Originally appeared in The Bangkok Post
Before realizing that seeing its mysteries solved won’t give you whatever it was you were longing for, Anthony Horowitz’s new novel, The House of Silk, is a perfectly diverting Sherlock Holmes adventure. Commissioned by the Conan Doyle Estate, Horowitz’s contribution to the Holmes apocrypha benefits from what Alex Rider, his bestselling YA teen-spy novels, and his fine Foyle’s War taught him about crafting artful and clever genre dramas. He’s a dexterous prose stylist. The House of Silk isn’t terribly obsequious, nor does it play too fast and loose with Conan Doyle’s canon and spirit—unlike certain recent bombastic, steampunk silliness at the multiplex. Horowitz crafted a consummately functional Holmes adventure, but the novel is strangely unsatisfying, and, stranger, disquieting.
An elderly Doctor John Watson, alone with memories of his years as friend and chronicler of the great detective, decides that he must set down a last untold Holmes story—one “too monstrous, too shocking” to have been published before. A rather benign tale of a flat-capped man loitering (yes, mysteriously) at the gate of an art dealer’s Wimbledon villa soon descends into a succession of increasingly brutal murders across Victorian London. From opium dens and a grange for homeless boys, to stately manors, a prison, and a ‘House of Wonders,’ Holmes and Watson’s pursuit of the first mystery entangles them in the final, unsettling problem of the House of Silk.
Historian Simon Schama lambasted Downton Abbey, the hit American TV show, for engaging in “cultural necrophilia,” fulfilling audiences’ unhealthy desire for an unreal past. A not dissimilar nostalgic lust hangs about Horowitz’s storytelling. The novel is an Instagram portrait of London given a certain “Conan Doyle” filter: the city fetor prettied by gaslight, the Street Arabs’ poverty eroticized. To dwell too heavily on what’s standard fare for such aestheticized period pieces might seem a bit killjoy. But, when Horowitz finally outs the House of Silk’s gilded depravity, the stylized nightmare of our passage through London’s netherworlds takes on a different character.
Of course pulp fiction thrillers trade on sex and violence, the allure of vice. And the original Conan Doyle stories had their fair portion of murder, grotesquerie. But the particular nastiness Horowitz chooses as his denouement—however stock it may be in fiction and film—is played cheaply. It’s an easy vileness, and Horowitz doesn’t own it (even when he has his Sherlock return to exact a bit of against-type, cathartic requital at the scene of the crime). The wrong itself remains unpainted, unexamined. The novel’s failure to look its victims in the eye makes our complicity as readers equally easy, unsettling.
Maybe it’s mean-spirited to raise cavils against a literary pastiche of this kind, against The House of Silk’s species of page turner, such a cracking good yarn. Maybe Horowitz—writing after the fashion of Conan Doyle pretending, in turn, to be Watson—knows this particular ventriloquism too well: maybe it’s not Horowitz’s moral cowardice, but Watson’s Victorian decorum that won’t let reality get drawn too real. Maybe, as David Foster Wallace once suggested, there’s a limit of what you can say when you’re just trying to have a good time. And maybe it’s just easier to go for the facile CSI: Special Victims Unit kill, without dwelling too long on the consequences: maybe that’s what we want from a detective story.
I’m not gonna tell you whodunnit. Or how Holmes solves the yoked adventures of the Man in the Flat Cap and The House of Silk. It’s a detective story after all, and it’s a perfectly good one. Read it for yourself on a long flight, over a few hungover days at the beach. You’ll probably enjoy it, and probably leave it on the hotel lobby bookshelf alongside copies of Die Bourne Identität and Harry Potter och fången från Azkaban gifted to future guests. And if the pastiche sends you back, maybe for the first time, to the original stories, to A Study in Scarlet or “The Red Headed League,” you’ll enjoy your spell with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock.
You may have noticed we haven’t really talked about Sherlock. Sherlock Holmes is hardly here. He plays his tricks of deduction, surprises Watson with (somewhat) astonishing revelations, magicians his way out of a scrape or two. So, yes, Horowitz kits out Holmes as Holmes. But whatever it is—his misanthropy? strange playfulness?—that makes the detective’s ethos so compelling in Conan Doyle’s best stories—and so enthralling when portrayed by Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, or Benedict Cumberbatch, his best avatars—is missing here. Here, Horowitz’s dexterity, his ability to magic himself into a genre style, keeps him from being able to get inside Holmes, take possession of him. Some say that for a writer, penning a Sherlock Holmes story is like getting to play the lead in Hamlet. Here, however, the actor playing Hamlet knows his lines and blocking, he looks good in the tights: he just doesn’t have that, well, that something.
But, finally, I must say that Horowitz reveals a real truth about Doctor Watson, even if by accident. In Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Sherlock quips to Watson, perhaps a bit cruelly, “I am lost without my Boswell.” (On the BBC’s excellent Sherlock, set in contemporary London, this is updated to the snarky “I’d be lost without my blogger.”) Reading Horowitz, and then revisiting Conan Doyle’s classic stories, it comes into focus just how much Watson, like Samuel Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell, isn’t the hero of his own life. The House of Silk is told from the perspective of a man who, at the end of his days, is trying to write himself a larger role—not in one of the adventures, but in his own life. Purposely or not, Horowitz succeeds at giving us a portrait of the rather pitiable, diminished thing it must have been to be Doctor John Watson.
It’s hardly worth asking why people keep returning to Sherlock, rejuvenating him. But how do we read each attempt? Maybe we can only measure them against our own sense of Holmes, our own sense of what we want from one of Watson’s chronicles. I hardly want to hold Horowitz responsible for my disappointment when The House of Silks’ mysteries are revealed. Seeing a mystery solved usually dashes a hope that something else was possible, something else might be discovered, something just beyond what we can articulate: something actually surprising, and, thus, a revelation.