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Book review: 'The Sherlockian' by Graham Moore

A contemporary tale of a murdered Conan Doyle expert is woven with a mystery set in the 1890s.

January 01, 2011|By Sarah Weinman, Special to the Los Angeles Times

It's far too easy to stereotype an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle's storied and much-beloved detective. After all, the pipe-smoking deductive genius, since his birth in the pages of Strand magazine in 1887, has inspired many admirers to emulate his speech patterns and style of dress. Attend the annual meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars and the demographic will likely skew toward those with more gray than any other color in their hair.

Doing so, however, neglects some facts that surprise at first and seem obvious in hindsight: Sherlockians start on their journey toward admiration of the detective and his sidekick, Watson, at an early age, and much of the best literature that reimagines Holmes in new adventures has been written by authors still in their 20s. They have the energy and enthusiasm to go where countless writers have gone before and, in that state of freshness, stretch Conan Doyle's original world well beyond initial constraints without sacrificing the essence of what makes Holmes and Watson tick.

Graham Moore fits the youthful bill, but his venture into the world that Conan Doyle created is from a series of side angles, not head-on. The novel "The Sherlockian," rather than delving into another Holmes story, turns him into the objet d'art of the Baker Street Irregulars and their ilk. That most certainly includes its youngest member, Harold White, a freelance literary researcher based in Los Angeles prone to wearing a plaid deerstalker hat he had owned "since he was fourteen years old, since he had first become obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and dressed as the famed detective for Halloween."

White doesn't have long to revel in his anointed newbie status, what with the unexpected and gruesome death of Alex Cale, a leading Sherlock scholar who claimed that he'd found a long-missing Conan Doyle diary, a veritable holy grail for the Irregular community. With the proverbial game afoot to find out who killed Cale and find the diary — and what it contained — Moore mixes his entertaining contemporary tale with a parallel one of Conan Doyle's in 1893, just after he'd sent Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls and none too happy with his Frankenstein monster of a creation: "[Holmes] was like one of [the] dead-undead — a ghastly vampire who followed Arthur everywhere he went and from whose all-seeing malevolence Arthur could never escape."

The vampire metaphors are no accident, for Conan Doyle, trailing a vicious serial murderer of women, forges a mentor-apprentice bond with one Bram Stoker, several years removed from his shot at literary immortality.

"The Sherlockian" is certainly self-aware, with Harold making recurring observations about what Holmes would do in a given situation and looking to fiction for guidance in how to uncover the truth of Cale's murder (and also of the motives of Sarah Lindsay, a reporter donning the Watson avatar). The meta-mentions of Sherlockian scholars like Daniel Stashower and Leslie Klinger are playful and unforced. Moore is well-steeped in Holmes lore but savvy enough as a writer to keep the reader's interest with the parallel, and eventually intersecting, plots.

After the adventures come to a close and the secrets of Conan Doyle and Stoker are revealed, what remains are the core themes of "The Sherlockian": the need for resolution, the thrill of investigation and the power of story to transform humans into something larger than themselves. Moore combines all of these when Harold realizes there's more to life, and to stories, than mere endings: "Harold had understood that not finding a solution would have been awful, but he had never before thought that finding one, and then having actually to go on living with it, might be worse."

That, in a nutshell, is the emotional difference between real life and what transpires between the pages of a book. For millions of readers around the world, Holmes and Watson have been a balm against the pain and drudgery of day-to-day living. But an eager young man (and in turn, novelist) must know that to mature, he must accept that stories can't solve everything — even if, at their best, they will long outlive those who created and discovered them.

Weinman writes about crime and mystery fiction for Dark Passages, which appears monthly at latimes.com/books.

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