Monday, August 19, 2013

[Review] The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz

It was almost dark and with the coming of the night the sense of ease that I had felt had quite dissipated, and the city had once again turned cold and hostile. The shoppers and the entertainers had all gone home and their places had been taken by a different species altogether, shabby men and gaudy women who needed shadows in which to conduct their business and whose business, in truth, carried shadows of its own.

The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz (2011)
Cover: Orion, 2012 edition

Anthony Horowitz's The House of Silk is a contemporary addition to Sherlock Holmes canon that is in every way in the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories, which, despite having had a strong influence on English-language crime fiction, have a distinctive style of their own which doesn't quite fit in the same mold as most mystery tales. It's not a six-character locked door whodunnit in the vein of Christie or Sayers, nor does it have the bombastic cartoonishness of the Robert Downey Jr. movies; instead, The House of Silk is a thing of its own: a crime adventure filled with twists, intrigue and a level of scandal that would titillate any Victorian reader (not that that'd be much of a feat).

My personal familiarity with Horowitz's oeuvre is mostly through his Alex Rider books, which are fast paced, Matthew-Reilly-ridiculous YA novels whose allusions/homage to James Bond canon is more thinly veiled than any woman who appears in the latter. (To be clear: I'm not talking Ian Fleming here; I'm talking Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan dodging space lasers while ad libbing innuendo so bad it could be weaponised. Somehow this translates remarkably well to adventure novels for teens.) So having only that to base my expectations on, when I found that Horowitz's writing style was gripping, faithful and more than capable of being taken seriously, I was pleased, if not wholly surprised (he did get the blessing of Doyle's estate, which counts for something).

No, you won't be finding any said hes in this book, but stylistically the book is very reminiscent of the original stories. Thick sentences sweep through the action with a verve that allows their detail to never become tiresome. Dialogue sits at that strange liminal border between perfectly innocuous 21st century English and its foreign-seeming roots. And yes, characters inexplicably recount pages upon pages of exposition in flawless, vivid prose. All in all, the fictional hand of Dr John Watson has been kept very consistent, even down to that subtle tinge of exoticism reserved for anything beyond Britain's borders (in this case, tales from the slums and mansions of Massachusetts).

Without spoiling anything, Horowitz is also able to take advantage of his perspective as a contemporary writer, speaking of 19th century social strictures (and, of course crimes), that could never have been openly discussed in Doyle's time. For instance, one respectable character is quite explicitly outed as gay, and in another section Watson speaks in condemnatory detail about his society's treatment of orphans.

I enjoyed this occasional focus — it distinguishes the book, not unpleasantly, from the rest of Holmes canon, rendering it novel in its own right.

There are other wonderful facets to it as well, including this beautifully deconstructive extract:

I simply assumed that [criminals'] fate would be of no further interest to my readers and gave up on them, as if it was their wrongdoing alone that justified their existence and that once the crimes had been solved they were no longer human beings with beating hearts and broken spirits...

Did any of them ever weep tears of repentance or offer prayers for their salvation? Did some of them fight on to the end? I did not care. It was not part of my narrative.

Ibid.

Horowitz is clearly well versed in the ins and outs of crime fiction -- he did create Midsomer Murders and all. It's nice to see him bringing this experience to bear in a way that is self-aware yet still whole-heartedly embracing of the genre's trappings.

Oh, and, spoiler alert: a closing quote to whet the appetite of anyone familiar with Holmes canon:

You have not told me who you are, I said. Will you explain what you are?

I am a mathematician, Dr Watson. I do not flatter myself when I say that my work on the Binomial Theorem is studied in most of the universities of Europe.

Ibid.