I recently went to London for the first time, during which time I over-indulged in one of my nerdiest passions: museums. In 16 days I went to 22 of them, almost all of which were somewhere on the spectrum between fascinating and awesome. There was one exception, located just a short walk down from the Baker Street Underground station. The treasures of the British Museum, the National Gallery, and the Victoria and Albert were all free, but the tiny Sherlock Holmes Museum cost six pounds, payable in the gift shop next door.
Upstairs, a tired old man dressed in Victorian garb addressed my in a depressed monotone. “I’m Sherlock Holmes, this is my home, over there is where I shot Queen Victoria’s initials into the wall, feel free to take pictures.” It was all very tacky and embarrassing and trying too hard, and yet I must admit I was totally into it. I didn’t mind the cost and I took unseemly delight in the fake mementos of Holmes and Watson’s fictitious mysteries scattered throughout the museum’s rooms. What can I say, Sherlock Holmes just does it for me and, judging by the crowds of movies, books, TV shows, and other people at the museum, I’m not the only one.
In his novel, The Sherlockian, Graham Moore puts Sherlock Holmes uber-geeks front and center, the kind of people who would view my visit as either a holy pilgrimage or, more likely, an utter blasphemy. Both real-world and Moore’s fictional Sherlockians study the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle with academic intensity, and the novel’s Harold is one of the movement’s youngest and cleverest new members. He joins a gathering of fellow Baker Street Irregulars in New York for a convention that promises to reveal a famously missing personal journal of Arthur Conan Doyle. But then someone has to go and get murdered and the journal goes missing. Through an unlikely but accepted mystery novel line of reasoning, Harold takes on the challenge of solving the crime, finding the journal, and maybe even getting the girl (in this case, an ambitious and alluring reporter named Sarah).
If all The Sherlockian had to offer was this modern day, Holmes-inspired Da Vinci code homage, it would be hard to recommend. Harold isn’t the most likable or even interesting character, and the course of his mystery-solving involves a couple of improbable leaps that are clearly designed to put Harold in the right place and time for plot reasons rather than logical ones. But Harold is only half the book; the other half belongs to Arthur Conan Doyle. The story switches back and forth every chapter between modern day Harold and Holmes’ creator’s own travails in 1900, a period between the first time Doyle killed his famous detective off and when he later brought him back for further adventures.
The Doyle chapters far outclass the Harold chapters in The Sherlockian, and are the real reason to give this book a try. Where Harold is awkward and unappealing, Doyle is assured and interesting (even when he’s being unappealing too). He begins the book by killing off Holmes in what he intended to be his last story. Doyle loathes his creation, not least because people tend to think of the great detective as a real person. As it turns out, he’s the only person happy to see the detective’s demise, and Doyle ends up the object of much public outcry and opprobrium.
When an anonymous package explodes on his writing desk, it hurtles the author straight into a mystery of his own, with his trusty pal Bram Stoker at his side. Doyle is a deeply conflicted and interestingly flawed character, no doubt because Moore has done his research and mined the real man’s life for its most interesting elements. I imagine this is why he’s so much more interesting than the purely fictional Harrold.
The narrative trick of alternating settings back and forth runs the risk of becoming annoying, but for the most part Moore steers clear of danger by giving us short, snappy chapters that rock along at a good clip. Even the less interesting modern story moves adroitly from scene to scene, and if the mystery’s final solution isn’t entirely satisfactory, it’s also not bad. More importantly, it ends up linking into the Doyle plot with proper satisfaction. The Sherlockian never quite puzzles or thrills as well as even a modest Doyle-penned story, but it is an entertaining jaunt, especially for those of us with a little Sherlockian in us.