'House of Silk' Is Nothing to Gloss Over

A lively rendition of that British investigator Sherlock Holmes.

For today, we have “a Sherlock Holmes novel” by Anthony Horowitz, called The House of Silk. It is an appropriate occasion to be writing about this, since tonight I will be at the Baker Street Irregulars’ annual birthday party for the great detective who is calculated to have been born in January 1854, first saw print in Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1887 with the publication of A Study in Scarlet, and so far is apparently immortal.

That immortality takes three literary forms: people still read the Holmesian “canon” of four novels and 56 short stories published by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930); devotees like the Irregulars engage in scholarly research into gaps, boo-boos and other topics related to that canon; and for the past century or so other authors have used the characters of Holmes and Watson to compose Sherlockian pastiches, a genre defined as “an imitation of another’s style” which is “usually [though I assure you by no means always!] respectful.”

The Conan Doyle canon in fact invites this. For example, in “The Sussex Vampire,” the narrator Dr. Watson said, “The world is not yet prepared” for the story of “the giant rat of Sumatra” and the ship Matilda Briggs. In “The Veiled Lodger” Watson said that he has kept confidential “the whole story concerning the politician, the lighthouse and the trained cormorant.” In “The Five Orange Pips” he mentioned “the singular adventures of the Grice Patersons in the Island of Uffa” — an island I once took some pains to identify in a paper as located in the Russian Republic of Bashkortostan, and no, I did not make up the Monte Python-sounding “Bashkortostan”!

So Mr. Liebowitz in is an honorable tradition in producing the story of events which his narrator Dr. Watson labels “simply too monstrous, too shocking to appear in print” during his lifetime and which he “sent to the vaults of Cox and Co. in Charing Cross” not to be opened “for one hundred years.” According to the novel, Watson wrote all this down in 1915, but the events took place in 1890. At the outset, I will say that the crimes associated with the House of Silk were indeed the sort for which the 1890 “world was not prepared,” though such things did occur and are still occurring in our more scandal-avid world. 

The adventure begins with an upscale but nervous London art dealer named Carstairs consulting Holmes following some trans-Atlantic shenanigans which included murders, Pinkerton detectives, and the loss of four valuable 1806 paintings of England’s Lake District by the great landscape artist John Constable. The paintings were destroyed in an explosion following the murderous robbery of a train on the Boston & Albany Railroad near Pittsfield, MA.  Shortly thereafter, a prominent art investor was murdered in the garden of his home in Providence, RI. Carstairs was afraid for his life due to the involvement of a some vengeful Boston Irish gangsters he feared had followed him, fears not shared by his beautiful wife Catherine, who was in turn both resented and accused of gold-digging by Carstairs’ frumpy sister Eliza.

Holmes quickly enlists the aid of his youthful assistants, the Baker Street Irregulars, one of whom is soon murdered along with the boy’s barmaid sister. All this is somehow tied to the mysterious House of Silk, as to which Sherlock’s corpulent, lazy, brilliant brother Mycroft — who is some sort of ‘behind the scenes’ Big Dog in the British government — warns our hero to stay away. Mr. Horowitz has done a good, serviceable job in bringing the cast of characters from 1890s London, Holmes, Watson, and others, to life.

Of course the plot involves much more in the way of gunplay and privy conspiracy than one finds in the typical canonical Holmes story, but that may be inevitable in light of the horrible goings-on at the House of Silk. To say more about that would surely be a spoiler with respect to a story which I found quite suspenseful —and as to which the Carstairs crimes were tied plausibly to the House of Silk without undue stretching.

I was particularly pleased that Holmes solved one attempted murder on the basis of absolutely authentic 1890s toxicology: that is, the use of the poison aconitine which could have been based directly on chapter 35 of Treatise on Poisons by Sir Robert Christison (who was a chaired Professor at Edinburgh during Conan Doyle’s first two years of medical school there). There were however two ‘howlers,’ one geographical and minor, and one biographical and not so minor. The train robbery is reported to have been at a tunnel “just outside Pittsfield” where “the track climbed steeply upwards before crossing the Connecticut River.”  The River is a good 47-50 miles east of Pittsfield and the tunnel is not on the Boston & Albany R.R. 

Much more seriously, though, Watson, presumably writing in 1915 or 25 years after the events, mentions that by then Brother Mycroft was “knighted and the chancellor of a well-known university.” Maybe so, but he also says that Holmes died in 1910! Yet the canonical record, published by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1917, has Sherlock alive and fighting German spies in the run-up to World War I (possibly cooperating with John Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay … a nice thought!) — a war which, for the chronologically-challenged, began in August 1914 — and thereafter keeping bees in Sussex. Oops!

It’s a hot week coming up for book groups.

The Foreign Affairs Book Club’s next meeting is Tuesday, Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. in the 2nd floor meeting room at the main library. The book for January and February is The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yerger. For more information call Yang Wang at 203 622 7924. 

Two meetings are coming up at the . The Mystery Lovers Book Club is launching its fourth season tomorrow, Saturday, Jan. 14, at 1 pm to discuss The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler.  Also in Cos Cob on Tuesday, Jan. 18 at noon the long-running Brown Bag Book Club will meet; pack a lunch and join the discussion of The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer.


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