Why do authors keep writing new stories about Sherlock Holmes? There are obvious reasons, of course, including the financial. Holmes’s fans are so zealous that Conan Doyle’s output is nowhere near sufficient, so a steady audience can be counted on. And then there is that signature style, so easily imitated but so damnably difficult to master. While many authors have attempted to recapture the magic of 221B Baker Street, Anthony Horowitz is the first to do so with the explicit blessing of the Conan Doyle estate. In The House of Silk, he pushes beyond trying to rip off a good yarn and explores the boundaries of what a Sherlock Holmes story is, what it can include, and how its characters can be portrayed. While it has interesting things to say about the limited perspective of the original stories, that may not be enough to satisfy Sherlockians hoping for a new story as good as the old ones.
The House of Silk is framed as a late effort written by an aging Dr. Watson long after his friend Sherlock’s death and further sealed for a century due to its incendiary revelations. That narrative choice gives Watson more perspective on the events he is retelling, allowing him to reflect rather than merely report.
There are two cases to start, although no one should be surprised to find out they will wind up being connected. In the first, a London art dealer is unnerved by a man who lingers threateningly outside his home and may be connected with some art that was stolen after being shipped to Boston for sale. In the second, a young boy newly employed by Holmes as one of his Baker Street Irregulars is brutally murdered, his assailants leaving behind a length of silk as some sort of cryptic message. The plot is further thickened by Holmes being implicated in a murder and imprisoned briefly.
Horowitz is a little too indulgent. He utilizes seemingly every aspect of the Holmes canon. The Baker Street Irregulars, Mycroft, and a certain mathematics professor, all in one case? Conan Doyle would never have been so spendthrift. He also leans a little too heavily of what is admittedly everyone’s favorite trope, Holmes’s ability to deduce the minutest details of a person through observation. This is terrific fun the first few times, but eventually you do get tired of “Why Holmes, how ever could you know that I fired my scullery maid within the past fortnight and that my sister’s husband raises sheepdogs?”
Because this case is supposedly written up so long after the rest of the stories, Horowitz’s Watson is in a reflective mood, commenting not only on the case at hand but of the rest of his work. Unlike in the rest of the canon he finds himself questioning his and his friend’s role in society, wondering if they were too indifferent to the plight of the Irregulars and London’s other poor children, questioning why he never particularly cared about the circumstances that drove men and women to lives of crime, and even examining his own marriage and finding fault with his treatment of his dead wife.
These asides are, I suppose, of some interest. They may make you think more deeply about the way the original stories treat social issues. However, they do feel out of place and collectively make it seem as though Horowitz is criticizing the classic stories through the eyes of the present rather than trying to recreate what has made them special enough to last for over a century.