The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

Review by Chris Redmond

Sherlockians were enthusiastic about this book when it appeared in 2010, in part because of its amusing and largely accurate picture of who the Baker Street Irregulars are and what they do. There have been several novels partly or entirely about Sherlockian life, dating back to Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars in DATE TKTK, but the author of this one, Graham Moore, seems to have caught the atmosphere better than any of his predecessors, even though, by all accounts, he is not himself at the centre of Sherlockian life.

This portion of the story, particularly the very early chapters, may amount to a roman à clef, but the present reviewer, also not being at the centre of Sherlockian life so far as social activities and personalities are concerned, is not able to verify that. There is no doubt, however, that the next part of the tale, one of the two parallel mysteries that unfold within it, is based closely on the mysterious, even scandalous, death of a prominent British Sherlockian and Doylean, Richard Lancelyn Green, in 2004. A reader who is familiar with the Green case may derive some extra — slightly guilty — enjoyment from this part of Moore's tale. A reader who is not familiar with it, however, must resist the temptation of believing that he or she is any better informed about the real-life case as a result of reading the fictional one.

These Sherlockian matters are only half of what The Sherlockian has to offer. The other half is a mystery set in 1900 and involving, inevitably, Arthur Conan Doyle. The relationship between the two stories, told in alternating chapters, becomes clear to the reader much sooner than does the solution to either puzzle. The jumps from 2010 to 1900 and back again can be slightly annoying, but are certainly less artificial than the technique notoriously used by Arthur Conan Doyle himself in two Sherlock Holmes novels, in which one complete story is disposed of before the other is even begun.

The modern half of the story is set partly in New York (during the Irregulars' January weekend) but mostly in England. It offers an appealing amount of introspection and erudition on the part of the central charcter, who becomes a detective not so much in spite of himself as in spite of his better judgement. A promising young Sherlockian, and surely an alter ego of the very young Moore himself, he follows clues with a desperate eagerness to emulate Sherlock Holmes's mental processes. As detective story convention practically demands, he picks up not merely a Watson figure but a conveniently available young woman towards whom he begins to develop unexpected feelings. (That part of the story takes, like other parts of this tale, an admirable twist.)

The Doylean story, meanwhile, falls into cliché to some degree. One wonders why so many novels aimed at Sherlockians must set their events in sordid Whitechapel, rather than in other parts of London, which could surely be made equally interesting. It is perhaps also cause for regret that the Watson whom Moore gives to Arthur Conan Doyle is not an original character but an overused one, Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. Haven't we seen Stoker at Doyle's side before now — in Gyles Brandreth's Oscar Wilde novels, for example?

For plot reasons, and perhaps to avoid any attempt to map certain living persons onto the characters, Moore changes a few biographical details about Arthur Conan Doyle. In particular, he gives him a great-grandson, by way of a son named Roger who did not, in historical fact, exist. In one of the few incontrovertible errors in the whole book, a detailed and complicated work, the author seems unclear on whether Roger is supposed to have been older or younger than the more authentic son by ACD's first marriage, Kingsley. Mistakes of this kind, if made in moderation, can be tolerated, in the same spirit in which Sherlockians overlook (or enjoy) Watson's wandering wound and shaky chronology.

Moore is a highly competent professional writer, and no doubt was assisted by highly competent professional editors. The book does not annoy the reader, or provoke stumbles and unwilling suspension of disbelief, by grammatical mistakes or factual absurdities. (Well, it does say that "Big Ben announced five and twenty," which is not possible, and it does speak of somebody drinking "bitters" when "bitter" seems considerably more likely. But these are trifles, and again, Watson might have done things every bit as egregious.) The narrative flows easily, and only small parts of the two mysteries sit uneasily with even the experienced Sherlockian reader. It would be very good news indeed if we were to hear shortly that Graham Moore has a new Sherlockian novel in preparation. There are, in truth, a number of real-life personalities, events, and unsolved mysteries on which it could well be based.