The canon of study on Sherlock Holmes exceeds the canon of the prototypical super sleuth itself. To think that you would succeed at channeling his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and to embroil him in a murder mystery while emulating the master craftsman’s methods, a writer must be either naïve or audacious.
The same could be said about the amateur sleuth in Graham Moore’s impressive debut novel, “The Sherlockian.” Like Moore, a 29-year-old Chicago native, Harold White is one of the youngest members to be inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars, the preeminent gang of Holmes devotees in all of Sherlockia. It’s 2010, and one of its foremost scholars, Alex Cale, who was set to announce his discovery of the long-lost diary of Conan Doyle, is found strangled. The game is afoot to track down the diary, which was written in a three-month span during what Sherlockians call The Great Hiatus, the seven year black mark between Holmes’ death and his resurrection. Alternating chapters, Moore then goes back to that period in 1900, where Arthur Conan Doyle enlists the help of his real-life friend and Dracula creator, Bram Stoker, to track down the killer of young female suffragists.
The twin mysteries, with Harold using the methods employed in the Holmes’ stories, and with Conan Doyle set on killing Holmes even as he’s embodying him, inform the alternating time jumps. It’s a clever construction, replete with the hallmarks of the genre—like a protagonist with no life outside of his obsession—and a dizzying blend of suspenseful fiction and historical fact. It’s true that Conan Doyle helped Scotland Yard, and it’s true that a leading Sherlockian was strangled in 2004 over the discovery of missing Conan Doyle papers. As the shuffling deck intensifies, the factual pales to the mysteries, which, despite some of their expediencies, are illuminating and enchanting. The reader’s aim is no different than the detective’s: to understand. After all, as Moore cites Conan Doyle, “Crime is common. Logic is rare.” (Robert Duffer)
By Graham Moore
Twelve Books, $24.99, 350 pages