The phenomenon that is J. K. Rowling can sometimes eclipse the other great children’s writers out there. Long before Harry Potter picked up a wand, Anthony Horowitz was writing pacy, thrilling stories, featuring his comedy detective duo, The Diamond Brothers, his horror boarding school tales of Groosham Grange, and then the best young spy to challenge James Bond, Alex Rider. I read them all to my son, whose pernickety taste in novels was thoroughly and reliably satisfied.
Now with the full backing of the Conan Doyle Estate, Horowitz has written a new Sherlock Holmes novel, and this venture into adult fiction is, I think, an altogether more reliably satisfying affair than The Casual Vacancy. Anthony Horowitz has also written a great deal for television, and describes in an illuminating postscript how he thinks he has more fictional murders to his credit than any other living writer. He was responsible for a large number of Midsomer Murders (writers were encouraged to orchestrate a murder before each advertising break to hold the viewers interest and AH said he had to give up writing for them when he realised there must be no one left in Midsomer to bump off), as well as episodes of Poirot and Foyle’s War. With this wealth of experience behind him, and a life-long love of the Sherlock Holmes stories, he created ten rules for himself for this book, which included no over-the-top action sequences, no love interest, no gay references between Holmes and Watson, an exacting insistence on the right language and the inclusion of all the best-known characters in intriguing ways.
So, Watson, now elderly and alone, revisits his days as Holmes’ biographer one last time to recall a case so significant and so terrible that he intends to commit his manuscript to the vault for one hundred years before it should ever see the light of day. It is November 1890 and London is freezing and fog-bound. Holmes and Watson are sitting beside the roaring fire at 221B Baker Street, when an agitated young well-to-do man arrives, desperate for their help. He is an art dealer, who has been involved in the strange loss of four Constable paintings during a train robbery by a notorious gang in America. One of the leaders of the gang was killed by the police shortly after the crime and now his twin brother, a burly scar-faced man, is stalking him, intent on vengeance. This initial story turns out to be only the frame for a far darker and more complex affair that will nearly cost Sherlock Holmes his freedom and then his life. But Holmes is on top form here, tortured, yes, fiendishly perceptive, oh yes, slicker than Houdini and and often annoyingly omniscient, yet that wonderful heroic mastermind who can be relied upon to save the day. Watson is brilliantly done, the ordinary foil to Holmes’ extraordinary ability, yet he drives himself to his limits out of loyalty and respect for his friend. I’d say that they don’t make ‘em like that any more, only of course, they just have.
Pastiches, sequels, I generally avoid them all, but this is pretty fab. We used to listen to a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories on audio book during long car journeys and often there was a weird bit and a dull bit and a confusing bit. The House of Silk is like all the best bits strung together, with better, more nuanced characterisation than Conan Doyle had time or space to create. The story, the dialogue, the set pieces are all pitch perfect. Just one thing: I would have sold this as the perfect book for a family to listen to together, only Horowitz wrote his denouement with a the demands of a modern audience in mind and so it is a tad more shocking than is comfortable for younger children. But it is still delicately done and morally triumphant and a clever, satisfying piece of closure. The real problem is that if someone asked me where to start on the Sherlock Holmes casebook, I’d be tempted to say: with The House of Silk.