Tag Archives: #pastiche

MacBird, Bonnie. Art in the Blood. London: Harper Collins, 2015*

Dude....the characters....

Dude….the characters….

Gateway drug: a  habit-forming drug that, while not in itself addictive, may lead to the use of other, addictive, drugs.”**

Every Sherlockian remembers their first time. The first glimmer of fascination–the curiosity–the first few pages and then the moment. The rush. The binge. The constant need for more. More Sherlock Holmes.

We all know the feeling.

We all know the feeling.  (from Imgur)

My own Sherlockian “gateway drug” was pastiche–most particularly Edward Hanna’s the Whitechapel Horror and Lyndsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow,  making me especially interested in the ability of well-written Sherlockian fiction to serve, not just as a “fix” for established addicts, but as an introduction to the Canon all its own. In order to accomplish this, I believe a pastiche (we’re just going to use this word in a very general sense) must have all of the following qualities to some degree:

  • It must be well-written.
  • It must be true to the Canon (and if it’s true to widely accepted apocrypha, such as Baring-Gould’s biography, so much the better).
  • Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson need to be recognizable as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
  • It must be as accessible to the novice as it is to the long-time Sherlockian.

And, finally:

  • It must leave the reader wanting more.

Not every pastiche fits these criteria. As much as I love Simmons’ The Fifth Heart and Newman’s Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles, I don’t know that I would recommend them to someone who wants to read about Sherlock Holmes for the first time, but is wary of the Canon because it’s “old.” (This happens, particularly with young people).  While both are gorgeously written, the first is not extremely canonical, while the second is like one big Easter egg basket. I’m sure you can think of other books which wouldn’t make the list…

LIKE THIS ONE

            LIKE THIS ONE!

Bonnie MacBird’s Art in the Blood, on the other hand, fills the bill perfectly.

It’s late November, 1888, and as cold and dreary inside 221B as it is outside…at least, until the fire. Not a cozy fire in the hearth, but an actual fire which, but for the intervention of firemen, could have burned 221 Baker Street to the ground.  Not that Sherlock Holmes particularly cares.  When Watson (who is now married, but was summoned by his former landlady) finds him, he is laying on the settee,

His hair awry, his face ashen with lack of sleep and sustenance, he looked, quite frankly, at death’s door. He lay shivering on the couch, clothed in a shabby purple dressing gown. An old red blanket tangled around his feet and with a quick movement, he yanked it up to cover his face.

Watson learns from Mrs. Hudson that Holmes has been this way ever since he was briefly put in jail for tampering with evidence in the Ripper case–something which shocks the doctor. He could not help his friend then, but he tries to do so now, and resolves to treat him as a patient and to sit with him until he can get him out of the dark and miserable place his much-vaunted brain has become. As Dr. Watson tells us:

I have been loath to write in detail about Holmes’s artistic nature, lest it reveal a vulnerability in him that could place him in danger. It is well known that in exchange for visionary powers, artists often suffer with extreme sensitivity and violent changeability of temperament. A philosophical crisis, or simply the boredom, of inactivity could send Holmes spinning into a paralysed gloom from which I could not retrieve him****

His ministrations are not nearly as effective as the arrival of a good case, however. Although Holmes has refused a request from Mycroft to look into something regarding “E/P,” he jumps at the chance to help a beautiful French chanteuse find her son. Ten year-old Emil does not know that Mlle. la Victoire is his mother; as far as he is concerned, he is the son of the Earl of Pellingham and his wife, daughter of an American industrialist. He is only half-right. Having lost her own child as an infant, Lady Pellingham agreed to raise Emil as her own; his mother has only been allowed to see him once a year, at Christmas, and even then under the guise of being a family friend. This year, however, she tells Holmes, she received a letter telling her that, not only will she never be allowed to see her son again, but that her life will be in danger if she disobeys–a threat underlined by a physical attack a few days later. Mycroft’s case of international art theft (with diplomatic complications) has nothing on this damsel in distress and her endangered child. Fortunately for the British Government, they turn out to be linked…and linked in such a way as to hide a dark and unimaginable conspiracy. Watson is a master at making the most wicked villains (Baron Gruner, Sarah Cushing, James Moriarty) and twisted plots (“The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles”) suitable for a general audience. In this case, which the author (editor?) found hidden in a collection of papers in the Wellcome Library, he tries his best, but one can’t help but think that the reason it never saw publication had not so much to do with the nobility of the participants as it did the horrific nature of the crime.

Honorine Platzer, Lautrec's

Honorine Platzer, Lautrec’s “Woman in Gloves.” Author Bonnie MacBird believes she may have been the actual Mademoiselle La Victoire.

So–does Art in the Blood work as a “gateway” pastiche? Let’s evaluate….

Art in the Blood  is exceptionally well-written. I must admit to having a weakness for prose that does all kinds of artsy things and/or features Ponderous Moral Observations. I particularly love being punched in the gut by Deep Thoughts on Human Nature. Art in the Blood is not really that kind of book, which is one of its great strengths. After all, as much as Holmes accused him of romanticizing everything, Watson actually tended to stick to the facts of his cases, rather than musing too much on the psychological makeups of villains, victims, or detectives. He focuses on the crime, the clues, and the solution–the excitement of the thing for he is, after all, a man of action. Art in the Bloodwhile it may occasionally hint at the emotional lives of its characters, is very much a mystery and an adventure, told in a highly visual, cinematic fashion. It’s very easy to imagine this story translated to a large or small screen, and I think this quality will make it appealing to a large audience.

As for the book’s original characters–these are both generally necessary in a pastiche–and potential disasters.  However much an author loves Sherlock Holmes and (or) Dr. Watson, the temptation to either pay too much attention to one’s own character, or even to live through him or her, is a strong one. Ms. MacBird brings in several major original characters, all of whom are well-drawn, but only one is a real scene-stealer. Still, the grandson of the famous Vidocq is so amusingly full of himself that it’s easy to forgive him, and to allow him his Big Moment when it finally comes.

What about its Canonicity?  While I have gradually become less of a stickler over the past five years, many Sherlockians don’t appreciate much departure from the Doylean world and, honestly, when you’re trying to introduce your friend, partner, or child (in the case of this book, a “child” being no younger than thirteen) to Sherlock Holmes, it’s natural to want to use stories which don’t involve the Great Detective in space, or a robot Watson. I am happy to report, therefore, that Art in the Blood is quite canonical.  I couldn’t find any real issues with its relationship to 221B.  Mary does go on an extended visit to see her mother, and we know from The Sign of Four that her mother was actually dead…but as her own husband claims such a visit in “The Five Orange Pips,” it becomes strangely all the more accurate for its Watsonian nature. As for the other details, Art in the Blood  is meticulously researched. People and places are where the book says they are, when it says they are, and if the reader wants to know more (as you should), there is a list of annotations and research notes online at http://www.macbird.com/aitb/notes/. At the same time, the narrative doesn’t get bogged down with period details, always a danger with historical accounts. There is a teeny bit of “as you know” explication when Sherlock tells Watson about his relatives, the Vernets, but one gets the impression that life with Sherlock Holmes was probably filled with such moments.

“Am I boring you, Watson?”

An unreliable Watson and a pedantic Sherlock Holmes?  You can probably infer from that that I believe that Ms. MacBird keeps our heroes in character, and yes–she does. While connoisseurs of the Watson voice may not hear him, precisely, the author does a creditable job of…um, transcribing his work. She also refers to their well-known foibles in creative ways–without just using quotes from the Canon.  Therefore, we know that Watson is still a ladies’ man, not because anyone mentions “three continents,” but because he both claims to the reader that he has never seen shapely legs displayed in a cancan…but really hopes that will change. His humorous asides and sensitivities (such as his hurt when Holmes puts Mlle. la Victoire up in his old room) remind me a little bit of Nigel Bruce–in a good way–but he’s consistently the brave, loyal, intelligent physician who’s been missing the excitement of his former life. Holmes is the man of logic and determination, working hard to keep the lid on those “hidden fires” of his own past and current affections. Some may find his obvious–but never blatant attraction to Mlle. la Victoire anti-canonical, but really, it isn’t. Depending on how one reads The Sign of the Four, Holmes may well have been attracted to Mary Morstan before Watson made his own feelings obvious. Their client is every bit as clever (possibly more so) than the much-admired Irene Adler, and her method of both attracting Holmes’ attention and making sure he’s as good as everyone says impresses him. Holmes’ concern for children, as evidenced in his work with the Baker Street Irregulars and his concern for the young Lord Saltire in “The Adventure of the Priory School,” shines through in this book, particularly in one touching instance involving Beeton’s Christmas Annual. While not everyone enjoys glimpses into Holmes’ psyche, some of us do, and Ms. MacBird deftly supplies both sorts of reader, by providing small hints about the Great Detective’s past, while never going much further than that.

No Freud in this one.

No Freud in this one.

Often when reading pastiche, I get the feeling that I’m reading a story written by a Sherlockian for a Sherlockian.  We have our own lingo, our own inside jokes, our knowledge of obscure Canonical disputes, a long list of quotes–and we enjoy trotting them out for each other. This is all fine, of course (see what I did there? Huh? Huh?), but when it comes to making new convert…er, introducing people to the canonical Sherlock Holmes, stories featuring buckets of acronyms, Easter egg references to the third episode of the Ronald Howard series, and quotes from Gillette’s play are probably not the best way to go about it. If you want your best friend to win the Mycroft one day, you have to start with books which make our heroes both real–and accessible. I guarantee you that your friends and family will be able to read Art in the Blood without texting you questions–and they will find it compelling and suspenseful enough to be honest when you ask them if they’ve read it. When they next venture into the Canon–which they may well do–they will find the heroes they just met (although you may have to explain the whole Victorian flashback thing). And they’ll wonder about all of those cases in Watson’s dispatch box, because, well, they need more.

Ms. MacBird leaves Holmes and Watson in a good place (this isn’t a spoiler, as we know they live long past 1888. Long past.) but, while there is no hint of a new hitherto-unknown case in the offing, that door isn’t particularly closed, either.  The book begins with a bored Sherlock Holmes, but ends with a bored Watson?

Well, in Baker Street, there’s only one sure cure for boredom….

Put that gun away!

Put that gun away!

Art in the Blood is currently available in all formats in the United Kingdom, and will be released in the United States on October 6, 2015. It is available for pre-order. Otto Penzler is also offering a very limited edition (of a canonical 60 books only) featuring original illustrations, annotations, a foreword by Leslie Klinger, and deluxe paper and binding with marbled endpapers. it is a little pricey, but would make a wonderful special occasion gift for your favorite Sherlockian. See http://www.mysteriousbookshop.com/products/bonnie-macbird-art-in-the-blood-limited-edition for more details.

 Emmy-award winning writer and producer Bonnie MacBird worked as a feature film development executive for Universal and has written for both stage and screen, including the screenplay for TRON (hence the marked visual quality of her writing in Art in the Blood).  A talented painter, she also teaches a course on screenwriter and is in demand as a speaker. She is on both FaceBook and Twitter, and you can learn more about her and her work at her website, www.macbird.com.

Star Rating: 5 out of 5–“This is a wonderful book that gets it right.”

Canon Rating: 5 out of 5–“Watson? Is that you?”

Footnotes:  

*This review is taken from an ARC (advanced reading copy) from Harper Collins, London. It will also have a U.S. edition.

**Google definition

***Just in case you were wondering, Watson tells us that “…my friend threw considerable light on the case, something that proved most unwelcome among certain individuals at the highest levels of government.”–and then proceeds to say that all of this has to remain secret.  It will turn up in “the history books,” he writes.  Well, Watson, it hasn’t, and we know you’re still out there, so it’s time to tell us what you know!

****This theory linking genius and insanity has been around for awhile, and during Watson’s time was put forth by Cesare Lombroso, in The Man of Genius. While this book first appeared in 1889, a year after the events in Art in the Blood take place, Lombroso had published articles on the subject throughout this period as well. He was also responsible for the concept of “atavism,” or  “throwbacks,” which is mentioned in The Hound of the Baskervilles and “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” so we know that both Holmes and Watson were acquainted with his work.

1 Comment

Filed under BonnieMacBird, Canon Works, Characters, Introductory Pastiche, Pastiche

Campbell, J. R. and Charles Prepolec, Editors. Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes. Calgary: Edge SF&F Publishing, 2011.

'Tis the Season

‘Tis the Season

 

When I was a kid, I loved to read ghost stories. I checked the same books out of the library, time and time again. Many times, they were older and worn, or had cartoonish covers, but there were a few with covers so scary that at night, I hid them at the bottom of my book pile, safely contained by the weight of a dozen other, more innocuous books.*

You know, just to be safe.

Gaslight Arcanum is, actually, the third anthology in a series edited by Campbell and Prepolec, its predecessors being Gaslight Grimoire (2008) and Gaslight Grotesque (2010). I hope to review each of them eventually. I chose Arcanum, however, both because it is the most recent, and–unleashing my inner nine year-old–because it has the absolute creepiest cover….

See?

See?

Nor is this (with one exception) a reprint anthology. Nothing wrong with those, but in Arcanum, Campbell and Prepolec have brought together a collection of new stories by very talented and respected writers. Some stories may be familiar to you, as they have since been reprinted elsewhere, but here they mark their débuts. Let’s venture down this dark, dusty hallway and meet them, shall we?**

The editors start out on a high note with Stephen Volk’s “The Comfort of the Seine,” a Sherlock Holmes “origins” story which is juuuusssst plausible enough that some readers may make it a part of their personal head canons. It begins with the “if you’re reading this I must be dead” trope, but then immediately leaps into much more original territory. Here the reader sees Sherlock Holmes as an intense twenty year-old student with scientific leanings, accompanying a group of classmates to Paris to explore that city’s art scene. Despite his relationship to Vernet, the young Sherlock is not all that interested in art, but who doesn’t want to leave his books for Paris? Besides, his friends need him–or rather, his fluency in French. While his classmates roam the galleries, he roams the city, becoming infatuated with a young flower-seller. When she turns up missing–and then dead–he is completely shattered. It takes C. Auguste Dupin to show him the way out of his overwhelming grief.*** And if you’re currently thinking, “well, that sounds predictable,” you would be wrong.  I truly cannot say enough good things about this story–the dark opulence of the author’s style, its characterizations, its evocation of mid 19th-century France, and most particularly Volk’s Dupin, a man who cross-crosses the edges of genius and madness so adroitly that you’ll change your mind about him more than once before the story is over. “Comfort” is not precisely a horror story in the way that its companions are, but it is both suspenseful and sad–and of all of these, I think, the most likely to haunt you when Arcanum goes back to your bookshelf.

Christopher Fowler’s “The Adventure of Lucifer’s Footprints” is a more traditional tale. It’s in Watson’s voice and recounts a strange case the detective and his Boswell investigated in Devon in February of 1888. They’re there at the urgent behest of Lucy Woodham, who with her father, Crimean war hero General Sir Henry Woodham, has recently moved to the family’s run-down ancestral home, Belstowe Grange. Belstowe Downs is an isolated spot, and its villagers swear that Satan himself sends a pack of lost souls to carry off area wrong-doers–sinners such as Woodham’s groom, attacked and killed during a storm, his body found surrounded by hoofprints which seem to have appeared out of nowhere. The solution–at least as Watson sees it–puts a rift between himself and his skeptical friend which he fears will never completely heal. “Footprints” is a very competent tale which uses several favorite Conan Doyle tropes. It’s a little clipped, style-wise, and Holmes and Watson don’t engage in their usual banter. Its main difficulty, however, most likely lies in the fact that it immediately follows Volk’s tour de force. Readers should still find it entertaining.

I will confess to at first being a bit put out with “The Deadly Sin of Sherlock Holmes.” Despite my desire to be less dogmatic about AU stories, there are a very few Canon facts about which I find it difficult to be flexible, and when I saw this adventure is set in May of 1891, well, I was just not having it.† It turns out, however, that author Tom English has a very good reason for placing his story so close to the fatal event at Reichenbach (which, of course, I cannot reveal). “Deadly Sin” is  a creepy tale about a Codex which inspires its readers to murder, and is shot through with witty exchanges between Holmes, Watson, and their clients–a group of monks who’ve travelled to London from Rome. The Canon references fly fast and furious, and in the end, even the Hiatus is accounted for–after a fashion.

William Meikle is the well-known author of hundreds (Really! Hundreds!) of stories in the supernatural and science fiction genres–and he’s a great fan of what is typically known as “pulp.” In “The Color that Came to Chiswick,” he sets Holmes and Watson up against a lethal green substance found in a brewery vat. It’s so hard so say more without spoiling the whole thing, but this particular adventure would probably be Holmes’ own favorite as it involves science–and caustic chemicals.

It did not escape from my refrigerator, I swear!

It did not escape from my refrigerator, I swear!

As I stated above, all but one of the stories in this anthology are original contributions. That exception is “From the Tree of Time,” by Fred Saberhagen, who passed away in 2007. Mr. Saberhagen was a well-known science fiction and fantasy author, and many Sherlockians are well-acquainted with his fondness for teaming the Great Detective with Count Dracula. This is a lively, tightly-written story, in which the Count remembers a time in which he served as Holmes’ own consultant in a blackmail case gone wrong. Like Lady Hilda in “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” the client (whom Dracula chivalrously refuses to name) was a bit “sprightly” before her marriage, and now wishes to hide the evidence. Or maybe the body. If she could find it, that is. The two men in her study are the only ones in the world who can tell her if she stands to lose her marriage–or her freedom. The denouement is both surprising and satisfying, making “Tree” my “second favorite” in the collection.

Fred Saberhagen,  1930-2007

Fred Saberhagen,
1930-2007

Classic nineteenth-century horror makes another appearance in the next story. In “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Holmes tells Watson, “about that chasm. I had no serious difficulty in getting out of it, for the very simple reason that I never was in it.” But what if that weren’t exactly true?  What if he had fallen into the Aare River–and Watson wasn’t the first one on the scene? In  “The Executioner,” Lawrence C. Connolly reveals what really happened at that fatal encounter, and why Holmes need three years to sort himself out afterward. It’s a fascinating story which takes an abrupt, dark turn at the end–and as someone who likes abrupt, dark turns, I enjoyed it greatly. That being said, I didn’t really share Holmes’ doubts in the final paragraphs, but you, as better, more sensitive people, may find yourselves in agreement.

If I were to give a prize for the most horrific story in this collection, Simon Kurt Unsworth’s  “A Country Death” would win the blue ribbon, hands down. Again, it’s difficult to review a short story without giving the whole thing away, and Unsworth works so hard to hide the main facts from you that it feels wrong to provide even the slightest hint. Let’s just say that it is extremely well-written…and so disturbing that–if you wish to enjoy sweet dreams–it should not be the last thing you read before you go to bed.

Many pasticheurs like to explore what cases Sherlock Holmes may have taken on for his brother, The British Government–more familiarly known, of course, as Mycroft. In Kenneth Cockle’s “Sherlock Holmes and the Great Game,” the detective and his Boswell find themselves in Canada, investigating what appears to be a particularly dangerous Russian move in her proxy war with Britain. It’s soon revealed as a maneuver in an actual war–between the true source of Holmes’ powers and another enemy, just as ancient and just as powerful. I actually found the first explanation very clever, but I am still a little conflicted about the origins of the proffered nemesis. Holmes is right–Watson does have his work cut out for him when he goes to lay this one before the public. Perhaps Russians would be a more plausible explanation, after all.

From the Canadian north, Holmes and Watson next travel to the darkest depths of the ocean. In “Sherlock Holmes and the Diving Bell,” by Simon Clark, Holmes summons his erstwhile flatmate with one of his cryptic telegrams: “Watson. Come at once. That which cannot be. Is.”  Or is it?  Between the horrific account of a salvage ship disaster, the weird twin sisters, and our heroes’ claustrophobic trip down to a five year-old tomb, Clark serves up an atmospheric tale with subtle Canon overtones in which Holmes’ deductive ability ultimately proves a double-edged sword.

In “The Greatest Mystery,” Paul Kane commits one of the most common of the venial Sherlockian sins–well, I hope it’s common, as I’ve done it plenty of times myself. At the the story’s conclusion, Watson recalls (fuzzily, it must be said) that, while unraveling the case of the Six Napoleons, his friend mused: “I am just contemplating the one mystery I cannot solve: Death itself.” As happens so many times (to me, at least), Watson has inserted a Granada moment into the Canon. I have to suspect that it was done purposefully, as it is a superb quote and fits the story perfectly. While most “Holmes confronts the supernatural” adventures depict the detective either finding a rational explanation for the spooky doings, or being shaken in his logical boots, not many show him using the spirit realm to his advantage. Here he does just that, as he and Watson seek the mastermind behind a series of seemingly motiveless murder-suicides.

Hint: It wasn't him.

Hint: It wasn’t him.

Tony Kane’s “The House of Blood” is unique in this collection, because it features a 21st century Sherlock Holmes. No, not either of those–this Holmes was still born circa 1854, but (as we know) he’s immortal, and he’s trying to avoid the sometimes oppressive memories of London by traveling the world…and solving crimes.†† In this episode…er, story, he’s found himself in Las Vegas, helping the police investigate a series of murders in which recent casino winners have been found dead–and drained of their blood. Vampires? Or something else? The solution is quite creative, but the best part of this entertaining offering is watching Holmes navigate modern-day Vegas–with his usual competence, and a wry sense of humor.

The final story, Kim Newman’s “The Adventure of the Six Maledictions,” I’d already read, as part of Newman’s own later collection, Moriarty: Hound of the D’Urbervilles.  A complex riff on an actual poem, J. Milton Hayes’ “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God,” it’s told in Colonel Sebastian Moran’s irresistible–if irreverent–voice. If Volk begins Arcanum with melancholy and (possibly) madness, Newman brings it to a breathtaking end with humor–and Moriarty’s  own special brand of psychopathology. Even if you’ve read it before, don’t skip it–with an author like Kim Newman, there’s always something new to discover. Besides, it’s funny, and once you finish, you won’t have to leave the lights on and waste electricity. The editors are thoughtful like that.

"Not seeing any vampires, Watson."

“Still not seeing any vampires, Watson.”

As we have discussed here before, a good many Sherlockians are not in favor of pitting Holmes against the supernatural. Not even Conan Doyle, who loved a good “creeper” would go that far. Others have no problem watching him face the uncanny in all of its many forms. If that’s you–or if you think you’re ready to take the plunge, I can’t recommend Gaslight Arcanum highly enough. Each story is well-written, respectful of the Canon, and there is enough variety in subject matter and style that you are bound to find several stories you’ll particularly enjoy. Our agency may rest “flat-footed upon the ground,” but it’s ok to stand on your tiptoes every once in awhile.

 

Gaslight Arcanum is available through all online booksellers and may also be found in your local brick-and-mortar shop. 

 

Star Rating: 5 —“This is a wonderful book that gets it right”

As far as canonicity goes, those of you looking for traditional cases narrated by Dr. Watson may not see a horror anthology as Canonical in any way. That being said, with the exception of the Granada quote, which I fully believe was intentional, I could find no evidence of Canonical carelessness.

 

Footnotes:

*Books about horses, for example. Or written by Judy Blume. If Judy Blume had written a book about ghost horses, I would have reached Nirvana.

**You first.

***Well, I say “Dupin.”  You’ll see.

†I may have screeched in the margins a bit.

†† Child of the ’70’s that I am, I totally thought of this:

Cue sad music.

Cue sad music.

1 Comment

Filed under Anthology (Stories by different authors), AU (Alternative Universe), Five-star reviews, Holmes out of his Element, Pastiche, Supernatural

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

Observations: Using Canon in Your Fiction

Ok. That's the last time we let Violet make the book club pick.

Ok. That’s the last time we let Violet make the book club pick.

 

By Way of Explanation….

If you’re a reader, this has happened to you.

 You’ve bought a book with a terrific cover, possibly by your favorite author; you go to the library and check out a novel  your best friend swears is the greatest thing she’s ever read; a person in your writing group passes out the latest chapter in her saga…

 And you don’t like it.

 “But why?” asks your critique partner, your friend, or your credit card. “What was wrong?” So you think hard, try to puzzle it through, but the best you can come up with is: “I dunno, really. Guess it just wasn’t for me.”

 Most of the time, that’s probably good enough. Your friend knows you’re picky, your writing group is spared a tearburst, and your credit card company really doesn’t care as long as you pay some interest. But if you’re a writer who really wants to know what works and what doesn’t–or, say, a reviewer who has to justify that star-rating, there has to be more. When you’re both, well….

Over the past few years, I’ve read a lot of Sherlock Holmes-related books, pastiche, and unpublished fan fiction. I’ve learned to analyze it, so that I can explain precisely (I hope) what each writer does that either appeals to, or discourages, her audience. Sometimes this is easy to see; sometimes it’s a challenge.  Once I began this blog, I got the chance to find out what others look for in a good, non-Doyle story, and I try to incorporate this knowledge into my reviews; after all, it’s not about what I like, necessarily, but what the Sherlockian world wants to read. During the year I’ve been blogging, it came to my attention that there are common ways Sherlockian authors writing for the commercial market either succeed or fail, and I began to wonder if these observations might not be worth sharing. So here they are. Take them for what they’re worth.  You may agree, you may disagree–you may have something to add. Whichever camp you fall into–but particularly the last two–I would love to hear from you in the comments.

Please note: All examples of stories, errors, misbehavior, etc., are completely fictional, unless otherwise specified. Also, please do not call others out in a negative way in your comments.

 

Part One: Canon

 

Let’s get this one out of the way first, shall we?

If you write pastiche and/or fanfiction, let me just say right now that I admire you. I love writing fiction; there’s nothing better than creating a world, filling it with characters and setting them upon each other, preferably with poison, but sometimes a .22-calibre…

Oh. Where was I?  Yes–the bravery of the pasticheur.  See, if I write a story, I control it. There are parameters, of course, depending on the genre, but the characters are mine, and they can speak and act as I choose. All the reader knows about them is what I tell (ok, show–it’s “show, don’t tell”) them. Even in a series, I can make some changes, as long as I justify them adequately. Pastiche writers of any type don’t have that freedom. They’re taking on characters and worlds which have existed for decades, if not centuries, and which many of their readers know intimately. There are restrictions. There are guidelines. There is Canon.

Every time I type that word....

Every time I type that word….

As I’ve learned through talking to people and reading comments, Sherlockians vary in their devotion to canon. Some want stories to hew so closely to Conan Doyle that they refuse to read anything outside of those 60 stories.  Others want their pastiche to be true pastiche–to sound exactly like Watson. Others take what Conan Doyle himself told William Gillette to heart: “You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him.” If Holmes is out there on Mars, bedding vampire women as he takes over a female Moriarty’s empire and cries over Oprah-bot reruns while eating donuts by the case and patting his pet rabbit, John, they don’t care, as long as they like the story. When we’re talking a commercial audience, however, it’s probably safe to assume that most of your potential readers are looking for a Holmes and Watson that they recognize.

Many Sherlockians, however, want even more. They want you to get the details right. They really do want the complete 1895 experience. They’ve read the stories a hundred times (or more), and they are quite concerned with trifles. It’s all very well to sputter at this, as some writers do, and point out that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, some of the stories have plot holes a foot deep, and, besides, Doyle himself is on record as not caring about continuity.

I hate to be the one to inform you, but–guess what? None of that matters.

You see, Holmes, Watson, Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade, and everyone else who tromps through those pages have achieved something that most characters never do: at some point, they left the two-dimensional world of print and became real. Vincent Starrett was right when he wrote, “Only the things the heart believes are true.” Thousands of hearts believed in 221B very quickly. They still do. If they woke up in Holmes’ world tomorrow (and some are doubtless disappointed when they do not), they would know their way about. Like it or not, if you want to write a Sherlock Holmes book, these are the people you are courting, so it’s important to take their needs and preferences into account.

What does this mean to you as a writer? Research, basically. Lots and lots of research. We’ll deal more with the whole accuracy thing in another section, but basically, to write about Sherlock Holmes successfully, you need to know the canon.  Does this mean you need to be able to quote it, book, chapter, and verse?  No, not at all, but by the time you type “The End,” you may be able to win your  scion society’s quiz contest. You just need to have a copy of the the canon and the willingness to do the work. It will, at times, prove tedious, and involve checking and re-checking. You may need to change some of your plot points to accommodate established fact. Watson doesn’t give many concrete dates, for example, but when he does, it’s best not to have Holmes away in Greece when he’s supposed to be wrestling Moriarty in Switzerland. And don’t kid yourself that “no one will know.”  Because, dear writer, they will, and while most people are willing to dismiss the occasional contradiction, too many will hurt your credibility, and your next book may not be as well-received. The temptation always exists to go where your story takes you, ignoring the particulars, but keep in mind, you’re writing about a man who once quoted Thomas Carlyle: “Genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains.”*

You’ll find, of course, that, with Watson being the type to accurately catalog the details of a woman’s dress, but not remember exactly what month it is, it can be hard to ferret out the information you need. Then there is the troublesome fact that Sherlockians in general are people who like to prove how much like their hero they are, leading them to produce heaps of articles and chronologies and debates on every imaginable and improbable aspect of Doyle’s work. It is impossible to take everyone’s canonical hobby horse into account when you’re writing. Even now, someone is pounding out an impassioned essay in which they prove, once and for all, that Sherlock Holmes was behind the theft of the Blue Carbuncle. Your best bet is to invest in a good copy of the canon–with annotations, if you can afford it–and pick a chronology that makes sense to you. Many people are familiar with, and have access to, William Baring-Gould’s, but there are others which are also well-researched and respected. Once these are on your desk, treat them as if they were divinely inspired, and refer to them often. It’s as simple as that.**

Sherlockians engaging in a genteel discussion over the Oxford/Cambridge question.

Sherlockians engaging in a genteel discussion over the Oxford/Cambridge question.

 

What about AU (Alternate Universe), you ask? That’s an excellent question, and one that I struggle with as a reviewer. One might argue that once you decide to change Holmes’ world to that extent, canon no longer matters. My husband thinks that. So do many others; there’s no doubt that AU gives a writer plenty of room to play. Chances are excellent, too, that the readers who will be attracted to an AU story are not going to be Watson-voice Canon-sticklers.  But just trying to puzzle it through, it seems to me that the closer you are to Doyle’s world, the closer you should probably hew to canon. The audience for a Victorian/Edwardian Holmes is going to expect you to have some canon references, and that those will be accurate. They’ll expect a reasonably canonical timeline, and that you recognize major events, such as  Mary Morstan, Reichenbach, and The Great Hiatus.  If, however, you’re writing about, say, a present-day Holmes and Watson, people will be very happy with characters whose personalities they recognize and will give you lots of leeway with plot. Even then, the more canon “Easter Eggs” you put in, and the more ingeniously you manipulate established story lines, the better off you’ll be; witness the passion inspired by BBC Sherlock, and compare it to the Sherlockian world’s more tepid response to Elementary.***

If you’re going to write an AU story, though, I have two words for you: prefatory note. Just warn people. If you tell your readers up front that you plan to shamelessly manipulate canon (or ignore it) for your own purposes, then you won’t lose them the second you make Holmes a non-smoker.  Seriously. If your readers expect canon (and most do, initially), every instance which violates those expectations pulls them  further from your story, until some fling your book against the wall and others vow never to read you again. A simply warning of your intentions will filter out those who would not like your book anyway and appease the majority, who will be willing to play along, as long as they understand what you’re doing. A prefatory note can, in fact, be what takes your readers from thinking you a canonical dunce to believing you a creative genius.

"Well, yes, Patty, but the author already said this takes place in the 1940s, so of course Holmes' dressing gown would have contrast stitching."

“Well, yes, Patty, but the author already said this takes place in the 1940s, so of course Holmes’ dressing gown would have contrast stitching.”

 

All this being said, however, I have seen some very able writers try something else: “vaguing.” Their Holmes and Watson inhabit what is obviously the canonical world. They ride in hansoms, have curried fowl, go to see Sarasate, etc., but there are no direct references to specific events, stories, or dates. There is no way I can do a fact-check and devote a review paragraph to how Mycroft could not possibly have appeared in this story, as the author has specifically set it to predate “The Greek Interpreter,” and since he and Watson are playing chess and eating cake together, Watson cannot be surprised when, five years later, he learns Mycroft exists, unless he’s had far too much brandy between times. As a reviewer, I appreciate the cleverness of someone who can weave their own novel into canon without any loose threads showing. However, I also have no problem with the “vague” approach. If you’re the kind of writer who is not exceptionally detail-oriented, who has a wonderful plot and wants to focus on your puzzle or emotional revelation without having to watch your canonical back, then “vaguing” is for you.

Finally, a caution. No matter how careful you are, someone is going to take issue with your canonicity. It is ineluctable.  How do you respond? Graciously, my dear. First, check your facts. They could be wrong. I don’t know how many times I have substituted Granada for canon, for example, sometimes in an embarrassingly public manner.  On occasion there are varying interpretations, and it can be fun to explore these with your readers. Sometimes, however, the reader will be correct, and you’ve blundered. Relax. It happens. Hopefully the person pointed it out nicely, but even if they didn’t, it’s ok. Tell them how much you appreciate their comment–you don’t know how you could have missed that, and will correct it, etc., etc. Stay polite, even if you have to grit your teeth to do it. Whatever you do, do not fight with this person, or make disparaging comments about him to others–particularly online. Trash him with your spouse or your best friend if you must, but that’s it. Believe me when I say that if you behave unpleasantly online, you will damage your professional reputation. The writing world has a very long memory, and nothing attracts attention and page views like an online meltdown.† After you’ve responded appropriately in public, and spent a few days emoting in private, your next step is to LET IT GO. A canonical error is no reflection on your worth as a person, your potential as a writer, or your love of Sherlock Holmes. Everyone else is not thinking about it anymore; they’ve moved on, and so should you.  As a reviewer, I can promise you that even when I point out a canonical error–as is my job, frankly–I still think well of the writer and, usually, of the story. I know it’s hard to get everything right.  I want every author to do well, to write more, and to be happy. Please believe that most people out there think the same.

Well!  That’s “Canon.” Stay-tuned for its close cousin, “Research,” up next post, and in the meantime, let me know what you think.

 

 

Footnotes:

*So, let’s be really picky. What Carlyle actually said–far less pithily– was, “‘Genius’ (which means transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all)….”  in his History of Frederick the Great.

** I’d put a winking smiley face emoticon here, but this is a professional blog. 😉

***Not a value judgment, either way. But I assume you want to inspire the type of devotion that fuels a thousand Tumblrs.

†Ok, so this bit of advice was actually inspired by several actual events in the romance-writing community.  But it’s also very standard.

 

 

7 Comments

Filed under AU (Alternative Universe), Holmes-related ficiton, Pastiche, Writing