Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review: The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

In December 1893, Sherlock Holmes-adoring Londoners eagerly opened their Strand magazines, anticipating the detective's next adventure, only to find the unthinkable: his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, had killed their hero off. London spiraled into mourning -- crowds sported black armbands in grief -- and railed against Conan Doyle as his assassin.

Then in 1901, just as abruptly as Conan Doyle had "murdered" Holmes in "The Final Problem," he resurrected him. Though the writer kept detailed diaries of his days and work, Conan Doyle never explained this sudden change of heart. After his death, one of his journals from the interim period was discovered to be missing, and in the decades since, has never been found.

Or has it?

When literary researcher Harold White is inducted into the preeminent Sherlock Holmes enthusiast society, The Baker Street Irregulars, he never imagines he's about to be thrust onto the hunt for the holy grail of Holmes-ophiles: the missing diary. But when the world's leading Doylean scholar is found murdered in his hotel room, it is Harold - using wisdom and methods gleaned from countless detective stories - who takes up the search, both for the diary and for the killer.

I love Sherlock Holmes. I became a fast fan after watching Jeremy Brett's portrayal of the famed detective through the 1990's, but I shamefully admit to not having actually read an original story until this past summer as part of a University course. Not having the time to continue reading Doyle's original canon at the moment, I was excited to hear about this book being released that offered concurrent investigations, albeit mysteries happening more than a century apart.

In The Sherlockian, we meet Harold White, the newest members to an organization called The Baker Street Irregulars. Quickly, Harold becomes embroiled in the modern day mystery of Doyle's missing diary. In the Doyle story line, we see what Moore's imaginative mind concocted as the potential content of said diary,  as events unfold during the dates the missing journal would have involved, and we find another mystery to follow along.

I will admit, I had to invoke my 150 page rule on this one, for several reasons. First, Harold White is not the most vivacious character; definitely no Indian Jones, or, dare I say it? Sherlock Holmes. He's a tad dreary as a leading man. And from the start, Doyle's bitter resentment of Holmes overshadowing the real man, his author, becomes difficult to handle, especially for those (me) loving the fictional man so much.  Secondly, it takes a bit of time to get into the real meat of each mystery as all of the pieces are put together slower than normal because of the two scenarios being built up to.

But, and it's a big one, once you do get into it, the characters and both stories come alive. Moore's portrayal of Harold is honest; he knows his weaknesses, his strengths, and his limits, but he pushes these, showing personal growth for the character and better understanding for the reader. As for Doyle, I was sympathetic to his plight of attempting to establish his own identity, separate from that of the man he'd created. Try as he may have done, I don't think he ever succeeded. He is still synonymous with creating the greatest detective that ever "lived". I can't say if that part of Moore's story was real, but it's definitely plausible.

Towards the end, the story departs from the mystery to become more of a social commentary of turn of the century England and of today, and why so many people the world over love the idea of living in Holmes' England. From the male perspective, you see the romanticized version of life during that time, which Harold offers up quite eloquently; from the female side, you learn stats about prostitution, suffrage, racism and how today's world is that much better for the struggles endured and overcome back then.

The author, in his revealing of the story and it's potential outcome, foreshadows his ultimate message with strategic quotes from Doyle and Stoker at the beginning of each chapter. It becomes quite sad, as there's a general sense of loss of grand times that have passed, of one particular person, once great in Doyle's life, that dies penniless and alone in Paris (Oscar Wilde). It was this part of the story that held my attention the most though. I loved the conversations between Stoker and Doyle, fictional though they may be, it would have been great to have been a fly on the wall as witness. Though Wilde is not an actual character in the book, his presence in the lives of the other two famous authors has a profound affect on the story.

Moore does a great job of piecing it all together with the exception of the mysteries. If you are looking for something comparable to an original Sherlock Holmes, this is not the book for that. Moore pulls out a rather shocking stunt involving Doyle that left me a little bewildered. Putting that aspect aside, it highlighted more about human truths, about what people are looking for and why, and, more to the point, the outcome may not always be as you expect or as neatly wrapped up as a Holmes mystery...but that's life.

As for a particular conversation envisioned by the author, Stoker laments that down the line, people will not remember Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, or Bram Stoker, and definitely not his count from that strange place on the continent, but they will remember Sherlock Holmes. I'm happy to argue the point with the fictional Stoker....if only they could see the continued successes of all of their work. Having gone off on my tangent here, it is because of Moore's ability to bring these people to life in a credible way that I will credit for my future interest in reading and re-reading their classic literature. The Sherlockian turned out to be different from my expectations, but in a very good way.


Mel (He Followed Me Home) said...

phew, for a while there I was thinking you didn't finish it! You've piqued my interest now is reading it for the social commentary. BTW, love your Stoker comment - maybe I can read up on them & we can have a debate one day LOL

Michelle (Red Headed Book Child) said...

Thorough review> I was curious about this one. I have it on my shelf!

Jackie said...

@Michelle - I'm a bit slow in responding, but thank you for stopping by. I did get a little wordy here but there were just so many elements... I hope you like it; I'd love to see what you think!

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