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Book Review

One novel — two mysteries

Holmes-inspired story lines set in different eras

AP/FILE In Graham Moore’s new novel, “The Sherlockian,’’ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (above) is one of the characters trying to solve a mystery in one of two story lines.
AP/FILE
In Graham Moore’s new novel, “The Sherlockian,’’ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (above) is one of the characters trying to solve a mystery in one of two story lines. (AP/File)
By Diane White
January 3, 2011

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With his first novel Graham Moore joins the ranks of writers who, over the years, have sought to add to the Sherlock Holmes legend. “The Sherlockian’’ unfolds in two separate but related stories, told in alternating chapters.

In the first, set in the late Victorian era, the detective is not Holmes, but his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, assisted by his friend, theater manager Bram Stoker, soon to be famous as the author of “Dracula.’’ The novel opens with Doyle gazing into the chasm below the Reichenbach Falls and vowing to kill off his most famous creation: “To put it frankly, I hate him. And for my own sanity, I will soon see him dead.’’

The second story line, set in 2010, finds Harold White, a geeky young Holmes enthusiast, being inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars, a prestigious, invitation-only society devoted to the study of Sherlock Holmes. Harold barely has had time to celebrate when he is caught up in a real mystery, the murder of Alex Cale, a leading Holmes scholar who claimed to have discovered “the Holy Grail of Sherlockian studies,’’ Doyle’s lost diary.

The fictional crime is modeled on the 2004 murder, still unsolved, of Holmes scholar Richard Lancelyn Green, after he announced that he had found Doyle’s lost diary. In “The Sherlockian,’’ Cale is discovered dead in his hotel room, strangled with his own shoelace. On the wall, the word “Elementary’’ is written, in blood. The diary is nowhere to be found.

Both tales could be a good deal more ripping. The modern story is hampered by a central character who is meant to be endearingly eccentric but who comes across as obsessive, socially inept, and unattractive. The atmospheric Victorian era story has, in Doyle, an interesting central character but the plot, involving a serial killer preying on young women suffragists, is labored and unconvincing.

Harold, a Princeton graduate, champion speed-reader, and freelance literary researcher employed in the film industry, is described as 29 years old, with a slight belly, thick eyebrows, astigmatism, and “sweaty, shivering hands.’’ Plus he wears a cheap suit and a deerstalker. Heroes don’t have to be perfect — Holmes himself was famously flawed — but this one is creepy. Harold is thrown together with Sarah Lindsay, an enigmatic young woman who claims to be a reporter, and the two are drawn into an international quest for the diary and for Cale’s murderer. There is a singular lack of chemistry between the two, not just sexual chemistry, but any kind of rapport.

Moore makes interesting use of the details of Doyle’s life in the process of transforming him into a fictional character. He takes some liberties, though. For example, it’s difficult to imagine even a fictional Doyle shaving his “inch-thick’’ mustache and wearing a dress to infiltrate a suffragist meeting, but the scene probably will play well in the inevitable movie version.

In 1893 Doyle succeeded in killing off Sherlock Holmes. The detective’s followers were outraged. They reviled and threatened Doyle, and some went into mourning. Gradually the furor subsided. In the novel, seven years after Doyle sent Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls, a letter bomb arrives in the author’s mail with an envelope bearing the single word, “Elementary.’’ The bomb destroys his study, but he is unharmed. When the police refuse to take the threat seriously, Doyle decides to pursue the case himself.

In real life Doyle involved himself in investigating crimes, with some success, using the methods of observation and deduction made famous by his own creation. The shadow of Sherlock Holmes hovers over this latest homage to the immortal detective, pointing the way back to the original stories.

Diane White is a freelance writer in Georgetown, Ky., and can be reached at duxwhite@aol.com.

THE SHERLOCKIAN By Graham Moore

Twelve, 350 pp., $24.99