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Home » Books & writing

Book Review: THE SHERLOCKIAN by Graham Moore

Submitted by on December 2, 2010 – 9:17 pm 14 Comments

Graham Moore’s debut novel, The Sherlockian, should delight die-hard Sherlock Holmes fans with its nerdy Holmesian goodness, while providing engrossing mysteries for those less familiar with the Canon as well.

Told in alternating chapters between the turn of the 20th century and the present, the book tells two parallel stories. The first is of Arthur Conan Doyle’s investigation into the case of a serial killer, and the second is about a contemporary Sherlockian named Harold White trying the solve the mysterious death of a leading Sherlock Holmes scholar, Alex Cale.

Cale claimed he’d found the long-lost diary of Conan Doyle, but on the day he’s scheduled to present it at a meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars, Cale is found dead in his hotel room and the diary is nowhere in sight. Furthermore, there are clues in the room that are straight from Holmes stories.

The historical chapters reveal what Holmes’s creator was doing during the time period covered in the journal (the last few months of 1900) and why the record of his activities went missing in the first place. We also get to see what inspired Conan Doyle’s method for killing off his famous detective in 1893 and what convinced him to bring Holmes back in 1901 with The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Moore’s passion for the Canon is evident on every page and he has done an amazing job weaving fact with fiction; he tells you which is which in the author’s note at the end. If you’ve read David Grann’s New Yorker article called “Mysterious Circumstances” (also featured in Grann’s book called The Devil and Sherlock Holmes) about the real-life death of a leading Sherlockian named Richard Green, you might have a clue about how Cale was killed.

This takes away none of the fun, though; it’s mighty entertaining to see this and many other facts about Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes re-interpreted in a fictional context. If you don’t know anything about the great detective, you won’t be lost because Harold conveniently explains everything to his companion, Sarah, a reporter who tags along for the scoop.

One problem I had with the book was that Conan Doyle is a much more fascinating character than Harold. I sometimes got impatient with the 2010 chapters because Harold is dull and has no romantic spark whatsoever with Sarah, though we’re meant to believe an attraction is forming. He’s a necessary device to elucidate the Holmesian details but he’s kind of a pushover, allowing Sarah, who behaves in a dodgy manner from the start, to butt her way into the investigation without much of an explanation. She’s there to represent readers less familiar with Holmes, asking all the pertinent questions, but otherwise doesn’t hold much interest. In the end, Harold does something that I highly doubt such a devoted Sherlockian would do. It’s a stretch to say his motive is understandable but his action does not seem plausible at all.

Conversely, I greatly enjoyed being in Conan Doyle’s company, getting a glimpse of his life as he struggles against being overshadowed by his own creation. His hissy fits about how he’s a better man than Holmes are rather funny. He at least makes a much more convincing amateur sleuth than Harold, perhaps because Conan Doyle really did consult for Scotland Yard on many real-life crimes. His friendship with Bram Stoker (his real-life Watson?) is amusing, with the latter lamenting about how his character of a bloodthirsty count from Transylvania “didn’t inspire the imagination of a people as did your Holmes. He was my great failure.” The Sherlockian, on the other hand, is definitely a success.

Nerd verdict: An engaging, far-from-elementary Sherlockian

Buy The Sherlockian from Amazon| B&N| IndieBound| Powell’s

14 Comments »

  • Hm, this is the second review I’ve seen of this book, and I’m still on the fence about reading it.

  • Elizabeth Duncan says:

    I got a copy of this book at Bouchercon but wasn’t sure what to do about it. After reading your review, am leaning towards reading, but don’t like sound of the continuity disruption of time switching from past to present. When I get a book like that I tend to read as two separate stories, reading every other chapter to keep one story going, then read the other story.

  • Christine says:

    Just as Elizabeth, I received my copy at Bouchercon and wasn’t sure how interested I was in reading it. Glad to know you enjoyed the Conan Doyle sections. I’ll keep it in my TBR queue. I hate to admit it, but watching Basil Rathbone as Holmes many moons ago (and remembering very little of it), is the only exposure to Conan Doyle’s work I’ve had. I’ve often thought that I must remedy that. Thanks for this review!

  • I know little of Sherlock Holmes, other than what I gleaned from the Robert Downey Jr movie {and I confess I might have been somewhat distracted from the character by the fine specimen representing him}. I’m not sure that this novel is the best way for me to get to know Sherlock Holmes and/or Conan Doyle better {anything that jumps from one timeline to another tends to annoy me a bit} but it still sounds entertaining. Thanks for another insightful review, PCN!

  • Reader#9 says:

    Nerdy Holmesian Goodness? Well, played, Watson…um, er, PCN!

    Always love a good read even if it the Harold figure is a less than engaging character, I will suck out the Holmesian-ness and devour the entire book forthwith! Okay, bit much, but yes I will be reading this.

  • EIREGO says:

    Haven’t read any Sherlock Holmes in a long time, but I enjoyed it as a kid. Sounds like something to take with me on the plane this holiday.

  • Pop Culture Nerd says:

    Naomi—Would reverse psychology help? Don’t. Read. This. Book. No, don’t do it.

    Elizabeth—I hadn’t thought of reading it that way but it might work if your find the time-jumping irksome.

    Christine—This book helps you learn more about Conan Doyle and Holmes while entertaining you with two mysteries. Since you already have the ARC, I’d say dive right in!

    Shell—I completely understand your distraction in the movie! Since RDJ isn’t in the book, you might have better focus.

    Reader#9—Hooray for Holmes nerds! You probably will devour it if you love the Canon as much as I do.

    EIREGO—Yes, take it with you on your travel. It’ll help distract you from the TSA molestation.

  • jenn says:

    I’ll bite. This book looks really great to me, inconsistencies and all. I love anything to do with Sherlock Holmes.

    P.S. That cover is truly fantastic. I need to get a copy ASAP.

  • jenn says:

    Ok. I read it. Quickly – because literary thrillers are fun. I’m going to work on my own review tonight. We should chat. Some great aspects to it, but I could definitely tell Moore is a young writer.

    However, I must say again: bring on all things Sherlock Holmes.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      That was quick! Looking forward to your review.

      I just received an ARC I’m really excited about: Michael Robertson’s THE BROTHERS OF BAKER STREET. This is the second in a series. I really enjoyed the first one, THE BAKER STREET LETTERS (my review here if you’re interested). Will let you know if BROTHERS is just as good.

  • Yes! Finally, I read this book. Have to agree, Harold was just dull wallpaper.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      Ha! What did you think of the book overall?

      • Sort of on the fence about it. I enjoyed the Holmes sections more than Harold’s chapters. The contemporary characters just didn’t have much character, and I thought there were a lot of holes in the modern events. I’m not sure I bought into everything the author had Holmes doing, but I went along for the ride so the writing was good enough to hold me. Overall, the book’s grand scheme should have been a corker, but the contemporary passages never had enough tension or action (that I could believe) to pull it off. A for effort, C for execution.

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