Graham Moore; Publisher: Twelve (December 1, 2010)
At the time of this writing, it has been slightly more than six weeks since the release of Graham Moore’s debut novel, The Sherlockian. In that time, it has sold out on Amazon.com, gone into a second printing (after nine days), made it to #34 on the “New York Times” bestseller list, and the Kindle edition of the novel is currently #2 on Amazon’s “British Detectives” list. I could come up with several other ways to say, “This is a really very excellent book,” but I’ll let those statistics speak for themselves. Needless to say, the novel has been very well-received indeed.
Written as a dual-narrative, The Sherlockian tells the story of 21st century Sherlockian, Harold White, and 19th century author, Arthur Conan Doyle. In the 21st century, Harold, a newly-inducted member of the Baker Street Irregulars, is on the hunt for the murderer of fellow Sherlockian Alex Cale (modeled loosely on the late Richard Lancelyn Green), a murderer who may or may not have also stolen a missing Conan Doyle diary, which Cale claimed to have recently rediscovered. In the 19th century, Conan Doyle is living out the dramatic events that will appear in that missing volume of the diary, which are, not-so-incidentally, the months leading up to Doyle’s resurrection of Sherlock Holmes, in The Hound of the Baskervilles.
In the interest of complete disclosure, I’ll tell you that I read through the night to finish The Sherlockian, surviving the next day on two hours of sleep, and it was worth it. It was worth it, because it had been a long time since a book had made me feel very nearly incapable of putting it down. It had been a long time since I’d read a book that had not only one, but two, mysteries that I had to see through to the end, where the need to know was greater than the need to sleep. It had been a long time since I wanted to solve a mystery myself, rather than wait for the characters to do it for me.
And it had also been a long time since I’d read a book that reminded me so profoundly of a love letter. And make no mistake, for all that The Sherlockian is a mystery novel and an excellent example of crime and detective fiction—it is also a love letter. It’s certainly a love letter to Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but it’s also a love letter to books, to writing, to reading, to the nineteenth century, to mysteries, to detective fiction, to crime fiction, to scholarship, to London, to gaslight, to hansom cabs and cobblestone streets, to study and analysis, to the way we want to remember things, and also to the way they actually were. But most importantly, I think The Sherlockian is a love letter to anyone who has ever loved something so much that it makes them a little crazy, and a little isolated.
Because for all his profound intelligence, Harold White—like the man he admires so fervently—is deeply and profoundly alone. As is Moore’s Arthur Conan Doyle—the author portrays Doyle as a man that is terribly alone: alone in his desire to move on from Sherlock Holmes, and even more alone in that he isn’t certain he has anywhere else to go. And I think that that anyone who has been involved in the study of Sherlock Holmes (or anything, really) to a consuming degree often feels a little isolated.
Our families, for all they may indulge us, probably think we’re a little off; our friends sometimes don’t know what to say to us; and many times it feels like we don’t have a single person in the world to talk to about the thing we love the most. After reading my very first post on this blog, a friend smiled amusedly at me, and said, “Oh, you reading people!” And ultimately, it is the same way for Harold and Doyle. To love something, to want something, or to truly know something, is to commit oneself to some degree of isolation. Even Jeffrey Engels, a man who is supposedly Harold’s friend, says when Harold starts to use Holmes’s methods to investigate Cale’s murder, “Do you hear the words you're saying, Harold? Do you have any idea what you sound like? [...] I never wanted to tell you this, but you always looked stupid in that [deerstalker] hat. Take it off...” Engels is a fellow Irregular; he is supposed to understand.
But Harold isn’t stupid. He isn’t stupid, and he isn’t ridiculous, and he most certainly isn’t crazy. And some readers may even wonder if he’s not very much like them. And when Harold finds himself confronted with a seemingly impossible choice at the climax of the novel, I wondered how many readers would make the exact same choice, say the exact same things. How many readers would rather know, no matter how painful the knowledge, than live with endless wondering?
To everyone else in and out of readers’ lives, the mystery may be why we do it, and why we care. But for every Sherlockian, for every fan of Oz, for every child that never really left Wonderland, the real mystery is: why don’t you understand?
Additional information about The Sherlockian can be found on Graham Moore’s blog, or follow him on Twitter.