The prolific author explains the enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson and why he has dares to write a new Baker Street story
Can you name the author of the following books: Micah Clarke, The Starke Monroe Letters, Sir Nigel, The Firm of Girdlestone, The Parasite, The Tragedy of the Korosko? I could add another dozen titles to the list before I arrived at The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, at which point the answer would become obvious. It makes me wonder if there is any other author in the English language who has been forgotten for so much and remembered for so little.
And yet, strangely, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest achievement is the one that seems to have given him the least satisfaction. “I am weary of his name,” he wrote to his mother in 1893 during a holiday in the Swiss Alps where he came upon a major tourist attraction, the Reichenbach Falls. These, he explained in his autobiography, would become “a worthy tomb for poor Sherlock, even if I buried my banking account along with him.”
Of course, Holmes’s death in The Final Problem wasn’t the end of the matter. In 1901 he was back in a full-length novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and this was followed two years later by six short stories for which Doyle was paid an eye-watering $25,000 (an estimated $650,000 in today’s money). It was a publishing sensation. When the stories were reprinted in Strand Magazine, huge crowds gathered, with people jostling each other to get the first copies.
That same, astonishing popularity has lasted to this day. Although Holmes appears in just 56 short stories and four novels, he is famously the one character most often portrayed on television and film. He has recently been modernised by the BBC and bowdlerised by Hollywood – the second film with Robert Downey Jnr comes out at Christmas. There is currently a campaign (which I support) to give Jeremy Brett a posthumous Bafta for his brilliant depiction of the character throughout the Eighties.
My own addition to the Sherlock canon – the first to be given the imprimatur of the Doyle estate – received extraordinary attention when I announced it last January in the House of Commons at a dinner hosted by the 1,000-strong Sherlock Holmes society. I found myself on the News at Ten. The Spectator ran an editorial as did the New York Times – although neither seemed to think the book would be much good. So why Holmes has endured – and, more to the point, how did I dare to take on the mantle of the world’s most successful detective?
In truth, when I was offered this assignment, just over a year ago, I did pause for at least half a second. Are publishers being overtly cynical, relaunching old characters in new adventures, adding prequels and sequels to cash in on bestselling names? The two new Bond novels – Sebastian Faulks’s Devil May Care and Jefffrey Deaver’s Carte Blanche – are perhaps the most obvious successes but an extraordinary range of novels, from Madame Bovary to Just William, have been given the same treatment. Why would any author want to tread in the shadow of such icons when surely the whole point of writing is to come up with something original?
I hesitated, as I say, very briefly and wouldn’t have considered it but for one simple fact. I have always loved Sherlock Holmes – by which I mean the books, not the character. I read them when I was about 17 and they stayed with me, driving me into a career writing detective fiction for both children (the Diamond brothers) and adults (Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War). Holmes himself is not loveable. In fact, it was Doyle’s genius to make him cold, aloof, unfathomable, irritating, a drug addict even – and then to tie him in with the one person, whose warmth, decency and whole-hearted and unstinting admiration would humanise him. I have always thought of Holmes and Watson as having the greatest friendship in literature. For me it is this, and not the mysteries, or even the solutions, that makes us return to the stories with such pleasure.
The mysteries, though always elegant and intriguing, are often quite thin and, sometimes, there is no mystery. In The Man With the Twisted Lip, no crime is committed, while The Adventure of the Crooked Man is conspicuous by having little or no investigation. It’s surprising how few of the stories in the first collection, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, contain murders. In later stories, Holmes reveals that deaths have been caused by a horse, by a jellyfish and by suicide.
This is not to criticise Doyle. It is simply to suggest that his mind was elsewhere and that, unlike Agatha Christie, he was less interested in the method and the mechanism of crime (I’m not sure there’s a single Holmes story where we’re blown away by the identity of the killer) than in the character of his two protagonists and the atmosphere in which they lived. And in this, of course, he triumphed. People assumed that Holmes was a real person while Doyle was alive, and some still believe it today.
Perhaps this is why writing The House of Silk was not exactly a challenge, which is to say I never felt intimidated. When you write an original novel, you’re on your own. But I started well ahead of the game with a fantastic array of characters – not just Holmes and Watson, but Mycroft, Moriarty, Lestrade, the Baker Street Irregulars – and a world so brilliantly defined by Doyle that I can conjure it up now with just a handful of words: fog, gas-lamps, hansom cabs, cobbled streets, the pipe, the Persian slipper, the various monograms. These were all gifts for a writer. And then there were the turns of phrase that I could more or less cherry-pick. “Elementary, my dear Watson” (although he never said it). “The game’s afoot.” How many authors are there who can arrange three or four words in the English language and have themselves instantly identified?
This was my task as I saw it. I had to obey all Doyle’s conventions. I decided very early on that, apart from one or two tiny details, I would add no new information – no speculation about Holmes’s childhood or new romances. There would be no cameos from famous people – Queen Victoria or Jack the Ripper – because Doyle never did this and so it wouldn’t seem appropriate. And I threw out any sense of chronology. The House of Silk is set in 1890, but I didn’t worry too much about the historical time-line as Doyle certainly didn’t. “Accuracy of detail matters little,” he once wrote. “What matters if I hold my readers?”
My readers are, of course, modern and I knew I had to come up with an original story that would be fast-paced and twisty enough to hold their attention. I would use a 19th-century idiom, but carefully. Finally – and this was the biggest challenge – my publishers had commissioned 90,000 words, the length of an airport blockbuster (they hope). But the Doyle novels are barely more than 40,000 words. Two of them have whole sections that take place abroad without Holmes or Watson being present. I did wonder how I could extend the length without damaging the delicate structures of the Doyle originals.
I think I’ve succeeded. I’m tempted to say that the book has turned out better than I could possibly have hoped. And so much of it is down to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Unlike him, I am not a spiritualist. But as I wrote, I sometimes felt as if he were standing next to me, urging me on. I never had to search for words or descriptions. And although a book usually takes me seven months to a year, The House of Silk was finished in half that time. I am as proud of it as anything I have ever written and, no matter how it is received, how many copies it sells, I will never regret my time at 221b Baker Street in the company of two such remarkable men.