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Friday, December 10, 2010

The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

Title: The Sherlockian
Author: Graham Moore
Publisher: Twelve/Hachette Book Group
Published: December 1, 2010
Source: advance reading copy

I'm not a Sherlock Homes fan.  I may have read "The Hound of Baskervilles" way back when, but I wouldn't bet my life on it.  You'd think I would have looked into the stories since my older sister regularly said No shit, Sherlock to me when we were kids, but when I tried the stories always seemed stuffy and condescending to my younger self.  These days I'm more apt to give them another try.  I did recently read my second Agatha Christie novel even though I once harbored similar sentiments toward her books.

Since I'm not a fan of Sherlock Homes what convinced me to take the book home and give it a whirl?  Bram Stoker.  Yes, Bram Stoker, the man who wrote Dracula, the book that turned me from an occasional reader into a daily reader back in middle school, has a co-starring role in this wonderful first novel by Graham Moore.  The Sherlockian is the best historical mystery featuring dead literary icons that I've read since Matthew Pearl burst on the scene in 2003 with The Dante Club (which is a great read for 19th century American Literature enthusiasts).

I enjoyed the novel and it's a no-brainer to say it'll be an even richer read for Sherlock Holmes fans.  There's probably much in this novel that went over my head since I'm unfamiliar with Doyle's life and writings.  Moore's novel will no doubt be of great appeal to fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Hardcore fans have probably been awaiting the release of this novel and the casual fan will delight in stumbling upon it at their favorite bookstore.

Without giving away too much--but there are some small spoilers below--here's a bit about the content and plot:
This novel bounces back and forth between two sets of characters in two different time periods trying to solve different murders.  First there's Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker, primarily between October-December 1900 (there are a couple chapters in 1893 and one in 1901).  Then there's our contemporaries, Harold White, a Sherlockian, and Sarah Lindsay, a journalist, with their action taking place between January 5-17, 2010.   

The novel opens on August 9, 1893 with Arthur Conan Doyle standing high in the Swiss Alps proclaiming that he's going to kill off Sherlock Holmes because he feels that his fictional creation is eclipsing not only his other literary efforts, but his own life as well.  Fans don't want his autograph, they want him to sign Sherlock Holmes's name instead.  On September 3, 1893 Doyle does it, he writes a story killing off Holmes and thinks he's done with it, free of the character that had become his ball and chain.

When we next see Doyle on December 18, 1893, he's accosted on the streets of London for having 'murdered' Sherlock Holmes, the newspapers run headlines about the fictional character's death, and people are even wearing black arm bands to publicly proclaim their mourning.  The insanity of it all drives Doyle into the Lyceum Theatre to see his friend, Bram Stoker.  After that meeting the historical portion of the novel jumps to October 18, 1900 where the action for Doyle's part of the novel takes off.

The contemporary part of the novel starts on January 5, 2010 at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City with the annual meeting of The Baker Street Irregulars, an exclusive group of Sherlockians.  They are, in fact, the preeminent organization for the study of Sherlock Holmes and membership is by invitation only.  Enter our hero, Harold White, who, at 29, is invited not only to their annual celebration, but is also made a member.

The big buzz at this year's meeting of the Irregulars is that Alex Cale, a prominent Sherlockian, had announced months ago that he'd finally discovered a long lost diary of Arthur Conan Doyle's.  Cale's life-long quest had been to find this diary and he is going to present the diary to the group, only he's late for his presentation.  During the wait Harold starts chatting with Sarah Lindsay, a woman who shouldn't be there because she's a journalist.   Alex Cale never shows up for his presentation and his dead body is discovered in his hotel room.  Soon Harold and Sarah find themselves jetting off to England to track down the now stolen diary.

There are twists and turns along the way.  While this wasn't a book that kept me up reading late into the night, it is one that I looked forward to picking up when it was time to read.  The plot is fantastic.  The historical setting is enjoyable and I thought very well done.  I liked the theme of light--electric lights versus gas lights--that runs throughout the book and what the change signifies in terms of loss and gain.

If there is one criticism it would be that the contemporary characters weren't painted all that vividly.  Let me clarify that these characters do not seem wooden or anything of the sort.  The dialog feels realistic and swiftly moves the story along.  I just didn't have much of a picture of these characters in my mind.  Maybe that's my own issue or maybe its because Moore did such a great job with Doyle, Stoker, and other historical characters.

Moore gives the reader an idea of how unsettling it must have been to be a white man of a certain class at the turn of the last century when social attitudes towards women, non-whites, class, and even gays were starting to change, when electric lights were being installed along London's streets.

Doyle is presented as a conservative man, an anti-suffragist, who is in his early forties, I believe, at the start the novel.  He seems to have both feet firmly planted in the nineteenth century, the London of gas lights.  As the novel unfolds and he tries to discover who is killing a group of young women, he also comes face to face with a violent misogyny that seems to shake his own complacent attitude toward women and the way things "should" be.  Along the way women are called 'cunts' several times and 'cunnies' as well as a few other choice slang terms from the period.  Doyle doesn't come around and champion the cause of women by any means, but the reader gets the sense that he might be learning, that he might start to understand that anti-suffragist sympathies like his own are steps away from, and may even help to fuel, violent misogynist tendencies.

There's also a more subtle nod toward the cost of homophobia with the inclusion of Oscar Wilde, not as a character, but first in the thoughts of Doyle and later in discussion between Doyle and Stoker after they learn of their friend Wilde's death.  Stoker is presented as the more liberal of the two friends, the more modern man (he has a wider diversity of acquaintances and experiences, installs electric lights in the theatre and his home), and it is he who points out to Doyle that they abandoned Wilde after his trial and prison term.  Talking of the changing times Arthur says, "what saddens me is not the passing of time but the curious sensation of being aware of it as it happens. . . . I don't know how any man could feel his eyes burn in the electric light and not also feel the sudden palpability of history" (281).

I won't hesitate to recommend The Sherlockian to readers of historical mysteries/thrillers and fans of late 19th/early 20th century British Literature and history. It would also be a good selection for anyone who likes an intellectual but fun romp of a book.

I hope Graham Moore is busy writing his second novel.

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