Spoilers ahead for the book The House of Silk.
The first Holmes pastiche to be authorized by the Conan-Doyle estate– whatever the hell that means, in a world already filled with Holmes pastiche– is The House of Silk. It was described in The Guardian as ‘a no-shit Sherlock,’ and it certainly is: its author, Anthony Horowitz, cleaves close to the Holmes of old. Close enough, anyway, to be sometimes boring. It’s a book with too little ambition. and the ambitions it does have aren’t big enough to be interesting.
I did enjoy the book. I read it one year ago, on an airplane flight, and it was a quick, mostly enjoyable read which only disappointed me in retrospect, after I’d finished it, and had started mulling it over in the context of my own familiarity with Holmes stories. Parts of it were enough like the originals to leave me quite astonished. Other parts were weak enough to leave me bemused and disappointed. Watson has an entirely different, weirdly sentimental feel to him, but Holmes himself feels largely like Doyle’s Holmes.
Like Doyle’s Holmes at his most boring, anyway. Sherlock Holmes has always been a flat character– but his flatness has texture. A critical component of any good Holmes tale is the moment when his logical exterior is broken by triumphant pride, suppressed glee, blackest depression, or the sympathy of wisdom. Doyle did it constantly– he understood that the exceptions to the rule of Holmes’s personality were the moments which would truly endear us to him. However, Horowitz isn’t willing to take any risks, and so his Holmes breakout moments aren’t particularly interesting. At one point, Holmes feels regret. He trickles on lukewarmly regretful until it becomes boring and then, to put these weak and sickly demons to rest, burns down a building in about the second to last paragraph– offscreen, as it were, and entirely without excitement.
Horowitz-Holmes is just too goddamn flat, and it’s because Horowitz-Holmes is just too goddamn faithful to Conan-Doyle. Which, of course, is to be expected from an ‘authorized’ pastiche.
Holmes pastiche ranges from the woefully bad to the ludicrously odd to the thought-provoking and back again to the traditional. Authors reinterpret Holmes constantly. To be honest, Doyle wrote more than enough traditional Holmes. He wrote Holmes until Holmes wasn’t even properly Holmes anymore. We can feast to fullness on authentic Holmes, and we do. There are over sixty of these stories: we have so much Holmes that he has transcended Doyle’s personal genius and become a public legend. In a way, the immortal partnership of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson belongs to us all, and we may do what we like with it. Frankly, I have read the original stories a hundred times, and I am ready and willing to see a twist on the formula.
That’s why I read pastiches at all: because I want to see another, unique, different kind of Holmes. I read The Seven-Per-Cent Solution because I wanted to see crazy Holmes. I read The Final Solution because I wanted to see ancient anti-Nazi Holmes. I watched the Jeremy Brett Holmes because I wanted to see a bipolar Holmes. I watched the BBC’s Sherlock because I wanted to see modern, nicotine-patch-wearing, high-functioning-sociopath pretty-boy Holmes. I watched the Robert Downey Jr Holmes because I wanted to see a character almost entirely unlike Doyle’s Holmes punch Germans in a forest while being shelled by a tank. And– while I’m being honest– I watched The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes because I wanted, eagerly, to see ambiguously-gay Holmes scurry about Loch Ness with his hands on his hips while a ludicrous femme fatale who uses a secret umbrella code for sending messages to foreign spies tries to seduce him with a fake French accent. Holmes is open to interpretation, and better for it. Why should we be satisfied with only one kind of Holmes? Not even Doyle was boring enough to want that!
But it isn’t entirely Horowitz’s fault– he was, after all, commissioned by the Doyle estate itself, and there is probably not a lot of room in that organization for the ‘exciting reinterpretations’ market. What’s interesting about Horowitz’s book, though, is that he didn’t even really do a straight-up imitation of traditional Holmes– though he pretends that he has. While he kept the characters’ personalities dull and faithful, he did stray away from the nature of the original tales in a foundational way.
Here is the secret of The House of Silk’s ‘House of Silk’: it’s a brothel for child rapists!
Not particularly traditional at all! In Conan-Doyle’s stories, the darkest and most-twisted thing an evildoer generally did, aside from murder, was imprisoning a young lady or destroying her honor (by revealing a consensual affair, of course). There isn’t even a single acknowledged rape in those stories! To justify his dramatic departure from the traditional, Horowitz uses the oldest (and, it seems, only) kind of Holmes-pastiche framing device: this is a story ‘too delicate’ to have ever been told to the public. Here, however, the delicacy is that everyone in the British government is raping little boys. Sometimes even torturing them to death!
It’s grim as hell. Traditional Holmes tales are escapist adventures; they explore the dark corners of society, but only to a toetip’s depth. Because it deals in actual darkness, the entire plot of Horowitz’s book is just about as divergent from the traditional Holmes tale as any wild, ‘unauthorized’ pastiche. Underneath his assertions of faithfulness, Horowitz seems to have realized that we didn’t need more traditional Holmes– we needed his Holmes. His Holmes in his grittier London, with his malevolent child-rapists and vast government conspiracies. His personal vision.
So who is this Holmes, and what does he tell us about Horowitz?
Graciously, Horowitz actually gives us (in the ebook, anyway) the ten rules he used to guide himself into the book’s final form– the ten rules which were the mold for his Holmes. He insists that staying true to the original was a major goal, so these notes function not only as a guide to his pastiche, but as a guide to his entire opinion of who the character originally was.
As interesting as that is, however, I think I would have liked the book better if I hadn’t seen them. Perhaps you will feel the same way, when you see rules 2 and 3:
2. No women. Of course it was tempting to create a romantic lead, to give Holmes a love interest. But re-reading the short stories before I began work, I came almost immediately upon that famous sentence – ‘To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman’ – and knew at once that it would have been madness to try and create another Irene Adler. I did briefly think of bringing Irene back (I believe she appears in the second Holmes movie) but I felt somehow it would have been taking a liberty and anyway Watson had already set the seal on that subject: ‘All emotions and that one (love) particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.’
3. This is very much related to rule number two. There would be no gay references either overt or implied in the relationship between Holmes and Watson. This was hinted at in Billy Wilder’s film, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes which has a scene with Watson tangled up with dancers from the Bolshoi ballet. But it is of course silly and wrong – although I did have an advantage, being a modern writer, in that I was able to examine some aspects of the sexual mores of Victorian England in a way that Doyle could not.
No women… and no gay stuff! (Well, no normal, wholesome gay stuff between consenting adults, anyway– only men who prey on little boys.) I can understand the desire to keep romance out of a Holmes pastiche, since Irene Adler is ‘the woman,’ and it’s not in the originals, and given the importance of the mysteries, there isn’t always any room for it. But the way Horowitz puts it– with the assumption that any major female character would have to be a love interest– is a little galling. The women in the book are extremely minor, and hardly any time is spent on them. There is certainly room for women in many traditional Holmes stories, so I really can’t understand why Horowitz kept them out of his book almost entirely.
But it’s the contradictory dismissiveness of point 3 that really gets to me. The reference to Billy Wilder’s gay Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes— “it is of course silly and wrong”? Who is he to say that? And while normal adult homosexuality was inappropriate for his adaptation because it is not authentic to the original, picking apart “the sexual mores of Victorian England in a way that Doyle could not” so that you can write a book about Holmes investigating a child brothel– something just as inauthentic– is still somehow fair game? It seems that Horowitz only stuck to the traditional form when it helped him keep women and gay men out of the protagonist pool.
As much as he’d like to believe it, Horowitz didn’t write Doyle’s Holmes. It’s not just that Doyle ‘could not’ write a book about child-rapists. Let’s be honest: he was a creature of his time, and probably never even wanted to. This is not really about authenticity. Your Holmes tells us about the kind of writer you are, and not the kind of man Doyle was. Thanks to these liner-notes, all I’ve learned is that Horowitz is a casually-bigoted ass, and one whose Holmes isn’t much likely to grow into his own. The moment when Holmeses separate from the bough and become their own is the moment when they start being worth my attention.
And now to return to the big issue at stake: the value of pastiche, and of aggressive re-interpretation.
I first read Sherlock Holmes stories when I was seven years old. I have read every story at least twelve or thirteen times. Since middle school, I have read most of the corpus almost every year, and I frequently pick the books up to find my favorite stories. I have watched almost every Holmes movie on Netflix. I have seen plenty of boring Holmeses. If you’d written an interesting woman into your story, Horowitz, you might have won me over. You might have caught my attention with a gay Holmes, or with a Holmes who sheds a tear, or a Holmes who meets the queen, or a childhood Holmes, or a black Holmes or an asian Holmes or a Holmes who is an astronaut or a robot or a resident of steampunk London or Soviet Russia or ancient Rome. The House of Silk might have interested me with any of these, or even with something infinitely more tame– but it didn’t even try.
The major reason that Sherlock Holmes is still popular today has a lot to do with the various re-interpretations that have kept the character alive for us over the years. There’s the excellent BBC series, Sherlock, that puts him in the modern day; there’s the Robert Downey Jr movies, which are entirely their own thing but still fun as heck; there are things like Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, a terrible TV show from 1999 where (you guessed it) Sherlock Holmes lives in the future and rides around in flying squad cars with Watson’s great-great-granddaughter, who is also the chief of police. Holmes has value as a legend– as a modern kind of trickster-hero, living by his wits, passing in and out of fiction in a hundred forms.
And I couldn’t care less about ‘accuracy’, or truthfulness to the books. He’s better this way.