Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Book Review - Mysteries - The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

On September 3, 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in his journal, “Killed Holmes.” He meant his own creation, the fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, of course. Conan Doyle had become sick of Holmes. He was sick of receiving mail addressed to Holmes; he was sick of people asking him to sign books as Holmes rather than as himself; he was sick of his own mother saying she was the “mother of Sherlock Holmes” rather than the mother of Arthur Conan Doyle. So, Conan Doyle, in a story called “The Final Problem,” sent Sherlock Holmes tumbling over Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls, locked in combat with his archnemesis, Professor James Moriarty.

Graham Moore’s debut novel, The Sherlockian, opens with Conan Doyle gazing into the chasm below Reichenbach Falls and saying, “To put it frankly, I hate him. And for my own sanity, I will soon see him dead.”

After this Prologue, the book then moves into its two narrative threads, the first of which is set in the present day, the second in 1900. The two story threads, the one in the present day, and the one in which Conan Doyle is the protagonist are told in alternating chapters, in separate but related stories that often parallel each other.

The first story line revolves around twenty-nine-year-old Harold White, a Princeton graduate, a speed reader, a literary researcher in Hollywood’s film industry, and a Holmes fan, who is achieving his life’s dream of being inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars, a society that actually exists. Founded in New York and London in 1934, with meetings held every January for one week, membership in the BSI is by nomination only, and it notoriously difficult to obtain. It represents the pinnacle of success for the devotees of Holmes. Harold is described as having thick eyebrows, astigmatism, a slight belly, and “sweaty, shivering hands.” He is fond of wearing cheap suits and of course, the Holmesian deerstalker. Suffice to say, he’s not particularly likable.

Before White, who has just arrived at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, has had time to pop open a bottle of champagne to celebrate his induction into the BSI, Alex Cale, “the” leading Holmes scholar, and the man who claims to have discovered Holmes’ lost diary is brutally murdered, found dead in his hotel room, strangled with his own shoelace. The word, “Elementary” is scrawled on the wall in Cale’s own blood, and of course, the diary is nowhere to be found. White, who is a fan of Conan Doyle as well as Sherlock Holmes, believes he’s learned enough from the great detective and his creator to solve Cale’s murder on his own, and he’s hired by Conan Doyle’s great-grandson to do so. (The murder of the fictional Alex Cale is based on a real life murder that took place in 2004, in which Holmes scholar, Richard Lancelyn Green was killed after announcing that he had found Conan Doyle’s lost diary. It remains unsolved.) Rather than have a “Watson” at his side, White has an “Irene Adler” in the form of a reporter named Sarah Lindsay.

Meantime, back in the 19th century, Conan Doyle has also become involved in the investigation of a crime. Though it’s been seven years since the author “killed” Holmes in Switzerland, and the public furor over the detective’s “death” has subsided, one presumably disgruntled fan has sent Holmes’ creator a letter bomb, with an envelope bearing the single word, “Elementary.” Although the bomb destroys Holmes’ study, no one is harmed. When Conan Doyle decides that Scotland Yard is incompetent to handle the investigation in the way it should be handled, (actually, they take very little interest in it), he takes it upon himself to investigate, with the assistance of his good friend and fellow author, Bram Stoker, who functions admirably as Conan Doyle’s “Watson.” After all, Conan Doyle created the great Sherlock Holmes, did he not? And, having done that, he ought to be able to solve this crime, or so the great author reasons. Conan Doyle records everything that happens in his personal diary, and it’s this diary that ties the two story threads together. In fact, prior to the BSI meeting, an email had been received from Cale, in which Cale wrote: “The mystery is solved. I have found the diary. Please make all necessary arrangements that I might present it, and the secrets within, at this year’s conference.”

So, the game’s afoot, and it’s afoot in both 1900 and 2010, as two men, both untrained to solve crimes, take it upon themselves to do so.

I thought I would find the use of alternating chapters to tell the two stories tiresome and clumsy, and at times I did, but only at times. Most of the time, Moore manages to move back and forth between 1900 and 2010 with skill and grace, though there were times when I wanted the chapters set in 2010 to be over so we could get back to 1900 since I felt the characters in that mystery much more compelling and likable.

The modern day story is hampered by White, himself, that story line’s protagonist. Although I feel sure Moore meant his present day character to come off as eccentric, he’s more than a little annoying. He’s a total geek; he’s socially awkward; and he’s obsessive about things he really doesn’t need to be obsessive about. And then there’s Sarah Lindsay, Moore’s Irene Adler. I really didn’t like her either, and I didn’t feel she was a very well developed character. I felt she existed in the story more for the sake of the book “having a girl” than for any organic reason. Sarah and White simply have no chemistry together, and I don’t just mean in the romance department. There is an odd disconnect between the two that makes their collaboration on solving the 2010 crime very implausible.

And while the present day story is hampered by its protagonists, the mystery set in 1900 is hampered by an unconvincing and somewhat forced plot. Moore did do a wonderful job in creating a deliciously Victorian atmosphere, though, something that I think goes a long way toward making this story thread the more compelling of the two. He also did a good job of weaving fact with fiction, though the scene in which Conan Doyle dons a dress to attend a suffragist meeting, while hilarious, isn’t at all believable. I’m not sure that matters, though. The Sherlockian is a work of fiction, and it’s never held itself out to be more.

In the end, the two story threads, the one in 1900 and the one in 2010, merge quite nicely. In fact, the ending feels as though it couldn’t have been written any other way, and the final chapter is probably the best in the entire book.

The Sherlockian will appeal most to the fans of Sherlock Holmes (in my teens, I read the entire “canon”). The fictional Harold White, like the real life Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, believed that life’s mysteries are riddled with red herrings, but that in the end, all is “elementary” and can be successfully solved with deductive reasoning.

Graham Moore, who is a twenty-eight-year-old Columbia graduate, with a degree in religious history, has loved mysteries since he was seven, and he and his mother would read Agatha Christie to each other. His debut novel is, for the most part, a well written and an entertaining one. His career is off to a good start, and there will surely be many more good mysteries from this young man who seems to know how a mystery is supposed to work.


Recommended: This is light reading, and a book that will appeal mostly to fans of Sherlock Holmes. While both mysteries sag at times, and the book’s not perfect, Moore does a terrific job of tying things together at the end.

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