Quite unintentionally, I’ve been on a British pop culture kick lately. After enjoying the BBC America show “The Fades,” I started reading David Moody’s “Autumn,” and end-of-the-world-with-zombies story that’s the first in a series. More on “Autumn” later.
In between, I fell in with an old friend: Sherlock Holmes.
My enjoyment of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic turn-of-the-19th-to-the-20th-century British detective series began when I was young. I loved Conan Doyle’s 56 short stories and, to a lesser extent, his four novels featuring Holmes, the world’s greatest consulting detective, and his stalwart soldier/doctor companion, John Watson. The novels, particularly “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” are fine, I should add. But a couple feel overly padded and drawn out. The character — at least in his creator’s hands — seems to work better in short-story form.
Since I tore through the stories as a kid, I’ve tried a lot of the tributes and imitators. I loved what “Star Trek” film director Nicholas Meyer did with the characters in “The Seven Percent Solution” and “The West End Horror.” I likewise loved Mark Frost’s “The List of 7” and “The 6 Messiahs,” which took Conan Doyle on his own adventures.
Of course the various movie and TV versions, including the current, terrific modern-day “Sherlock,” have varied in quality. But the best among them have successfully captured the spirit of the stories and the characters: The aloof and driven detective and his loyal and capable companion.
I was looking forward to reading Anthony Horowitz’s “The House of Silk,” a new novel featuring Holmes and Watson, and was especially intrigued to realize that it was the first Holmes story officially sanctioned by the Conan Doyle estate.
It’s not hard to see why.
Horowitz “gets” the characters. “The House of Silk” isn’t the greatest Holmes story ever told. As a matter of fact, I was kind of startled to realize I had figured out the mystery of the title almost immediately, a couple of hundred pages before Holmes and Watson do.
But Horowitz’s mastery of the detective and his friend and biographer is perfect.
One of the greatest complaints about many film and TV versions of the characters, of course, is that Holmes so thoroughly overshadows, even patronizes, Watson. The early Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies portray Watson as a fool, nearly doddering and more of a hindrance than a help to Holmes, who makes fond fun of his friend’s incompetence.
In Conan Doyle’s stories and in Horowitz’s book, Watson is accurately portrayed as the man he likely would have been: A doctor and veteran of the British campaign in Afghanistan, Watson was handy with a gun and his fists and wasn’t a dunderhead by any means. That he couldn’t keep up with Holmes’ deductive reasoning was no surprise. No one could.
Besides the characters, Horowitz spins a neat tale of intrigue involving an upper-crust art dealer as well as the “street urchins” that make up Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars. After something dire happens to one of Holmes’ youthful street-level eyes and ears, the detective feels compelled to right a wrong.
Horowitz hits all the right notes here, with Holmes as the master of disguise, an appearance by his brother, Mycroft, and even some love for Lestrade, the Scotland Yard inspector who was often Holmes’ antagonist.
By virtue of having written “The House of Silk” a century after the original Holmes stories, Horowitz is able to include plot developments that never would have been hinted at by Conan Doyle. There’s some pretty dark stuff going on behind the scenes, and Horowitz fits it into the story quite neatly.
One of the best elements of the book is the aura of regretful hindsight that Horowitz brings to the story. Watson narrates the story from years after the fact, and acknowledges what many of us feel: We don’t pay enough attention — and don’t acknowledge — the people in our lives often enough.
Horowitz has Watson noting, for example, that he didn’t relate to Mrs. Hudson, the detective’s landlady, enough. Saddest of all, Watson admits he didn’t even know Holmes’ birthday until he read it in the detective’s obituaries.
“The House of Silk” isn’t a mind-bending puzzler. But it is solid Sherlock Holmes fiction written for modern-day sensibilities. It’s a great addition to the official Holmes canon.