Anthony Horowitz is the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Alex Rider series of novels and the award-winning writer of Foyle’s War and Collision as well as many other film and television projects. He lives in London. He was in Toronto recently to talk about his new book The House of Silk, A Sherlock Holmes Novel published by Mulholland Books.
THE CJN: How did this all come about. Did you approach the Conan Doyle Estate or did they approach you?
Anthony Horowitz: They approached me. An agent representing the Conan Doyle Estate came to my house and asked if I’d be interested in writing a Sherlock Holmes novel. I knew I’d be interested. I’d read all his books when I was 16 or 17. [I accepted] with the condition that I’d know nothing about the Conan Doyle Estate—I didn’t want to meet with them, I didn’t want to show them my notes I didn’t want to tell them the story, I didn’t want them to read the manuscripts, I didn’t even want to have a financial agreement that was tied in with them. I just wanted to do it on my own. The reason for this is I had to write what I wanted to write not what other people want me to write.
THE CJN: And they obliged?
A.H. Yes. To be fair to them they were completely fine. I met with them afterwards, a few of them. They’re quite young people, they’re not austere, they’re not serious literary figures, they’re just people who happen to be related to Arthur Conan Doyle. They have limited control over the books anyways—anybody can write a Sherlock Holmes novel now because it’s out of copyright—but they do have a sort of moral guardianship and that’s what they were bestowing upon me.
THE CJN: Why do you think they picked you for this?
A.H. I’m not sure. My work is pretty well known. [Alex] Rider has sold millions of copies and it may well be they were trying to get a new generation trying to read Arthur Conan Doyle – that’s the sort of profile they want. I write the Foyle’s War historic detective series which at least has some kind of connection– albeit fairly tenuous– to Sherlock Holmes.
THE CJN: When you accepted this project, did you go back and re-read the books with a critical eye, or a different, studious, approach?
A.H. Yes. It was a fun thing to do, I hadn’t read them for 10-15 years and re-immersed myself and read the whole lot – all 56 short stories and 4 novellas– one after another and I had a pen in hand and I was circling and underlying and taking note of how it worked—the technique of the stories– as well as just enjoying them.
THE CJN: How long have you been working on this?
A.H. Not a long time at all. Started in October 2010 and finished in January 2011. Normally a book takes me a year. It was a very fast, very comfortable – I forbear to use the word easy, I don’t think writing is easy – but it was a very comfortable ride.
As soon as I was approached I had a lot of ideas –things seemed to me to be obvious from the start. This has to be a very dark story, had to be something with a scandalous and something Watson would not want to write about. It had to be two stories molded into one, It has to be 95,000 words long—the longest Holmes novel was 44 000 words, that was The Hound of the Baskervilles.
I’ ve had various ideas in my head for years. I carry ideas with me like other people carry, you know – whatever you have in your pocket –and it seemed to me immediately that the one or two ideas I had would work very well for this book. In particular I’ve known about the Cleveland Street Scandal for a long time. The House of Silk is based on a true scandal that took place in 1891 and I often thought there was an interesting story there to write and then when this was offered to me, I remember that.
THE CJN: Did the Conan Doyle Estate give you any feedback once it was done?
A.H. Yes. The ones that I’ve met have been universally positive and happy with the work that I’ve done. The Sherlock Holmes society, the people that I’ve spoke to there, have also given it a thumbs up.
THE CJN: The book begins with the premise that after Watson wrote the manuscript he kept it hidden away for 100 years.
A.H. That’s where you begin. Why is it that this book hasn’t been seen for a hundred years? It’s because there’s something that Watson wanted to hide. He’s compelled to write it to finish the collection. At the same time. I really liked the idea of Watson being old, looking back. I wanted it to be more introspective and to think more about the adventures and the friendship that he had with Holmes and his role in it.
THE CJN: What is it about Sherlock Holmes, do you think, that makes it still popular today, a hundred or so years later?
A.H. It’s the two characters and the relationship between them. First of all this is the greatest friendship in English literature, which I think is very compelling. The genius of Doyle was to place two opposites together and you get a man who is cold, aloof, irritating, a man I don’t think anybody will like if they met him somebody who is untidy, who has very little conversation, never reads, has no knowledge of politics who is a drug addict and to place with him an affable, loyal, warm heated, humane intelligent doctor, an everyman like you and me and then to create between them this extraordinary bond and friendship is remarkable and I think that’s why we like them.
I mean it’s also a fantastic world. It’s a brilliantly realized world that’s the other thing. No one quite describes 19th century London with such accuracy and the economy of Conan Doyle – he’s a very, very fine writer. And the byzantine and bizarre mysteries – that’s another aspect of it and together it’s an irresistible mixture, even though at least two of the novels and quite a lot of the stories aren’t really up to much. Doyle, as you know, was in and out of love with them and it shows.
THE CJN: Was there any anxiety when writing this book about whether or not Holmes’ fans would like it?
A.H. Sherlock Holmes means a great deal to an awful lot of people and has a very special place in their heart and I didn’t want to offend anyone. I didn’t want anybody to read the book and be irritated or to feel that I had somehow trashed their fondness for the books.
It was quite a challenge to write something fresh that was new and exciting and at the same time play it absolutely true to the original.
The first fan was myself and I love the stories. I wasn’t going to write something that annoyed me…[I wanted] to stay true to Doyle, not to try and improve on these books, my own take and have it become an Anthony Horowtiz book even though my name is on the cover. I remember reviewing a version of Oliver Twist some years ago where the writer had decided that the characters weren’t funny enough and she would give them new mannerisms and new traits and new jokes and that just infuriated me. You cant’ start an adaptation by saying you are a better writer than Dickens or Doyle.
THE CJN: What was the biggest challenge you faced?
A.H. I think the challenge to make the book longer and give it a modern sensibility; that is to say it must be a fast page-turner with surprises and twists and turns whilst remaining true to the 19th century language, idiom and atmosphere and structure of the books.
THE CJN: On the publisher’s Website [Mulhollandbooks.com] you write the “Top 10 rules about writing a Sherlock Holmes novel.” One of them is the “no car chase scene.” Why is that important? —Although, in the end you did end up having one?
A.H. [Laughs] I couldn’t resist having a carriage race at the end at least it. The ‘No car chase rule’ was sort of no Sherlock Holmes jumping off a stampeding horse onto the back of a carriage a la Robert Downey Junior. I’ve got no problem with those films; in fact I enjoyed them very much.
Again, it’s no tearing the envelope. Sherlock Holmes is a sedentary, cerebral character he’s also a lock picker, he goes into disguise, he does have occasional fights but I wanted to get to pure Sherlock Holmes. It’s a book for modern audiences and it’s also a book for purists.
THE CJN: You do throw in a few familiar characters. Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson and even a cameo from Moriatry. Was including him like that a bit of a tip of the hat to the character’s fans?
A.H. I could not possibly write a book without Moriarty being in. I couldn’t resist having him there. I thought about having him as the main villain but decided against it. First of all it seemed too obvious and secondly we know he survives. It felt somehow wrong, so I gave him a cameo. What I tend to do with the minor or lesser characters was to be a little surprising with all of them .You get a very loyal and intelligent Lestrade. The Baker Street regulars being seen in a completely different light to how Doyle used them Mycroft, I expanded a touch so you see a little more of him than you see in the books.
THE CJN: You say that one of the advantages you had writing this novel is that in addition to being a fan of Holmes you’re also a fan of 19th century literature. How important is that?
A.H. I’ve been immersed in 19th century literature all my life. I’ve read the whole of Dickens twice and I’ve read a lot of Trollop and my favourite writer is George Gissing who is a largely forgotten writer on account of his books being so bleak and don’t appeal to a modern audience—New Grub Street is my favourite novel of all time and Gissing very much informed the social side of House of Silk—things about child poverty and the difficult life many Londoners had. That reading informed very much the writing of this book.
THE CJN: You’re also no stranger to detective stories. You’ve written, I believe Hercule Poirot screenplays, am I right? How is writing Poirot different than writing Holmes?
A.H. Completely different. Agatha Christie is more interested in the mechanism of the crime. She’s brilliant in her own way at expanding the basic whodunit formula. Doyle does not write whodunits. I don’t think there is a single Sherlock Holmes story where the revelation at the end of who did it or why knocks you out. It’s not his style. Somebody said Sherlock Holmes stories aren’t mysteries at all, they’re more like horror stories, and there’s a certain truth in that. You’re talking about madness, subjugation, humiliation, revenge, deformation you know that’s the signature tunes of these stories and there’s no Sherlock Holmes stories that has suspects; theres no red herrings, it’s a completely different beast.
THE CJN: You’ve written a popular children’s series as well as some horror/thrillers…any thought to writing detective fiction now?
A.H. I’m going to do another 19th century thriller set in the world of Sherlock Holmes without having Sherlock Holmes appear in it, because I think it’s silly to repeat myself. I’ve done this once. I’m quite looking forward to that.
THE CJN: You’ve written horror and suspense, young adult books, TV shows, movies. You’re very prolific.
A.H. I love writing I am very passionate about it, I love what I do and I can’t stop myself. I find saying ‘no’ one of the hardest things.