The Holmes Affair, by Graham Moore


Having freed himself of Sherlock Holmes by shoving him over the Reichenbach Falls, Arthur (pre-knighthood) Conan Doyle has turned his attention to writing what he considers proper literature, that is historical realism.  Unfortunately he finds, to his mounting exasperation, that the public just won’t let him forget his most famous creation.  He also finds himself the target of a bomb sent by suffragettes, against whose opinions he had spoken publicly.  His annoyance increased by the incompetence of the Metropolitan Police, he decides to take matters into his own hands.  So begins his investigation of a mystery which turns into a murder enquiry, with Conan Doyle, partnered by Dracula author Bram Stoker, following the trail through London’s East End. He proves himself the equal of his detective creation, though he discovers that life is not quite as neat as fiction when interpreting evidence, or deciding on actions arising from that evidence.

In parallel, in 2010 Alex Cale, a leading English Sherlockian – Sherlockians generally being a body who adhere to the pointless conceit that Holmes was real and Conan Doyle was merely John Watson’s literary agent, and who are obsessive in their study of the Holmes stories – has claimed to have discovered a long-lost diary kept by Conan Doyle (which so happens to cover the period in the novel’s other strand).  Cale is about to reveal the contents to a gathering of the Sherlockian organisation the Baker Street Irregulars in New York City, but unfortunately before he can do so he is found dead in his hotel room.  There is no sign of the diary, but there are clues that have meaning for scholars of the Canon, and point to a Sherlockian as the murderer.

Coincidentally, young Harold White has just been inducted into the Irregulars, and so is on the spot.  Sebastian Conan Doyle, fictional great-grandson of Arthur, hires him to find the diary, the MacGuffin that drives the modern-day part of the plot.  Harold hooks up with a journalist, Sarah, who wants to write a story on the death and the diary, and the pair travel to England in search of clues.  Harold has one of the best jobs in the world; he is a freelance literary researcher, working for film studios in Hollywood who wish to protect themselves against plagiarism suits.  That means he is astonishingly well read and with an extremely retentive memory, certainly a useful skill for a detective following literary clues.  He also proves himself adept at following Holmes’ methods of logic, though he leaves something to be desired in the interpersonal skills department.

This is a cleverly constructed, if implausible novel (even without his moustache I do not believe that Conan Doyle would have made a convincing woman, however well-made up he was) which alternates between the two time periods, and as you would expect, they converge to a satisfying if rather melancholy conclusion as we discover the significance of the diary.  It is a story of obsession and loss, and a demonstration of how fantasy can pathologically seem more real than reality itself.  The writing often sparkles and the dual narratives allow tension to build satisfyingly.  The portrait of the Irregulars rings true, as Moore received a great deal of assistance from insiders on the feverish politics of Holmes scholarship.  As indicated in an afterword, the death of Cale is modelled (very loosely) on that of Richard Lancelyn Green in 2004, which might be considered in poor taste.

Unfortunately however, the expert advice did not extend to the descriptions of life in England, even though the bulk of the novel is set there.  Despite the enjoyable plotting, Moore lets himself down terribly on details, and this novel will appeal more to an American audience – less likely to notice the infelicities – than an English one.  The Americanisms are actually quite offensive.  Young English women in 1900 would hardly be likely to have even heard the expression ‘faucet’, let alone use it as a play on Millicent Fawcett’s name.  An English academic would not use ‘fall’ instead of ‘autumn’ in conversation, nor would an English suffragette.  Trains from King’s Cross to Cambridge do not have “cabins”:  Harold would have sat in a first-class compartment in a carriage.  His editor should have picked up such carelessness, which betrays a certain contempt for Moore’s British readers.

There are numerous errors of fact as well. When you read about a Victorian policeman who tips his cap you might be puzzled, given that they wore helmets.  But the errors mount up.  Moore makes a mess of translating the number of pennies in a Victorian shilling: he says that there are five, obviously thinking of five new pence, whereas there are twelve.  Westminster Abbey, we learn, has a spire.  Lambeth Palace, now The Lambeth Palace, is the office of the ‘Vicar-General’ (a somewhat Roman Catholic title), and “the marriage desk” there is improbably staffed by a friar.

Weirdly Conan Doyle’s train from Stepney deposits him not at Fenchurch Street but at Waterloo (wrong side of the river).  He passes from Kensington onto Lambeth Road (presumably that should have been Kennington).  I’ve yet to come across a London cab that was an automatic.  Even in 1900 somebody living in West Hampstead could by no stretch of the imagination be called a “simple country girl.”  In 2010, the Reader Registration Office at the British Library is not cramped, and there is no way that members of the public would be allowed to root around in the stacks.

When you meet a suffragette named Emily Davison, you assume that Moore has interwoven one more real character into the fiction, but confusingly the fate of this Emily is not that of the one who threw herself under the King’s horse during the 1913 Derby.  Is she a tribute to the real Davison, or was her name used on the assumption that readers would not know who the real one was?  Or was it sheer carelessness?  Either way it was unnecessary and distracting to give his character the same name as one of the best-known figures in the movement, one who suffered a much different fate.

There is more of this nonsense, and it spoils an enjoyable plot.  Some of the mistakes are so crass I assumed they must be clues of some kind for much of the book.  British readers need to be tolerant of the poor ear for English life and the sloppy research (though in other places he seems to have delved into the geography of Victorian London, which makes the errors all the more surprising).  Given how many novels inspired by Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or Victorian England in general, there are to choose from, I’m not sure why one should have to be tolerant.  The Holmes Affair was called The Sherlockian in its previous US release.  On balance, one rather wishes it had stayed there, at least while Moore did further research.

Why I think I am vexed so much is because Graham Moore has written a screenplay called The Imitation Game which was top of the 2011 Black List, and which sold to Warner Brothers for a seven-figure sum.  It is about Alan Turing, and jumps between periods, like The Holmes Affair does.  For some strange reason Leonardo DiCaprio was set to play the lead role, presumably why the script sold for as much as it did.  My concern is two-fold.  Firstly, there is a discussion of the merits of the script on the Scriptshadow blog which has the astonishing statement:

 “I think my biggest problem with this script was the homosexual stuff. One of the secrets Alan keeps is that he’s gay. My issue is that it doesn’t play into the story at all. It just seems to be another quirky attribute of Alan’s. And because it’s unnecessary, it starts to feel like Oscar bait. There’s a precedent for these misunderstood mathematical genius roles to win Oscars. And if you make him a homosexual, well that just beefs up the chances.”

A film about Alan Turing is which his homosexuality is “unnecessary”?  Having seen the superb Breaking the Code, I am not sure how anyone can make such a statement.  The idea that you portray Turing as a little bit gay as if it were some kind of slightly eccentric lifestyle choice, just to increase the chances of snagging an Oscar, I find deeply offensive.  My second concern is that on the evidence of The Holmes Affair, Moore seems to have little interest in the authentic depiction of England.  What will he make of the nuances of Turing’s tragic life?  At least Benedict Cumberbatch is now down to play Turing instead of DiCaprio, which is a hopeful sign.  He might insist that Turing’s sexuality be given the emphasis required to understand his personality, and he should be able to ensure that factual inaccuracies are ironed out.  The omens aren’t good though.


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