If there’s one thing more flourishing than Sherlock Holmes himself (may his shadow never grow bulkier), it’s Holmes pastiches, imitations, spin-offs, updates, and rip-offs. Some of them are wonderful (Laurie King, I’m looking at you), and some are terrible: inauthentic, mean-spirited, sentimental. Some of them are just strange. (I don’t know why there hasn’t been a Holmes and Watson and Werewolves — too close to the Hound of the Baskervilles?) But people keep bringing him back, irresistible, the great man with his fierce grasp of logic and his powers of deduction — oh, and John Watson, too, his friend, companion, and the constructor of the Holmesian narrative.
This is what Anthony Horowitz has done in The House of Silk. The book opens with a preface: Watson reminding us of how he came to know Holmes, and telling us that he is about to recount two intertwined stories that were some of the most sensational of Holmes’s career — but he must put them in a vault for a hundred years.
It was impossible before — and I am not just referring to Holmes’s well-known aversion to publicity. No, the events which I am about to describe were simply too monstrous, too shocking to appear in print. They still are. It is no exaggeration to suggest that they would tear apart the entire fabric of society and, particularly at a time of war, this is something I cannot risk.
Then Watson brings us back to 1890. London is freezing and foggy. Holmes and Watson are sitting by their fire at 221B Baker Street when a desperate young art dealer, Edmund Carstairs, comes to ask for their help. He was involved in the loss of four paintings during a train robbery by an Irish gang in America. One of the leaders of the gang was killed by the police, and his twin brother, a menacing man in a flat cap, is stalking Carstairs for revenge. This turns out to be only the beginning, however: the adventure of the Man in the Flat Cap is really just the frame for a darker, more complex story that costs Holmes his freedom and nearly his life.
This was a fast-paced Holmes story with a great narrative voice. Horowitz has managed to include most of the Holmes characters we all know and enjoy, and not in a perfunctory cameo, but allowing us to learn more about them: Mycroft, Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade, the Baker Street Irregulars, and so on. There are no wry modernizations here: Holmes and Watson are who they always were. The story is complicated but not convoluted, and it has enough thrills to satisfy any reader. And Watson is the perfect companion: more limited than Holmes, but ready to push himself to those limits out of loyalty. I will say that I solved the mystery about a third of the way through the book, which made me lose a fraction of respect for Horowitz’s Holmes (I normally never solve mysteries before the end), but otherwise it was pitch-perfect and a thoroughly enjoyable read — I don’t read mysteries for the solution, anyway; I read them to accompany the detective through the book, and in The House of Silk that was well worth the trip.
The ending is dark, even if it achieves the mystery’s goal of order and justice. Watson was right about not publishing it sooner. But now that it’s here, this is a satisfying addition to the casebook.