Careful Sherlockians, on returning in adulthood to the four novels and 56 short stories that they devoured uncritically in their teens, tend to notice an endearing vagueness on the part of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when it comes to details. There is Watson’s old war wound, for instance, which journeys absent mindedly between shoulder and leg. And there is Doyle’s inability to remember dates or even his own characters’ names. In ‘The Creeping Man’ the client, Trevor Bennett, is met by his fiancée with a gushing, ‘Oh, Jack, I have been so dreadfully frightened.’(Watson himself has form here. In ‘The Man With the Twisted Lip’ his wife calls him James and he does not find it odd, even though his name is John.)
Part of the reason is that Doyle was simply less bothered about Holmes and Watson than we are. He considered the duo a trivial distraction from the real business of penning historical novels, and even went to the trouble of killing Holmes before financial circumstances compelled him to resurrect him. In ‘The Empty House’, the opening story in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905), a thunderstruck Watson discovers that, instead of dying in a fall that also killed his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, Holmes escaped and went into hiding for three years. It’s a good story, but Holmes’s explanations are so illogical that many writers have attempted more plausible ones.
Anthony Horowitz’s new novel is founded, like so many others, on the idea that the official version of the events that took place at the seething edge of the Reichenbach Falls is plain wrong. Unlike other books, it does not focus on Holmes or Watson, neither of whom feature at all. Instead, as the title suggests, the presiding figure in this tale is the man Holmes dubbed ‘the Napoleon of crime’.
The novel is narrated by Frederick Chase, a Pinkerton’s agent. Chase, aptly enough, pursues a master criminal named Clarence Devereux from New York to London. Devereux crossed the Atlantic with the idea of forming an alliance with Moriarty, but, with Moriarty missing (and possibly dead), he simply stepped in and began running the London underworld himself. Chase is determined but plodding, and so it is a relief that he is guided by Athelney Jones, the formerly inept policeman from The Sign of Four (1890). Stung by Watson’s portrayal in that book, Jones has been studying Holmes’s methods, so that he and Chase seem like a new Holmes and Watson — a little less impressive, perhaps, but potentially good enough to track down Devereux.
This is Horowitz’s second novel based on Doyle’s stories. It follows The House of Silk (2011), an account supposedly written late in life by Watson but too shocking to be published at the time. That book was a perfect coda to Watson’s reminiscences. Horowitz captured the voices of the crime-fighting cohabitees wonderfully, and gave readers a story that managed to be cosy enough to suit nostalgists and sordid enough both to suit modern tastes and to explain why it could never have found its way between hard covers in Watson’s day. The House of Silk sits, in terms of quality, comfortably alongside Doyle’s novels. The inevitable question is whether Moriarty is as good, and the short answer is no — but it is still enjoyable, and much better than several of Doyle’s own final, barrel-scraping short stories of the 1920s.
The difficulty, in my view, is that by omitting Holmes and Watson the author is fighting with one hand behind his back, since he somehow has to remain passably faithful to original stories and yet lacks his two prize assets with which to do so. Secondary figures appear, among them Inspector Lestrade and the criminal John Clay (from ‘The Red-Headed League’), but Chase is a flat narrator in comparison with the genial yet engaging Watson, and the magic does not quite appear this time. There are signs, perhaps, that Horowitz noticed this; the incredible body count and the baroque plot suggest a level of striving absent from the more natural, controlled first book. The final 25 pages — containing a considerable twist — are excellent, however, and go a fair way towards atoning for some less memorable passages earlier.
Whatever happens, I hope it won’t be the last of Horowitz’s Holmes novels: should he publish another, I will be at the front of the queue, along with the other escapist adults who ought to have grown up years ago.