The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

Review by Chris Redmond

Publicity before this book appeared in November 2011 indicated that it had been "sanctioned," "endorsed," even "commissioned" by the Conan Doyle Estate, owner of what rights still exist in the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. One source still indicates that the Estate "chose" Anthony Horowitz, an established mystery author, to write a new Holmes adventure. The dust-jacket bears a seal that refers to the Estate, but there is no mention of it whatsoever inside the book itself. Perhaps the Estate should be glad of that, for this book does not live up well to any such imprimatur — indeed, it should not have been published at all in its present form.

Admittedly, there are many pastiches that are far, far worse, but most of those are the work of amateurs. Horowitz is an experienced professional writer of both novels and other genres (including scripts for the television series "Foyle's War"). The kindest explanation for The House of Silk as it stands is that Horowitz's first draft made its way to Little, Brown and Company, a highly respectable publisher, and appeared in print without the ministrations of an editor.

It is riddled with awkward usages, errors ("Edgar Allen Poe" and the apparent belief that Camberwell is not in London), misused words (the author apparently does not know what "fauna" means, for instance), Americanisms (what Englishwoman would say "the floor is lousy"?), grammatical blunders ("told Holmes and I"), inconsistent spelling, and hundreds of instances of missing or badly placed punctuation. It is the job of an editor — if only there had been one — to fix this kind of thing so it does not distract or confuse the reader. While dozens of the individual mistakes are minor and isolated, one trait that appears on almost every page is more subtle and complicated, and deadly in what it does to the book's readability. Horowitz tends to cast narrative in long run-on sentences with multiple clauses, careening from action to background to description to more action, leaving out most of the necessary commas and frequently taking the reader's breath away. Arthur Conan Doyle, in the persona of Watson, does not write like this; his craftsmanship is careful, as he uses the rhythm of the sentence to convey the plot and the narrator's reactions to it. Virtually every page in The House of Silk needed editorial attention to improve sentences and paragraphs that fail the reader in this way.

All that having been said, this book has real strengths, including both the plot (complex enough for a novel-length adventure, without being grotesquely elaborate) and some passages that shed a welcome light on Holmes, Watson, and other personalities. A couple of scenes involving Mycroft Holmes are particularly well done. Unfortunately the dullest passage in the book is the second chapter, which is enough to discourage many readers, but the pace and interest pick up sharply after that, and I found myself keen to keep reading and see what would happen next. The book strays only briefly into the usual clichéd territory of threats that could shake the British Empire to its foundations, and avoids the equally clichéd scenes in which Oscar Wilde or Lillie Langtry cross Holmes's path. It does bring in Professor Moriarty briefly; remarkably, Horowitz is able to make that cameo an asset rather than an eye-rolling liability. Possibly the most interesting passage in the book is one (I must try to avoid spoilers here) that provides interesting echoes of Donald Thomas's The Execution of Sherlock Holmes (2007).

Most of all, Horowitz is to be praised for writing a Sherlock Holmes novel that is actually a mystery novel featuring the well-known detective of Baker Street, rather than any kind of psychological biography, apocalyptic thriller, or depressing reinterpretation, as so many “Sherlock Holmes” novels of recent years have been. A little more attention to Watson's vigorous style, and a good deal more editorial care, could have made it a real winner.