Book review: ‘The Sherlockian’ by Graham Moore

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

From Wiktionary: Sherlockian (plural Sherlockians) — A Sherlock Holmes scholar or fan; one who studies and/or appreciates the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Harold White had just been welcomed into the legendary Baker Street Irregulars, the most prestigious organization devoted to the study of Sherlock Holmes. At 29, he was not only the newest, but also the youngest member of the Irregulars. He had earned the honor through his reading, study, and publication. Because of his depth of literary knowledge, he made his living being a freelance literary researcher, primarily defending movie studios against charges of copyright violation.

The gathering took a dramatic turn when the guest speaker, and most accomplished Holmes scholar of the Irregulars, failed to show for his presentation, a much-anticipated description of his finding of the lost diary with an account of its contents. Finding the lost diary (Oct. 11–Dec. 23, 1900) had been a career-long activity of Alex Cale, as it would make his biography of Arthur Conan Doyle the most complete yet written. And now he had found it. The reason he failed to appear was apparent when he was found strangled in his ransacked hotel room. And the diary was again missing.

As one of the last people to see Alex alive, Harold was shown into the room almost immediately after the discovery. Without thinking, Harold immediately began to proceed as Sherlock Holmes would have. The police didn’t appreciate it. After that was cleared up, he and Sarah, a freelance reporter he had just met, set out to solve the murder and find the diary.

This novel is somewhat unique in that there is a parallel mystery being played out in every other chapter. It is soon clear that we are following Arthur Conan Doyle and his close friend, Bram Stoker, during the time period of the missing diary. Much to the chagrin of his readers, Doyle has killed off Holmes. But when he is begged to help solve the murder of a young bride found on the wrong side of town, he can’t resist testing Doyle’s approach to solving a crime. Do the methods he has given Doyle in his novels actually work in real life? His quest involves him with women’s suffrage, slum landlords, additional murders, guns and being tailed. Being a detective proves much more difficult than writing about one. Hans Stoker, of Dracula fame, proved to be an able Watson, to Doyle’s Holmes. Stoker knew the seedier side of London.

It was somewhat of a culture shock for the stories to move back and forth from the time of horses and carriages to the 1970s. Arthur Conan Doyle’s time was one of women’s suffrage, rampant prostitution and obvious class distinction. To paraphrase one of the characters, a woman could work with her hands, on her back, or marry a rich man. The Irregulars were mostly men, but women like Sarah had taken on much broader roles, the Irregulars tended to see only that part of the 18th century where every problem had a solution only awaiting Doyle’s analysis.

In their pursuit, Harold and Sarah found the solutions to their joint dilemma of murder and the missing diary about as clear as the reader found the Doyle mysteries before Holmes put the clues together. This was especially true since Cale had set a series of clues that only a Sherlockian could unravel. “The well-written twist always played on the reader’s assumptions. Something the reader had simply assumed to be true — because how could it not be? — turned out to be false.”

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