“Did you guess the ending?” asks Anthony Horowitz, author of the new, official Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk, when I arrive to interview him. It’s his greatest hope for the book, he says, that readers don’t sniff out the denouement, and the story is full of red herrings and deepening plot lines as he works to misdirect the reader.
His house, in that 19th-century literary London heartland of Farringdon, all narrowing lanes and steamed-up pubs, is full of winking concealments too. A bookcase in the main room turns out to be a door, hiding a wooden staircase. In the lift is a sign reading “Please keep off the grass”, with its floor covered by an artificial carpet of the green stuff.
Talking on his sofa, his toes wiggling in his socks, Horowitz says: “To me life is, on the face of it, rather dull, and what makes life exciting is sort of the secrets that you are not allowed to know about… I like allusion. I like that ordinary things should always have secrets about them, I like the fact that you meet somebody and you don’t actually know them, that the front that they present to you, whether you are doing an interview like we are now, or whether you are having dinner with them, may hide some very disagreeable truths, and I like murder mystery writing for that reason, that it goes behind the curtains.”
His career, from writing his first play, aged nine, about Guy Fawkes, has been made by his ability to “go behind the curtains”, and includes writing or creating TV crime series including Foyle’s War, Poirot, and that twitchy-curtained favourite, Midsomer Murders, as well as recent psychological thriller Injustice. His bestselling children’s series, the Alex Rider books, charted the adventures of a teenage spy, and his Power of Five series – the final instalment of which he is working on as I arrive, declaring “I think I’ve cracked it!” – follows five teenagers battling against black magic and the sinister and powerful ‘Old Ones’.
His take on Holmes sees the legendary detective unveil a very dark truth. It is set in 1890, but written by Watson in 1915, looking back on the “most sensational” adventures of Holmes’ career, so terrible as to have been unrepeatable until years after the event. “There were very important decisions to make before I started writing the story,” says Horowitz. “The first one was ‘why does this exist? Why is it that 100 years after the last book is written do we suddenly discover there is a book called The House of Silk?’… It had to be something so dark, so horrible that he wouldn’t write about it [before].”
Horowitz says that, though he has been a fan of the legendary detective since he first read the stories as a teenager, he wasn’t, saying that he knew when he took it on that he “could learn from [Holmes creator Conan Doyle] and raise my game in order to do the job”.
The novel weaves together the titular mystery with another story thread, that of ‘The Man with the Flat-Cap’, and Horowitz said it took him four months to write: “I start with a shape, to me the most important thing in a book is its shape, what it’s going to look like. The House of Silk began with an ‘X’ shape and that is because there were two investigations, and there is a point of the stories at which without knowing it Holmes takes a wrong turning, so he’s starting with ‘The Man in the Flat Cap’ path, and then he hits by mistake The House of Silk path and goes the wrong way, gets to the end of it and solves it, and then has to get back to the beginning.”
His work in adapting others’ stories for the screen, as with Agatha Christie’s Poirot, has taught Horowitz not to embroider or improve on an already classic story or character: “The first job has been to make myself invisible… That’s why for example in The House of Silk, although it is a new story, there is no new information… it’s actually the world of the novels.”
Though Holmes, and his turns of phrase (“The game’s afoot…”) and mode of dress-think pipe and deerstalker-are engrained on the popular consciousness, Horowitz steered clear of hamming it up: “I think a pastiche comes with a smile, a homage is something a bit more serious, a bit more reverential. I don’t think I really wrote either to be honest with you, I think what I set out to do was to write a recreation, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious… I just wanted to write a good novel, you know, in the world of Doyle and in the style of Doyle, and his characters. I just really wanted to be Doyle.”
He won’t write another Holmes novel, he says, however tempting it would be, as “it would only be compared to the first one, better or worse than the first one, and I just didn’t want to set myself up for that”. However, he does say that he will write a mystery thriller set at the end of the 19th century, with the possibility that “Sherlock may make a brief appearance within its pages”.
Though Horowitz admits that in real life he feels he would be more of a Watson than a Holmes, he does display the same dogged dedication and delight in his profession as that most recognisable of sleuths: “Get up, write. That’s my routine. I don’t have hours, I don’t have times, I don’t have a sort of discipline… It’s what I love doing, so I write. I write all the time, I write whenever I can, I just write.”
As the interview closes, Horowitz waves me off, padding back to his office –“Back to Dubai!” and The Power of Five final instalment. He needn’t have worried about my guessing the ending to The House of Silk: I didn’t have an inkling, and he keeps me on my toes even as I travel down in the lift, hopping from one foot to the other as I try to “Keep off the Grass”.
The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz is out 3 November, published by Orion.