The book in the dock is The House of Silk, Anthony Horowitz’s addition to the Sherlock Holmes canon. Our jury comprises The Order of the Second Book Group, ably led in this instance by Sophie Mitchell.
The Order of the Second Book Group
Co-founder (with Rich) of The Order of the Second Book Group, so named because the first group we tried to join was too full for us! I’m an American transplant to London who started the group as a way to meet some new friends. 8 years later, we’re still going, long after that first group bit the dust.
What a cracking read this novel is! As a member of a book group, I have spent far too many evenings trawling through “great works” of literature which can sometimes feel a bit of a chore. No such problems here, and even though I whizzed through The House of Silk in a matter of days, there is plenty for book groups to discuss. The author takes a slightly tongue-in-cheek approach to Holmes, but the characterisation and linguistic detail are spot on, and he adds a nice sinister undertone that mounts as the plot progresses. Unlike Francis (see below), I don’t believe Horowitz is apologising for his source material in the slightest. I think he’s simply enjoying himself (how refreshing!) and that carries through to the reader’s experience – The House of Silk is fun, and it’s funny, and what on earth is wrong with that? Judging from many of the published reviews this book received, Horowitz’s addition to the canon is still authentic enough to meet with approval from dedicated Sherlock fans.
Co-founder (with Sophie) of the group, Rich is far and away the best-dressed member of our group – always suited and booted, with ready observations as serious and impressive as his attire. If we ever want to get rid of Rich, all we have to do is pick some science fiction.
I thoroughly enjoyed The House of Silk - its evocation of Victorian London and a plot full of twists kept me engaged to the end. While it had plenty of nods towards the original, its modern sensibilities (Watson's new-found concern for the orphans of London, for example) and set-piece action sequences (described by one of the group as 'filmic') meant that it has as much in common with a contemporary thriller as the quirkier Conan Doyle short-stories and novellas. But that's no bad thing, in my view; writing something fresh about such familiar characters is a notable piece of skill in itself.
Our feisty Italian, Federica brings some international flavour to our meetings. She’s introduced us to the great Italian classic The Betrothed and writers such as Italo Calvino. But don’t be fooled by her warm and caring personality. Federica is one of the scarier members of the group to argue with over a book!
I am a fan of the latest movies and I like that Horowitz seems to have mirrored that take of Holmes as an action hero without losing the brainy, less raucous aspects. The explanations of Holmes' deductions were particularly welcome as they were the bits I was looking forward to the most; I am told that those are at times missing from the original Conan Doyle books. The only flaw in my opinion was the supposed great mystery; the plot was brilliantly constructed but I can't say I was surprised when I got to the end. Maybe because I'd make a good sleuth or maybe simply because sometimes it's the journey what counts. Hugely enjoyable!
(also known as SOPHIE 2) The bubbliest and chattiest member of our group, once Sophie gets going, it’s hard to make her stop! She chairs our annual end-of-year book group awards and harbours a secret passion for genre fiction,especially SciFi/Fantasy and Historical Epics.
I really enjoyed the book, and having read some of Conan Doyle's stories in advance, I thought that it was definitely in the tradition of the originals. Although the format of a full length novel as opposed to short stories meant that there was more narrative and complexity, it didn't feel drawn out or slow paced. In fact it zipped along, covering a lot of ground while still retaining the details that make it a Sherlock Holmes story. I didn't see the ending coming and thought it was an interesting way of bringing everything together. I was surprised that Horowitz had Watson say at the beginning that this was the only case not previously documented as this would seemingly mean that there would be no further books. However, I would be amazed if this was the case, and look forward to seeing how he resolves this point in the future.
With almost as many PhDs as she has curls, Helena is our resident brainiac (or as we like to call her ‘geek’). She’s even been known to turn up to meetings with graphs and pie charts analysing our reading history... It could be intimidating, but Helena is sweet and lovely and probably the best listener among us.
Swirling London fog, gallant use of service revolvers and a creeping sense of a dastardly plot made for a readable and atmospheric book in the spirit of the Conan Doyle originals. I loved the use of Holmesian deduction and felt the two main threads of the story linked together well. A couple of the plot points seemed implausible to me, but where would Sherlock Holmes be without the near-impossible?
The House of Silk
by Anthony Horrowitz
published by Orion
Our book tonight is The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz. We’re meeting at The Windsor Castle pub – chosen for its lovely airy upstairs sitting area and its apt location in Marylebone, allowing everyone to arrive via Baker Street tube station and walk past 221 b Baker Street, now the Sherlock Holmes Museum, on their way to our meeting. We have an almost full house, missing only Sadie who was packed off on a last minute business trip to LA. We’re sure, given the choice, she would swap in her California sunshine for the Deerstalker hats and pipes that Orion Books has kindly supplied us with to get us in the spirit of the evening. And they worked as we spent the first 30 minutes or so mucking about in various disguises and taking silly photos!
But down to business, the game’s afoot...
Sophie #2 kicks us off by discussing the overall premise of the book – which is that the case we are about to read is ‘too shocking to be revealed until now’ and that Watson has had it locked away in a vault for 100 years. As the readers of the future that we are, we all gamely bought into this idea – our only concern being whether the author has boxed himself in too much? Surely, at some point, he’ll want to write another and if indeed Watson has just bequeathed us this ‘one last portrait of Sherlock Holmes’, how does Horowitz get around that next time...?
But that’s his worry, not ours, so we turn to talk of how accurate this ‘last portrait’ is. Most of us had never read any Sherlock Holmes before choosing this book, but we are definitely a group that likes to do its research, so most of us swotted up a bit before starting The House of Silk. I would definitely recommend this for anyone reading The House of Silk as there is great amusement to be had in spotting all the various ways Horowitz pays homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon. The scientific deductions, the disguises, a seedy opium den, Inspector Lestrade, Mrs Hudson with her tea and scones, all the elements are there and Horowitz has allowed himself to have some fun with them. Rich and I particularly enjoy a moment that occurs later on in the book where a classic Holmesian deduction falls flat – a character isn’t a teacher, which Holmes has deduced from the smudge of chalk on his sleeve, but in fact a tidewaiter who uses chalk to mark up his boxes! It’s a very witty moment and you can feel the author raising his modern eyebrow and flashing a cheeky grin to the reader.
Atmosphere plays a big role in this book and Sophie #2 points out that the novel is incredibly dark, which is somewhat unexpected compared to the jolly levity you find in many of the short stories. Helena is a big fan of the murky, brooding atmosphere, the tone feels authentic and really works for her. Federica talks about the energy and the pace of the novel, which feel more in keeping with the recent films than the original novels, but in a way that is very pleasing to a modern reader. And she raises an excellent point, which is whether or not the ending, the nature of the crime at the heart of The House of Silk, is too obvious. It’s hard to recap this without giving away any spoilers, but Paul agrees that the signposts are there if you look for them and he too sussed it out from very early on and wished it had been a bit more complicated. A brief as he prepares his rebuttal, or if he’s just flat out exhausted, having become a new Daddy a mere month ago! When he does join in the discussion, his comment that the scene with Moriarity was ‘lame in the extreme’ kicks off a bit of a row. Most of us agree that this scene was a somewhat clunky section in an otherwise seamless and engaging narrative. Rich, however, is especially vocal. He really liked the scene and the idea that Moriarity, being a ‘straight, down-the-line kind of crook’, would actually intervene to help Holmes if the nature of the crime he was investigating was as abhorrent as this one. Rich found it an interesting new take on a character that the author probably had no choice but to work into the novel somehow.
Helena’s PhDs come to the fore as our discussion veers into the realm of mental health issues. Holmes is a fascinating character in this respect, but so are Watson and also Mycroft. Speaking of Mycroft, we spend a surprising amount of time on him and whether he’s at all complicit in The House of Silk.
Has he simply been squashed from above by greater political powers, or does he actually have some kind of knowledge about The House of Silk and if so, what are his moral obligations? We’re not sure how many of the original books he appears in but the sibling dynamic in The House of Silk is really interesting.
He seems to feel a serious regret that he can’t help Holmes, and yet his reluctance to involve himself wins out over any concerns he might have for Holmes and his safety.
Time is getting on at this point and we’ve really only scraped the surface. There’s a tremendous amount to discuss in what is, at its heart, a rollicking good read. Most of us finished the book in a matter of days, and agreed that we would certainly read more by this author. When it comes time for the final vote, we are thumbs up all round – except for Francis, who is promptly banished to the bar to refresh our drinks!
Francis wins the award for most committed book group member, still attending meetings despite moving to Birmingham and being a new Daddy! Francis tends to quietly listen to the rest of us until prompted for his opinions – at which point he will vehemently disagree with everything everyone else has said (if you can hear him that is).
Horowitz was naturally anxious to write a Holmes novel that bore his imprint rather than just producing a pastiche. However in doing so he feels a repeated need to apologise for his source material, and this jars – Watson feels guilt at ignoring the plight of the London poor in his previous writings, Holmes turns out to have a remarkably 21st century need for ‘closure’ when he nips back to burn down the ‘school’, and absurdity is reached when Watson frets that he has been guilty of taking Mrs Hudson for granted. Holmes and Watson are cowed figures in Horowitz’s rendition, and this is down not to the circumstances they are placed in but because they have been consigned to the naughty step by their author.
Horowitz’s plotting also leaves a lot to be desired. The outcome is predictable, and unsatisfying. Conan Doyle, writing about sinister dealings at the highest level of government, would surely have produced an intricate, espionage-laden conspiracy (see The Bruce Partington Papers); Horowitz has us wait and then produces an off-the-peg crime. Disappointing!
A cat lady in the making, funny and fabulous Sadie is the youngest member of our group. You get no pretensions with Sadie. Her reactions to the books are straightforward and genuine, a real breath of Northern fresh air. She’s got no sense of direction though so if we ever change venue, who knows if she’ll find us again.
This was actually my introduction to a Sherlock Holmes novel, I hasten to admit. It's refreshing to read a book where you can't predict the outcome and I found the character of Holmes captivating. A very clever story with lots of twists and turns written by an author that must have some imagination! However I did feel some of the twists were slightly over the top... It has definitely encouraged me to read the originals.
The bearded sage of our group. Fiercely well read, Paul is a tough critic to please and always has something incisive (occasionally scathing) to say. He also penned our official book group song (yes, we have one!).
I’ve not read any Holmes, but the novels and characters are so well-known that that would never be an issue. As a newcomer, I found the novel to be very readable, comfortably following a tried-and-tested formula. The ‘House of Silk’ revelation seemed fairly apparent from quite early on, but with these sorts of stories it is always the travel, not the arriving that is of interest, and it rattled along nicely.
There are a couple of quibbles; the Moriarty episode was (plot-wise) unnecessary and clearly shoehorned in simply to involve Moriarty (and set up another novel…), and the anachronistic politically correct asides from a self-abasing Watson regarding his lack of interest in the poor and downtrodden rang false; a shame that the author could not resist inserting his sensibilities. But overall, cliché though it be, a satisfying read.