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Having spotted this book on Dooyoo I asked the library to get me a copy and have just finished reading it. I had heard of the author and knew him more for his TV mini-series, especially Midsomer Murders, so I hoped I was in for a real treat. I didn't read Mauri's superb review before I read the book; I wanted to go to it without any pre-conceived ideas. I admit I had doubts about anyone following in the footsteps of the master himself, but after watching the latest Sherlock on TV I thought it worth a try. Like the author I've always been a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle and wondered how this new author would do, I need not have worried.
The book starts with a preface written by Dr John Watson, now aged and in a retirement home, with several children and grandchildren to turn to, but it's obvious from the start he misses his mentor very much indeed. He writes that the great detective Holmes has been dead for a year and carries on to say that the story he is about to write is one that cannot be revealed until a hundred years hence since the scandal would rock the foundations of genteel society. It's a lovely touch that gets the reader straight into the mood laid down by the writer and from there on it's as if Watson was a real person and I was reading his last book.
Devilish Deeds await the Duo.
November 1890 and London is wrapped in fog and gripped by winter's icy clutches. Sherlock Holmes and Watson are having tea by a warm fire, Watson's wife Mary is away tending a sick child and the men are reunited for a while. Their tea is soon disturbed by one Edmund Carstairs, an art dealer with a strange tale to tell. He's being followed by a disturbing stranger whose attempts at stalking are unnerving both the dealer and his family. Furthermore he believes the reason behind it to be a sinister tale of theft and murder, with his own life possibly threatened he hopes that Holmes can help him.
Naturally both Holmes and Watson are keen to help and before long those famous words are uttered ' the game's afoot, Watson.' Soon the pair is drawn into a series of puzzling encounters with events taking them from the heart of London to the outskirts of the country. From mysterious strangers to sudden death, both Holmes and Watson soon come to hear words that will have serious repercussions and send them on the trail of 'The House of Silk' whatever that may be. It could become an end game for Holmes if he doesn't solve the mystery soon as even his own brother, the well-connected Mycroft, blanches at the mere mention of the words. Can Holmes and Watson solve one of the darkest puzzles to come their way?
Setting the scene and laying the trail.
I haven't read anything by the author before now except for his scene writing and must admit I wasn't sure whether anyone could lay a plot like Doyle. But I shouldn't have worried since the author has taken great care with his research but also appears to have a natural talent at getting things as accurate as possible. The descriptions of London and the countryside are how I imagined they would be at that time. His characters are highly believable and the dialogue is faultless. It's hard to attempt period writing and keep it pure, since modern writers are used to letting the computer or laptop do half the hard work. Writing in the style of bygone times means turning off the spell-check and using all the technique at your disposal to refrain from shortening words that alone can ruin a sentence. But to write a complete narrative without losing the style is a huge achievement and worthy of praise.
Keeping the characters of both Holmes and Watson true to the age is also a laudable task and I really felt comfortable with the way the author handles both, Watson in particular seems to breath from the pages. Since the fictitious book is being written by Watson then it's natural his character is more prominent than Holmes in some ways, but the great detective still comes across as beautifully flawed as the 'real' Holmes with his tempers, his addictions, the sulks and the madcap frenzies that always make me think 'that is how Holmes should be.'
The London of the time has to be correct as well and it's easy for a writer to forget that London even in the late 1800 's was still largely a main city with plenty of suburbs that had stretches of countryside in-between. From my own observations of where my daughter lives in Isleworth, there are places that once were open country; almshouses pepper the remains of parkland and to an inhabitant in the 1880's it would be a long journey by coach from one side of modern London to the other. Horowitz stays true to a London of gas-lamps, cobbled stones, streets running with sewage at times, urchins running errands for pennies, country girls turning to prostitution to live and all kinds of opium dens, secret societies, and perverse habits dabbled in by gentlemen. The House of Silk could well be any kind of place and the author uses twists and turns to great effect in puzzling the reader.
I thought this a great read and one that would appeal to all kinds of people. It doesn't have to be a long read to be good and at 294 pages I felt it worked out just right. The story takes the reader on a journey of discovery as well as being just purely entertaining. There are some parts that might upset a few people but I felt it was justified. I expected some parts would be challenging for an amateur detective to piece together and I did manage a few stabs at the truth with limited success, but it's all part of the joy of reading a book about Holmes and Watson.
If I felt Watson to be a bit more 'alive' than Holmes, that's purely my own point of view and I'm sure another reader would disagree. There was a slight tendency in my own reading to think that Holmes didn't show enough of that brilliant deductive mind, I could be expecting too much. So overall I would recommend this as a highly readable romp with some serious issues dealt with in a sensitive way. I hope this isn't the last of 'The New Sherlock Holmes Novel'. I'm sure the author could write plenty more and still keep fans of Conan Doyle happy.
The book is available in hardback at about £9.49, a bargain for something that could well become a collectable book.
Thanks for reading.
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Ever since he first appeared in 'A Study in Scarlet' in 1887 the 'consulting' detective Sherlock Homes has captivated readers around the world and is now one of the best known fictional creations in literature. The stories have been adapted for the screen and the stage. His influence on crime fiction and on fiction in general is difficult to quantify, would there be a Poirot, Morse and Lewis or even a Rebus without a Sherlock Holmes before them?
Even when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle grew weary of his creation and decided to kill him off Holmes had become so popular that Doyle was forced to bring him back for more adventures. Of course while Doyle was a prolific writer, for the committed fan the four novels and five short story collections were never enough, we all wish that more had been written. Since the publication of the last collection in 1927 and after Doyle's death in 1930 other writers have attempted with varying degrees of success to resurrect the great detective in new novels and original films adaptations. However not until 2011 did Conan Doyle's estate commission a new authorised Holmes story when they asked Anthony Horowitz, author of the Alex Rider novels, and TV period detective series 'Foyle's War' to take on this onerous task. Horowitz responded by writing 'The House of Silk' but did he rise to this most difficult of challenges?
"COME, WATSON, COME! THE GAME IS AFOOT"
In the early nineteen hundreds Dr. John Watson after two marriages, three children, seven grandchildren and a successful career in medicine is seeing out his days in a comfortable resting home. There he reminisces about his great friend Sherlock Holmes who has recently passed away. Watson now reaching the end of his life has finally decided to reveal the details of a previous adventure that in his own words was "too shocking to reveal until now". The events of this case take us back to 1890 when Holmes and Watson were approached by Wimbledon based art dealer Edmund Carstairs who tells them that he and his wife are being stalked by mysterious man most noticeable by the strange flat cap he wears. Carstairs worried for his own safety and that of his young wife Catherine hires Holmes to find out who this man is and what it is he wants from them. Holmes quickly realises that the case is more complex than it at first appears and after enlisting the help of the "unofficial force" a gang of street urchins known as the Baker Street 'irregulars' events take a sinister turn. Holmes and Watson soon get embroiled with Irish American gangsters, secret criminal organisations, corrupt official and scandals at the highest level of Victorian society. They venture into the seediest parts of London in pursuit of their deadly foes and the whereabouts or nature of the mysterious 'House of Silk'. An intricate web of deceit, blackmail, kidnapping and murder slowly unfolds and Holmes' deductive powers are tested to the full.
In writing 'The House of Silk' Horowitz has almost done the impossible, he has produced a Sherlock Holmes novel that will sit comfortably among the great originals written by Doyle. The author has not radically changes Holmes and Watson from the original stories. Holmes is still the same analytical genius who likes to show off his powers at Watson's expense and yet rather struggles with social niceties and the complexities of human relationships. Watson is still the stalwart loyal friend with a more sensitive view on life. He is an everyman figure that we as readers can warm to and a perfect counterbalance to Holmes' eccentric genius. It would not surprise me if Horowitz had watched and admired the Granada TV serialisation of the Sherlock Holmes stories starring Jeremy Brett since this is the adaptation that most came to mind when I read this book.
"LONDON, THAT GREAT CESSPOOL INTO WHICH ALL THE LOUNGERS AND IDLERS OF THE EMPIRE ARE IRRESISTIBLY DRAINED"
All the classic trademarks of fictional Victorian London we love most from the original stories are still there and Horowitz has gone to great length to recreate an authentic Victorian setting for his Sherlock Holmes adventure. In preparation for writing this story he consulted with many historians and Victorian experts and also drew upon his knowledge of such contemporary Victorian authors as Dickens and Trollope to get an accurate feel for what the period was like both culturally and practically. The research has paid off handsomely. I found the setting for the story extremely believable and it struck the same tone as the original Holmes stories I have read. Victorian London was a complex mixture of grand opulence and desperate poverty. At the height of the industrial revolution which helped top make Britain one of the greatest powers and one of the wealthiest countries in the world there existed such abject poverty that saw homeless orphaned children roaming the street often taking to begging or crime to stay alive. Fashionable districts where the rich showed off their wealth in grand buildings were mirrored by areas full of derelict unsanitary houses home to the unfortunate victims of the unfettered capitalism of the age. Horowitz's Holmes and Watson are not unaware of this and parts of the story they comment on these social inequalities in a way that the original characters might not have done.
Among cobbled street filled with the sound of hooves and Hansom cabs, the lights of the gas fuelled street lamps struggling to penetrate the dense London fog, Holmes and Watson can still be found hunting out dastardly criminals in the disreputable public houses and opium dens of the dangerous east end. Inspector Lestrade of the Yard is also present as always to be flummoxed by Holmes's deductive reasoning, even Holmes' greatest adversary Professor Moriaty makes an appearance...or does he?
ELEMENTARY? I THINK NOT!
It is obvious from Horowitz's previous works that he can plot a good story but I think the chance to work with literature greatest detective has enabled him to reach new heights. 'The House of Silk' is an engrossing mystery that slowly unravels itself with ever increasing complexity. The story twists and turns this way and that so as to keep the reader engaged, entertained and confused in equal measure. Like Watson we are lead through a myriad of clues and red herrings and like Watson we are continually confounded by what is happening. Holmes of course is not although even he is tested to the limit and admits to making grave errors in his investigation. What Horowitz brings to the story is a certain amount of introspection by Watson and (through Watsons words) Holmes that was somewhat missing from the originals. The characters are given more psychological depth and the relationship between the two is subtly but touchingly examined. Even the enigmatic Holmes is brought to life emotionally as a person rather than simply being a forensic machine.
In short Horowitz has fully succeeded in creating a new Sherlock Holmes adventure that fans old and new can be proud of. Whether this is the first Sherlock Holmes story you read or simply the latest it will be either a great introduction or a welcomed addition to the Holmes canon. The question is can Horowitz be persuaded to write more? Yes please!
'The House of Silk' the new Sherlock Holmes novel by Anthony Horowitz in hardcover (304 pages) can be bought from Amazon UK for £9.49 with free delivery.
© Mauri 2012