Book Review: The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

I probably picked up this book because I am increasingly obsessed with anything Sherlock Holmes.  No idea why, since I don’t find the original texts to be that good, personally. They are very…masculine. I suppose I mean that there isn’t much in the way of character development or emotion. Masculine in the old-school, totally ridiculous definition. I think a lot of what we associate with Sherlock Holmes now has been added later, filled in by movie- and show-runners and writers. But what a character that Doyle managed to come up with. The idea of Holmes far outlives and outweighs Doyle’s lackluster storytelling.  The character is massively important to the history of mystery fiction, and has obviously been incredibly influential to everything from books to TV to movies. Anyone who’s been paying attention can name at least 5 characters that wouldn’t be possible without Holmes.
So this is an interesting idea for a mystery novel.  The book is split in two, each chapter alternating between present day characters who are Sherlock Holmes fans, and Arthur Conan Doyle, in the period between his killing Holmes off and Holmes’ resurrection 8 years later.  The timing is particularly interesting to me, since we are currently (in terms of the BBC series Sherlock) occupying that very depressing interregnum.

In the modern part of the story, we follow Harold White, a newly inducted member of the Baker Street Irregulars (a group of very intense Holmes fans), as he investigates the murder of one of his own, Alex Cale. Cale had recently discovered the long-lost diary of Doyle, covering that same period in the late 1890s, after Holmes is killed off and until he is resurrected. Then, he turns up dead (Cale) and the diary is m.i.a. Harold White, a speed-reader and slightly ridiculous (he wears a deerstalker. in public.) totally-amateur detective, takes it upon himself to solve the mystery.
In the 19th century part of the story, ACD is surprised by a letter bomb in his post one morning. Upon discovering how truly useless Scotland Yard is, he takes it upon himself to discover who is trying to kill him. His case gets wrapped up in one where young girls are being murdered, and of course he needs to solve that too.  His friend, Bram Stoker, accompanies him on his adventures, and ACD attempts to put Holmes’ theory of deductive reasoning to use in reality.

There are interesting ideas in this book. It’s obviously well researched. I found it particularly interesting to consider how ACD thought of his creation. After he killed off Holmes, readers were so upset and indignant that they wore black arm bands in his honor, and were none too happy with ACD.  Doyle felt that Holmes always overshadowed him (probably true), and that people thought Holmes was real and ACD was more of a Watson figure, documenting everything.

The title, The Sherlockian, refers to a group of people among Holmes fans that believe that Sherlock was real and that…I’m a little unclear on whether they think ACD was Watson or ACD was Sherlock.  Either way, it seems a bit loony.  Then again, anytime I call a theory loony (*cough*Shakespeare not writing his own plays*cough*), I have people hounding my blog for weeks on end trying to prove me wrong.  So, in that case, it seems like a totally solid theory but I’ll hold back judgment until there is more evidence.
The book, unfortunately, just didn’t have a big impact on me. I didn’t care much about Harold or his girl Friday. I found the bits with ACD and Bram Stoker far more interesting, but I don’t think they were burdened with over-accuracy. I found the ending totally ridiculous.  I found much of it totally ridiculous. It was borderline farcical, which meant that all of the serious scenes were missing any weight or depth.  At one point, Bram Stoker and ACD have to dress up in drag to infiltrate a suffragette meeting.  Really?

Also, as often happens with these novels, it seems sort of homeless. Harold is from LA, but we never see him there.  The bulk of the action takes place in NYC, London, and then Switzerland.  But it doesn’t feel like we’re anywhere. You can’t picture the places in your head, and even when I came across places in the book that I’ve seen in real life, they didn’t have any familiarity.  Doesn’t anyone care about setting anymore?

I like the idea of this novel, I like the setup. The flipping back between stories didn’t bother me.  In the end, it just wasn’t very well written. It’s hard for me to say very disparaging things about books, because I’m a writer and I know how sensitive I am.  But, I don’t recommend this one. I kind of it enjoyed it while reading, but my enjoyment went down as I got to the end of the book. I let it sit in my brain for a few days afterward, and all of the details sluiced out. I was left with something of a distaste for it.  Now I’m kind of irritated by it.
On the other hand, if you ever do have an interest in reading about ACD and his life, I can recommend one book whole-heartedly.

Arthur and George is adapted from a true story. A man named George Edalji is accused of a really terrible crime that I would not like to think about right now.  Anyway, he’s essentially accused because he’s an odd guy, and he’s a little antisocial (Asperger’s comes to mind, from a modern perspective), and (this is probably most of the problem) he’s half-Indian. Arthur Conan Doyle hears about what’s happening to him and personally helps him to beat the charges against him.  It’s a really interesting portrayal of a totally weird friendship and alliance. And it also, if I remember correctly, deals with the period between the two Holmes timelines.

Most importantly, it’s written by Julian Barnes, who I have discussed multiple times, whose book The Sense of an Ending, I raved about earlier this year.  He’s a great writer, and it’s a really interesting, far more believable, far more satisfying read.



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