|THE HOUSE OF SILK
Anthony Horowitz (anthonyhorowitz.com)
Released: 1st November
Anthony Horowitz is, perhaps, best known by a certain generation of young boys as the man behind the popular Alex Rider series of books. It is, I think, less well-known that he is also the man behind some of the most popular mystery dramas currently on British television: Midsomer Murders, Poirot and Foyle’s War are amongst his creations. Young boys of a different generation (namely my own, and it is here that I start to show my age) know him better for an altogether different series of books: those featuring the Diamond Brothers, beginning with his 1986 novel, The Falcon’s Malteser. With The House of Silk, Horowitz makes his first (and hopefully not his last) foray into the world of probably the most iconic detective of them all: Sherlock Holmes.
When Dr John Watson’s wife takes a break to spend some time with a previous employer – and now good friend – outside London, he decides to move in with his old friend Sherlock Holmes for the duration. Whilst there, the men receive a visit from Edmund Carstairs, an art dealer from Wimbledon who spins a tale of train robberies, destroyed artworks, and a gang of flat-cap-wearing Irishmen operating out of Boston. He is afraid for his life, he tells Holmes, because a man wearing a flat cap has started standing outside his home, following him on evenings out; this man is, he believes, the sole surviving member of the Boston gang who has come to London to exact revenge on Carstairs for his involvement in the demise of his gang.
Holmes, intrigued, takes on the case, and visits Carstairs’ home. Within hours the man in the flat cap has burgled the house and fled to a small hotel in Bermondsey, where Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars track him down. When Holmes and Watson arrive on the scene, they find one of the Irregulars – a young boy called Ross – acting somewhat erratically. Inside the hotel, they find the man in the flat cap stabbed to death, and Holmes explains away Ross’s behaviour as being related. When the boy’s badly-beaten body turns up days later, Holmes and Watson find that things have taken a much more sinister turn, and that the mysterious House of Silk lies behind everything.
As is traditional, the story is narrated by the ever-faithful Dr Watson, now an old and infirm man who has outlived his best friend by several years. Bookended by brief notes from this elderly Watson, we are given explanation for why this story has never been told before. As is also traditional, the story opens with a lesson, by Holmes, in ratiocination and deductive reasoning, as he divines the reason for Watson’s visit based on a handful of seemingly innocuous clues.
I should mention at this point that I’ve been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for many years. Like, I suspect, many people of my generation, the abiding image I have of the man – and therefore the benchmark against which I compare all other Holmeses – is Jeremy Brett’s portrayal in the long-running ITV series. From the moment Horowitz’s Holmes opens his mouth, I heard Brett’s distinctive voice in my head and knew I was on to a winner, at least in terms of characterisation. The relationship between the two men is as fans have come to expect, with the mens’ mutual respect sometimes tempered by a certain amount of acerbic ribbing, usually by Holmes, of Watson:
“I take it you will join me?”
“Of course, Holmes. I would like nothing better.”
“Excellent. I sometimes wonder how I will be able to find the energy or the will to undertake another investigation if I am not assured that the general public will be able to read every detail of it in due course.”
Horowitz has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Holmes canon, and sets his story in a definite time period, both in the very real sense – the story takes place in November 1890 – but also by placing it in relation to the rest of Conan Doyle’s stories – we are some seven weeks after “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League”, and Holmes has just completed “The Adventure of the Dying Detective”. There is no doubt, both in terms of the references both overt and implicit, and the general tone Horowitz strikes, that the author has immersed himself in the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle whilst writing this latest adventure. It should be noted that this is the first Sherlock Holmes story that has ever been endorsed by the Conan Doyle estate, which should go some way to indicating how close Horowitz has come to depicting Holmes and the sometimes-hapless Watson.
Horowitz pulls out all the stops, reintroducing us to a whole cast of characters that have become, over the years, part of the national – if not global – consciousness: apart from Holmes and Watson, there is the ever-present and often-ignored Mrs Hudson; Detective Inspector Lestrade; Holmes’ unofficial police force in the shape of the Baker Street Irregulars; the more-intelligent older brother Mycroft; and, of course, Holmes’ nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. With one exception, these characters are introduced naturally, and play roles that are as familiar to any Holmes fan as the Persian slipper where he keeps his tobacco, or the infamous address at which he lives. Unfortunately, Moriarty’s introduction seemed slightly shoe-horned, as he appears as a kind of deus ex machina whose intervention, in the end, goes nowhere. But this is a minor quibble, and in no way detracts from the story, or interferes with canon.
The House of Silk consists of two mysteries which seem, at first, to be separate, one nested neatly inside the other and the two related, seemingly, by the flimsiest of links. “The Man in the Flat Cap” proceeds to a seemingly neat conclusion, and then Holmes hurries off in pursuit of the “The House of Silk”. But as the novel progresses it becomes clear that the two cases are more closely related than it seems at first and as the detective wraps up the mystery of the House of Silk, he returns his attention to the original mystery. In some ways, as with many Holmes stories, this is not a mystery for the reader to solve: it is a showcase for the singular talents of Sherlock Holmes. Like the stories of Conan Doyle, there are plenty of clues scattered around, and the eagle-eyed reader may be able to piece together some of the solution. Horowitz does a fantastic job of keeping all the proverbial balls in the air, creating a perfectly-plotted set of mysteries, and a more-than-satisfactory set of solutions, while all the time maintaining the spirit of the original stories.
The House of Silk is a must for all fans of Sherlock Holmes. Pitch-perfect characterisation combined with a complex and involving plot leave the reader in no doubt that Holmes – and the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – are alive and well in the form of Anthony Horowitz. As I mentioned at the start of this review, I have high hopes that this will not be Mr Horowitz’s last foray into the world of Holmes. For anyone who has never read Holmes, this not a bad place to start; there is nothing here that requires previous knowledge of the characters, although those who have read the Holmes stories will surely come away with a much richer experience. To quote Watson himself:
[I]t has been good to find myself back at Holmes’s side, […], always one step behind him (in every sense) and yet enjoying the rare privilege of observing, at close quarters, that unique mind.
I doubt I could have said it better myself.
Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan & Stephen Romano
Mulholland Books (www.mulhollandbooks.co.uk)
Released: 13th October
When we first meet Buck Carlsbad, at the opening of Black Light, he is hard at work, taking down a mark – a ghost that has latched onto a living person. Buck has a gift, which he calls “The Pull” that allows him to suck these marks into himself and eventually regurgitate them into a silver urn, which he then buries in his back yard, effectively sealing them away forever. These marks, when inside Buck, enhance his ability to see the Blacklight, the world in which the dead live, a sort of layering onto the real world of all past versions of that world. Buck has no idea where his gift came from – orphaned at 7, he suspects that his parents were similarly gifted, but he has been unable to find out where they disappeared to, or why the left him to fend for himself.
When Buck is hired by a billionaire businessman to protect the first journey of a high-speed train between Los Angeles and Las Vegas that runs through an area of desert that Buck calls the Blacklight Triangle – due to the high instance of ghost activity in the area – he jumps at the chance. Buck has history in the Triangle, and suspects that this train journey may be the best bet he has of finding out what happened to his parents. Assembling a team, Buck boards the train along with an assortment of film and music stars, a camera crew, and the man slated to be the next President of the USA – and his Secret Service detail – and finds himself on a high-speed journey into hell with no-one to trust but himself.
“By writers from the SAW franchise”, the book cover tells us, something which excited me until I realised that Messrs Melton and Dunstan were behind four of the later entries to a series that – in my opinion – lost the plot about ten minutes into the third instalment. So, I started Black Light with a certain amount of trepidation. We’re thrown into the middle of the action, and we discover Buck’s Gift as we watch him use it to ensnare the ghost of a child killer who is haunting his wife. Buck is a character of some depth: he’s an orphan with this strange gift, and the only conclusion he can draw is that one or other of his parents has passed it on to him. He has a strange relationship with a young woman who is head-over-heels in love with him, and an even stranger relationship with his local priest, a man who provides him with the silver urns he requires to “store” his marks. He has a long and troubled history with the Blacklight, a history that cost one man his life, and almost cost Buck his own, but for Buck it’s the only way he is ever likely to discover who he is, and where he came from.
The story starts slowly, introducing the characters, and their various abilities, and the concept of the high-speed train that runs between the Lost Angels Plaza in Los Angeles and the Dreamworld resort in Las Vegas. As we see these things spring into life around us, I couldn’t help but be struck by similarities to the third volume of Stephen King’s Dark Tower epic, The Waste Lands: the Lost Angels Plaza as the Cradle of Lud; the Jaeger Laser as Blaine the Mono; the Blacklight Triangle as the waste lands themselves. Like Roland’s story, there’s an overarching sense of doom as the main players move into position, and the train readies for departure.
From that point on, around about the middle of the book, the narrative grabs the reader by the throat, throttles up a few notches, and drags us along for a ride that moves as fast as the train itself. There is no let-up in the action, and I would certainly recommend trying to read this portion of the book in a single sitting for maximum effect. The authors have a fine grasp of how to move a story along at breakneck pace, and how to keep the reader interested. The story is extremely visual, cinematic in its approach and scope. The book cover adds to this illusion, a movie poster that is eye-catching and intriguing. There are times when it seems we’re reading a film script – or a Matthew Reilly novel – but thankfully they’re few and far between. There is no mistaking that these are very talented writers who have done an excellent job of translating their skills of writing for the screen to writing an engaging and extremely entertaining novel.
Dark, gory and brilliantly-plotted, Black Light combines the elements of a good horror novel, with the stylistic tics of a mystery story, and the pace and tone of the best thrillers on the market. Melton, Dunstan and Romano have created, in Buck Carlsbad, a likeable, if somewhat damaged, character that the reader can identify with and root for. They’ve also created a mythology and backstory that is solid and original. The combination make this one to watch, and a dead cert for a series of novels and films charting Buck’s journey. If you’re a fan of Felix Castor or John Constantine, or are looking for a horror story that’s a bit different from the norm, then Black Light is the book for you.