So, when a new book called The Sherlockian (Twelve), by a newcomer named Graham Moore--all of 28 years old and living in Los Angeles--began to win some favorable reviews, I had my doubts. As I’ve said on this page many times, Laurie R. King (God of the Hive) is the only writer who adds a life to Holmes that his begetter did not bestow. (King herself makes an appearance in Moore’s novel, as a leading member of the Holmes enthusiasts’ organization, the Baker Street Irregulars, greets a late-arriving guest: “Where have you been all week, you old dog? We’ve missed you. Yesterday we had the most marvelous talk from Laurie King about the Woman--her role in the Great Hiatus, all that. Fascinating.” The Great Hiatus, of course, is the three-year span [1891-1894] between the apparent death of Sherlock Holmes at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls--related in “The Adventure of the Final Problem”--and his lamely explained return.)
Moore’s book shifts between two parallel stories and two different time periods, as did King’s absolutely perfect 2007 novel, The Art of Detection. The hero of his present-day adventure is 29-year-old, deerstalker-wearing Harold White, a mild-mannered and bookish researcher and Holmes addict from L.A. White has just been initiated into the Irregulars at a ceremony in New York, when a premier Holmes expert, Alex Cale--who has reportedly found Conan Doyle’s long-lost diary from October to December 1900--is evidently murdered in his hotel room.
The star of the alternating chapters, set primarily in late 1900 and having to do with a mystery involving wedding dresses and the deaths of three youthful suffragettes in London, is Scottish former physician Conan Doyle himself. Although he had grown quite rich and famous from his Holmes yarns in the Strand Magazine, by 1893 the author was finally so pissed at the success of his habitually observant, pipe-smoking creation and the public’s lack of attention to what the author considered his more “serious” fiction, that he determined to plunge Holmes and his nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, into the icy Swiss cascade. In his diary entry for that day, Conan Doyle wrote simply, “Killed Holmes.” By 1900, the author had sought to put Holmes out of his mind, but fans continued to hound him with requests to bring back the eccentric sleuth.
“Most Sherlockians sort of ... uh, pretend that Holmes was real and that Conan Doyle had his adventures published as fiction to preserve his privacy,” Harold explains to Sarah Lindsay, the pert and pushy young journalist who passes for his Doctor John Watson in the ensuing investigation into Cale’s demise. “The rival Doyleans, as they call themselves, think the Sherlockians are stupid. If we acknowledged Doyle as the author of the stories, half the room would bleat ‘Blasphemy!’”
The best parts of Moore’s novel are those in which he examines the phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes, the way in which that protagonist’s legend took on a life of its own, and his creator’s obdurate enmity toward the detective. The Sherlockian’s mystery elements are far less compelling. Moore gets in some tart observations that will bring a smile to the face of anybody familiar with Conan Doyle and his labors. At one point in this story, Bram Stoker (yes, that Bram Stoker), who was a friend of Conan Doyle and a London theater manager in 1900 (not yet renowned for his storytelling), tells him, “Watson is a cheap, efficient little sod of a literary detective. Holmes doesn’t need him to solve the crimes any more than he needs a ten-stone ankle weight ...” Later, after Conan Doyle involves Stoker in his probe of the suffragettes’ murders, Stoker exploits his friend’s fame to open doors that might otherwise be closed to amateur snoops. “This is Arthur Conan Doyle,” Stoker tells a scruffy landlord who doesn’t want to help them. The man gives Conan Doyle a long once-over. “Yes, that looks like you,” he says at last. “I’ve seen your pictures in the paper, awhile back. You sitting at your writing desk ... looking like a grubby queer.”
Moore also does a fine job of portraying London at the close of the Victorian era, and suggesting that Sherlock Holmes might have been a product of his time, not so comfortable or credible in the 20th century as he was in the 19th. Here he reflects on the installation of new illumination throughout the British capital:
On Westminster Bridge, Arthur was struck by the brightness of the streetlamps running across like a formation of stars. They shone white against the black coats of the marching gentlefolk and fuller than the moon against the fractal spires of Westminster. They were, Arthur quickly realized, the new electric lights, which the city government was installing, avenue by avenue, square by square, in place of the dirty gas lamps that had lit London’s public spaces for a century. These new electric ones were brighter. They were cheaper. They required less maintenance. And they shone farther into the dim evening, exposing every crack in the pavement, every plump turtle shell of stone underfoot. So long to the faint chiaroscuro of London, to the ladies and gentlemen in black-on-black relief. So long to the era of mist and carbonized Newcastle coal, to the stench of the Blackfriars foundry. Welcome to the cleansing glare of the twentieth century.But as much fun as The Sherlockian can be at times--remarking on Conan Doyle’s opposition to women having the right to vote, speculating on his growing disgust with the police, and showing him at odds with autograph-seekers--it fails to break new ground either in the story of Holmes or his creator. And its conclusion is suggested well in advance of the book’s last page. My advice? Read Laurie R. King’s stories about Holmes and Mary Russell, instead, or pick up a copy of Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George (1997), which also deserves high marks.