Review: The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

Sherlock Holmes

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

Well.  The Sherlockian.  It was a highly celebrated debut novel in 2010, and after reading it, it’s not hard to see why.  It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but Mr. Moore set himself a very high bar here, and I think he managed to jump over it.  Or pass it with flying colors.  Whatever metaphor you choose that means he succeeded.

The Sherlockian follows two mysteries in two different centuries: one with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as the detective, and one with Harold White, a devoted Sherlockian.  I didn’t think that Moore would be able to pull off this dichotomy, but after just a few chapters he had me convinced.  Moore either watched too many movies or read Stein’s chapter on suspense and took it to heart, because it used the technique of switching scenes very effectively.  The end of every chapter is a cliff hanger, and then the next chapter directly picks up in the other century.  So if you want to know what’s going on with Conan Doyle, you’re going to have to wait an extra chapter.  Oh, it’s frustrating!  But also masterful storytelling.

I’m not going to talk about Conan Doyle much because his character is based on fact.  All of his backstory is what really happened.  Harold White, however, is an amalgam of many real-life Sherlockians with a modest dash (I presume) or Moore’s own imagination.  He was the perfect hero for this story.  He reads books for a living (and can speed-read like no other), he’s out of shape, he wears a deerstalker cap, and he eats pretzels when he’s nervous.  He seems like an incompetent fool, but here he really comes through. He knows the Holmes stories better than anyone, and he uses his knowledge to solve two mysteries, one of murder and one that has baffled the other Sherlockians for over eighty years.  I’m so proud of him that I just want to pat him on the head and take him to a spelling bee.

My favorite part of the book was Moore’s vivid language.  In the case of Conan Doyle, he takes what one can find dry in a history book and turns it into fascinating prose. In many places he had a tendency to over-explain, but I’ll overlook it because he’s a new author and I liked it otherwise.  And here’s two of my favorite descriptions:

The Sherlockians were quacking at one another in anticipation.

His footsteps sounded like the clacking of a typewriter.

If you’re worried about the subject of the book, don’t let it hinder you from picking up this tome.  I have only read three or four Holmes stories (and not even Hound of the Baskervilles) and the only time I’ve seen him on screen is in “The Great Mouse Detective.”  I know.  Someday I really must get on it and watch the Basil Rathbone version. Yet I enjoyed this novel as thoroughly as any other reader who does know all that stuff.  All the important details from the stories are explained for you to know if they’re important, and Conan Doyle’s life in the other century of course provides important information there.  More info then you’d get from a wikipedia article (yeah, I looked him up to see how much of the stuff was true, and a lot of the information wasn’t even there, so I had to rely on the note from the author at the end).

So basically, this was a good book.  Everything that I didn’t like about it was minor and can be overlooked for the beautiful overall picture it portrays.  I recommend it to any fan of the mystery, especially those of the Sherlockian kind.

Oh, I should probably also mention that Moore’s portrayal of Bram Stoker has made me want to pick up Dracula for the first time.  He was good friends with Conan Doyle and the manager of Henry Irving, and (in this book at least, I’m not sure about real life)  he was constantly overshadowed by these two great men of the time. I felt kind of sorry for the guy.

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3 Responses to Review: The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

  1. If you’re planning to get into Dracula, I’m wondering about the new novel by Dacre Stoker. He’s Bram Stoker’s great-grand-nephew or somesuch. The novel is “Dracula: The Undead,” and it’s supposed to be the sequel to the original. Might be worth a peek and a review after you read the original Stoker. 😉

    As for Holmes, I’ve never really gotten into reading Conan Doyle’s writings…but I did enjoy the most recent movie version of Holmes with Robert Downey, Jr.

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