Anthony Horowitz Discusses Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Horowitz Discusses Sherlock Holmes

Here Anthony Horowitz provides a discussion on the man himself; Sherlock Holmes.

I have been asked to add a few words in regards to Sherlock Holmes and one of my favourite short stories from the original canon. I’ve agreed – but reluctantly. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, many of them by writers much better informed than me. If you’re interested, by far the best are Andrew Lycett’s exhaustive (and, to be honest, quite exhausting) study: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes. Martin Booth’s shorter biography of Doyle is harder to find but an easier read.

Outside these two books, there are also dozens of reference works which range from the completely trivial to the heavily over-analytical. Writers have spent years of their lives trying to put the stories into chronological order. They have investigated Holmes’s parentage, his psychology, his scientific methods, his tastes. They have puzzled endlessly over such anomalies as Watson’s war wound. In one story it’s in his shoulder. In another it’s his leg. Is it possible, as one armchair critic concluded, that he could have been crouching in such an awkward position that the Jezail bullet actually passed through both? (No. It’s just a mistake. Doyle got it wrong.)

There are books which list the films – Holmes is famously the most frequently portrayed movie character in history – the plays and the TV episodes, sometimes with critiques. There are Sherlock Holmes guides, almanacs, dictionaries and handbooks. You can even visit the house on Baker Street and chat to ‘Holmes’ or ‘Watson’ – they take it in turns. I went there for inspiration and found it much more fun and more informative than I had expected. And then there’s the Sherlock Holmes Society with over a thousand members, many of whom will be able to name a short story from three consecutive words and who come together from all over the world for highly rarified gatherings. It was at one such event, a formal dinner in the House of Commons, that I announced The House of Silk. Members meet occasionally at the Reichenbach Falls, dressed as their favourite characters and I can imagine them now reading these words, waiting to pounce if I dare step too far out of line.

It seems extraordinary that we’re talking about a canon that extends to just fifty-six short stories and four novels so short that they’re more like novellas. As a body of work, you could hardly say it’s up there with Dickens or Dostoyevsky. It’s not even as if Sherlock Holmes got off to a particularly auspicious start. The very first novel, A Study in Scarlet was written in 1886 when its author was a struggling, twenty-seven-year-old doctor with too many patients and too many overheads. In the first draft it’s Sherrinford Holmes who meets Dr Ormond Sacker and the book is called A Tangled Skein. It’s interesting to reflect how the history of literature might have changed if Doyle hadn’t had second thoughts.

The first novel is frankly a bit of a mish-mash. Though barely forty thousand words in length, at least half of it doesn’t feature Sherlock Holmes at all, concentrating instead on the Mormon community in Utah. The last two chapters contain a lengthy confession by the killer followed by further exposition from Holmes and Watson. It’s hardly surprising that Doyle was paid a meager £25 for his efforts and that the book was turned down by two major publishing houses and largely disregarded by the public. It was the association with Herbert Greenhough Smith, editor of Strand Magazine, that set the ball rolling. Doyle was introduced to him by his literary agent (the world’s first literary agent, as it happened).

The first six short stories, beginning with A Scandal in Bohemia were written in a matter of weeks. ‘I at once realised that here was the greatest short story writer since Edgar Allan Poe,’ Smith recorded. Sidney Paget’s romantic illustrations, based on his younger brother, helped and gave us the image of Holmes that we still cherish today.

And yet, as is well known, Doyle himself had a low opinion of his most famous – and profitable – creation. ‘I feel towards him as I do towards paˆte´ de foie gras of which I once ate too much,’ he famously wrote, ‘So that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.’ Holmes was, as he put it, ‘the lower stratum of literary achievement.’ He would prefer to have been remembered for his historical novels – Micah Clarke, perhaps. Or The Stark Munroe Letters, or The White Company, his epic novel of the Hundred Years’ War. Who these days would even know who wrote them, let alone read them?

Hence the final encounter with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. And there’s no denying that some of the later stories, written at least partly out of financial necessity, have a somewhat perfunctory quality, as if the author was working under duress.

Doyle reworks the format so that Holmes narrates or a third person narrates. Mysticism and mutilation play a greater part. In one story, a mad professor turns into a monkey. In another, the killer turns out to be a large jellyfish. His Last Bow has always been my least favourite collection as I get the sense of a writer (Ian Fleming was another with the end of the Bond series) struggling against his greatest creation. So what is the enduring appeal of Holmes? What is it that makes him great? Even as I write this, Robert Downey Jnr is running up to his second appearance in a franchise that might be called Indiana Holmes, the BBC has had a monster hit with its clever, modern reimagining and the announcement of The House of Silk was greeted by TV news reports and comment pieces including (a not entirely complimentary) editorial in the New York Times.

It’s actually quite a difficult question to answer. But if we look at the short story that I’ve chosen, some of the clues are there.

The story is one of the later ones and seldom appears in the top ten greatest hits compiled by Sherlockians from time to time. The Speckled Band is nearly always number one, for what it’s worth. And yet The Bruce-Partington Plans has always been one of my favourites and exemplifies for me many of the ingredients that make Doyle’s work so unforgettable.

It appears in His Last Bow but takes place in 1895, the classic Holmes period of dense yellow fog, church bells, railway carriages and hansom cabs rattling over the cobblestones. It features Mycroft Holmes – who only turns up in four of the stories but who is, in his own way, as memorable a character as his brother, Sherlock – and Lestrade, the dogged police inspector from Scotland Yard whose own obtuseness helps to make Holmes seem so bright. It has a murder – for me there’s always something missing if someone doesn’t die – and an elegant solution which, for once, the reader might actually guess. It’s a strong story with all the trappings – the jimmy, the dark lantern, the chisel and the revolver. It has a great title too.

And above all it has Watson. Of course, all the stories do. But if I were to put my finger on the endurance of Doyle’s work, it wouldn’t be the mysteries, as satisfying as they are. Nor would it even be the character of Holmes, brilliant though it is.What I have always loved has been the relationship between Holmes and Watson, which must surely rank as the greatest friendship in English literature: Watson so stolid, so warm, so well-meaning and Holmes . . . well, Holmes.

‘My friend was standing with an expression of strained intensity upon his face, staring at the railway metals where they curved out of the tunnel. Aldgate is a junction, and there was a network of points. On these his eager, questioning eyes were fixed, and I saw on that keen, alert face that tightening of lips, that quiver of the nostrils, and concentration of the heavy tufted brows which I knew so well.’

It’s not easy to explain why a passage like this gives me such pleasure. The voice of course is unmistakable, the loyalty, the friendship and the many shared experiences implicit. It is hard to say which of the two creations is more brilliant but the truth is that they are, in every sense, inseparable. We cannot admire Holmes without Watson. I’m not sure we would even like him. Actually, choosing just one story is nigh on impossible. There’s a cumulative effect to reading Holmes – and the more you read, the more you’re drawn into his world. It all adds up. The deerstalker hat (that he never actually wore), the famous quotes – ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ (that he never actually said), 221 Baker Street, Moriarty, the long-suffering Mrs Hudson, outlandish villains and macabre crimes.

Very few writers have actually managed to create a world that was bigger than their books. Charles Dickens did. Ian Fleming did. You might argue that JK Rowling did. Arthur Conan Doyle, a writer of extraordinary power, certainly did. But now I’m doing exactly what I wanted to avoid . . . trying to sound like an expert when all I am is an admirer.

I first read the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was fourteen and they have been in my blood ever since. They’re probably the reason why I have written so many murder stories, both on the page and on TV, myself. When I was asked – quite unexpectedly– to write The House of Silk I had no hesitation in accepting and I hope the result is more a homage than a pastiche – the difference being that the former suggests dutiful reverence while the latter is merely imitation.

Writing the book, inhabiting this world and living with these characters was a joyous experience (it took just three months from start to finish. Once I started, I found myself totally immersed).

Anthony Horowitz, London 2011

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