This may not be the nicest way to start a review of a good book, but I’ll go ahead anyway. There’s a short story by Roald Dahl called “The Great Automatic Grammatizator”. It’s a brilliant story, one of Dahl’s best ever. A witty phantasmagorical tale of time when writers will be able to just put several words (or a theme) into a machine, and the machine will churn out a classic that everyone will want to read. The House of Silk is a masterful novel by an author who knows how to make his work appealing, but it’s also a book that is too well aware of public expectations and just what it should contain. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that if you put words like “Sherlock Holmes”, “Arthur Conan Doyle”, “Doctor Watson”, etc. into a computer, it will produce a book like this (certainly not – not this good), but the sense of inescapable literary confinement never really left me in the course of reading The House of Silk.
Everybody knows the story. The Arthur Conan Doyle estate commissioned English writer Anthony Horowitz (best known for his children’s novels as well as scripts for British detective series like Poirot and Midsomer Murders) to come up with a new book about Sherlock Holmes. Considering the enormous worldwide popularity of Conan Doyle’s famous detective stories, you just knew this would be a remarkable commercial success. And considering that Horowitz is an indisputable master of a detective thrill, you just knew this would be an artistic triumph too.
So the superior quality of The House of Silk doesn’t at all come as a surprise. Of course, all is in place: from Inspector Lestrade to Holmes’ trademark Stradivarius to the Baker Street Irregulars to heart-warming references to all those unforgettable cases of the past. It is all there, in all its stately, solemn, very British charm. With maybe a touch of edgy Postmodern tickles and delights thrown in for the modern reader and for the sake of Horowitz’ personality.
The book starts with Watson doing the explaining. The idea is that the case he is about to reveal was way too shocking and sensational to have been published in its day. So now, as he is an old man and Sherlock Holmes is gone and the story can no longer harm or affect anyone, he is ready to tell the world about what was probably the most sinister and (you might as well say it) incredible case in the whole of Holmes’ incredible career. How’s that for a setup?
The House of Silk features an intricate, criminally well-crafted plot that on the way to its brilliant (and, handily, unexpected) solution goes through a series of cleverly, meticulously arranged subplots and complications. In terms of the latter, I’d like to warn you that after this novel Arthur Conan Doyle’s ways may seem slightly too safe, if not predictable. And of course: it all starts with an art dealer named Edmund Carstairs coming to 221B, Baker Street and telling a peculiar tale of some lost paintings and a frightful Irish gang he had ‘encountered’ during his stay in America. Carstairs believes that the sole surviving member of this gang, called The Flat Cap Gang (something silly about their hats), had come from America to London for the purpose of murdering him. I won’t say much else, since this is the kind of case where almost every word might be a wicked spoiler, but it has to be mentioned that soon enough this Flat Cap case is dropped (or so it would seem), and we are plunged into the central plotline, i.e. the House of Silk. There’s not much we know about the House of Silk. From vague hints and clues scantily scattered here and there we understand that this place is as enigmatic as it is dreadful and disgusting. Place of utter, unattainable secrecy and even conspiracy, and it gets both Watson and (particularly) Holmes into all kinds of trouble. Saying this stuff is ‘engaging’ would of course be severely understating it.
Horowitz the writer basically dissolves in the book’s style and prose, both as unmistakably stately and sedate as the greatest seasoned wine. But yes, I wildly enjoyed The House of Silk. In fact, there was no way not too. I do of course stand by my criticism stated in the initial paragraph, but that’s the snotty intellect mocking the gullible heart. Nothing new.
Of course, the question you are bound to ask yourself numerous times in the process of reading The House of Silk is could this really have been written by Arthur Conan Doyle? Well, you will probably think, it’s got a slightly higher blood & murder percentage, and the truth is somewhat too shocking, but… Yes, indeed, he could have. And you are okay with that. “The Great Automatic Grammatizator” or not – you are grateful for the way The House of Silk is. For it is exactly the way you wanted it. Perhaps even a little better – but I guess you can live with that.