Holmes Sweet Holmes
Sherlock Holmes is far, far more than a brand now; he’s an international industry. He’s the reason why many Chinese visitors come to London. He has branches of his fan club in Argentina and Madrid. Like it or not, he represents a certain type of England.
Soon after 1891, when ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ first appeared in the Strand magazine, a host of rivals and imitators sprang up, and their flow has never abated. Other detectives, notably R Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke and August Derleth’s Solar Pons, became respected in their own right.
Letters were sent to Holmes from all over the world. The Abbey National building, which stood on the site of the fictional 221b Baker Street, paid someone to answer the letters and liaise with the local police concerning the ones in which vulnerable folk or children had asked for help.
Sidney Paget’s evocative illustrations had cemented Holmes’ appearance and put meat on the bones of Conan Doyle’s perfunctory descriptions. Meanwhile, tales were being spun around every minor member of Conan Doyle’s cast. Holmes’ fiddle-playing, his seven percent solution of cocaine, his observational skills and disguises were first clichés, then punchlines to bad comedy sketches.
With all this baggage, how did Anthony Horowitz tackle an ‘official’ new adventure – the book is endorsed by the Conan Doyle Estate – with a straight face?
Horowitz is a fine pasticheur (and an excellent children’s author). He’s tackled two Holmes novels and James Bond, and is remarkably able to slip into another skin. For Holmes he solved the dilemma of familiarity in the most direct manner possible, by writing a mystery whose hero happens to be Holmes, but he has also manages to channel Conan Doyle with uncanny accuracy, knitting together a more satisfying full-length adventure than, say, ‘The Sign of Four’. In ‘The House of Silk’, the great detective is consulted by a Mayfair picture dealer haunted by an American hoodlum seeking revenge.
From the earliest stages of the investigation there are puzzles within puzzles. Why did an old lady die? Why did four Turner paintings burn? Why was a safe robbed of a mere fifty pounds? (although it wouldn’t have been quite so ‘mere’ in the period). Why should a dead urchin be marked with a white ribbon? Grim warnings surface about the titular house. Its existence is so secret that even the great Mycroft Holmes, never known to heave himself from his armchair at the Diogenes Club, comes to Baker Street with a dire warning. Soon after, an encounter in a limehouse opium den proves Mycroft’s point.
Conan Doyle specialised in these kind of ghastly forebodings, conveying the creeping pallor of Victorian street life, the fume-filled taverns where a man might find himself propositioned by a burglarizing gargoyle, the alleyways where he could be struck on the pate by a beetling madman, the Thames-side staircases where gimlet-eyed doxies awaited the easily duped. Even his cheerful scenes felt vaguely gruesome; shopkeepers would drape a Christmas goose around a character’s neck like a feather boa, and the welcoming yellow light of a first-floor window could somehow suggest that its tenant was lying dead on the floor. The Holmes adventures were virtually horror stories. Men went raving mad in locked rooms, or died of fright for no discernable reason. Women were simply unknowable.
It took London a long time to cash in on Holmes fever; well over a century, in fact. But now it has kicked into high gear with a museum, a hotel, a pub and God knows what else – not bad for someone who doesn’t exist. Hercule Poirot is not English, so he doesn’t get a statue – Holmes is the real London fictional archetype.
The Horowitz pastiches are pitch-perfect in atmosphere and dialogue in both volumes; fog muffles murderers’ footsteps, London sunlight is always watery, an exchange between the Holmes brothers delights, Lestrade proves pleasingly helpful. If there are any complaints, it’s that the ‘official’ tag requires strict adherence to canonical rules, and that the solution to the first books a bit too adult for youngest readers.
With Sophie Hannah writing Christie and others channeling dead authors for their estates, the rise of this new form – not entirely flatteringly referred to as ‘fan service’ (give the public what they want) – is assured. For a less respectful, more joyously freewheeling take on Holmes, you should catch Kim Newman’s superbly witty Holmes novels, like ‘The Hound Of The D’Urbervilles’.