Once more unto the pastiche. You can't wander through very many bookshelves (real or virtual) before stumbling over yet another new Sherlock Holmes novel or anthology. (This was probably outdated five seconds after publication.) Anthony Horowitz's The House of Silk comes advertised as an authorized pastiche, complete with the imprimatur of the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate. As Holmes pastiches go, this one hits the usual marks: Holmes is smart but obnoxious; Watson misses everything of importance ("even I, who was at his side more often that anyone, sometimes had to remind myself that I was not a complete idiot" ); You-Know-Who makes a special guest appearance; and, of course, the story unfolds with regular references to events, characters, and quotations from the canon. We are always on familiar ground; thus, when Watson gets knifed, Horowitz promptly invokes "The Three Garridebs." (Watson spends a good chunk of the novel aching, for one reason or another.) The prose does not soar, with matters not appreciably helped by Horowitz's decision to imitate one of the Victorian conventions least popular with modern readers--characters talking in endless paragraphs. (Which is not, as it happens, one of Doyle's tics.) Indeed, Horowitz is careful to spell out every character's motive, every potential guilt trip, as one expects of cinema-friendly commercial fiction. Anything interior is promptly exteriorized. Still, Horowitz does have some ambitions for this novel, and they tend to emerge in its numerous metafictional moments. For lack of a better term, he wants to neo-Victorianize Holmes.
Warning: there be spoilers ahead. The most significant will go below the fold.
First, the plot. Rather like an episode of CSI, we have intersecting A and B plots. In plot A, a dandified and rather theatrical art dealer (he "walked into the room as if he were making an entrance on the London stage" ) named Edmund Carstairs fears that an Irish gang member from the United States is out to murder him in revenge for Carstairs' role in having the gang killed off by the Pinkertons. However, on further investigation, Carstairs also turns out to have a somewhat complicated home life: since bringing home his American wife, Catherine, Carstairs' mother has died (accident? suicide?) and his sister fears that she is being poisoned. Might the obnoxious young Irish servant be to blame? Meanwhile, in plot B, one of Holmes' newest Baker Street Irregulars, Ross, is frightened of...something?...but seems to have blackmail on his mind. To everyone's horror, he promptly turns up tortured to death, with a white silk ribbon tied around his wrist. Holmes' guilty investigation of Ross' death leads him to the eponymous, yet mysterious, House of Silk--something so secret that even big brother Mycroft can't find out what the heck it is. All he discovers is that it's very, very Big. "Whatever the House of Silk is," warns Mycroft, "it is a matter of national importance" (124-25). Holmes being Holmes, he fails to take Mycroft's advice to clear off, until he finally reveals a horrific conspiracy that extends through every layer of elite (male) society. Something so horrific that even You-Know-Who is, for once, on the side of the angels...
While Horowitz's Watson narrates all of this, however, he also links the workings of the plot to the failures of his earlier narrative voice. Such metafictional reflections are longstanding conventions in the detective genre, and indeed crop up more than once in the Holmes canon; when, in the preface, Watson recalls with amusement how Holmes "would laugh at the way I would construct my narrative so as to leave to the end a resoultion which he swore he had deduced in the opening paragraphs" (3), he merely echoes Doyle's Holmes and his complaints about Watson's technique. But the novel seizes with a vengeance on Rule #9, with considerable doses of #s 5 and 7. After Ross vanishes, Watson reflects that "[i]t sometimes occurs to me now, having witnessed so many momentous changes across the years, that I should have described at greater length the sprawling chaos of the city in which I lived, perhaps in the manner of Gissing--or Dickens fifty years before" (74), thinking in particular about the absence of lower-class subjects, terrible slums, and, above all, the appalling treatment of poor children. Twentieth-century Watson accuses nineteenth-century Watson of a carefully self-censored gaze, one that erases both the worst effects of poverty and his own potential complicity. Within the narrative, this accusation repeats itself in Holmes' own guilty admission that "Wiggins, Ross and the rest of them were nothing to me, just as they are nothing to the society that has abandoned them in the streets, and it never occurred to me that this horror might be the result of my actions" (98). Horowitz's Holmes and Watson turn Doyle's Baker Street Irregulars, who are at most plucky London color, into signifiers of national depravity: abandoned urban children are not Dickensian Artful Dodgers, but instead the embodiment of late-Victorian moral degeneracy, a world in which adults abandon the straight and steady path for lives of exploitative self-indulgence. We are thus treated to cautionary narratives about the dangers of gambling (110-11) and drug abuse (129-30). (Both of which are, under the circumstances, rather ironic: Doyle's Watson, of course, lost enough money gambling that he had Holmes lock up his checkbook, and Holmes has his little seven-percent solution.) This is a failed world, one in which even a near-omniscient character like Mycroft turns out to be incapable of seeing his way.
And now for serious spoilers below the fold.
But things go awry in the novel's puzzling turn to the sort of legibly criminal bodies that Doyle's contemporary Oscar Wilde pointedly deconstructed in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Carstairs does not "quite meet our gaze" (12) and later collapses in hysterics when confronted with a corpse; he is not, that is, manly. Fitzsimmons brings to mind "the snowmen I might see any time now in Regent's Park" (80), while his wife and collaborator Joanna is "witch-like" (82); a teacher involved in the plot has "a strange, twisted face and a tangle of brown hair that sprawled lopsidedly on one side of his head" (86). Lord Ravenshaw's eyes suggest "some abnormality of the thyroid gland" (114), and Inspector Harriman is "reptilian" (145). And so on. By contrast, the prematurely aged Dr. Trevelyan (another visitor from the canon) nevertheless is still notable by "the firmness of his handshake" (209). Even when Watson doesn't immediately read someone as criminal, as in the case of Fitzsimmons, he still marks the body off as grotesque. Sexual perverts in this novel are visibly different and, often, not appropriately "masculine"--masculinity being embodied by the loyalty, devotion to duty, moral righteousness, and hearty physicality of Holmes, Watson, and even Inspector Lestrade and Mycroft (himself rather on the grotesque side). If this were a more sophisticated novel, one that invited us to read this book as produced by an unreliable narrator, then I might be tempted to read this as Watson's own cultural biases informing the text. But...we aren't really so invited. Instead, the novel is cast as a revelation of what Holmes and Watson had refused to see--and what they had refused to see was visible all the time, in the physical and emotional differences that stirred their distrust. Just connect the right dots! (A bit hard on those with thyroid issues, though...) Horowitz does not go the more difficult route, which would be to imagine the even scarier (and far less comforting) proposition of abusers who aren't legibly "different." And indeed, this plot twist has become so conventional--so much so that TV shows like The Closer are using it as a red herring--that it's hard not to respond with anything but exasperation.
 Louise Jackson, Child Sexual Abuse in Victorian England (London: Routledge, 2000), 5.