In some ways English author Anthony Horowitz was presented with a gift when he was invited to write the first official Sherlock Holmes novel since the Arthur Conan Doyle era.
This gift comprised: two of the most clearly defined heroes of English literature; a choice of atmospheric settings (he opted for the gas-lit, fog-coated merciless London winter of 1890); the blessing of the Conan Doyle estate (and thus a guaranteed following from fans); and a poisoned chalice.
Modern recreations of classic books have a tendency to go horribly wrong in a very high-profile way. Take Scarlett, Alexandra Ripley's widely panned 1991 sequel to Gone with the Wind, and Pemberley, Emma Tennant's dire 1993 follow-up to Pride and Prejudice.
The problem with most sequels is that the author must rip apart the carefully constructed resolution of the original to insert a new conflict in order to get the plot going again.
Horowitz, of course, didn't have that problem with the Sherlock Holmes canon, since it was mostly a collection of short stories that were largely self-contained, with characters who developed little over the lifetime of the series. He didn't have to bring Holmes back from retirement - or from the dead (as Conan Doyle did himself when he decided to renew the series in 1903 after having killed off the detective 10 years earlier).
Horowitz just needed to slide another adventure into the career of Sherlock Holmes, being careful not to mess up the continuity of the existing tales.
Because the illusion of Holmes as a real detective relies on his cases being narrated by his sidekick and biographer, Dr Watson, Horowitz came up with a clever mechanism to excuse the 121-year delay in the publication of this case: Watson had considered the story of The House of Silk so scandalous and dangerous that he wrote it up only after Holmes' death and locked the manuscript in his lawyer's vault, with instructions that it should not be read for 100 years.
Horowitz told us in last week's Q&A that once he'd settled on this back story his plot evolved quickly: What kind of a conspiracy would prompt Watson to engage such precautions?
With the characters, setting and plot coming together with little effort, the proof of The House of Silk was in the execution. Sherlock Holmes is one of the world's most recreated characters, as well as one of its most idiosyncratic. It would have been easy for Horowitz to fall into pastiche, or worse, parody.
But Horowitz does a brilliant job of not only staying true to the original but drawing out the tale into a far longer and more complex work than most of Conan Doyle's creations (all but four of the original tales were short stories).
He's nailed Watson's voice and Holmes' character, as well as all the other elements that make for a ripping Sherlock Holmes story - the spooky atmosphere, the finely moulded minor characters, the twists and turns, the ghastly villains.
Yes, there are also lucky (and unlucky) coincidences and leaps of deduction (and the odd typo) but Horowitz has proved himself a worthy successor to Conan Doyle with this absorbing tale.
If you haven't already stuffed the Christmas stockings, this book would make a worthy filler for almost anyone in the family.
As enjoyable as this book is, it's probably a good thing that Watson makes it clear in his narrative that this will be the last Sherlock Holmes story ever told. God forbid a sequel should come out.
- HERALD ONLINE