Monday, July 2, 2012

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

Reviewed by Jeanne
Almost since the first day of publication, the character of Sherlock Holmes has captured the popular imagination.  Numerous books, movies, plays, short stories, radio programs, cartoon and other media have featured Holmes, his chronicler Dr. Watson, and various other characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and have appeared in many different languages.  Most of these have been, while legal, uses not authorized by Conan Doyle’s estate.  In fact, no new novel had ever been authorized by the estate—until now, when the estate commissioned a new Sherlock Homes novel from author Anthony Horowitz, best known for his Alex Rider series of children’s books and for his screenplays of TV series such as Foyle’s War and the Agatha Christie TV adaptations.
The House of Silk opens with an aged Dr. Watson recalling a controversial case, one too politically sensitive to have been written about before now, when he knows he is nearing the end of his life. It began with a visit from an art dealer who has recently returned from America where he ran afoul of a gang.  He believes that one of gang has followed him back to England and fears for his life.  Holmes’ investigations lead him to the heights and depths of society, from art galleries to opium dens. 
In addition to the original stories, I’ve read or watched a number of Sherlock Holmes variations.  Some were quite good, such as Laurie King’s extraordinary Mary Russell series of novels or the Jeremy Brett television shows or the new modern day Sherlock series; some were dreadful, such as the movie whose name I’ve mercifully forgotten but which featured a frozen Holmes being thawed out in modern New York City; and some were just rather odd, like the Sherlock Holmes series I’ve been watching in Russian with subtitles. (I can tell the actors and scriptwriters saw a lot of the Basil Rathbone movies.)
This is all just to give you an idea of my tastes in Sherlockanalia, because people tend to have very strong opinions about different versions.  Just take a look at some of the reviews on and you’ll wonder if any of these people read the same book.
Personally, I enjoyed House of Silk.  I would like to know if Horowitz had seen the new contemporary Sherlock series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman before he wrote this book because it seems to me that his Watson is more in the mold of that version:  a devoted friend, but one who can also see Holmes’ flaws and who is a bright and capable man in his own right.  I enjoy that view of Watson far more than the bumbler as portrayed by Nigel Bruce.  Watson is still rightfully impressed by Holmes’ insights and sheer genius, but he also questions some of Holmes’ choices, such as involving the Baker Street Irregulars in activities that could be dangerous.  Horowitz seemed to capture London of the era quite well, with the damp fogs and clattering cobblestones, but also the sense of social stratification.  It simply feels more real than some Holmes stories, which seem to be set in an idealized Victorian England.  Horowitz sets a good pace in the book so that even during exposition scenes we feel the story moving forward, which, alas, isn’t always true in some Holmes tales. I found it well plotted and well written; I had figured out some of the answers but not all by the end of the book.  Some people have objected to a major plotline as something Conan Doyle wouldn’t have approved but I have a reservation as to whether that’s a judgment any of us can make.  More importantly, I think that it’s a mystery novel that non-Sherlockians can read on its own merits.

Note:  Sherlock fans have had quite a lot to chose from lately in film or television:  two films starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson, respectively; the aforementioned 21st century Sherlock with Cumberbatch and Freeman which will have a third series; and this fall, the CBS series Elementary, with Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson.

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