Last Thursday we gathered at Meeting Room B “Baker Street” to partake of our annual Holiday Yule Cake, and to discuss the fascinating tale related by author Anthony Horowitz called The House of Silk. Those who were particular readers and fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories of Sherlock Holmes and his best friend and biographer, Dr. John Watson, were not disappointed in reading Horowitz story – authorized by Doyle’s estate. In fact, that is understating the response: everyone loved this story! To paraphrase one member: ‘I kept waiting for him to blow it; to put things in that Holmes or Watson wouldn’t say or do, or to break with the period [the story is set in 1890s London] but he maintained the flow and the story just kept building – I couldn’t put it down!’
We talked about how both in language and period Horowitz does an outstanding job of capturing the feel of the original Doyle stories, while adding some depth of social consciousness, and even humanity to Holmes that is seen through pursuit of the killer of Ross, the young boy who’d been a new “Baker Street Irregular”. This group of street boys (or “ragamuffins” as Mrs. Hudson refers to them) act as Holmes eyes and ears in the more questionable parts of London, and in the “lower class” social circles he is not a part of. We talked a bit about these social circles, and how completely the enfranchised rich and aristocratic had power over the general population – and even Holmes himself.
The whole setting up of Holmes for the murder of Sally Dixon, Ross’ sister, and the lack of voice that he has as a defendant during the English prison court trial, showed a frightening lack of control over one’s personal life overall, and how criminal prosecution could so easily work against an individual if he was not part of those in control.
…End of SPOILER!
We really liked the layering of crime and social issues of the time and mentioned how it was reminiscent of Anne Perry’s Victorian mysteries (which we’ve identified to be added to our titles for the next MAF Planning meeting in August!) This consciousness is expressed by Watson in particular about how little he’d thought about what the affect of being a Baker Street Irregular might be for these young boys. It certainly was not something on Holmes’ mind in a significant way until Ross is killed. We talked about how some critics have said that this death affected Holmes too much, and wasn’t believable given his solitary and unsociable style. We countered that it is completely within his character to become obsessed with justice for the boy – not only from a personal responsibility aspect, but because finding the true killer in a murder investigation is integral to what Sherlock is all about.
Patti mentioned a comment made on the New York Public library’s discussion on this book about how it employs a structure often used by Doyle of having Holmes solving “double mysteries”. In this case it is the adventures of The Man in the Flat Cap, and The House of Silk. Using this technique, Watson relates two criminal situations which appear to be completely unrelated, and part of the revelations that gives them such a fun twist, is seeing how very wrong that appearance is.
The group liked the timeline used by Horowitz to let us know that the story, while written in 1890 according to Watson, is not published until 1915 due to the scandalous nature of one crime – and the people involved in it – in particular. We felt it emphasized how despicable and horrific this crime would have been given the era when it occurred, and that, for his own well-being, Watson would not have been able to publish the story while certain key characters were still alive. Patti brought in a couple of other interesting incidents in history that would have taken place during this time frame, and have informed Doyle about both the social situation of street boys in London, and a pertinent trial that occurred between the story in 1890 and the publication in 1915 that relates to the scandal in the House of Silk: the first was the publication in 1839 of Charles Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist, (and the celebrated status of Dickens as a writer of fiction with social commentary), the later is the 1895 trials of Oscar Wilde.
We also spoke of some of the interesting places and characters that are mentioned here and used elsewhere in Sherlock Holmes stories. There will be links in the “Author Docket” on Horowitz and this story to such things as: the Diogenes Club, Gentlemen’s clubs, the prison at Holloway (where Oscar Wilde also resided for a time) , and a great article that one member sent to “The Ten Rules for Writing a Sherlock Holmes Novel”. That link is also here: http://www.mulhollandbooks.com/2012/10/05/1557/.
The other two characters we spent some time on were Mycroft, and the Mysterious Mathematician (as we call him in our Cast of Characters list!) Members new to Holmes wondered if we ever got background information about Holmes upbringing and family, and how he came to be a “consulting detective”. While he arrives on the scene in A Study in Scarlet in 1887, Holmes is already a consulting detective and details about his past are slim to none. It takes a while to even find out he has a brother at all! Having Mycroft in this story was in fact a very nice touch on Horowitz’ part as it helps to round out newcomers’ understanding of Holmes – plus the first exchange between the two is such a fun piece of observational one-upmanship:
“ ‘My dear Sherlock!’ Mycroft exclaimed as he waddled in. ‘How are you? You have recently lost weight, I notice. But I’m glad to see you restored to your old self.’
“ ‘And you have recovered from influenza.’
“ ‘A very mild bout. I enjoyed your monograph on tattoos. Written during the hours of the night, evidently. Have you been troubled by insomnia?’
“ ‘The summer was unpleasantly warm. You did not tell me you had acquired a parrot.’
“ ‘Not acquired, Sherlock. Borrowed. . . . You have just returned from Gloucestershire.’
“ ‘And you from France.’
“ ‘Mrs. Hudson has been away?’
“ ‘She returned last week. You have a new cook.’
“ ‘The last one resigned.’
“ ‘On account of the parrot.’
“ ‘She always was highly strung.’ ”
– Courtesy of a Washington Post article.
As you may tell, the group highly enjoyed this excellent addition to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes – and was very pleased to hear that there’s at least been a tweet that says Anthony Horowitz is working on a sequel. We can’t wait!
In the meantime we look forward to The Sherlockian, our January selection, where we’ll be taken into the world of today’s “Baker Street Irregulars” – the literary society that honors the works of Conan Doyle’s most famous character, and his unparalleled portrayal of the friendship of a lifetime he shares with Dr. Watson. If you would like to make comments on Holmes, Watson, or The House of Silk, please add them here!