London. He sets out ten rules for writing a Holmesian pastiche that is faithful both to its predecessors and to a modern audience. These include, ‘no women’, ‘no drugs’, appropriate research, no homoeroticism, and a modest body count.

If only he had stuck to any of these rules or practised anything of what he’d preached! It would have been a very different novel. While we’re on homoeroticism, I should point out one thing that struck me as authentic *and* appropriate for a neo-Victorian novel. Three times, Dr Watson’s friendship with Holmes is compared to his marriage. Watson, Mrs Watson, and the sinister (and pointlessly-inserted) Professor Moriarty all note that the doctor seemingly loves and values his friend more than he does his wife. At one point he rushes off to help Holmes escape from prison while his wife dies of cholera. I thought this was one of the most interesting aspects of a dreadfully dull novel, and surprisingly on-the-ball for Horowitz.

Without being commissioned by Doyle’s estate, THE HOUSE OF SILK would never have been written. And without that estate’s endorsement, it would not be garnering any attention whatsoever.

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