By:  | 

Revisionist Mystery: A Review of Graham Moore's 'The Sherlockian'

In 1891, Sherlock Holmes dies, plunging over the Reichenbach Falls in the mutual clutch of Moriarty during that final showdown between the nemeses. Holmes suddenly reappears in 1894 in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” The initiated refer to this three-year period as the Great Hiatus. The stories, published in 1893 and 1901 respectively, leave an eight-year gap during which Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes’ creator, shrugged off public pressure and avowed that the character of Holmes was through. So what made him bring Holmes back? Graham Moore’s debut novel The Sherlockian attempts to answer this question. While it’s true that the proffered answers are fiction, they’re pretty darn fun, and, well, almost convincing.

The Sherlockian alternates chapters between two mysteries set in two centuries. The first story begins in 1893 with Conan Doyle’s resolution to kill Holmes. England may mourn, but Conan Doyle doesn’t care, until, of course, a letter bomb goes off in his study. The word “Elementary” is written on the envelope, and police incompetence requires Conan Doyle to investigate the attempted murder himself. Together with his faithful friend (and Watson proxy) Bram Stoker (who, conveniently, authored Dracula) Conan Doyle begins his investigation, soon realizing that the bomb in his study is only a small part of a much greater murder spree plaguing London’s less reputable neighborhoods.

Interwoven with this Victorian plotline is a modern mystery, occurring in 2010. The Baker Street Irregulars, the world’s foremost Sherlockian society, are holding their annual convention. Moore immediately introduces us to Harold White, who is about to be inducted as the Irregulars’ youngest member, an honor among those for whom deerstalker hats and pipes are still de rigueur. This convention is special for another reason. Alex Cale, the society’s most revered member, has found Conan Doyle’s missing diary, which chronicles the days of the Great Hiatus. What happens next is a fairly predictable nod to the genre. Cale is found murdered in his hotel room, garroted by his own shoelace. “Elementary” is written in blood on the wall, and the diary is missing. The Irregulars are in an uproar, each accusing the next of the crime. As suspicion flies around the room, White, like Conan Doyle a century before, steps into Holmes’ shoes and resolves to investigate the murder and find the diary himself.

Although this is a novel, Moore is not afraid to play, at times irreverently, with real literary figures of the past, but this is more than just name-dropping. Moore’s use of particular authors is also distinctly appropriate, and shows an acute awareness of the authors’ literary tendencies and habits. Conan Doyle has studied lock-picking from the Bohemian Oscar Wilde, and disguises himself in drag with Bram Stoker to attend a radical feminist convention. J.M. Barrie makes a cameo appearance as well.

While these caricatures of real authors may seem comic, The Sherlockian is a mystery, and a good one at that, eschewing many of the usual clichés of the genre. Sure, there are villains who vacillate between suave and scarred, as well as budding romances between main characters, but The Sherlockian properly remains within its limits. None of the characters breaks out any unexpected martial arts skills; they are literary types and act like it (the notable exception being Stoker, who, of course, is entirely too comfortable with shocking, gothic violence). There is none of the flapdoodle ubiquitous among thrillers such as The Rock, in which Nicholas Cage kills all the bad guys because he’s Nicholas Cage, not because mild-mannered chemist types easily transform into nerdy Rambos.

Moore’s awareness and use of literary history are not limited to Victorian England. The mystery surrounding Cale’s murder and the missing Conan Doyle diary is based on the life of Richard Lancelyn Green, the foremost Sherlockian of his day. Green, too, was aware of Conan Doyle’s missing diary, and when a cache of missing papers turned up at Sotheby’s, he did his best to have the auction stopped. Shortly afterward, he was found dead in his room, actually garroted by his own shoelace. The coroner could not establish if the death was a murder or a suicide, and, as a result, no one was ever tried. Much of this novel then becomes Moore’s exploration of the possible motives and his attempt to “solve,” or at least pay tribute to, the real-life murder.

On the popular television show The Office, Dwight Schrute informs the viewers of his ingenious method for solving murders: “It’s never the person you most suspect, it’s also never the person you least suspect, since anyone with half a brain would suspect them the most. Therefore, I know the killer to be...the person I most medium suspect.” That this maxim does not ring true in The Sherlockian is what distinguishes it, and makes it quite a bit more than just a mystery novel. The Sherlockian takes you into territory so unexpected it’ll take some time to believe it, and it’s just ambiguous enough that you don’t really have to. By the end of the story, Harold White’s search for the diary and whether or not he finds it, become, even to himself, inconsequential. This is because The Sherlockian is not ultimately about murders and a lost diary at all; it is about the poignancy of humanity’s need for answers, and just how far humans will go to get them.


12 Publishers

Available in Paperback

November 21, 2011

List Price $14.99