Initial delight soured : unbelievable gore sequence, and too much manipulation
For around three quarters of Horowitz’s second `Sherlock Holmes’ I was most enjoyably surrendered to this splendid `Holmesian in style but without the great man or his biographer’ book, as Horowitz pairs a self-created Holmes disciple, Inspector Athelney Jones, from Scotland Yard, with a `Pinkerton’s man’, Frederick Chase, and the two, meeting at the Reichenbach Falls, join forces in an investigation to track down a new American master criminal, Clarence Devereux.
The Reichenbach Falls are where Holmes allegedly fell to his death, along with his arch-enemy, Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime. As the legion of fans of Conan Doyle’s stories know, Doyle killed off his too successful consulting detective, but later was forced to bring him back.
Horowitz starts by pleasurably playing with the reader’s sensibilities, as Chase, the American, picks holes in what happened at Reichenbach, throwing doubt on the actions of both Holmes and Watson. Something, he concludes, is not quite right. Jones, a detective who appears, bumblingly, in one of Holmes’ investigations, had lionised and hero-worshipped the great detective, and has studied ferociously to develop his own abilities, and now models himself on his dead hero. Chase, a more plodding, less flamboyant character, is willing to assume the mantle of Jones’ trusty Watson, as the two begin an investigation into the revelation that the mysterious American criminal Devereux was involved in joining forces with Moriarty to set up a global network of evil doing. And Chase as narrator, like Watson, tells a tale well.
Horowitz is brilliant at setting time, place, and cast of believable characters. Though there is certainly more graphic depiction of violence than personally I can take in fiction, as there is a taint of the gratuitous: violence as entertainment, I went happily along for the ride, appreciating Horowitz’ sly humour as he lobs Sherlockian history, characters and references into his thoroughly absorbing crime novel, steeped in the darkness of the Victorian underworld, and the valiant efforts of those who seek to fight the darkness
And then…………….about three quarters of the way through there is an absolute ratchet up of violence, and in a manner which is both horrible, gratuitous, and highly overdone. Reminding me of nothing so much as bad movies where the slamming and the pounding and the multiplicity of firepower and the like are of ridiculous proportions, unrealistic and in the end clumsy, lacking trust in the audience. Credibility as well as finesse is lost. At this point, my five star rating had fallen away.
And then the author becomes very audacious indeed. Far too much so, I believed; the cardinal crime of over-manipulation of character to force plot, shattering credibility, cheap tricks.
There is a relentless and detailed exposition of what has happened, and the reader is argued and browbeaten into some sort of surrender. But, at least for me, the undoubted authorial cleverness has come at the cost of belief and involvement with the characters. I was left with the feeling that as the `trick’ and the whole thing, is, after all, only a fiction, in the end, it doesn’t much matter. WHAT doesn’t much matter can’t be revealed, for fear of spoilers.
This book is clearly dividing readers. I’m one of the ones who was hugely impressed by The House of Silk, and its authenticity to the style, and far less so with this. Of course, in dispensing with Holmes and Watson, there is no need to retain the restraint, the humour, the charm of the original, but because Horowitz so firmly kept our awareness of all of that alive in the early part of the book, the fall away from that restraint, humour and charm left me only able to grudgingly say `yes, the author himself has been marvellously clever’ but I had no feeling of delight in the cleverness.
3 ½ stars. Probably having just finished the book, the overwhelming feeling is of let down, making it `okay’ only, maybe waiting before posting will give me more of a sense of my earlier appreciation, enough to, just, lift the book to a like.
And in the end, that is what happened, but in some ways its more for the fact that what for me are serious flaws provoked me into reflection about the whole ‘trick’ and unreality of fiction.
We know that a novel is a work of imagination, or at least is a subjective interpretation, and that the skilful author, like the skilful actor, is making us believe in their reality. And we WANT to be delighted by the author’s skill. It’s like a stage magician, we know we are being manipulated, and enter willingly into the manipulation. And some authors take great pains to keep us reminded, in a novel’s version of Brechtian alienation, that ‘this is not real’, it is a fiction.
Perhaps crime writing is closest to what the magician does – either the clues are there but our attention was diverted elsewhere, and eventually we might have the trick explained – that is what Sherlock Holmes does, or we as readers may also be working out the solution as we go along. And we might be delighted to have had our attention diverted, or we might just feel conned. I think there might be some sort of nebulous sense of what is fair play, whether in a novel or in a stage act. I’m stumblingly coming to the conclusion that there is an investment readers make with well crafted characters in a book, and that that investment, and the characters, need judicious handling by a writer.
I was, in the end, reminded of something Hitchcock, that master of suspense, said, that ‘shock’ in films is the easy thing, it is suspense which takes more craft. Horowitz delivered a stupendous shock. But what it left me with, was disappointment. A kind of grudging acknowledgement of his cleverness, rather than a delight in his sleight of hand. It’s fairly impossible to explain in quite what way I feel cheated without spoiling anyone else’s journey.
I’m guardedly recommending, more because I’m interested in discovering what other readers felt and thought. This would be a great book for a book-club, as I think it could provoke very very useful not to mention highly animated discussion!
And as a good example of how much this book is dividing fans of Conan Doyle, and indeed fans of Horowitz’s hommage to Conan Doyle series, look no further than my good bloggy friend FictionFan’s review. It was, after all, she who delightedly alerted me to the earlier The House Of Silk and also when this one hove onto the horizon
I really wish that Horowitz had kept the faith with at least one of the strengths which he pointed out was true of Conan Doyle’s writing, in his afterword to House Of Silk, where he observed that in the Sherlock Holmes stories the body counts, and also the graphic descriptions of violence, are spare. Of course, as the central characters in this story are neither Holmes nor Watson, and Horowitz has moved away into something slightly different, one could argue that more violence, and more corpses, don’t really matter. But, personally, the ‘less is more’ restraint of earlier writers has a lot to recommend it, and I wish there was less visiting the bargain basement of gore and indulging in what seems like a BOGOF offer on lovingly described bleeding corpses!