“You know my methods. Apply them!”

The Sherlockian
by Graham Moore
NY: Twelve, 2010; 368pp

Sherlock Holmes, London’s world-famous “consulting detective,” might not have been this popular since his heyday in the late nineteenth century. Robert Downey, Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller are all currently essaying the sleuth onscreen; Ian McKellen waits in the wings with 2015’s intriguing Mr. Holmes. Graham Moore, who’s about to experience his first major cinematic success with the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, starring Cumberbatch, was one of the first out of the gate in this latest round of Holmesmania with his 2010 novel The Sherlockian. A book for the kinda people who’d take pleasure in noting the erroneous reference to The Sign of Four in the New York Times review (The Sign of the Four, Janet Maslin!), it’s both a clever pastiche and a gripping mystery.

Moore’s inspiration is the question-mark hanging over the lacunae in Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s real-life papers. Upon his death in 1930, it was discovered that a number of unfinished stories, some letters, and an entire volume of his diary were missing. In The Sherlockian, the key document is the diary, which apparently pertains to the last three months of 1900. This is the period during which, not coincidentally, the writer was toying with the resurrection of his most famous creation, whom he’d killed off in the Strand Magazine seven years earlier. What readers wanted to know, when Holmes eventually returned, was what had happened to the great detective while he was gone. What Moore asks is, what happened to Conan Doyle?

A classic image of Holmes and Moriarty locked in mortal combat from the Strand Magazine (1893) by Sidney Paget

In alternate chapters, we watch Conan Doyle as he becomes embroiled in revolutionary feminism, strategic transvestitism, and (inevitably) vile and bloody murder. The rest of the time, we’re following Harold White, the newest inductee in the Baker Street Irregulars, “the world’s preeminent organization devoted to the study of Sherlock Holmes,” as he investigates the present-day murder of one of his fellow Sherlockians. Because it seems, at least initially, that the world is on the verge of discovering what those missing months held for Conan Doyle. Alex Cale, another Irregular, has devoted a sizeable inheritance and a lifetime of searching to unravelling the mystery, and arrives at a convention of Sherlockians in New York at the start of the book to announce his findings. But Cale is not long for this world. Within a few short pages our hero Harold is faced with a conundrum worthy of Holmes himself: a hotel room locked from the inside, a man — Cale — strangled by his own shoelaces, and a single word scrawled in blood on the wall: “ELEMENTARY.” So begins an international search for both Alex’s killer and the missing diary, one which will take Harold all the way to the Reichenbach Falls, where Holmes had himself once seemed to meet his end, locked in mortal combat with Professor Moriarty…

Pleasures abound in The Sherlockian, especially for Holmes fans. Most chapters begin with a choice quote from Conan Doyle’s originals (a reminder of what an elegant stylist he was), while the modern-day sequences are liberally sprinkled with exegetical passages concerning the canon. The bloody word on the wall, for instance, is a reference to A Study in Scarlet. Harold’s encyclopedic knowledge proves critical to following all the elaborate clues Alex’s killer left behind. The Victorian-era passages, meanwhile, are animated by Moore’s humorous pastiches of Doyle’s London — dead “dollymops,” gallows and darbies, elaborate disguises, hansom cabs… Further jest arrives in the form of Bram Stoker — playing Watson to Conan Doyle’s Holmes — whose own literary career in 1900 had faltered at the blood-sucking “Count What’s-His-Name” and a job pandering to Henry Irving at the Lyceum.

Moore’s vision of late-Victorian London is one of a world on the verge of seismic shift. Gloomy gaslight is gradually giving way to the electric bulb, just as Holmes’s brand of detection was lighting the path to modern forensics. Despite the patent horrors of life in 1900 — the lack of universal suffrage, prevalence of prostitution, and so on — one gets the impression that Moore is speaking pretty directly through Harold when he describes the appeal of the early Holmes stories:

“Imagine the scene: It’s pouring rain against a thick window. Outside, on Baker Street, the light from the gas lamps is so weak that it barely reaches the pavement. A fog swirls in the air, and the gas gives it a pale yellow glow. Mystery breeds in every darkened corner, in every darkened room. And a man steps out into that dim, foggy world, and he can tell you the story of your life by the cut of your shirtsleeves. He can shine a light into the dimness, with only his intellect and his tobacco smoke to help him. Now. Tell me that’s not awfully romantic?”

Sherlock Holmes’s ability to rationalise the chaos and violence of life is no doubt a major part of his enduring appeal. “It has long been an axiom of mine,” he says in “A Case of Identity,” “that the little things are infinitely the most important.” If you get the little things straight, all else follows. The notion of a logical world is very attractive. But there may be merit, as Moore seems to suggest in the closing pages of this cartwheeling thriller, to leaving some mysteries unsolved. Can what happened to Conan Doyle in the winter of 1900 really explain the return of Sherlock Holmes? Isn’t it better that such an explanation, if it were truly to exist, go the way of Holmes and Moriarty at the end of “The Final Problem”?

We’re delighted that Graham is one of our Seriously Entertaining guests at No Satisfaction on November 17 at City Winery alongside Ruby WaxHooman MajdDan Povenmire, and Philip Gourevitch.


Graham Moore published his debut novel, the New York Times best seller The Sherlockian, in 2010. The following year his screenplay The Imitation Game topped the Black List survey of Hollywood’s best unproduced scripts. It was later picked up by the Weinstein Company, which will release the movie on November 28 in the US. The Imitation Game stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the British mathematician and pioneering computer scientist whose work was critical in cracking the Enigma Code for the Allies during the Second World War. Moore is currently working on another novel and recently finished a screen adaptation of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

The Bon Mots of Michael Riedel

riedelNothing generates as much excitement around town as a smash hit musical. Or, if you’re a bit of a vulture (and I am), a complete fiasco wherein millions of dollars are lost, people are at one another’s throats and reputations are ruined.

— Michael Riedel, in an article from September 2003

Michael Riedel was our guest at last week’s Seriously Entertaining “Are You For Sale?” at City Winery. He spoke with wit and love of the late Jacques le Sourd, a critic-colleague of his whom he had known for many years. (In)famous for his outspoken, occasionally outrageous criticism, Riedel has worked as theatre critic for the New York Post for more than 15 years. To celebrate his SpeakEasy debut, we take a look at his work in the Post and on his PBS show Theater Talk.

‘Bullets Over Broadway’ on target to kill at Tonys

A recent one to kick off, covering the musical adaptation of Woody Allen’s 1994 movie Bullets Over Broadway, which is currently in previews at the St. James Theatre. Part of what makes Riedel’s work so entertaining is his acknowledgement of his own reputation. It was there in his work on the TV show Smash, whose writers referred to him as a “Napoleonic little Nazi” before asking him for a cameo. In this piece on the new sensation-in-waiting, he is full of prophecy: “‘Bullets Over Broadway’ has been in previews just three days, and already those in the know — that would be me! — are sensing it’s the show to beat this season…”

First ‘Spider-Man’ preview filled with problems

Riedel’s perverse advocacy of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has been going on since before previews began in 2010. What he nows calls his “favourite show of all time” has certainly given him a lot of material, as in this marvellous piece from November 2010:

[He was] supposed to fly off in a dramatic end to the first act. Instead, Spider-Man got stuck in midair and swung back and forth over the crowd as three stagehands leaped up and down futilely trying to grab onto one of his feet to haul him back to earth.

‘Taboo’ Postmortem: Who & What Went Wrong

When asked for a comment on Riedel, Rosie O’Donnell, who produced Taboo, told New York Magazine, “I hope you eviscerate him”. Reading this delicately constructed devastation of a piece from 2004, one can perhaps see why:

There are no “villains” in this story, really – just a volatile, distracted and ultimately ineffectual producer; a weak director; a timid bookwriter who watched his key scenes get cut because they couldn’t be acted or directed properly; and a star, Boy George, who wrote a fine score (let’s give him his due) but wasn’t much of an actor.

Diva Amanda Plummer ‘a nightmare’ backstage

Riedel has long had J. Edgarish access to backstage gossip, and his articles are heavily spiced with chat overheard from the aisles and passages of Broadway’s theatres. In this gloriously telltale piece, he takes a candid look at Amanda Plummer’s appearance in Tennessee Williams’ The Two-Character Play last year:

As for Dad [actor Christopher Plummer], he attended a later performance — but left at intermission. “I just have to go,” he muttered to a theater staffer. “Don’t let her know.”

Theater Talk
Happy 21st birthday to Theater Talk, the PBS show Riedel co-presents with Susan Haskins. It’s a fantastic show comprising long, in-depth interviews with the top talent on Broadway and the critics who take them apart. Recent guests have included Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein on Kinky Boots and knights Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart on No Man’s Land and Waiting for Godot.

“Your show made my name in this business, and I am grateful, truly grateful.” So says Riedel to Glen Berger, co-writer of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and the author of the backstage chronicle The Song of Spider-Man, in a Theater Talk from late last year. This is the first of a two-part interview with Berger on the publication of his book lifting the lid on the process of bringing Spider-Man to the stage. Did you know Neil Jordan was once attached to the show? Watch on, dear friends…