The Sher­lock­ian by Gra­ham Moore, Twelve/ Ha­chette Book Group, 350 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

Each chap­ter of Gra­ham Moore’s novel opens with a quote from Arthur Co­nan Doyle, the cre­ator of Sherlock Holmes. For ex­am­ple, the ac­tion in a chap­ter ti­tled “The Dark­ened Room” takes its cues from the fol­low­ing ex­hor­ta­tion, bor­rowed from Co­nan Doyle’s 1902 mys­tery

The Hound of the Baskervilles: “You know my meth­ods. Ap­ply them!” It’s a di­rec­tive that Moore has put into prac­tice.

The Sher­lock­ian is a labyrinthine page-turner about baf­fling deaths, two-faced con artists, and a cov­eted an­tiq­uity. Faith­ful to the tropes of the genre and in­spired by ac­tual events in Co­nan Doyle’s life, Moore’s first novel is both a tip of the cap to a long-dead gi­ant of the cloak-anddag­ger tale and an at­tempt to tap into a built-in au­di­ence of Holmes fa­nat­ics.

It’s also two mys­ter­ies for the price of one. The book opens in 1893, the year that Co­nan Doyle de­cided to “kill” his fa­mous sleuth. Weary of the pub­lic’s ap­petite for an end­less run of Holmes sto­ries, the Scot­tish-born doc­tor-turned-writer penned “The Ad­ven­ture of the Fi­nal Prob­lem,” a story that ends with Holmes’ death at the bot­tom of Switzer­land’s treach­er­ous Re­ichen­bach Falls.

As re­counted by Moore, the English pub­lic’s re­ac­tion to the seem­ing end of the Holmes saga verged on the hys­ter­i­cal. An­gry read­ers ac­costed Co­nan Doyle in the street, and at least one ma­jor news­pa­per pub­lished an obituary. “It was sign enough, thought Arthur, that things had in­deed got­ten out of hand with the fel­low,” writes Moore, who has ob­vi­ously done a stag­ger­ing amount of re­search in an ef­fort to re­vive the late 19th cen­tury on the page. “End­ing it was clearly the right thing to do. He was a nui­sance, and the good peo­ple of London would be bet­ter served by some higher fic­tion. At least, at last, the mad­ness would die down.”

But Moore’s fic­tion­al­ized Co­nan Doyle only trades the tread­mill of mag­a­zine dead­lines for an au­then­tic mys­tery. One day, a let­ter bomb ar­rives at his house — no one is harmed, but the dan­ger­ous mis­sive lands him in the midst of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that has London’s finest scratch­ing their heads. A young woman has been mur­dered, and the case turns on a se­ries of tricky clues: an in­scrutable tat­too, a wed­ding dress, and the pol­i­tics of the suf­frag­ist move­ment.

The Co­nan Doyle tale runs par­al­lel to the book’s other de­tec­tive yarn. In al­ter­nat­ing chap­ters, Moore tells the story of Harold White, a Cal­i­for­nian who in early 2010 is tapped as the new­est mem­ber of the Baker Street Ir­reg­u­lars. With a nod to the 221-B Baker Street ad­dress made fa­mous in Co­nan Doyle’s short sto­ries and nov­els, the club is com­posed of Holmes ob­ses­sives who know the de­tails of The Val­ley of Fear bet­ter than those of their own lives. Gath­ered in New York, the group finds its an­nual con­fab plunged into chaos when Alex Cale, a prom­i­nent mem­ber, is found dead in his ho­tel room. He has ap­par­ently been stran­gled, and the only clue is the word “ele­men­tary” — an ob­vi­ous ref­er­ence to Holmes — scrawled in blood on a wall near the body.

Cale’s ar­rival at the con­fer­ence was widely an­tic­i­pated, as he had promised to re­veal the fruit of his search for a missing vol­ume of Co­nan Doyle’s per­sonal diary. And al­though Harold is an un­likely hero — Moore de­scribes him as the owner of a “slight belly,” bad eye­sight, and “sweaty, shiv­er­ing hands” — he’s quickly pulled into an in­ter­na­tional hunt for a lost jour­nal and a mur­derer.

In the process of spin­ning his twin nar­ra­tives, Moore in­tro­duces char­ac­ters based on ev­ery­one from Co­nan Doyle’s great-grand­son (in the con­tem­po­rary half of the book) to Drac­ula author Bram Stoker (a real-life friend of Co­nan Doyle’s). Short chap­ters keep the ac­tion mov­ing for­ward, as the story fol­lows the dual in­ves­ti­ga­tions from Amer­ica to Europe, from se­date read­ing rooms to squalid back al­leys.

When he’s con­cen­trat­ing, Moore is a good writer. Of one char­ac­ter — a woman who is al­ter­nately chatty and silent — he writes, “She re­minded Harold of the locks to the Chicago River, where he’d grown up — clos­ing shut to fill up with wa­ter and then swinging open to dump thou­sands of muddy gal­lons into the lake.” And his re­search has helped him im­bue the book with bits of lan­guage that are ap­pro­pri­ate to the era and set­ting of his 1890s chap­ters (“I’m sure your daugh­ter was the very flower of West Hamp­stead,” Co­nan Doyle tells one fam­ily).

What’s best about Moore’s de­but, though, is his ap­pre­ci­a­tion for, as he puts it, “the mo­ments af­ter the end­ings” of adren­a­line-in­duc­ing mys­ter­ies. “What hap­pens when the world is un­der­stood and that un­der­stand­ing means noth­ing to any­one but you and the empty tum­bler of bour­bon nes­tled in your palm?” That, it seems, is a ques­tion not even Sherlock Holmes could an­swer.

— Kevin Can­field

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