Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Extracurricular Reading: "The House of Silk" (Horowitz, 2011)

“Holmes, you insist upon seeing yourself as a machine,” I laughed. “Even a masterpiece of impressionism is to you nothing more than a piece of evidence to be used in the pursuit of a crime. Perhaps an appreciation of art is what you need to humanize you.”
--Dr. John Watson, The House of Silk

Leigh: I was skeptical when I started this book. My mom and I share a lot of habits and one of them is the tendency to overhype things. "This movie is the best movie ever when in actuality it's a B+ at best." So when she spent months telling me about this book and how great it was and how much I'd like it, I'll admit, I was skeptical. I got this book for Christmas after hearing about it for months from my mom. She heard an interview on NPR with Anthony Horowitz and couldn't stop talking about it. For. Months. So when I finally sat down and read it I was surprised. I couldn't put it down. I read it in one sitting. That isn't something I do very often. I'm sitting at about 60 pages in on three different books right now. But House of Silk? Single serving size.

It did so many things right. It got the right tone, it got the characters down completely, the writing style was spot on. I forgot numerous times that it wasn't written by Doyle. Was the mystery predictable? A little especially with the introduction that the aged Watson wrote. The final twist though got me. I didn't expect that. Was it still enjoyable to go exploring with Sherlock Holmes? Absolutely. Horowitz did a great job of giving the reader all of the same clues that Holmes had which I think is the most important thing about having a successful mystery (this is of course my opinion and I am by no means an expert on mysteries like you). One of the things we've critiqued about Elementary especially, is that the audience isn't given the same clues as Holmes so solving the puzzle seems to be pulled out of mid air. Horowitz did a very good job at not doing that. Another thing that Horowitz does that reminded me of Doyle SO much was the seemingly unimportant tangent. There is a whole chapter towards the beginning about this characters time in America and I admit that I was waiting for the point to this side story and when the character was done telling it, there didn't seem to be a point. We don't find out the purpose for the story until the end of the novel! If that isn't something Doyle would do, I don't know what is.
I loved this book but am I giving it too much praise? Was the Doyle Foundation wrong in giving this a stamp of approval? And did you keep picturing Mark Gatiss as Mycroft throughout the book, because I totally did.

Austin: First of all, this is my fault for the week delay. I tried to get all of my work done before my week off, but I failed. I apologize. You may all write me angry responses in the comment section that I will appropriately bury deep into my psyche.

Anywho, this book rocked. I'm not the most familiar with Anthony Horowitz's work. I read the first couple of Alex Ryder books when I was younger but don't remember that much about them besides thinking "Maybe this should be funnier?" But that's my criticism for almost everything.

You're absolutely right. This really felt like it was written by Doyle, even right down to that long flashback chapter (that still was still too long). One of the things that felt really authentic was that during the exciting action portions, especially near the end, it managed to have the same delicate pacing that "Watson" usually provides without ever undercutting the adventure. While I didn't feel this was a one-sitter; I was completely hooked for the second half. Also I did imagine Mark Gatiss as Mycroft, especially during their AMAZING rapid-fire observation duel.

"The House of Silk is like nothing you've seen before. It's like a.....League of Gentlemen."

By allowing this longer story, which was just under 300 pages in hardcover, we get a better sense of Watson who really feels like the book's main character. Especially with Sherlock....out of the room for a good portion of the second half. One of the things that was really stressed was Watson's role as the biographer more than anything else. It's always been something that Watson has valued in himself, but this story brought others using that to determine how they see Sherlock Holmes through the novel's twists. One mysterious character is even very envious of Sherlock's opportunity to have a biographer.

Leigh, there are so many ways we can show how this book is similar to Doyle's canon. What were some of the ways that Horowitz changed--or DARE I SAY--improved upon the stories we have been reading? Also should this book have been funnier?

Leigh: Every book should always be funnier. Every book. Yep, even that one.

I think the overall seriousness of this mystery was much more than any of the Doyle stories. I know this is mainly because of time but one thing I feel with Doyle's stories is that they aren't that serious. We have the playful ones that are just that but when there is a matter of life and death or someone has been murdered, it just feels like, "Oh. Well. He is dead. That's too bad. Cuppa?" There doesn't seem to be a sense of urgency a lot of the time when Doyle is recounting a tale of murder and mayhem. Horowitz made me sit on edge as I read through the mystery and made it seem more than just a mystery but also a thriller in some parts. When Holmes' life is on the line, you get the sense of urgency that Holmes should be feeling. Maybe I'm not reading through the layers of Victorian Era innuendo but I just feel like Doyle can miss out on this excitement sometimes.

I love how Watson was written in this novel. That is probably the thing that sold me on this book. Watson was written like "Watson" was writing the whole story. He isn't portrayed as dumb or bumbling but portrayed as he should be, loyal and steadfast. He always believes Holmes and is willing to do what ever it takes to help his friend when he's in need. A lot of "fangirls" (and I use this term as I cringe and vomit in my mouth) are obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and his coldness and intelligence but if I had to pick, I'd pick Watson any day.

I want to talk about the meat of the book and the main part of the mystery. The audience is given little hints at a seedy underground at work and that things aren't as pristine as they might seem. When the larger con is eventually revealed we find that the poor, homeless youth are very much taken advantage of. Do you think that this has any basis in history or do you think that it was a more "modern" idea just placed into a different time? 

Austin: Oh boy, don't ask me about what is accurate with history. Most of my knowledge of history comes from various movies and books I read so I may sound like I know what I'm talking about until I start talking about the TARDIS materializing outside Queen Victoria's carriage.

We have had secret societies in the past with the Doyle canon and for awhile that is what was going on here. I had lost track of the particulars of the mystery and just focused on the main objective: Find The House of Silk. (Much like how I've been watching Justified this season. Find Drew Thompson.) With the length of the novel and Horowitz's skill, there is more nuance going on with the House of Silk besides the ominous force.

One of the things that was done brilliantly in this book was how the Doyle universe felt more active than in the stories. Aside from our reoccurring characters (Lestrade, Mycroft, Mrs. Watson etc) each story is very stand-alone while this book feels like a lived-in world. There are callback to previous mysteries and hints at ones that will occur later in the timeline. That Mystery Man is a well used tip of the hat. (My favorite part of that scene was how the man made Watson promise to never write about this scene, which since I was reading about it I knew exactly who this was.)

This understanding of Holmes's London added a better feeling of continuity. Nobody is pressing reset at the end of each adventure. While Sherlock remains as clinical as he can, Watson shows undeniable evolution through this adventure and in his retrospect. There is a point where Watson has to swear to something he holds dear. The man needing certainty won't take Watson's vow on his marriage, but instead on his friendship with Sherlock. Charting Lestrade's faith in Sherlock Holmes is a very important plot point as things start to get hairy near the end.

Ultimately this was a very well done book. I haven't read a lot of Sherlockian books not written by Doyle, but this easily ranks very high. I really hope that Anthony Horowitz returns to this world soon.

Meanwhile we are (finally) returning to our regular schedule. To keep in with the theme of "Modern works writing about Victorian Sherlock stories" we're going to review the first Robert Downey Jr. movie cleverly titled Sherlock Holmes. Then next Tuesday we'll start The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes with "Silver Blaze."

Get excited.

And here is Leigh Montano with the last word.

Leigh: BathSaltsWillMessYouUp

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