Book Review: The Sherlockian By Graham Moore
By Carlotta G. Holton
As an avid fan of Arthur Conan Doyle, I found that the game was definitely afoot in this delightfully ripping mystery-within-a-mystery. Author Graham Moore’s debut novel adeptly alternates the action between two time frames, two continents and two heroes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and contemporary Baker Street Irregular, Harold White with the underlying theme of man’s “need to know.”
This well-crafted novel begins with Arthur Conan Doyle struggling with the best way to kill off Sherlock Holmes so that he can begin writing historical fiction. The year is 1893. When Holmes and his nemesis Professor Moriarty go over the Reichenbach Falls in “The Final Problem,” Doyle is shocked to encounter anger and hostility from the English people who don black armbands in mourning for the fictional character.
The action shifts to the present at a convention of Sherlock scholars known as the Baker Street Irregulars who have gathered to share in the discovery of a long-lost diary of Doyle’s that has been found by member Alex Cale. For decades scholars have wondered what events/experiences prompted Doyle to resurrect Holmes in 1901 in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Would those exploits be detailed in the missing diary?
Also making his entrance into the society is Harold White, a freelance literary researcher by trade, who briefly meets Cale and then finds him murdered in a hotel suite. The alleged diary, which was in his possession, is not found. A la Doyle’s short story, A Study in Scarlet, the present- day- killer has left the word “elementary” written in blood on the wall.
Enter Doyle’s great-grandson, Sebastian, who hires White to solve the murder and find the diary. Employing Holmes’ skills of deduction, White assumes the challenge. Alternating chapters track Doyle’s seven year hiatus from Holmes as he begins his own manhunt for a serial killer during the Victorian era. Assuming the traits of his own creation, Sherlock, he invites his friend and author, Bram Stoker to be his real-life Watson as they follow the trail of a savage murderer of women connected to the suffragette movement in London’s East End. Moore effectively intersects the parallel stories.
While The Sherlockian is a work of fiction, the murder of an Irregular is based on an incident in 2004 in which a Sherlockian was found dead after claiming he had found Doyle’s lost papers. In this fast-paced and engrossing novel Moore effectively mixes historical fiction and contemporary detection. Both heroes – Doyle in Victorian London and Harold in the 21st century get to practice Holmes’ techniques. Along the trail we are treated to glimpses and references of Holmes’ cases such as A Study in Scarlet, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client and The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge, a technique sure to please not only Doyle’s fans, but new readers as well.
The Sherlockian is a wonderful read celebrating the cleverness of its author while offering a nostalgic appreciation of all that was Victorian – hansom cabs, fog- covered- cobblestone streets, the female fight for equality and the invention of electric lighting symbolic of Doyle’s life and writings. The author also successfully manages to evoke sadness for the loss of Victorian antiquity. Doyle laments the passage of the significant era when he tells Stoker, “what saddens me is not the passing of time but the curious sensation of being aware of it as it happens.” Stoker responds to him: “realism is fleeting. It’s the romance that will live forever.”
Moore comments on the genre of the mystery novel. Stressing the power of a tale well told, he maintains that humanity craves solutions. Harold addresses his love for the genre to his companion, Sara. “Can you write a mystery story that ends with uncertainty? Where you never know who really did it? You can, but it’s unsatisfying. It’s unpleasant for the reader. There needs to be something at the end, some sort of resolution… It’s that the reader needs to know. .. That’s what I love about Holmes. That the answers are so elegant and the world he lives in so ordered and rational. It’s beautiful.”
Like the new electric lights that paved the way into Doyle’s 20th century, readers continue to need to be illuminated by the truth. And Harold White is our very own contemporary Sherlock Holmes. Well done, Mr. Moore!