10th November, 4 Comments
By John Watson
It has been endorsed by the Conan Doyle Estate which has led some reviewers to suggest that it somehow more “authentic” that might otherwise be the case. One review I read said that it had been “commissioned by the Conan Doyle Estate”. The dust jacket claims it to be “utterly true to the spirit of the original Conan Doyle books” but this is, in my view questionable. Horowitz appears keen to ensure his story is as “authentic” as he can make it and to this end there are frequent references to detail from the Canon including many of the familiar names (Mrs Hudson, Lestrade, Wiggins, Mycroft and Moriarty), familiar locations (221B and the Diogenes Club) and some of the related cases (The Dying Detective, The Copper Beeches, The Red Headed League, The Resident Patient, and The Final Problem). I started to wonder, seeing all these references to my original stories, if Horowitz is hoping that this book could be the first of a new television series after his plans to take Foyle’s War into the post-war era were turned down by ITV? That would raise the interesting possibility of another screen Holmes!
Alistair Duncan has already published a review of the book and as usual this is an admirably balanced critique. He points out a glaring chronological error and, as I have noted above, the many Canonical references, some of which work better than others. For me, one of the strangest examples of this is the introduction of Professor Moriarty, who has nothing to do with the main plot, who promptly disappears again after making me promise to pretend I have never met him when I do eventually get a glimpse of him (at Victoria Station when Holmes and I are heading for the continent a year later in The Final Problem). Horowitz also chooses to rewrite the sequence of events concerning my first meeting with Holmes.
He does get himself into a knot by using all these references to other cases. Given this case starts in November 1890, he says it is shortly after The Dying Detective when that was two years earlier in 1888 but correctly positions The Red-Headed League in October 1890 and The Resident Patient in October 1881 (but gets the name of the Resident Patient wrong – it was “Blessington” and not “Blessingdon”). Our client from Resident Patient has a small part in this new plot but he says he has been reading my stories in the Cornhill Magazine. I was not aware they had been published in this magazine although some of Arthur’s own stories have been.
None of this is important to anyone but a “hardcore fan” as Duncan calls them and, getting back to the date of the this adventure, Horowitz has added a couple of contemporary references to secure the case in the correct timeframe. The first of these is the mention of the Norton Fitzwarren rail crash that occurred on 11 November 1890 south-west of Taunton, Somerset in which ten people were killed. The second is the mention of the murder “two years before” of Mary Ann Nichols at the end of August 1888 and attributed to Jack the Ripper.
Believe it or not, the story is a good one and although the crime is not one I would have been able to write about in my own time, I found that two-thirds of the way through I couldn’t put it down! I learned a few new words too including “tatterdemalion”, “gallipot” and “magsman” though I puzzled over the use of “liquid cocaine” over the more memorable “seven percent solution”. Something else that was missing was those pithy statements from Holmes that have become some of his best known quotations – except for “when you have eliminated the impossible . . .” which Horowitz does include. I concur with Duncan’s view that if you can get past the errors and the book’s publicity, it is better than most pastiches.
The House of Silk, read by Derek Jacobi, is the current “Book at Bedtime” on BBC Radio 4. Episodes 1-5 were broadcast Monday November 7th to Friday November 11th . Episodes 6-10 are being broadcast Monday November 14th to Friday November 18th at 22:45 and will be available on the BBC iPlayer for a week after transmission.