In 1893, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle plotted to kill one of the most famous people in the world. Since Sherlock Holmes was a fictional character he created, the legal repercussions were nil.
But in The Sherlockian, the death of the great detective so outrages his fans that one day, Doyle receives a letter bomb. He and Dracula author Bram Stoker launch an investigation, but more than a century later, a group of fans finds the mystery has only grown.
The new novel is author Graham Moore's first. It flips back and forth between centuries as Doyle and Stoker, then the "Baker Street Irregulars" look for clues. Moore tells Weekend Edition host Scott Simon his book might be fictional, but the murder the story opens with is real.
"In 2004, a man named Richard Green — who was a wonderful Holmes scholar — was found dead under very mysterious circumstances," Moore says. In The Sherlockian, the world's leading Sherlock Holmes expert is discovered choked with his own shoelaces. The murder mystery leads a group of scholars and obsessives to put their own detective skills to the test — just as it happened in 2004.
"Sure enough, various Sherlockians went to try and solve the crime," Moore says. Of course, what self-respecting mystery fan wouldn't?
Moore's own fascination with mysteries began in childhood, learning to read by passing Agatha Christie novels back and forth with his mother. Like every mystery fan, Moore always wondered if he could solve mysteries, too. "I think that everybody says, 'Yeah, I probably could,'" he says.
In his novel, Moore gives two amateur detectives that chance to sleuth their way through real crimes: Doyle and Harold White, a modern-day Sherlock Holmes fan who wears drip-dry suits and works in a Hollywood film factory.
"You take Harold White, a literary scholar, he's read all of the Holmes stories, and you take Conan Doyle, who wrote all of the stories, and they each try to best Holmes," Moore says. "[They] meet with varying levels of success."
Doyle's competition with his own creation isn't fictional, either. Moore studied Doyle's personal correspondence as well as several biographies, and actually, the author despised Sherlock Holmes.
"He resented Holmes for being more famous than he was," Moore says. "He resented, in some ways, his own fans for adoring Holmes as much as they did. He delighted in killing off the characters as early as he did."
But Holmes' death didn't kill his legend. Moore says people are attracted to Sherlock Holmes and the entire mystery genre because it's comforting to think there's reason and cause behind life's events.
"When I think of Sherlock Holmes, I think of a guy who can wander into the confusion of life and sort of pluck out answers at will," Moore says.
"The enduring appeal of mystery stories for all of us is that the world is a pretty confusing place. There's a lot of really unanswered things, and perhaps the scariest notion would be that there might not always be answers out there for us."