Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are proof that internal logic and consistency are not indispensable requirements for the creation of a vibrant fictional world. The author who gave Professor Moriarty and his brother the same first name, and moved Dr Watson’s war wound from his shoulder to his leg, was clearly not a details man.
Anthony Horowitz’s successful Sherlock novel The House of Silk (2011) was the work of someone steeped in Doyle, but like all those who love the stories enough to give them their full attention, his inner pedant has clearly been outraged. His new novel, Moriarty, begins with a bravura dissection of Doyle’s story The Final Problem — the one in which Holmes and Moriarty, fighting to the death, topple into the Reichenbach Falls — in which he points out all the discrepancies, loose ends and improbabilities of behaviour.
The remainder of the book is partly an ingenious exercise in explaining them away. But it should be pointed out that this is not a Sherlock story, more what might be called a fantasia on Sherlockian themes. Holmes and Watson are absent. The story commences the day after that fatal plunge in 1891, when Scotland Yard detective Athelney Jones (whom Sherlockians will remember from Doyle’s The Sign of Four) and Pinkerton agent Frederick Chase find a coded message secreted on Moriarty’s corpse, which they hope will lead them to the identity of an American criminal operating in London. It proves to be an often excruciatingly exciting pursuit, and there is much casual slaughter, with hints of torture; nothing gratuitous but, as in The House of Silk, Horowitz’s Victorian London is a much darker place than Doyle’s. All of which, plus a rather maniacal agoraphobic master criminal at the heart of the story, brings Ian Fleming to mind as often as Doyle — the book indicates that the Fleming estate has been wise in choosing Horowitz to write the next Bond novel. I did feel that there might have been more of that quirkiness, bordering on the surreal, that characterises Doyle’s best stories — the scenes in which Horowitz resurrects the eccentric bank robber Clay from The Red-Headed League show that he can pull that sort of thing off when he chooses to.
My own inner pedant noted that some characters behaved no less improbably than Horowitz would have us believe Doyle’s do, as well as spotting some linguistic anachronisms. But Horowitz has Doyle’s gift — he tells the story so well that we’ll happily swallow anything.