The reader’s trust was broken

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz. Orion Books, 2011.

This post is a grumble, I suppose. I started reading the book in good faith, wanting a quick and smooth read to pass a few hours on Christmas Day.

I’ve read all the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and many other gas-lit and foggy stories of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from the Strand Magazine and elsewhere. I’ve also read a fair number of books for and about children in this period – the Cat Royal books set by Julia Golding in the 1790s, Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart historical thrillers and his books about the New Cut Gang, for example.

I’m used to the writing of the period, and to books set in the period. I know that Americans do occasionally turn up in these books.

All was going well as I lay reading in front of the fire. Sherlock Holmes had met a man’s wife. He said to her, ‘We will examine the safe and the study momentarily. But before we do so, Mrs Carstairs, I can tell from your accent that you are American.’ (p49)

And a big bell clanged in my head.

By ‘momentarily’ was meant ‘in a moment’. ‘Momentarily’ is not the word Sherlock Holmes would use for this, surely. Firstly, it is an American usage and secondly, comments on the Merriam-Webster website suggest it is new and stems from wrong usage.

Why did Horowitz use ‘momentarily’, when he tells us that one of the ten rules he set out for himself in writing The House of Silk was ‘use the right language’? (p403) Here are the possibilities, as I see them.

a. Sherlock Holmes used this word as he was speaking to an American and he wanted to make her feel at home. Unlikely, as Holmes is simply not that kind of person and, anyway, it is a new usage.

b. This word is a normal part of Holmes’s British English nineteenth / early twentieth century vocabulary. No, it isn’t.

c. In normal British English today, this word does actually mean ‘in a moment’. No, it doesn’t. For the majority of people, across most of the country, it means ‘for a very short period of time’, ‘for a moment’.

d. It is a signal to North American readers in the large North American book market that this book is OK and is for them. That they can relax and enjoy the story. Yes, this is what I think and what I thought, immediately I read that sentence.

The inelegant, clunky way in which the author acknowledges his large potential North American readership broke the flow of my reading. It made me notice and be niggled by all the small editing mistakes I found later in the book. It made me notice the walk-on appearance of Raymond Chandler as author on p88: ‘It was a fairly dismal place with tattered curtains, a mouldering carpet and a bed that looked more exhausted than anyone who might have attempted to sleep in it.’

It made me see the book not as a story but as a calculating money-making venture by the Conan Doyle Estate and Horowitz, a view confirmed when child abuse by men in high places was revealed as the mystery’s linking thread. It broke the trust between the book and me, the reader.

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