Within 90 minutes of being asked to write the first official Sherlock Holmes mystery since Conan Doyle, Anthony Horowitz had the plot. DAVID ROBINSON meets a one-man publishing phenomenon
SUPPOSE, for a moment, that you are a writer. A man offers to take you out for lunch to a tapas restaurant in Soho where he promises he has an interesting proposition to put to you.
And he’s right: he does. Over lunch, he reveals that he represents the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle. How would you feel, he asks, about writing the first new Sherlock Holmes novel for almost a century?
Before you answer, allow me to spell out a few facts. First, this is probably the world’s most famous fictional character: no other one, for example, has featured in as many films (211). Secondly, that not only are there masses of Holmes fans, but they are a notoriously picky bunch: get anything wrong and they would delight in tearing apart your pathetic attempt to follow in ACD’s hallowed footsteps. Finally, in case you still do not understand the magnitude of what is being offered to you, let me spell it out. This offer has never before been made to any other writer. Just you. Now, whaddya say?
If you are Anthony Horowitz, you hesitate. You search for reasons not to do it. That there’s a bit of a Doyle bandwagon, what with the Sherlock film and a whole pile of other books. You don’t want people to think you’re cashing in. You think some other sequels haven’t... well let’s just say, they’ve been a bit disappointing.
But here’s the most important, truest reason. It’s the end of September, 2010 and you’ve never been busier. When the man across the table at the Soho tapas restaurant makes his offer, the amount of work you have on the stocks is more than many writers get through in their lives. That script for the Tintin sequel for Stephen Spielberg and Peter Jackson. The one for Warner Brothers about Arsène Lupin. The last children’s novel in the Power of Five series, the one you’ve been trying to finish for far too long. The ten-part drama series for ITV that you really can’t put on the backburner for the simple reason that your wife is the producer.
You hesitate for about five seconds. You say yes.
“Because it’s Sherlock Holmes!” Anthony Horowitz explains, beaming. It is a year and a month later, and a copy of The House of Silk, the novel that was the result of that meeting, lies on the table between us. He is in his study at his Clerkenwell home, in front of the computer on which he has written so many of his TV dramas (Foyle’s War, Midsomer Murders, Poirot) and the Alex Rider series that made him Britain’s favourite male children’s writer. And, now, the first person to write a “proper” Sherlock Holmes novel since Arthur Conan Doyle. Wasn’t he intimidated?
“If I had been intimidated or had doubts, I wouldn’t have done it. But look, I’ve spent more than 30 years writing murder mysteries and detective series of one sort or another, whodunits, puzzles, riddles. It all began with Holmes. I can honestly say I owe a huge part of my career to Doyle.” And what about all those Sherlock Holmes obsessives just waiting to pounce if you’ve got the slightest thing wrong? “Let them pick away. If that’s what gives them fun, fine.”
Did you at least let the Doyle estate people check The House of Silk for inaccuracies, neologisms, contradictions, discrepancies?
“No,” he says breezily. “On the contrary, I told them the only way I would accept the commission is if I was left completely alone. I didn’t want to know anything about the financial arrangements, I didn’t want to receive any notes from them, I didn’t even want to show them the book. I said I would write it, deliver it, and that would be that. As far as I know, they haven’t even read it yet.”
Attentive readers might have deduced by now that Anthony Horowitz doesn’t suffer from a lack of self-confidence. Given that he is also rich, handsome, happily married, adores his job and looks about 15 years younger than his age (he’s 55), this makes him particularly annoying. Or it would do, were he also not also one of the most charming people you’ll ever meet.
The House of Silk has a lot of that self-confidence too. The case, Watson tells us in the introduction, is “the most sensational of Sherlock Holmes’s career”. Because of this, he has written it up and deposited it with his lawyer, to be opened in 100 years. The events were “simply too monstrous … to appear in print” while some of the protagonists were alive.
And so, the bar being set even higher than Conan Doyle ever attempted, we move on. Holmes has died – we are not told how and when, but this gives a certain wistfulness to Watson’s writing. An added confidence too. He knows he never before described the London “nether world” from which the street urchins sprang who became Holmes’s “Baker Street Irregulars”, but now he will. He knows Holmes was usually dismissive of Inspector Lestrade’s rationations, but here Watson puts on record that George (note to Holmesians: we never knew his first name before) was actually a pretty sound chap, and did solve quite a few cases by himself. Lestrade, we are told, actually ended up as assistant commissioner, even though many of the cases he cracked were really solved by you-know-who.
The House of Silk case could well be one of them. But what is the House of Silk? A drug-smuggling cartel? If that’s all, why should Mycroft Holmes (another note to Holmesians: here making his first recorded visit to 221B Baker Street) warn his younger brother to drop the case? And what is any of that to do with the murder of a blackmailing American gangster in a Bermondsey lodging house?
The story speeds along like a hard-driven phaeton. Apart from the very occasional modern-sounding phrase, Doyle’s fictive world is evoked with skill and clarity. From a writer of Horowitz’s narrative flair, this isn’t too unexpected. For what is, I suggest we go back to that Soho tapas restaurant meeting a year and a month ago. And look at the speed of what happened next.
After the five seconds it took Horowitz to decide to accept the Doyle Estate’s commission (he was, incidentally, their first choice), the plot itself started to fall into place remarkably quickly. “By the end of that meeting,” Horowitz tells me, “ I had most of it in my head.” That, dear reader, was a mere hour and a half.
Then there’s the writing. Insofar as Horowitz seems to have agonised over anything, it was over the first five pages of the introduction. Had he got Watson’s voice absolutely right? Did it sound convincing? He rewrote it five or six times and took it round to his editor at Orion. It passed the test. After that, the brakes were off. “Normally it takes me seven months to a year to write a novel – and a lot of that time is spent structuring the plot and worrying about it. But with this one – well, I’ve never written anything like it. It sounds pretentious, and I don’t believe in this sort of thing but … you know Doyle believed very much in spiritualism, in communicating beyond the grave? Well, I don’t. But sometimes it was as though he was just standing watching me. I never had to search for language, I never had to worry about characters. It all just happened. I’ve never written anything else like it.”
He’d finished the whole book by January – writing it, as well as re-reading the whole Holmes canon. The brief he’d set himself at the end of September had been a paradox: he had to be original, to bring a 21st-century sensibility to the plotting, to offer something more than pastiche, at the same time as staying absolutely true to the spirit of the books.
Right from the start, he had the outline of the plot. “I always start by trying to find the answer to a question. The question here was ‘Why haven’t we heard of this story before?’ At that first lunch, I’d worked that out. I also knew that the Baker Street Irregulars would have to be there too because that fitted in with my own children’s writing, and I’d worked out how to get Moriarty in.”
Back home at the computer, everything flowed. “It was like playing with the most fantastic train set in the world. You’re being invited into the world of Holmes and Watson, two of the greatest characters in British fiction. And you follow them into their world of Victorian London, and it’s all there in front of you. When I write an Alex Rider novel, I have to invent all his gadgets, but here, everything has already been done for me. I’ve got Mycroft, I have Mrs Hudson the housekeeper, I have Moriarty the villain. And if I want, I can plunder the stories for minor characters too. There’s such a richness there, it’s an embarras de choix. All I’ve got to do, is to come up with a story that brings them all together – and structure and story is something that I have been doing for all my adult life.”
That’s why he doesn’t fear the Holmesian purists. “Maybe they will find mistakes – but if they do, I’ve got the perfect defence. Doyle made mistakes too. Although some people have tried to find one, there’s no proper chronology in the books, for example, no timeline that actually works. But there are things that are much more important about Holmes and Watson – the ethos, the friendship, their world, the language and spirit of the books. And I can’t believe that there will be Holmes fans who will not be pleased with what I have done.”
See that self-confidence? Or is it arrogance? When he first met his wife, that’s what she thought about him. They were both working in advertising; she as an account director, he as a copywriter. He’d written a children’s book, and she made some rude joke about its poor sales. “And that was the beginning of a very feisty relationship filled with mutual suspicion and dislike,” he says. There was one complicating factor. In the middle of their first row he realised that he’d rather like to marry her.
“She thought I was bullish and arrogant and I wouldn’t listen to her. But I loved the fact that she stood up against me. Because I can be forceful when I think I’m right. I was 100 per cent forceful about how I wanted to write this book, for example, and I wouldn’t take advice from anyone and wouldn’t listen to the estate.
“But it had to be that way. It was just me and Doyle. He’s a great writer. I had to really raise my game to be true to him and true to Holmes. I’m nowhere near as good a writer, but I just had to erase my ego and just try to serve his books.”
There’s a contradiction there, I suggest: someone who is forceful – or even, as his wife once thought, arrogant – and a writer who wants to erase his ego in his writing? “The difference is that I am writing someone else’s characters. I just want to be like glass, or invisible. The true arrogance would be to say, Doyle didn’t do it quite right, I can do better. And if I felt that, I could have invented an entire childhood for Sherlock Holmes, I could have looked at what made him a detective, or, like Nicholas Meyer in The Seven Percent Solution, I could have Holmes psychoanalysed by Freud. But I’m old enough and wise enough to know better and to serve the book.”
This will, he says, be the only Sherlock Holmes book he will write for the Conan Doyle Estate. There’s not been a fall-out, it’s just that he knows The House of Silk is the best possible book he could have written and he fears that if he did another Holmes book it would be measured against this and very probably found wanting.
He does, however, have a great idea for another novel set around the same time. It might even feature a fleeting appearance by Sherlock Holmes, but it won’t be a Holmes novel. “I don’t want to talk about it, because I won’t even get round to writing it before November next year, but – trust me, it’s going to be even better. I’ve got an idea for it in my head which makes me smile when I think of it.”
In the meanwhile, there are all those Hollywood films, all those TV plays, to write. “But you know what I think the best thing I can say about my work is? I’ve been writing for 35 years, and every day that I come up the stairs to this room to write - every day, I still get the same thrill from writing.”
• The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz, is published next week by Orion, priced £18.99