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