A review by Nalini Haynes
A new Sherlock Holmes novel
The House of Silk: another Sherlock Holmes interpretation
The first time I saw the Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jnr I hated it because it wasn’t the Sherlock Holmes I remember. The second time I saw the same movie (hubby loved it) I enjoyed it more, taking it more at face value as a contemporary interpretation of a classic character rather than as an attempt to recreate the original Sherlock Holmes. I just wish Hollywood would stop trying to recreate, reinterpret and reboot old stuff: the same movie could have been presented as a contemporary of Sherlock, even with a cameo from the ‘real’ Sherlock, and I would have been much happier. This being the case it was with ambivalence that I saw the ‘new’ Sherlock Holmes novel advertised – I was filled with excitement and horror – but I knew I had to read it.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock Holmes as a series of short stories, originally for publication in newspapers I believe (Wikipedia is down due to protesting SOPA so I can’t check my facts). Anthony Horowitz has authorisation from Conan Doyle’s estate to write this novel. Sherlock Holmes was an obsessive-compulsive type whose powers of observation, combined with a pipe or three of opium solved many mysteries (my mum told me it was opium when I was in primary school and commented on Sherlock’s smoking of tobacco: again, Wikipedia is down).
The narrator of the stories was Dr Watson, a close friend of Sherlock’s, who accompanied Sherlock and acted as biographer. Written for an educated, genteel market, the stories were sensational by the standards of the time but not so sensational as to include stories about same-sex pedophilia. The original stories focused on mysteries concerning genteel people not the working class. It is important to note that Doyle’s stories were set in his own era, so there were no cultural discrepancies.
The House of Silk begins with Carstairs, the co-owner and operator of an art gallery, requesting that Holmes investigates a mysterious stranger who he believes is an American gangster seeking revenge after an investigation into stolen paintings results in his brother being killed in a shootout. This investigation takes up about the first third of the novel, introducing Carstairs’ wife whom he met on the voyage home from America, and Carstairs’ sister who is convinced that Mrs Carstairs is evil. Miss Carstairs then takes seriously ill, lying at death’s door, while Holmes and Watson are distracted by the torture and murder of a boy around whose wrist a clean length of white silk ribbon is left as a message. This leads Holmes and Watson into a new investigation that is obviously going to be tenuously linked to the first story at the inevitable reveal.
It has been over 20 years since I read any Sherlock Holmes stories, so although I read them repeatedly for about 10 years, my memories are somewhat clouded with time. I think the overall style of writing is similar to the original stories, but numerous errors were made in the telling of the story.
Firstly there were period errors such as a woman being introduced as ‘Joanna’ instead of as ‘Mrs Fitzsimmons’ or ‘Mrs Joanna Fitzsimmons’; the latter would have been as familiar as that society permitted in that situation. The woman was subsequently referred to as ‘Mrs Fitzsimmons’ consistently. Another period error was describing paintings as ‘faded’ and later other paintings were described as ‘dark and faded’. Oil paintings painted with pigment as would have been the case in nineteenth century Britain don’t fade as they get older but they can yellow, darken and the surface crackles with age. To describe something as ‘dark and faded’ seems contradictory. There were also cultural discrepancies such as a child caught stealing was not sent to gaol but was sent to a children’s home where the children did not ‘wast[e]’ hours on the treadmill but instead were given an education and were apprenticed to trades.
Horowitz is clearly familiar with the original series and yet he has chosen to reinterpret characters and give ‘new twists’ where in my opinion he should have stayed true to the original material. For example, Inspector Lestrade was introduced, described in terms of the original character and, at the same time, re-interpreted in a much kinder light for the purpose of this novel. Horowitz also acknowledged that the original stories were about the ‘well-to-do’ and that this story was a break with that tradition.
In order to justify my low rating of this novel I will now discuss developments very late in the plot. Be warned: if you’re planning to read this novel at all, DO NOT read on, just skip to the last paragraph for the summary if you wish.
Sherlock Holmes intentionally walks into a trap, and even knowing it’s a trap he is entrapped. He is then conveniently framed for murder, apparently shooting a passer-by who just happens to be the girl he’s looking for. No explanation is given as to why she’s in the right place at the right time; Horowitz doesn’t say she was forcibly held there or anything, she’s just there and happens to be the person who is shot. Three stalwart members of society, including one lord, one doctor, and an evil albino police officer, converge on the shooting resulting in Holmes being arrested then remanded for a hearing. I won’t get started on the evil albino issue in the interests of brevity; suffice to say that the evil albino was a caricature with similarities to Voldemort (sigh).
Holmes then spends a period in gaol, which seemed to be a convenient means of extending the story by having Watson bumble around on his own. This became increasingly irritating as the love-lorn Watson kept bemoaning the loss of Holmes’ powers of observation. Watson is warned that he has 48 hours in which to rescue Holmes from an assassination attempt and is given one key with which to help Holmes escape from a heavily fortified prison. Watson places this turn of the century key (not as small as keys these days!) in the spine of a book and fills either end of the spine with wax in order to glue the key in place. Apparently the key and wax in the spine did not affect the opening or closing of the book and was unnoticeable to Watson. If pages are going to be spent discussing Watson’s solution and attempt to smuggle the book to Holmes, the author should have actually tried this himself – there is no way this would have worked, and Watson, being the intelligent man he was, would have known this.
Watson was not allowed to speak to Holmes at all. Apparently the evil albino, Inspector Harriman, had the power to prevent all visitors during his investigation, which seems unrealistic. A person with connections such as Holmes should have at least been able to access a lawyer, especially when he had his first appearance in court, but Holmes was not allowed to speak at his own hearing nor did he have legal representation. This is a violation of law in that common law sets out the principles of natural justice, which include being able to answer accusations.
After a number of attempts to speak to Holmes, Watson is suddenly granted access to see Holmes less than 24 hours after being told he has 48 hours to rescue Holmes from the assassination attempt. During his tour through the prison, Watson realises that one key would not be sufficient for a successful escape attempt. He is also filled with remorse for how he had recorded the ends of stories, never thinking about the consequences for the villains Holmes had apprehended?!
Watson is told that Holmes had morning tea at 11 am and was suddenly taken ill, removed from his cell and placed in the infirmary. Later Watson is told that Holmes identified arsenic in his broth by taste at dinner time the previous day but was not taken ill. Holmes did not drink the poisoned soup but ‘kept some back’ to prove to the doctor that the soup was poisoned. How Holmes ‘kept some back’ when all his personal possessions had been removed and he apparently hadn’t kept the bowl of soup was not explained. Holmes, who was not allowed to speak to anyone, then requested to speak to the prison doctor and was granted this wish although he was not ill. Holmes discovered that he knew the doctor, a character from a previous story who had inexplicably suffered significant career misfortunes after doing no wrong, thus ending up employed at the prison. This doctor was prepared to assist Holmes to escape on the strength of this relationship. They chatted for some time that evening without repercussions. Holmes did not take ill after his food was poisoned at dinner time nor at breakfast but then ‘took ill’ after being poisoned at 11 am during morning tea. The assassins were only very mildly suspicious apparently, investigating Holmes’ lateness in dying about 3 pm.
After waiting on Holmes for some time the night before, the doctor is then at work before 11 am the next morning when Holmes stages his illness. In the period between, presumably the doctor has had other duties as well as eating, sleeping etcetera. The doctor apparently managed to provide Holmes with a wig and makeup sufficiently convincing to pass close scrutiny by Dr Watson although there is no mention of how these props were obtained. As Dr Watson was in residence at Baker Street and Holmes had no keys to the ‘other lodgings’ he later claimed to have around London, how these props came to be available at such short notice is inexplicable. Also an ill inmate died right on cue as required for the plot; Horowitz has obviously watched some Alfred Hitchcock and thought he’d outsmart the reader by adding a twist to an old prison escape story where the escapee hides in a coffin.
Holmes needed to get a message out of the prison so apparently he used the criminal network as casually as one might use a telephone to send a message. As police officers that fall foul of the law are targets of violence rather than becoming welcome participants in the criminal underground, Holmes needed an additional relationship or justification for co-operation to make his use of this messenger believable.
A few other issues with the plot included Ross having run away from the boys’ home six months previously but then, when his mattress received its monthly turning, Ross’s book was discovered underneath the mattress. Having entrapped Holmes once, the villains decided they could do it again – and Holmes and Watson walked into a second trap, Watson being careless enough to barge into a room and be assaulted from behind.
Miss Carstairs was poisoned using bath salts and continued to deteriorate when she was so ill she was being sponge-bathed by the servants. Therefore the servants must have continued to use the bath salts in the water but they were impervious to the poison that was affecting Miss Carstairs through contact with her skin and inhalation in vapour form during bathing.
Futhermore, the alleged assassin in the beginning of the book turned out to be a highly respected, diligent detective employed by the Pinkerton detective agency. This detective decided to resort to blackmail and theft after having been refused a part of one payment by a client. This is a huge character change from a man whose agency was not paid in full, it wasn’t just him. Anyone in small business can tell stories of clients who don’t pay or only pay under duress; it beggars belief that a respectable, long-serving detective would suddenly turn criminal for so little provocation as one partial payment. The target of his blackmail was a person known by him to be a murderer as well, it was not the person who had refused to pay.
The House of Silk was originally the central feature of an opium smuggling ring, the supplier to lesser dens, but by the end of the novel it had become a brothel of boy prostitutes for well-to-do men. This brothel was apparently only open occasionally, not every night. The opium smuggling seemed to have been forgotten.
As far as I remember, every case written by Doyle was resolved by Holmes sitting down, smoking a pipe or three at home before the classic reveal. Although Horowitz refers to a ‘three pipe problem’, Holmes does not smoke while sifting through the facts of either case. The action and resolution is much more contemporary, with shootouts and a raid on the brothel; only the first story is concluded with a classic reveal.
Watson’s wife apparently comes home with Typhoid fever towards the end of the book. Although he indicates this kills her, apparently she manages to have a holiday with a friend and at least two successful pregnancies after catching the fever before her eventual death.
In conclusion: The House of Silk is a deeply flawed novel based on classic characters. It has obviously been enjoyed by many due to it’s approximate 4 star rating on a few websites, but analysis of the plot reveals flaws. People have argued for years about the effectiveness of Holmes’ observations, giving alternative explanations. This novel begins with observations but mostly relies on action for resolution. Monk’s early seasons were a far better contemporary interpretation of this classic work. Two stars.
Originally published in Dark Matter 7.