Sherlock Holmes is just the most visible figure in a sleuthing tradition that stretches from Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin to Dr. Gregory House, but more than any other professional epiphanizer, Holmes has taken on a life separate from his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In addition to occasionally being transplanted from his native 19th-century London and starring in numerous comic-book and film adaptations—including 1929’s The Return Of Sherlock Holmes, which introduced the world to “Elementary, my dear Watson”—the great detective has also spawned organizations like The Baker Street Irregulars, the group of feverishly fanboyish scholars at the center of Graham Moore’s debut novel, The Sherlockian.
Or maybe left-of-center is more accurate, since The Sherlockian is split down the middle. Half is historical fiction focused on the buddy-detective duo of Arthur Conan Doyle—who has just killed off Holmes in disgust—and Dracula-creator Bram Stoker. After an attempt on Doyle’s life by an enraged suffragette, the novelists become embroiled in a murder-mystery that would test the abilities of the great deducer himself. The other half of the book is set in the modern day and follows the newest initiate of The Baker Street Irregulars, Harold White, who finds his Watson in a spunky reporter named Sarah. Together, they embark on a red-herring-strewn twin investigation: Who offed the head of The Irregulars, and whatever happened to the long-lost diary that has become the Holy Grail for Doyle-enthusiasts?
The tantalizing lacuna and head-scratching murder-mysteries are doubly interesting because they’re all based on gruesomely true events, but while Moore is skillful in pushing the action forward, he makes only a cursory effort at braiding the narratives into a satisfying whole. Forgivable but frustrating at the outset, when both teams are gathering evidence and waxing philosophical on the appeal of detective fiction, the disconnect becomes book-flingingly annoying later on, when violent scuffles are a punch away from conclusion and dramatic revelations are on the tips of characters’ tongues, only to be stalled by the “To Be Continued” that occurs at every chapter break.
Delayed narrative pleasure is a hallmark of the genre, but at least Holmes had the decency to explain his thought processes after emerging from a cloud of opium smoke with fresh insight. In The Sherlockian, Arthur Conan Doyle and Harold White are prone to leaps of logic that see them vandalizing museums and shooting locks off doors, but the logical sequence that lead them to such erratic behavior often fails to satisfy: Their deductions are correct without necessarily being sound. Still, in spite of some flat characterization and a first-timer’s tendency toward overstatement, The Sherlockian has its dweeby charms. The detective play-acting is ridiculous, then infectious, and there’s the timeless appeal of the Sherlock stories themselves, which are mined for clues, epigrams, and that still-irresistible promise of a logical coherence that the world doesn’t actually possess.