Review of “The House of Silk”

Being the Sherlock Holmes fan that I am, I wasn’t surprised when many people pointed me to the highly-publicized and officially-authorized pastiche The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz. Since I have a two hours of commuting every day to and from work, I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks recently. I’m in the middle of rereading and finishing the Song of Ice and Fire series, so I knew I wasn’t going to get to read this book anytime soon, but when I saw that Derek Jacobi did the audiobook version, I quickly snatched it up and put it into my listening queue.

Like with any Holmes pastiche, there’s a few different ways you can break it down: as a novel on its own, as a Sherlock Holmes novel in general, and as a purist.

As a novel: It’s really everything you would expect from an adventure/mystery novel — it’s entertaining, the mystery is engaging, the cast of characters are compelling, and it’s a fun read. The author seemed to play fair with the reader, 1 as much as any Sherlock Holmes story does (which means he does pull clues from thin air from time to time). There are a couple of unlikely coincidences, and it’s a bit slow-paced from some modern thrillers, but given the subject matter, I don’t consider either to be a bad thing.

As a Sherlock Holmes story: Horowitz takes great pains to sound authentic, and to my mind it comes through. Granted, it may have been Jacobi’s performance, but I really felt this was a Watsonian narrative, complete with his digressions, amazement at Holmes’ abilities, and personal interludes about his life, as well as that of his best friend. Doyle’s style was always surprisingly modern (from Victorian standards), and Horowitz takes full advantage of it. This book genuinely feels like a Holmes story from beginning to end — the last pastiche that felt this accurate to me was The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr.

As a purist: That isn’t to say it’s a perfect pastiche, however. A couple of scenes are nearly note-for-note translations of canonical ones — most notably the scene where Holmes deduces Watson’s thoughts (The Cardboard Box) and when they meet the Baker Street Irregulars (A Study in Scarlet). They aren’t bad, and they certainly showcase the canon, but those specific examples always felt like unique moments in the canon, rather than commonplace situations, and since they both came at the start, I was concerned that the novel would just be a rehash of canonical elements.

The novel comes into its own in later chapters, but new problems arise. Horowitz (likely at the request of the Arthur Conan Doyle estate) works very hard to try and integrate the story into the canon. He chooses 1890, right before the Great Hiatus. However, as I’m pointed out in my “Tour de Holmes” essays, this is a notoriously fickle canon, and Horowitz defaults to some pretty unlikely circumstances to be¬†accommodating. One example is below (spoilers!), but the short version is that it does have some details that will grate on the purist’s nerves.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Specifically, the introduction of Moriarty. The character gets Holmes out of jail through Dr. Watson, but then tells Watson he must act like he’s never heard of Moriarty before if he comes up (a reference to “The Valley of Fear”). Yet, earlier in the novel, we saw that Holmes knows Watson well enough that he can fucking read his thoughts. I expect that a novel such as this simply had to have Moriarty in it somewhere, but this was a bad way to go about it.

END SPOILERS

Conclusion: At the end of the day, I don’t consider myself an adamant purist. A few minor quibbles that don’t line up with an explicitly difficult canon weren’t enough to ruin my enjoyment of the book. Right now I’d consider it one of my top five pastiches.

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  1. For those not familiar with mystery novel lingo, “playing fair” means that the writer presents the clues to the reader, who could theoretically have figured it out on her own.