California Literary Review

Book Review: The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

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January 6th, 2011 at 8:00 am

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The Sherlockian by Graham Moore
The Sherlockian
by Graham Moore
Twelve, 368 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆


Final Problems

Every actor wants to play Hamlet and every writer wishes to write a great novel or nonfiction work that will command the respect and attention of the ages. Arthur Conan Doyle certainly achieved that with his Sherlock Holmes stories. Yet, the four novels and 56 short stories that Conan Doyle wrote about his famous consulting detective were not what he wanted to be remembered for.

And there, dear reader, hangs a tale.

Indeed, in a very impressive debut novel, Graham Moore spins two interconnected tales of detection from Conan Doyle’s decision in 1893 to send Holmes plunging to his death from a cliff overhanging the Reichenbach Falls in the Swiss Alps. The intertwined stories are based on real life events, the contemporary mystery recalling the 2004 death of a notable Sherlock Holmes scholar, Richard Lancelyn Green, still unsolved. The more familiar case study of Holmes’ death at the hands of his creator in The Adventure of the Final Problem is augmented by another mystery in Conan Doyle’s life. What happened to a cache of notebooks, letters and early drafts of Sherlock Holmes stories that went missing for decades? These were eventually found and auctioned by Christies in 2004.

One of the auctioned items known as the Norwood Notebook, contained an 1893 entry from Conan Doyle’s diary which laconically notes the death of the great detective. “Killed Holmes.”

Solving the fictional counterparts to these mysteries falls to the inexpert hands of Harold White, the modern protagonist of The Sherlockian. A naive, bookish young man, Harold White has just been inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars, the world’s pre-eminent organization devoted to the study of Sherlock Holmes. Harold is so consumed with Sherlockiana that he wears a Deer Stalker hat at the least excuse. At one point he confesses, “I’m so more familiar with Britain a hundred years ago than Britain today.”

Harold’s obsession is just the thing that drove Conan Doyle to his fatal decision to send Holmes hurtling to his doom. Conan Doyle is the second of the major characters in the novel. We meet him on a walking tour of the Alps, when he selects the Reichenbach Falls as the crime scene where he will rid himself of his leading man. In the six years since Holmes had been introduced to the world in A Study in Scarlet in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual, Conan Doyle had grown weary of being identified with the exploits of the fictional crime solver.

By dropping Holmes into the whirlpool of the Reichenbach, Conan Doyle reasoned that he would be free to write historical novels and socially uplifting plays. His friend, Bram Stoker, who figures in The Sherlockian as a surrogate Doctor Watson, advises against this decision. There is a telling scene in the novel, when Conan Doyle visits the theatre managed by Stoker and is snubbed by the celebrated actress Ellen Terry, who is wearing a black armband to mourn the death of Sherlock Holmes.

“The world does not need Arthur Conan Doyle,” Stoker declares. “The world needs Sherlock Holmes.”

It is an unpalatable verdict that in reality took Conan Doyle years to recognize. In 1901, Holmes appeared again in The Hound of the Baskervilles. He was officially resurrected from the dead in 1903 in The Adventure of the Empty House.

Moore takes these established facts and dates the missing volume of Conan Doyle’s diary to October-December 1900, the period when the author faced up to the fact that the public demand had to be satisfied. In The Sherlockian, the Baker Street Irregulars are awaiting the appearance of fellow member Alex Cale, who claims that he has found the missing diary and will reveal its contents. Cale shows up, fearing for his life, shortly after Harold White is made a full-fledged Baker Street Irregular.

The next day, Cale is found dead and Harold is arrested for tampering with the crime scene.

Convinced that Harold is a well-intentioned bungler, the NYPD release him pending further investigation. He skips town to go to London where a descendent of Conan Doyle hires him to try and find the diary. Why anyone would require the services of an untutored private detective whose clueless acts got him mixed up in a murder investigation is quite a stretch. But the game, as Sherlock Holmes would exclaim, is afoot.

The Victorian era mystery begins in earnest on October 18, 1900 when Conan Doyle opens a parcel that has just arrived by mail. Inside is a crudely-assembled explosive which at first fails to detonate. Conan Doyle has long enough to notice that the letter bomb was padded with torn pages from the Strand magazine, publishers of the Sherlock Holmes stories. In the box is a letter inscribed with the famous, if seldom used, remark of Sherlock Holmes, “Elementary.”

Conan Doyle survives but the list of potential assailants grows. Was it supporters of the Boer rebels fighting Britain in South Africa where Conan Doyle had served as an army surgeon? Was it a disgruntled fan of Sherlock Holmes as the contents of the bomb packaging suggests? Or might it be militant Suffragettes infuriated by Conan Doyle’s public stand against extending the vote to women?

When Scotland Yard responds to the letter bomb attack with bureaucratic ineptitude worthy of Inspector Lestrade, Conan Doyle sets off with Stoker to solve the crime himself. The author of Gothic horror stories, including the still little-regarded Dracula, Stoker proves to be an invaluable understudy. The two would-be detectives pick up a trail that soon leads them to the serial murders of young women, each victim marked by a strange tattoo. The moody, gas-lighted ambiance of London’s East End is brilliantly evoked by Moore, and there is a well-handled moment of comic relief when Stoker helps Conan Doyle dress in drag to infiltrate a Suffragette meeting.

Moore, like his modern character Harold White, does indeed know a great deal about Victorian England and that extends to his insight into Conan Doyle’s emotions. The Victorian chapters, which alternate with the contemporary episodes, are so well-handled that the modern day story initially suffers in comparison. Harold is surrounded by a supporting cast that often seem like characters from a 1970′s “Made for TV” movie. But then, just when you wish to skip the present day sleuthing and concentrate on the efforts of Conan Doyle and Stoker to stop the turn-of-the-century murder spree, Moore demonstrates that his skill isn’t limited to the foggy streets of old London.

Having found a flash drive with the most recent text of Cale’s uncompleted biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, Harold begins reading the “deliriously antiquarian” prose. When he finishes the poignant scene of Conan Doyle’s death, Harold is moved with sadness at the thought of Cale’s horrifying final moments. And in this comparison, the reader glimpses Moore’s grasp of human nature, in both its transcendent and tragic aspects.

Harold thought of Alex Cale dying alone, in a sterile hotel room, his eyes bulging from his head and the muscles taut from struggling. Harold realized that in the days since Alex’s death he had not paused to mourn. To measure the loss. What would it matter, really, if Harold did find the diary? What difference would it make if he found Alex’s killer? If the man were put in jail for the rest of his wretched life? Alex would never see his own life’s work completed or published. He would never be able to undertake a new project. The world had lost his voice, it had forever lost the maker of these sentences …

In the course of the novel, Harold’s life is transformed from literary scholarship to “life in the raw” crime solving. His awareness grows of the dimensions of human suffering, making his earlier delight in following the trail of detection in mystery novels seem absurd and distasteful. After meeting Alex Cale’s distraught sister, Harold reflects:

Murder was so trivial in the stories Harold loved. Dead bodies were plot points, puzzles to be reasoned out. They weren’t brothers. Plot points didn’t leave grieving sisters who couldn’t find their shoes.

As Harold grows in complexity as a character, the reader is left wondering about the ensemble of stereotypes he encounters in the modern chapters. Why is Harold’s emerging humanity, along with the absorbing drama of Conan Doyle’s quest, so deftly handled by comparison with the “plucky girl reporter,” the “man of mystery” who employs him to find the diary and other predictable supporting characters? Is Moore withholding evidence about them as well?

In The Sign of Four, Sherlock Holmes utters one of his guiding precepts, “…when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Because Harold is so naive, he is indeed wide of the mark in his initial estimation of some of the characters he encounters. And so, ironically, is Conan Doyle. For all the cerebral talents he invests into the minds of Sherlock Holmes and his adversary, Doctor Moriarty, Conan Doyle is anything but a “Napoleon of Crime” detection himself. He is dependent on the more worldly and experienced Stoker for support in tracking down the ruthless killer of the tattooed young women. At one point, Conan Doyle can’t even find his bearings in the seedy streets of London’s East End where all the clues are pointing. Without Stoker at his side, the creator of Sherlock Holmes is often as baffled as Doctor Watson.

It takes these two first-time detectives quite a while to eliminate the impossible from the improbable. For Harold, the trail leads ultimately to the Reichenbach Falls and a very surprising denouement. Conan Doyle and Stoker stalk the killer to a grim, bloody act of reckoning.

And in the very act of ridding Victorian London of a second Jack-the-Ripper, Conan Doyle and Stoker unwittingly set the stage for the modern-day mystery of The Sherlockian. Without ever realizing it, they plant the first clue on the trail of detection that will transform Harold White from a shallow, lonely book lover to a capable and appealing protagonist who will hopefully find further employment in a sequel to this remarkable debut novel.

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