Fiction Addiction
Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: Q&A: Bringing Sherlock back to life

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Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes.
Photo / Supplied
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. Photo / Supplied

Being chosen to write the first official Sherlock Holmes story since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle retired the famous detective has to be the dream job for a writer of mysteries.
Until now, Anthony Horowitz has been best known as a writer for Midsomer Murders and the author of the bestselling Alex Rider series of children's spy stories, but his new Holmes mystery is his highest-profile creation yet.

Here, Horowitz talks about dusting off the lodgings at 221b Baker Street and channelling its two famous residents, to create The House of Silk, billed as Holmes' most scandalous adventure.

Q: How did you land this gig?

A: An agent representing the Conan Doyle estate knocked on my door. It was completely unexpected. I had just finished the Alex Rider series and was wondering what to do next. Apparently the Doyle estate had created this "seal of approval" which they wished to bestow on me.

I don't know why. I never met them or talked to them. I just wrote the book.

Q: How did you feel about taking on such a responsibility?

A: Well, I wouldn't have done it if I wasn't sure I could do a good job. I first read Holmes when I was 16 and liked the stories too much to want to ruin them. In fact, I sent the publishers the first five pages of the book before I signed the contract - just to be sure that everyone was happy I had captured the right voice. I was never challenged by the thought of writing "as" Doyle. He's such a great writer that I was inspired.

Q: What is your personal history with Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, before you were contracted to write this book?

A: I was given the books as a Christmas present when I was 16 and loved them. It wasn't just the brilliant characters. It was the atmosphere, the way that violence and mystery from the furthest corners of the British empire could reach out to the dullest London suburb (which is where I happened to live). Holmes is probably the reason why I have written so much murder mystery in my life ... Midsomer Murders, Foyle's War etc. I re-read the entire canon before I started writing, by the way. It was a good excuse and a total pleasure.

Q: What did you feel were the restrictions and opportunities in writing this book?

A: For me, The House of Silk was an opportunity to move into 221b Baker Street for a short while and spend time with two of the greatest characters in British literature. It was a chance to work with Moriarty, Mrs Hudson, Mycroft, Lestrade, the Baker Street Irregulars ... all of them brilliant gifts for a writer like me. The restrictions? I had to be invisible, to live entirely in Doyle's shadow. I wanted the book to read as if he had written it - not to be a modern re-examination.

Q: How did you channel the characters of Watson and Holmes?

A: It was surprisingly easy. I re-read the stories and absorbed the characters. Watson has such a unique voice ... it's unmistakeable. And then there are the occasional phrases - "the game's afoot", "you know my methods" - which tell you exactly where you are.

Q: Where did the idea for the plot come from, and how did it evolve?

A: Believe it or not, I had most of the plot in my head before I left the first meeting with the agent. I knew the story had to be about something dark and sinister - there had to be a reason why it had never been told. I also knew that I would have to knit two stories together as Doyle's novellas are only about 40,000 words long and The House of Silk had to run to 90,000. I knew that part of the story would take place in America ... two of the original novels have extended sequences there. But the key was a real event that happened in London in 1981. Look up Cleveland Street on Google ... but only after you've read the book.

Q: What was the greatest challenge?

A: I think the greatest challenge was to write an original story that worked on its own terms and which would appeal to a modern audience which might not be acquainted with Holmes. Perhaps my best decision was to make Watson (the narrator) much older than he is in the original stories. This allowed me to look at the world of the 1890s with a little more depth and analysis. It also gave the book a certain poignancy, which helps.

Q: Was it fun, or just all hard work?

A: Writing is never hard work for me. If it is, something has gone wrong. I loved writing The House of Silk. It took me just four months (instead of a year for an Alex Rider novel) and the words simply poured onto the page.

Q: What reaction have you had from Holmes fans?

A: The book has had the best reviews I've ever received - which has been fantastic. But I'm even more pleased by the fact that the hardcore fans, members of the various societies, have just about all been very positive.

Q: Will the book be turned into a film?

A: Hard to say. I suppose it's possible eventually - but right now Guy Ritchie has just released the new Sherlock Holmes film (I saw it last night - it's a lot of fun) and of course there's the brilliant modern adaptation on the BBC. So the market is a little crowded at the moment!

Q: What book are you most looking forward to reading next?

A: Curiously, PD James signed her new book Death at Pemberley for me last week and that's definitely number one on my Christmas list.


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