Review: Four new books — plus new Robert Downey Jr. movie — keep Sherlock Holmes on the hunt

one hundred and twenty-four years after his first appearance in print and 118 years after his frustrated creator threw him over Reichenbach Falls — only to resurrect him by popular demand eight years later — Sherlock Holmes is very much alive.

You'd like evidence? There's the upcoming debut on Dec. 16 of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the second movie in which Robert Downey Jr. portrays a steampunk version of the Great Detective. Downey joins more than 70 other actors who have played Holmes in films. According to Guinness World Records, he has been portrayed on the big screen more than any other character.

He has also had countless incarnations on stage and the small screen — my all-time favorite Holmes was Jeremy Brett in the British series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes — and influenced other characters ranging from James Bond to Star Trek's Spock and Picard and all the CSI investigators, not to mention legions of lone-wolf tough detectives who can handle criminals with their guns or fists but prefer to use their brains.

But Holmes was born in print and continues to live most robustly there. (Some of his most devoted fans believe he lived — or even lives — literally, but we'll get to that.) Search Amazon.com for books related to "Sherlock Holmes" and you'll get more than 8,000 results.

Many of those, of course, are various editions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original 60 works about him (56 stories and four novels); others range from scholarly studies to cookbooks.

But many of them are fiction. Almost as soon as Conan Doyle began writing about his cerebral hero, other authors did, too, and their numbers show no sign of abating. The four books reviewed here — three new works of fiction and one critical appreciation — have been published just in the last three months.

Closest in tone and substance to Conan Doyle's works — and no surprise, given that it's the first Holmes novel to bear the official approval of the author's estate — is The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, a prolific British novelist and screenwriter whose work includes the bestselling Alex Rider series of children's books.

The House of Silk is narrated by Holmes' indispensable friend and chronicler, Dr. John Watson. In the prologue, he tells us that the two cases he will describe are "in some respects, the most sensational of Holmes' career but at the time it was impossible for me to tell them, for reasons that will become abundantly clear." Having written them down after Holmes' death, he has them sealed for a century — which explains why we're only now reading the book.

And with that we are whisked back to 1890, to the cozy disarray of 221B Baker St. and the gaslit, foggy streets of London. First, Holmes is hired by an art dealer, Edmund Carstairs, to find out why an Irish gangster has followed him from Boston and is terrorizing his household. Holmes pursues a much more personal case after a young boy, one of his trusty Baker Street Irregulars, is brutally murdered.

The House of Silk is a straightforward homage to the Holmes canon; Horowitz does a fine job with atmospheric setting and tense plotting, and he captures Watson's voice and Holmes' character well. The crimes they uncover will, even in the 21st century, have a shocking ripped-from-the-headlines impact.

One of the most audacious and entertaining authors to continue Holmes' adventures is Laurie R. King, whose Mary Russell series, beginning in 1997 with The Beekeeper's Apprentice, marries the detective to a much younger American woman who is his match in brilliance, fearlessness and independence. King's Holmes is a bit warmer than Conan Doyle's, but not enough to interfere with his cool, analytical character or his bone-dry sense of humor.

The 11th book of the series, Pirate King, is perhaps the lightest of the lot in tone. Chiefly to avoid a visit from Holmes' brother, Mycroft, whom she detests, Russell (who is also a detective) undertakes a case that requires her to go undercover with a movie company to investigate the disappearance of one of its employees.

Fflytte Films is named for its egomaniacal, diminutive director, Randolph Fflytte, whose current project is based on the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Pirates of Penzance. This being the silent film era, Fflytte is working around the absence of sound by making a movie about a movie company that is making a movie of Pirates of Penzance, during which real pirates take over the ship they're filming on. Got it? I hope so, because it gets even more complicated than that.

Russell goes to Lisbon with the company and soon finds herself overseeing a flock of golden-haired young women cast as the Major General's 13 daughters (Fflytte likes to go big) and the somewhat disturbing crew of young men cast as the 13 pirates, many of whom don't speak English. King has a blast lampooning the movie industry, but the plot soon ventures into more dangerous territory.

Part of the fun of the Russell books is guessing under which disguise Holmes will eventually appear, fooling his wife at least momentarily just as he enjoyed fooling Watson, and here he assumes perhaps the most unlikely role yet — although we have always known Holmes was a consummate actor.

King is also the co-editor, with Holmes scholar Leslie S. Klinger (editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes), of A Study in Sherlock. This anthology gathers 16 short stories by contemporary authors about, or inspired by, Holmes.

Lee Child contributes The Bone-Headed League, a twisty little tale about an FBI agent who congratulates himself on how much more he knows about Sherlock than a British cop does — a story that's witty right up until the instant it turns chilling.

In The Last of Sheila Locke-Holmes, Laura Lippman introduces us to a lonely 11-year-old girl who discovers that investigating other people's secrets might not be such a great idea, especially if the other people are her parents. In A Spot of Detection, Jacqueline Winspear relates the adventures of a bored schoolboy moved by reading the Holmes stories — and who files away a classroom confusion between Philip Sidney and Christopher Marlowe for later use.

One of the best of the stories is Neil Gaiman's The Case of Death and Honey, which explains exactly why Holmes took up beekeeping — and where it led him. Gaiman's story is a sterling example of what Holmes aficionados call the Grand Game, a half-serious, half-joking (well, maybe more than half serious) exercise in proving that Holmes was a real person, as was Watson, and Conan Doyle merely the latter's literary agent. Several of these stories are in that genre, and Gaiman takes the game a step further — his story offers a possible explanation for Holmes' seeming immortality.

Michael Dirda writes in detail about the Grand Game in On Conan Doyle, his engaging little book about the author and his greatest creation. Dirda, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for the Washington Post, is a fan of all of Conan Doyle's considerable body of work. Besides the Holmes stories, the British doctor wrote ghost stories, science fiction, historical fiction, adventure tales, memoirs and nonfiction about everything from racial injustice to Spiritualism.

Dirda makes a sincere case for those other books, but his heart is with Sherlock. He writes affectionately about the enormous Holmes fan community, including an insider's account of the Baker Street Irregulars. (With a library of only about 100 books related to Holmes, he considers himself an amateur in their ranks.)

And he writes most movingly about his first experience with Sherlock. He describes in vivid detail how, as a fifth-grader, he saw The Hound of the Baskervilles in a paperback catalog, waited for weeks for its delivery — and then put off reading about the "enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen" until he was alone in the house on a dark and stormy night. Even as a boy, Dirda knew how to read a book.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel

By Anthony Horowitz

Mulholland/Little, Brown, 294 pages, $27.99

On Conan Doyle

By Michael Dirda

Princeton, 210 pages, $19.95

Pirate King

By Laurie R. King

Bantam, 304 pages, $25

A Study in Sherlock: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon

Edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger

Bantam, 385 pages, $15

Review: Four new books — plus new Robert Downey Jr. movie — keep Sherlock Holmes on the hunt 11/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 3:30am]

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