It’s a good time to be Sherlock Holmes. Although the great detective has never been out of favor, his popularity has increased proportionately to the flood of new adaptations in the past few years. Director Guy Ritchie keeps Holmes and Watson in Victorian times but turns them into modern-styled action heroes enjoying a celebrated bromance. The second movie in his Sherlock Holmes franchise, A Game of Shadows, hasn’t yet premiered, but a third film already has been announced.
On television, the BBC’s critically acclaimed, international hit Sherlock, as envisioned by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, follows Holmes and Watson’s adventures in 21st century London. Titan, Severn House, Pegasus, and other publishers offer a wide selection of books of the detective’s further adventures, written by a variety of modern authors. Into this mix comes Anthony Horowitz’s highly anticipated Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk.
In the many years since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned what he likely believed would be Sherlock Holmes’ final case, other authors have tried their hand at imitating his style or borrowing his characters for new stories. Anthony Horowitz, however, bested them all—his House of Silk is the only novel approved by the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate in the past 125 years. In fact, the book’s dust jacket proclaims that the Estate “chose the celebrated #1 New York Times bestselling author” to write this book “because of his proven ability to tell a transfixing story and for his passion for all things Holmes.” But is the book, as the dust jacket also promises, “a modern classic”?
In many ways, the new novel provides readers with familiar elements of the classic tales. Horowitz knows how to unravel an intriguing mystery while tying together two apparently disparate cases, and Holmes still receives adulation as a master of deduction. The author excels at turning his readers into “Watsons” who are devoted to Holmes and enthusiastically leap into danger just to follow the detective throughout a case. Like Watson, readers are doomed to miss some important points along the way and to trail after a possible clue only to discover a dead-end in a less than savory section of Victorian London.
The characterization of Holmes and Watson is true to the original but also offers greater insight into a fascinating friendship. In Horowitz’s novel, for example, Holmes seems a bit more concerned about his friend and a bit harder on himself. The plot reveals as much about the Holmes-Watson friendship, during the time when the good doctor is married to the former Mary Morstan, as it does Holmes’ method of deducing who commits murders or keeps the secrets of men in high places. The mystery surrounding the House of Silk is a worthy puzzle to be solved, but the repartee between Holmes and Watson is at least as compelling.
Horowitz even knows how to write a riveting chase scene that, were it filmed for Ritchie’s movie franchise, would certainly be an adrenaline-fueled cinematic climax. The author’s style lures readers into the story, increases the plot’s pace, and then takes them on a wild ride. A sentimental ending that, once again, celebrates the Holmes-Watson relationship allows readers to catch their breath before they close the book. If The House of Silk is evaluated for its attention to character, quality of plot, and Horowitz’s familiarity with the original stories, it scores highly.
A book apparently destined to be a classic, however, must involve more than the author ticking the boxes of what constitutes a Sherlock Holmes story in order to illustrate how well he understands his subject. The House of Silk, despite Horowitz’s depth of research into Victorian London, comes across as revisionist history. It invites modern interpretations of the classic Holmes. Perhaps the ruminations by Watson, describing a final case (one so socially and politically disturbing that he asked it not be published for a hundred years), illustrate the differences between Conan Doyle’s style and Horowitz’s. At times, Horowitz seems a modern apologist for the way readers or audiences have long interpreted some characters because of their depiction in canon.
Telling the story as Watson, who recalls the infamous House of Silk a few years after Holmes’ death and long after this particular adventure takes place, Horowitz seems to include familiar characters like Inspector Lestrade primarily in order to apologize for the way they were previously treated. In the original texts, Lestrade often suffers Holmes’ derision when he fails to make the right deductions or leaps to the likeliest (and easiest) conclusion. When writing about Lestrade in The House of Silk, Horowitz-as-Watson writes, “I felt a need to apologise to Lestrade on two counts. First, I had never described him in perhaps the most glowing terms… But where I perhaps did Lestrade an injustice was in suggesting that he had no intelligence or investigative skill whatsoever… Lestrade was in many ways a capable man” (pages 64-65).
Sherlock Holmes also questions his habit of pragmatically using people, such as the Baker Street Irregulars, who can assist him in gathering information. His focus traditionally has been on “the game” rather than its possible casualties. Holmes admits “there are times when I wonder if I shouldn’t leave this profession and seek my fortune elsewhere… Certainly, on the strength of my achievements so far in the investigation of this case, I have no right to call myself a detective” (page 98). He asks how he can live with himself and goes after a murderer not so much to solve a case as to achieve justice for the victim.
Although in many adaptations Holmes is not as cold or machine-like as he is described in some Conan Doyle stories, Horowitz suggests a modern interpretation of the detective that further humanizes him and, because this novel bears the Estate’s blessing, gives this interpretation greater weight than that of other adaptations. With the benefit of a century of hindsight, Horowitz softens some aspects of the characters and makes them easily understandable to audiences familiar with the latest Sherlock Holmes television series and films.
Readers who only know Sherlock Holmes from these recent adaptations may not understand the references to, among others, the Bruce-Partington plans, a beryl, the moors, Reichenbach Falls, or Holmes’ emotional response to Watson’s wounding (an event re-created in this novel). New readers should enjoy discovering more about Holmes and Watson, and the references don’t detract from the current plot. Holmes fans who have faithfully read the Conan Doyle stories should appreciate Horowitz’s attention to detail.
The strength of The House of Silk is the Holmes-Watson friendship, but readers may come away understanding author Watson even better than subject Holmes. In addition to closing the book on Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, The House of Silk also gives readers closure to the elder Watson’s life and Holmes’ place within it. If this book is indeed the last official story, it provides a fitting conclusion to the canon.
The House of Silk is a tale about the Victorian world of men, their vices and evildoing, their ability to confront villains, and their attempts at justice. It’s an exciting adventure involving death and death-defying acts. Most of all, it’s the story of perhaps the greatest literary friendship and a fond look back at who Sherlock Holmes once was—and who he has become in the 21st century.