January 6 has long been considered the birthday of the great detective Sherlock Holmes by members of the Baker Street Irregulars, the foremost society of Holmes’ scholars and enthusiasts. That Holmes is the fictional creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle matters not. As T.S. Eliot wrote in a 1929 review of The Complete Sherlock Holmes Short Stories, “Perhaps the greatest of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries is this: that when we talk of him we invariably fall into the fancy of his existence.”
This apt quotation appears at the beginning of Chapter 22, “The Great Hiatus,” of Graham Moore’s entertaining novel, The Sherlockian, in which several games are afoot. Additional quotations, many of them from the canon itself, introduce the other chapters, which briskly alternate between January of 2010 and the time when Doyle was writing the Holmes stories — or rather not writing them.
As even the most amateur Sherlockians know, Doyle killed off Holmes in December of 1893 in “The Final Problem,” a showdown with Moriarty at Reichenbech Falls. The author refused to comment as the world mourned. Then, eight years later, Doyle resurrected Holmes in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” again without explanation.
What may have occured in this hiatus is the key fictional mystery of The Sherlockian, as it is the real-life question that still perplexes Holmes scholars. As Moore explains in his Author’s Note, his book is a “a collage of the verifiably real, the probably real, the possibly real, and the demonstrably false.” And it’s fact that a collection of Doyle’s papers vanished, including a volume of his diaries, after his death in 1930. Sherlockians’ search for it became tantamount to that of the holy grail for the next 70 years, and a famous scholar in pursuit of the missing papers died under mysterious circumstances in 2004.
In Moore’s The Sherlockian, the world’s leading Holmes/Doyle scholar declares that he has discovered the lost diary, but he is murdered in his hotel room during the annual gathering of the Baker Street Irregulars. Its newest inductee, Harold White, is our intrepid hero who determines to solve the murder and locate the still-missing diary. Other members are also testing their deductive skills, but it is Harold and a reporter named Sarah who set off for London at the behest of one of Doyle’s heirs.
Meanwhile, in the foggy London autumn of 1900 — the period covered by the missing diary — Doyle and his friend Bram Stoker (not yet famous for Dracula) become embroiled in the case of a serial killer of young brides and attempt to assist Scotland Yard in its investigations.
There’s all sorts of hugger-mugger involving Harold and Sarah, and Doyle and Stoker. The latter pair are more interesting, and Moore skillfully evokes the Victorian era giving way to the new century, symbolized by the introduction of electric lights to gloomy city streets. Doyle misses the old gaslights and their shadows. Harold even admits at one point that he feels more at home in 1895 London than in the modern city.
That all Sherlockians are romantics is elementary. It’s Moore’s aplomb at tapping into their desire to seek a puzzle’s solution, with the perfect quotation ever at the ready, that makes this tale such an engaging fusion of history and mystery. Maybe not the great game but a fun one.
Open Book: My copy of The Sherlockian by Graham Moore (Twelve/Hachette Book Group) was a gift from Santa. I rather think that my first copies of the Sherlock Holmes adventures were, too, and read by flashlight under the covers. Or maybe I got them for my birthday.