Category Archives: Original Character

Andriacco, Dan. Rogues Gallery. London: MX Publishing, 2014

So. Got a question for you. Which do you prefer? Sir Arthur’s novels, or his short stories?

He wants you to say "the novels."

He wants you to say “the novels.”

The four Sherlock Holmes novels–namely, A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of [the] Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear– have some wonderful moments and great dialogue; I am particularly partial to Holmes’ and Watson’s meeting in STUD. However, I have to say that I am not overly fond of Conan Doyle’s technique of starting a story quickly, then dragging it back with a lengthy flashback in the middle of the book. In my opinion, his talents were better-suited to the short story format.* Other authors find it difficult to “think short” and do better when they have more time and space to explore their characters and slowly spin out the plot. It’s relatively rare, I think, to find a writer who can pull off both forms equally well.** Dan Andriacco achieves this feat in his latest Cody-McCabe release, Rogues Gallery.

Up until now, I have only reviewed Andriacco’s Cody-McCabe novels. Rogues Gallery  is a collection of two short stories and three novellas, all featuring the (as-yet) unpublished mystery writer, Jefferson Cody and his larger-than-life Sherlockian brother-in-law,  Professor Sebastian McCabe. Once again the whole gang is here, from police chief Oscar Hummel (now courting Cody’s PA, Annaliese Pokorny) to Cody’s new bride, former reporter (now editorial director) Lynda Teal. This is a good thing, too, as Erin, a small Ohio college town with an unusually high per capita murder rate, is about to get a lot bloodier.

First up is “Art in the Blood,” a novella which takes its title from Sherlock Holmes’ declaration to Watson that “art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.”***  As a college town, Erin has a small community of artists, including Cody’s sister (and Sebastian’s wife) Kate, a children’s book illustrator who has taken to working in stained glass. The Cody-McCabe clan is attending her first exhibit, part of a larger women’s art show at the Looney Ladies’ Gallery. The rest of the town also seems to be up for and evening of art, wine, and cheese platters, making for a long list of potential suspects when one attendee turns up with a corkscrew in his eye. Dr. Thurston Calder won’t be St. Benignus’ new art department head now, but was he dispatched by the competition, or someone else?

Jeff and Lynda rush from that adventure headlong into another (“The Revengers”) when, on the way to a Halloween party (for which they are dressed as The Avengers), they stop to help a mysterious figure in scrubs, waving frantically at them from the roadside.

Not these Avengers.

Not these Avengers.

These Avengers.

These Avengers.

Whoever it is apparently hasn’t heard of the Hippocratic Oath, however, because within minutes, Steed and Mrs. Peel find themselves bound on the floor of an empty house, staring at a timer set to tick away the last twenty minutes of their lives. Will they get out alive, or will the rest of their stories turn out to be past escapades, à la The Hound of  the Baskervilles?

Whichever it is, I won’t tell you. Won’t tell you who set the bomb, either.

Nyah.

Whoever the culprit was, they certainly don’t deserve a visit from Santa, but neither, it seems, does another member of Erin’s criminal class, who is just naughty enough to steal a pearl necklace from one of the town’s benefactresses. At a community Christmas Craft Show, no less. Again, both Cody and McCabe are there to take on the case, but one has to think that really, the citizens of Erin should be grateful no one dies in “Santa Crime.”

The same cannot be said of “A Cold Case,” however, and this time, it’s not an outsider who adds to the body count. No, Erin’s population drops by one when Jeff and Lynda, excited house hunters, open a chest-style freezer to find, not pre-made lasagnas, but a realtor. Apparently bludgeoned to death with a frozen salmon, Olivia Wanamaker had a bad marriage, at least one lover, and a Twitter feud with Erin’s mayor. Did one of these lead to her death? Or was her killer actually St Benignus’ unpopular provost, Ralph Pendergast?

Finally, what began with a Holmes quote, ends with a Holmes quote. “Dogs don’t make mistakes,” Holmes told Watson in “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place.”  People do, however, and in the collection’s final story, Cody finds himself coming to the defense of fellow aspiring mystery writer Ashley Crutcher, who claims she shot and killed her estranged husband by accident, having mistaken him for an intruder. It sounds like yet another episode of “Snapped”–until a jewel theft is thrown into the mix. Only Ranger knows what really happened, but unfortunately, he can’t talk.

Toby

One of the enjoyable things about following a series is seeing how both the characters–and their author–develop. When I first began reviewing Mr. Andriacco’s books, I found them creative and enjoyable, but there were occasional passages which read “rough” to me, or abrupt insertions that, while they illuminated the characters, interrupted the general flow of the story. Those have vanished, and these stories go down as smoothly as Lynda’s favorite bourbon.†  Although there are some dark and eerie moments–the gory corkscrew to the eye and a masked-and-gowned figure waving in the dark, for example–Jeff Cody’s conversational and unwittingly revealing narrative style keep the overall tone light, giving the book more of a “cozy” feeling, rather than that of an excursion into the darker sides of human nature. All of the regulars make an appearance, and it’s as nice to see some of the minor characters (such as Hummel and Pokorny) experiences some changes in their lives as it is to watch the still-besotted newlyweds. One of the drawbacks to having such a close-knit cast is that it is more difficult to play hide-the-murderer. Andriacco does his best to provide a long list of potential suspects amd motives, however, so I was only able to solve one case with certainty before the denouement. Whether long or short, each story was well-plotted and read quickly. If I found “Santa Crime” a teensy bit saccharine, it could be put down to the fact that I tend to fall on the Scroogish side of the holiday spirit spectrum. A long-time Sherlockian and member of a number of Sherlockian societies, Mr. Andriacco inserts enough canonical references throughout the book to entertain the knowledgeable reader without confusing the novice. He also provides enough background to keep Rogues Gallery a stand-alone work; one can jump right in without having read its predecessors. I would definitely recommend it to fans of the modern cozy.

Now, if only poor Jeff could get a book deal.

Rogues Gallery is available at some bricks-and-mortar stores, but is best obtained from your favorite online bookseller (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million) or directly from the MX site (www.mxpublishing.com, or http://www.mxpublishing.co.uk). As of this writing, it is not available as an ebook, but that should change. You can learn more about Dan Andriacco, his writing, and other Sherlockian tidbits at his website, bakerstreetbeat.blogspot.com.

Star Rating: 5/4

For canonicity, Rogues Gallery earns a 5, with 4 stars for being “well worth your time and money.”

Footnotes:

*I say this not having read his other novels–although I have read a lot of his horror shorts, his true crime articles, his autobiographical works and his spiritualist writing. At some point, I need to venture into his historical novels, the Lost World and its related works. So–have you read any of ACD’s other novels, and if so, how do you think they compare to his Holmesian books?

**Of course, perhaps everyone else can, and I just blab too much. There is that.

***”The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”

†Or so I have been told.  I can’t say for certain, as nothing alcoholic has ever gone down smoothly for me.

Reviewer’s Note:

In the interests of full disclosure, I will say that I read “The Revengers” in draft form. However, as I was working on A Curious Collection of Dates at the time, my brain was total mush, and I do not believe I offered comments of any real value. In fact, by the time I began reviewing the book, I had  forgotten who the actual culprit was.

3 Comments

Filed under Collection (Stories by the same author), Dan Andriacco, Four-star reviews, Holidays, Holmes-related fiction, Jeff Cody and Sebastian McCabe, MX Publishing, Original Character

Observations: Characterization in Your Pastiche

The challenge of creation...

The challenge of creation…

Part 3: Characterization

I love writers’ magazines and writers’ manuals. Nothing makes you feel more virtuous about not writing than picking up The Writer or a book by Donald Maass and telling yourself that you’re engaging in professional development.* And one of the staples of such books and periodicals (which you should read whilst curled up in a comfortable chair) is characterization–specifically, how to pull it off believably. Fiction writers devote huge amounts of time, index cards, notebook pages, and computer memory to make up people as real as their Aunt Nelly.** Authors of Sherlockian fiction don’t have to fuss with that, though, do they? After all, Conan Doyle has already done the heavy lifting, character-wise. All the pasticheur has to do is think up a decent plot, bring out the cast, wind them up, and let them go. Right?

Wrong.

Fortunately, it seems that most writers understand this. Occasionally, however, I’ll be reading along and all of a sudden, Holmes, Watson, or possibly even Lestrade does something so out of character that the story comes to a screeching halt. At this point, the pen comes out and does some shrieking in the margins, and I’m thereafter alert to any tiny deviation or error on the author’s part. Some readers don’t even bother to finish such a book. As an author, you don’t want either reaction, so here are some suggestions which I hope can help you avoid them.

 Maude! Watson would never say that word!  I'm telling Mother!

Maude! Watson would never say that word! I’m telling Mother!

Staying in Character

Let me say, right up front, that I am not talking about fan fiction here, although plenty of reviewers on those sites complain about characters being “OOC.”*** The thing about fan fiction is that it’s not for profit, so if you want to write about an incredibly emotive Holmes and a flinty Watson, it’s fine; you and your followers will have a great time and no harm done. But, if you’re writing for the larger market and hoping to get some royalties out of it, this may not be the best strategy. Not to disparage anyone’s artistic vision, but the truth is, most people who buy a Sherlock Holmes book do so with the strong expectation that they are going to read about the characters they already know and love. They are not going to permit you a lot of play.

This brings us back to research. It’s tempting to think that you already know all there is to know about the world of 221B, but it’s probably a mistake. Pretend, for a few days, that you’ve just met these people. Comb through the stories and pull out every fact and observation you can. Analyze speech patterns: the characters sound different, but why? How can you duplicate this yourself? What are their habits? How do they approach their daily lives?  Try your hand at a little deduction: What do their thoughts and actions reveal about their inner workings? Their pasts? You may come up with a new revelation, but even if you don’t, that’s all right (some might say it’s preferable). The point of this is to truly understand your characters (for you are making them yours by writing about them), so that you can render them real and recognizable on the page. When fiction writers draw up those long character sheets with spaces for “favorite food,” “traumatic school memories” and “zodiac sign,” chances are good that all of that information won’t make it into the book, but the exercise itself ensures that once those people hit the page, they’re individuals. For example,  we will never know everything there is to know about any person–not even those closest to us–but everything they’ve experienced is there, somewhere, and we’re seeing it constantly. The same is true of the fictional world. The trick with Sherlockian fiction, of course, is to keep your facts straight, and not go too far beyond the boundaries already set by Watson’s literary agent. That’s okay, though–he only created the most alive characters in English literature. You’re in good hands.

That’s all writerly theory. I love writerly theory. But, concretely, what does it mean? Are there things you can never do with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson?

Well, I hate to say “never,” because if you’re a good enough writer, and you can make the reader really, truly believe it, you may be able to make our boys do anything. But, that being said, here’s a short list. Guard rail, challenge–make of it what you will:

  • Watson is a ladies’ man, but he’s a gentleman, always.
  • Holmes is not a ladies’ man. It’s perfectly possible to hook him up with someone, but he’s not believable as a skirt-chaser or as someone who is promiscuous in any way.
  • Holmes is, most of the time, tightly controlled and devoted to the life of the mind. We know that there’s something underneath that logical exterior, but that’s the whole point–it’s underneath. He is not going to have the overt emotional expressions of a teen-aged girl.†  A tremendous number of Sherlockians live for a glimpse of those “hidden fires.” Use this to your advantage.
  • Watson is a smart man–he’s a doctor, after all. But he is not, for the most part, going to be smarter than Holmes on a regular basis. He seems to be ok with this, so while it’s all right to give him the occasional burst of brilliance, he probably shouldn’t run the investigation, nor make Holmes look stupid.
  • Neither Holmes nor Watson are evil criminal masterminds or serial killers. Nor are they “dirty” cops. They are decent men on the side of Justice.
  • Watson is more into the creature comforts of life, and while Canon Holmes is not necessarily as ascetic as, say, BBC’s Sherlock, he’s also not as concerned with substantial  regular meals and sleep as is his friend. It is disconcerting to see a version of Holmes agree, seemingly without irony, that a good meal aids his thought processes.
  • Whatever you do, don’t alter a character solely to further the plot or the dialogue at hand. You may need to put out a violin-centered clue, but please don’t suddenly make Holmes a musical dolt so that you can do so.

I’m sure as you read this, you thought of successful books which flouted at least some of these stipulations. M. J. Trow’s Inspector Lestrade series portrays both Holmes and Watson as being less-than-heroic, and Michael Kurland’s Moriarty books feature the detective as drug-addled nitwit. Michael Dibdin’s controversial Sherlock Holmes is…wellllll, let’s say he’s not on the side of the angels. And of course there’s always the film Without a Clue, in which Watson is the brains of the operation. So, marry, murder, whatever you like, but do your homework and remember that the onus is on you, the author, to make it believable. Remember that the best lie is surrounded by truths.

Best Performance in a Supporting Role

Best Performance in a Supporting Role

Real Historical Personages

These characters are also prefab, in a fashion, and they appear frequently in Sherlockian fiction, sometimes as bit players, and other times as major actors. Some show up more often than others: various Churchills, Teddy Roosevelt, King Edward VII (before and after coronation), Jack the Ripper, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Sigmund Freud, H.G. Wells, Houdini, Dracula, and the Titanic make regular appearances. Using real people as characters can either enhance your story, or prove an annoying distraction. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Be accurate. Make sure that this person was alive and in the area at the time he or she encounters your characters. Readers will often know more about these people than you think. Holmes is not going to meet George Washington, unless it’s during a seance or stepping out of a time machine. Oh dear. Please forget I said that.
  • Treat the historical person with some respect. I recently finished a book in which a very prominent individual–who was most certainly not a serial killer–was put forth (to the reader) as a possible….serial killer. Part of the suspense came from wondering if the author would actually pull that trigger. Unless you have evidence–real evidence–this seems unwise. Best to simply let your Real Historical Personage appear as him or herself, without drastic fictionalization.
  • Make the historical person three-dimensional. Teddy Roosevelt needs to have a reason to interact with Holmes beyond providing a history lesson to your readers.  Likewise, social justice is great, and Victorian living conditions and attitudes could be appalling, but that Real Person should not preach and leave. If they stood on a soap box on a daily basis in life then, by all means, let them have a bit of a say, but don’t use them to heavily underline A Message. Nor should they appear just to highlight another’s character trait. Is Holmes in favor of women’s suffrage in 1897? I dunno; give it your best shot, but don’t have Millicent Fawcett pop up with a pamphlet just to make the point that he’s a free-thinking man or a card-carrying member of the patriarchy.
  • Finally, limit your list, particularly if your Real Historical Personages are walk-ons. Don’t use them constantly as chronological props (Look, Holmes! It’s Lily Langtry! Walking past Rudyard Kipling! It’s 1897!). It’s perfectly legitimate to expect Holmes in particular to encounter some of the famous people of his time, either through his work or through Mycroft, and in some settings (such as the theatre) there will be more than one. Still, name-dropping for its own sake gets annoying, particularly when you’re dealing with a man who seems to disdain fame, power, and wealth on a philosophical level. And those chance sightings of famous people as children (“That 10 year-old clog dancer will be a remarkable actor one day, Watson, mark my words!”)?  Weave it into the plot, or just say no.

Original Characters

Chances are good that you won’t be using only canonical or historical characters in your story. You’ll add a few of your own. Oddly enough, for all of the space dedicated here to keeping Holmes and Watson recognizable, I’ve found that in most commercial Sherlockian fiction, authors do a decent job writing them in character. No, in general, the weakest characters are those created from scratch. Writer, this need not be so.

First, of course, you should give your original characters the same treatment you did those from canon. Here, you can relax a bit and let your imagination have more rein. Get to know these people really well, so they’re not just a cardboard audience for Holmes’ revelations. You probably don’t have to imagine favorite colors for every walk-on part (and most of the time, you’re advised to keep your character list small), but the more alive your original characters are, the more real the world of your book will be. Your goal is to make the reader believe that your story really happened–that Watson just didn’t get around to recording it. You want her to make it part of her “headcanon,”and to devoutly wish it were true. You want him to wonder, just for a moment, if that quote is from canon…or from your book. You cannot achieve this if your own characters aren’t as living as Doyle’s.

This leads us to two common character issues: the self-insert character, and the “Mary Sue/Gary Stu.” It can be argued that most of our original characters carry something of ourselves in them, some more than others. Just don’t make it obvious. Your main original character doesn’t have to share your appearance, birthday, occupation, and every one of your personality traits. I particularly advise this if your character is going to be a romantic interest. Don’t kid yourself into believing that people won’t know. They will. They won’t see themselves as the horribly murdered victims or criminals you’ve made them, but they’ll immediately recognize you in that scene. For the sake of your own sanity and self respect, mix it up a little.

"An inhuman noise broke from Holmes as he seized me--er, Agnes--in a desperate clinch...."

“An inhuman noise broke from Holmes as he seized me–er, Agnes–in a desperate clinch….”

The other frequent character issue–and one to which readers are very sensitive–is the “Mary Sue.” This is the main character (or, for our purposes, the main original character) who is flawless. She’s tough, she’s tender, she’s brilliant, she’s talented, she’s kind, she’s beautiful, she’s athletic, she loves children and puppies and kitties and sings even more beautifully than she plays piano and if she had three wishes all of them would be for world peace. She even has a tattoo, because she has street cred. If she has any flaw, it’s that she’s too feisty, or too liberated for her time. Mary Sue inspires instant feelings of love and desire in whichever character you’ve designed her for. He wants to protect her, all the while she’s throwing knives at ninjas and saving his skin. There are a lot of Mary Sues in Sherlockian pastiche, and even more who come dangerously close. It’s so tempting, I know, because you love your original character, and want the reader to love her (or him–the less common male version is known as a Gary or Marty Stu) as much as you do. The trouble is, adult readers tend to not be fond of this type. Your original character often serves as the reader stand-in, and they want to be able to identify with him or her, which they really can’t do if this person is perfect. Instead of rooting for him or her, they find themselves vaguely resentful, the way one might feel towards the goody-goody kid in school who excelled at everything. They nurture hostile thoughts and wouldn’t care if one of those expertly thrown knives were a boomerang. It may be petty, but there you are. Do all you can to create, not a paragon, but a flesh-and-blood human being with fears, faults, and failures, some of which are not at all adorable. Fiction feeds on conflict and imperfection; provide some in your characters.

One final note on the Original Character: try not to fall in love. This is very, very hard to do, but it is probably essential if you are writing a novel which purports to be about Sherlock Holmes. The thing is, when people buy your book because it has “Sherlock Holmes” somewhere on the cover, they expect him to play a major role, not be a bit player in your character’s story. I can’t be the only one who finds herself flipping past pages and pages of Original Character scenes in such books to find the five pages on which the Great Detective appears.†† Eventually, it’s difficult not to lose interest in such series entirely, not because they’re badly written, but because one feels cheated. This is not to say that you can’t write a book about your characters in which Holmes, Watson, or other Doylean people appear; obviously, you can. Just don’t market on the strength of their names; it’s not playing fair.

Well, there you have it: some thoughts on characterization in pastiche. This was, so far, the hardest post for me to write, simply because I’m well aware that it’s possibly the most subjective. So I’d like to know what you think–or, rather, what you like or dislike in a pastiche character. And if you write Sherlockian fiction, how do you deal with issues in characterization? Leave your views in the comments!

Footnotes:

*And you are, but after several months of this, let’s be real….. By the way, Donald Maass’ books are excellent, inspiring you to close them and get some work done, the best kind of writing manual.

**Sometimes, in fact, they are  Aunt Nelly, but all authors hold to the belief that people won’t recognize themselves on the printed page, or at least won’t take family to court.

*** “OOC” is fan fiction parlance for “Out Of Character.”

†Unless, of course, you re-imagine him as a teen-aged girl, but even then….  “Hidden fires” refers to   Holmes’ emotional reaction at finding that it is Selden, the convict, who has fallen prey to the Hound (of the Baskervilles) and not Sir Henry. His relief is extreme, and Watson is a little shocked.

†† Or I may be, and am a horrible person.

9 Comments

Filed under Characters, Holmes-related ficiton, Original Character, Pastiche, Real Historical Personages, Writing

Walters, Charlotte Anne. Barefoot on Baker Street. London: MX Publishing, 2011

Happy Valentine’s Day, Sherlockians!

When I first thought of doing this blog, I planned on reviewing books based on a monthly theme–reviewing only Watson books in July, for example. With the rapid influx of new pastiche, I’ve had to scrap this plan just to keep up, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have the occasional theme month. And since it’s February, what better theme to use than…romance?

I know, I know, a few of you are about to navigate away. Not everyone likes the idea of giving Sherlock Holmes a love life.  But ever since Doyle told William Gillette that he could “marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him,” writers have been taking him at his word and producing quite a lot of Holmesian hook-ups. So many, in fact, that it was hard to choose among them, and I’ve had to leave three of my favorites for another day.  This February, we’ll look at a relatively new work, an older one by an established writer and, finally, a book with a March sequel.

Workhouse Scene; No Wonder Red Wanted Out

Barefoot in Baker Street, Walters wants the reader to know, is not a Sherlock Holmes novel. Rather, it is a novel in which Sherlock Holmes appears. The story actually belongs to Red, a young woman fighting to rise above her workhouse origins. Red is not another Watson, recounting a Holmes adventure through her own eyes; she’s got a lot more to say in this first-person memoir than that.

We never know what Red’s mother named her. She doesn’t know, herself. Like many young couples, her parents come to London seeking opportunities denied them in their rural county and, like many, fail to find them. Red’s father dies in a railway accident, leaving her mother  to take refuge in the massive, infamous Whitechapel-Spitalfields Union Workhouse. There, she dies giving birth, leaving her daughter to a hardscrabble childhood in which she’s named for her hair.

Walters doesn’t shrink from painting the realities of workhouse existence. Because the novel is written as an older woman’s memoir, some details are less graphic than they might have been, but they’re no less horrific. A highly intelligent but strong-willed, emotional child, Red is too volatile to stay in an orphanage; thrown out into the East End streets, she returns to the workhouse.  There she endures rudimentary education, religious and domestic training, and works at pulling apart tar rope until bits of oakum are permanently embedded in her skin. Life at the Union Workhouse is physically brutal, disease-laden and humiliating but, as Red points out, the fact that she has never known any other world  makes it easier for her to survive the harsh conditions which defeat many workhouse denizens. She is strong and able to fend for herself, which she does ruthlessly one night after Union’s schoolmaster rapes her. After killing the manager who tries to block her escape, she grabs the master’s money and flees, taking with her Jude, a young boy she once saved from a beating, who is her only friend in the world.

Unable to return to the workhouse and running out of stolen money, Red and Jude do what many street children did out of necessity and affiliate themselves with a gang–in this case, the Dean Street Gang, led by one Wiggins.  Yes, that Wiggins, and it’s through his “moonlighting” as a Baker Street Irregular that teen-aged Red first comes into contact with Sherlock Holmes. He makes a definite impression, one she doesn’t forget as she’s pulled even further into the London underworld of prostitution, thieving, gambling and alcoholism. Her intelligence and physical strength serve her well, and she carves out a successful, if legally precarious, life for herself and Jude. It’s only a matter of time before she falls into the crosshairs of the Napoleon of Crime, a pivotal moment which changes her life forever.

For the past two weeks, I’ve debated what to do at this point of the review. A summary should, well, be a summary and give you, the prospective reader, an idea of the book’s major plot points.  It should not, however, contain spoilers, and if I go very much further, spoilers will appear one after another, like dominos in reverse. So let me just echo Walters’ description: Barefoot on Baker Street is the story of a woman’s life, and on her journey, Red reaches some very familiar female landmarks. While our lives may not be quite as adventurous or involve plots to, well, rule the world, most of us have encountered the horrible boyfriend, the passionate fling and, hopefully, the stable, mature relationship. Never content with life as it is, and despite tremendous loss, Red continues to grow throughout the novel until one day the savage little girl from the workhouse is only a memory.

Barefoot on Baker Street is Charlotte Anne Walters’ first novel, and the seven years’ of work she devoted to it have had impressive results.* The first half of the book shifts seamlessly back and forth between Red’s early days and her life in Moriarty’s household.** The memoir format makes for quite of bit of  “telling” in place of “showing,”  at least in the first few chapters, but the dramatic flow of events minimize the impact and keep the reader’s attention. Many of the confrontational scenes–and the romantic ones–are electric, although I did find a couple to be slightly overwrought. As everyone seems to collectively lose their minds directly after Moran is arrested in a retelling of “The Empty House,” for example, I found myself wanting to  reach through the pages, shake a few people (Watson, I’m looking at you), and tell them all to calm down.

It’s common for main characters in first novels to be “Mary Sues,” perfect in every way, even their (minimal) flaws somehow adorable. Fiction, romantic fiction in particular, also suffers from a preponderance of feisty heroines, to the point that they’ve become a stereotype. Walters avoids both of these pitfalls. Red is a fully realized woman, more flawed than not, who must do some difficult emotional work to mature. Because she’s so vividly alive, she avoids one of the fates that commonly befall new pastiche characters; the reader cares about her, and doesn’t skip through her story just to get to more Holmes and Watson. The other major characters are similarly well-drawn, Moriarty and Holmes in particular. Walters has an interesting and, I think, believable take on how both men think, and the mental and emotional challenges they face. Watson is less clearly envisioned and sometimes seems out of character, but not fatally so, while Mycroft is treated with care and complexity. As supporting characters, Sebastian Moran, Jude, and Ronald (a new brother for Watson) fill their roles adequately.

Canon devotees need not worry. While Walters does introduce romance and her own characters into Sherlock Holmes’ world, she’s done her research and takes great care with the Doylean universe. Some scenes, such as Holmes’ return from the Great Hiatus, are rendered practically word-for-word, with endnotes. Other stories, such as “The Sign of the Four,” are deftly woven in. “The Blue Carbuncle” gets a bit of a retelling but,  frankly, I like Red’s version a little better (James Ryder, such a sniveller….). Walters also does a decent job with historical detail. One error did recur; although brassiere-like undergarments did exist in the late 19th century, they were very uncommon and the corset was the rule; Red would never refer to a “bra.”

Again, I realize that some of you like your pastiche canon-straight. But if you’re adventurous, and open to allowing the Great Detective a little love, you’ll find Barefoot on Baker Street an exciting, engrossing adventure.  Want to leave your own opinion? First comment wins a copy of this week’s book, or your choice of David Ruffle’s Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror, or a BSB coffee mug–any one of them a perfect Valentine’s Day gift!

*Walters says she is currently working on a screenplay for Barefoot (which is quite visual and would lend itself well to the screen), and has several other books in the mental percolation stage.

** When I first bought Barefoot, I was so eager to read it, I did so on my phone. This was a mistake. While the shift in time periods during the first part of the book are very obvious in the printed copy, they’re not as distinct on a phone.  I was very confused. In a new edition, separation marks might be useful.

For more information about workhouses and the role they played in Victorian society, see: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/

Barefoot on Baker Street is available from MX publishing, major online booksellers (for US readers) and in Waterstone’s and other brick-and-mortar stores in the UK. You can also purchase it from the Baker Street Babes’ Bookshop, here: http://www.bakerstreetbabesbookshop.com/category/Sherlock+Holmes+-+Female+Writers; profits go to support the BSB podcast (which, incidentally, interviewed Charlotte Walters for Episode 10).

Star Rating: 4 out 5  (“Highly enjoyable. Worth your time and money.”)

3 Comments

Filed under Charlotte Anne Walters, Four-star reviews, Holmes and Love, Holmes and Sex, Holmes and Watson Friendship, Moriarty, MX Publishing, Original Character