There is a long tradition of unauthorized stories using the Holmesian characters. The first pastiches appeared almost immediately after the first popular success of the Holmes tales, some only a few years after the first short stories in the early 1890s, and although many were parodic, some were pure imitation. During Conan Doyle’s lifetime, these were decidedly not authorized, and after his death in 1930, his heirs vigorously sought to suppress their publication.
Today, all the Conan Doyle Holmes stories are in public domain.
Nonetheless, his estate “commissioned” well-known author Anthony Horowitz to write The House of Silk. Horowitz, a long-time fan of the Holmes stories, took his charge seriously. In an address to the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, he expressed the 10 “rules” he intended to follow. He prohibited himself from writing “over-the-top” action scenes, romantic interludes, hints of a gay relationship between Holmes and Watson, historical figures appearing as “walk-ons,” or drug use. Instead, he announced that he would focus on using the right language and getting the Victorian material right.
One has the right to high expectations for an “authorized” sequel. It’s pleasant to conclude that Horowitz scored very well by his own grading system, especially with regard to language and research, and that the result, which could easily have turned into an academic exercise in mimicry, is a gripping and highly successful tale. Readers will want to discover the intricate plot for themselves, but Horowitz skillfully intertwines two mysteries, one concerning a man in a flat cap who threatens a respectable art collector, the other a vast plot strangely connected to a school for abandoned boys.
Horowitz largely captures the voice of Holmes’s biographer, John H. Watson, MD, with only an occasional lapse into more moralizing and foreshadowing than an authentic Watsonian manuscript would show. He touches all the right buttons, with the characters we expect making dutiful appearances, and with the right amount of reference to Holmes’s career. There can be little doubt Horowitz reread all the genuine Holmes stories, and he weaves his tale almost seamlessly into the canon. The pace is brisk, the deductions ring true,
The story takes place in November, 1890, two years after Watson’s first marriage and a scant six months before Holmes’s disappearance at Reichenbach Falls. According to Horowitz’s Watson, the account was written in 1915, shortly after the death of Holmes in his home on the Sussex Downs not long after the events reported in His Last Bow (which occurs in August, 1914, and was published in 1917). Sherlockians will be puzzled that Watson (who says in this account that he takes up his pen “one final time” to write of Holmes) wrote a novel and 11 stories that appeared between 1915 and 1927 that never mentioned Holmes’s death. Happily too, though Watson refers to Holmes’s obituary, no Sherlockian scholar has ever seen it, and so we must conclude that someone was deceiving Watson, a fact he learned soon after but failed to correct in this manuscript.
The adventure itself is one Watson felt was too “monstrous” to be published in 1915, and forbade its publication until 100 years after he wrote it. Evidently Horowitz could not abide by the full-century ban. Readers familiar with the crusades of Victorian newspaperman W.T. Stead will quickly guess the nature of The House of Silk. Notwithstanding the depravity of the matter, it is hard to understand why its “monstrous” aspects were thought to be so “shocking” by Watson in either 1890 or 1915. His concerns about wartime morale seem hollow 25 years after the events. We can only conclude that Watson’s own views were fixed in his youth, and he must earnestly have believed that an account of Holmes’s exposure of “The House of Silk” would scandalize his readership, which he may well have wrongly concluded consisted largely of young boys.
Horowitz also cleverly borrows from several Holmes adventures, The Dancing Men and The Valley of Fear. This not a criticism; many of Holmes’s genuine cases ( The Three Garridebs and The Stock-Broker’s Clerk) seem to have been copied from earlier ones, and one can only assume that Victorian criminals studied Watson’s accounts avidly, seeking ideas for crimes and insights into Holmes’s methods.
Horowitz even manages to ape Watson’s often-sloppy writing: In one scene, a clergyman-schoolmaster happily tells Watson how much he and his charges enjoy reading the stories of Holmes. By November, 1890, only A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890) had been published, and the former was little known. Watson’s short stories of Holmes’s adventures – which gave them both tremendous celebrity – did not begin to appear in The Strand Magazine until July, 1891, shortly after Holmes’s disappearance.
Even more carelessly, an important character tells Dr. Watson that he has just finished reading Adventure of the Copper Beeches in Cornhill Magazine; of course, every Sherlockian knows that none of the Holmes stories appeared in Cornhill , and Copper Beeches did not appear until June, 1892, in The Strand Magazine.
In sum, Horowitz’s effort is quite satisfactory – high praise, in my vocabulary, for pastiche – and will please those who crave more of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This is not essential Holmes; little is revealed of Holmes’s or Watson’s character, relationship or history that is not well known. However, in the words of Christopher Morley, when “a good long slug of Tincture of Conan Doyle” is no longer enough, this book will “just fill that gap on that second shelf” and provide hours of pleasure in the renewed company of Holmes, Watson and their friends.
Leslie S. Klinger is editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories and The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels and a long-time member of the Baker Street Irregulars. His In the Shadow of Sherlock Holmes: Classic Detective Fiction, 1865-1910 , is just out.
Q&A: ANTHONY HOROWITZ
Given the huge number of Sherlock Holmes pastiches and parodies, why now – and why you?
I’m no fan of sequels and prequels and mash-ups and fan fiction; they’re a sign of the cultural nervousness of our times. but this was an irresistible opportunity because I have always loved Holmes, so I overcame my scruples.
What was the chief difficulty you faced in writing it?
Actually, none, it was effortless. The biggest challenge was how to stretch an elegant but thin framework into a 90,000-word novel. I did this by intertwining two stories. The book is a giant X, and the intersection is the story of the man in the flat cap and the title, The House of Silk.
In addition, the crime is one about which Doyle would never have written, based on true events in 1891. And that’s all i’ll say.
For a film version, who would be your ideal Holmes and Watson?
Daniel Day-Lewis for Holmes and – ready for this? – Kenneth Branagh as Watson.