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’.

6 comments on “Holmes Sweet Holmes”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    I thought “The House of Silk” excellent. An interesting point as well-Holmes stories are almost horror stories. Apart from “Hound of the Baskervilles”, that had never occurred to me.

  2. Chris Webb says:

    Some years ago I bought a boxed set of all the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories, and it included a book called The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, an anthology of short stories written by other people. The quality was variable and mostly acceptable, although there weren’t any I would say were better than that. I have no idea how many Sherlock Holmes “tribute bands” there are or have been, and sorting out the good from the rest is going to be a rather frustrating business. I have always been a fan of the Jeremy Brett TV series so I’d rather either re-read Conan Doyle stories or re-watch Jeremy Brett on ITV2/3/4/whatever than try to track down decent third-party works.

    It would be interesting to know how the somewhat melodramatic and sensationalist style of the Holmes stories was regarded at the time, and how it compared to other contemporary crime writing. Nowadays they’re almost seen as great literature but it’s easy to imagine that at the time they were considered to be low-brow blood-and-thunders.

    I am not an Anthony Horowitz fan (I particularly dislike Foyle’s War, partly because of Horowitz’s storlines, and partly because of Michael Kitchen’s dozy performances.) but I respect your opinions so I might give his Holmes books a look next time I am in Waterstones, though I reserve the right not to actually buy them!

    (While on the subject of Waterstones, I was in the Bloomsbury branch the other week and they refused to serve the man in front of me at the tills because he had been banned. He said rather huffily “well I don’t know why I’ve been banned” so I was standing there thinking “TELL HIM, TELL HIM” because I was desperate to know what the hell you have to do to be banned from, of all places, a bookshop.)

  3. admin says:

    My only other cavil with the Horowitz is that it’s pretty hard to screw up a SH novel (although the Beeb has tried pretty hard). The form is simple to follow.

  4. Brooke says:

    The form is simple to follow.,,, and therefore boring as a day in hell. Horowitz is just lazy and not worth the effort.

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    Conan Doyle was surprisingly modern in his prose. I’ve got some bound copies of The Strand where you can compare his serials with other contemporary writers; they usually had simple plots padded out with turgid romance. Holmes used science and observation in the manner of today’s CSI series, the plots were convoluted, challenging and had great villains with the ‘family’ team sorting them out – Conan Doyle understood the need for a set of characters who would appear again and again; Mrs Bridges, Watson, the young Irregulars, Lestrade. Similar in its way to Lovejoy (prodigal son), Tinker Dill (boozy old uncle), Eric (daft lad), Lady Felsham (Mary Poppins).

    Most of what goes on is the interaction between people you come to know and love….but I think you’ve already sorted that one out.

  6. Joel says:

    Can’t agree with ‘Admin’ about the Sign of Four – by far the best Holmes long story – believable setting and racing climax on the Victorian Thames.

    Can’t go along with Jeremy Brett as Holmes either – best player was Douglas Wilmer, who strongly resembled the Paget drawings and had a stare to wake the dead. My real complaint is that Watson is always treated as a twerp – he was a soldier (ok…) and a doctor, and he attended to Holmes’ wounds etc with efficacy.

    But Sherlock’s still the best ‘tec (B&M sadly not yet IMHO there yet) and the aphorisms Doyle puts in Holmes’ mouth serve everyday life too – “It is a capital mistake to theorise without data – one insensibly begins to twist data to suit theories” is still my favourite.

    Most fictional tecs are good – some just got to my imagination ahead of B&M…

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