Being Watson: Appreciating the Genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Jude Law Watson

This past Saturday, I finished writing a story I’ve been working on for several weeks, a Sherlock Holmes short story that will become part of an anthology to be published later this year. The challenge of the project is that the stories have to be completely traditional mysteries in Watson’s voice.

For those who may be unfamiliar with my books, Watson’s voice is not something I normally write, In fact, I never write it. My novels, while traditional in setting and characters and running alongside the canon, include the perspectives of Irene Adler and Sherlock Holmes. Watson appears as a character, but his perspective isn’t the focus.

I took on the anthology project as a personal challenge, something new to build my authorial muscles. I did it; I wrote a completely traditional Sherlock Holmes mystery in Dr. Watson’s voice; those who have read it for editing purposes have enjoyed it, and I’m excited to share it with lovers of traditional stories.

I’m still wiping the sweat from my weary brow. The story took me longer to write and was far more difficult than I ever would have expected. Ultimately, I gained a new perspective on the challenges that traditional story writers face and a new appreciation for the incomparable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

FreeWatson

Here are some reasons why:

1) The Narrator versus the Main Character Issue–There’s a reason that Sherlock Holmes famously says he would be lost without his Boswell. Like Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, the Holmes stories are about the man in the name, not the narrator (though, of course, both are also about a relationship). Normally, when I’m writing my own books, I know that I will periodically reach a section where I can explore Holmes’s point of view. Writing as Watson, I was limited both in what Watson knows and what Holmes is allowed to show. I found myself, at times, needing to excise Watson inserting his thoughts where Doyle’s Watson never would have. I also found that I had to be careful not to have Holmes be overly obvious about what he knows before it would be logical for him to do so, since his point of view is not a direct part of the narrative.

2) The Secondhand Discovery Issue–Sometimes, both in the original stories and in the ones that come after them, Holmes and Watson make a discovery at the same time. Often, however, Watson is the secondhand discoverer of information Holmes already knows. This makes the pacing and plotting of a traditional story an intricate exercise in keeping things straight. Watson needs to be writing about the actions of a man who is often at least a few steps ahead of him, while maintaining the integrity of his own knowledge level. In other words, a huge part of what makes traditional stories interesting is that Holmes and Watson don’t have the same brain, and they are not usually able to have long conversations about exactly what Holmes knows the moment he knows it. As a result, for a writer, this means maintaining a narrative voice that is in a slightly different place in the story than the man he’s constantly writing about.

3) The Watson is No Idiot Issue–John Watson is not stupid. This is a fact, borne out by his actions in many of Doyle’s stories. He is, however, not the deductive reasoning expert that Sherlock Holmes is. As a result, barring unusual situations, he needs to be firmly in the dark about certain facts that are relatively easy for Holmes to grasp. For a writer, this means having to think like Sherlock Holmes. Stay with me for a second. What I mean is this: if a writer writes a deduction for Holmes that is overly simple, but Watson doesn’t get it automatically, Watson looks stupid, which is a bad result. In order for Watson to take his rightful place as audience stand-in and conductor of light, his deductive abilities need to look average compared to Holmes’s abilities seeming brilliant. This means the writer of a traditional Holmes story has the burden of coming up with something brilliant enough to seem like an average person wouldn’t get it right away. This is a lot harder than it sounds. Ask me how I know…

The above are just a few of the challenges inherent in writing the traditional Holmes and Watson dynamic of the original Sherlock Holmes canon. My own attempts to navigate them made me marvel, in a totally new way, at how easy Doyle made it look. That’s the true mark of genius, isn’t it?


How to purchase my Sherlock Holmes novels:

(Book 1) The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 2) The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 3) The Detective The Woman and The Silent Hive is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide from Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle.

With His Boots On: A Tribute to Sir Christopher Lee

Christopher Lee 1

I awoke this morning to news of a most unwelcome kind, that of the passing of Sir Christopher Lee. Given that he had reached the age of 93, it’s impossible to say that Sir Christopher passed away before his time, but somehow it still feels true.

Born in 1922, Christopher Lee, long before the Sir was added, had a childhood that sounds like something from a far-bygone time. Born to a Gibson-era beautiful mother, who was the subject of painting and sculpture by notable artists, and a father who was a veteran of the Boer War and World War I, he grew up with a mostly privileged upbringing that included a few roles in school plays.

The true legend of Sir Christopher, at least as we have now come to know it,  begins during World War II, where he was attached to the Special Operations Executive and worked as an intelligence operative. In characteristic fashion, he declined until his death to talk about his work, but a now-famous special feature on one of Sir Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films reveals that Lee knew the exact sound a person makes when he’s stabbed in the back. As usual, there’s just enough revelation and mystery to the tale to keep us guessing about the true nature of his wartime activities.

Lee’s acting career began in the late 1940s upon his return from war and his realization of his disinclination to office work or teaching. His accomplishments and accolades in the years following almost defy belief. He appeared in Sir Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet; he became a horror film legend as Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula; he played a Bond villain; he did whatever else he wanted to do, and he did it well, thank you very much. Along the way came American acclaim and glittering recognition, including the honors that eventually led to his knighthood.

Sir Christopher entranced a new generation of fans with his iconic roles in the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings franchises, but Sherlock Holmes fans will, undoubtedly, always remember him as the man who played Sir Henry Baskerville, Sherlock Holmes, and, most notably, Mycroft Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. His portrayal of the elder Holmes brother as an intelligent, mysterious, and very involved part of the narrative continues to influence portrayals of Mycroft to this day. Notably, best-selling author Laurie R. King and Sherlock showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss cite it as a major influence, and countless other authors and adaptors echo them.

Few people live long enough to see themselves become legends in their own lifetimes, and on the rare occasion that it happens, even fewer manage to keep from being made into something both more and less than human at the same time. Sir Christopher Lee was a lot of things–spy, actor, heavy metal musician, and international celebrity. What he never stopped being was eager–to work, to learn, and to try new things. He passed away with an “Upcoming Projects” section on the Internet Movie Database that is still populated with titles. According to The Guardian, he’d signed on to a new film a month before his death. That’s who Sir Christopher Lee was, a man who never lost his human passion for doing the things he loved, the things he was so good at doing that they entranced the world.

He will be missed.

_________________

How to purchase my novels of Sherlock Holmes:

(Book 1) The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 2) The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 3) The Detective The Woman and The Silent Hive is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide from Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle.

Book Review: Thrice Burned 

  
Last year, I reviewed the excellent Jewel of the Thames, the first mystery novel by Canadian author Angela Misri. This month, I had the opportunity to read her equally well-crafted sequel Thrice Burned.

Misri’s books have, as their protagonist, the immensely engaging Portia Adams, a young Canadian detective with a connection to Holmes and Watson. The mystery aspects and Portia’s detection style owe a great deal to Doyle’s works, but they are adapted to a slightly later point in time and Portia’s own unique personality. Misri’s meticulous research into the history of criminal arson is very much in evidence in this book and will please those who enjoy realism in their criminal fiction.

Thrice Burned is not a rehash of the previous book. It builds on Misri’s previous elements (though it can be enjoyed as a standalone work) and deepens Portia’s character as well as her relationships with Annie and Dawes–two very well fleshed out characters who serve as Watsonian foils to Portia’s Holmesian brilliance.

Misri is one of the most exciting new authors whose works I’ve encountered in some time, and Thrice Burned is another enjoyable installment that manages to be, all at once, very Holmesian and very much all Misri’s own.

Click here to purchase.

A copy of the above-reviewed book was provided by the author for consideration. All opinions expressed are the reviewer’s own.

Book Review: The Case Books of Octavius Bear by Harry DeMaio

open amd shut

This is a review of the first two books in an ongoing series by author Harry DeMaio, The Open and Shut Case and The Case of the Spotted Band. To be perfectly honest, when I received these novels, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. The extent of my knowledge was that this series features anthropomorphic animals and is inspired by Sherlock Holmes.

Are they for children? I wondered. Can I, in any way, take them seriously? What is the purpose of doing this? Then I opened the first one and started reading.

No, these books are not children’s literature, they are serious without being self-important, and their purpose is, at least as I see it, to create a whole new world that is somehow deliciously reminiscent of the Holmes canon we know and love.

DeMaio’s attention to detail throughout the books is staggering. Understanding the challenge of jumping into a world in which Sherlock Holmes, professor Moriarty, and their cohorts are represented by animals, he includes in each book a character guide and a short explanation of how his post-apocalyptic animal society works.

The only book I can think of that is in any way comparable is the classic Watership Down by Richard Adams. Like DeMaio, Adams used animals to represent and illuminate aspects of human society. To my eye, the Octavius Bear books have the same amount of potential to become classics in the world of Sherlock Holmes-inspired fiction.

DeMaio is a skilled and engaging storyteller and crafter of characters and mystery narrative. Those who enjoy traditional Holmesian works will enjoy his books. It’s not a matter of trying to get past a concept to find the story; he manages to make his animals and their world an intrinsic part of his unique Sherlockian vision.

Somehow, through Octavius Bear and his associates, Harry DeMaio has managed to create something that is entirely new and entirely familiar. His world is a very enjoyable place to lose yourself.

————-

The Open and Shut Case is available from all good bookstores including  Amazon USA , Amazon UK ,Waterstones UK , and for free shipping worldwide Book Depository .  In ebook format it is in Kindle, Kobo,Nook and Apple iBooks (iPad/iPhone).
 
The Case of The Spotted Band is available from all good bookstores including  Amazon USA, Amazon UK,Waterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide Book Depository .  In ebook format it is in Kindle, Kobo,Nook and Apple iBooks (iPad/iPhone).

The books reviewed above were provided for consideration by the publisher. All opinions expressed are the reviewer’s own. 

221b Con Book Club!

Book Cover Final

I am absolutely thrilled to announce that 221b Con, the Holmes-themed convention happening April 10th-12th in Atlanta, Georgia, has selected my first Sherlock Holmes novel, The Detective and The Woman, as their official book club selection. I’ll be on hand at the con to lead a discussion about the book. Until then, MX Publishing is offering 20% off any of my books at mxpublishing.com using the coupon code 221bamy

For more information about the convention, check out 221bcon.com

Pastiche vs. Fanfiction

The debate that wouldn’t die.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece laying out my viewpoint that pastiche is anything Sherlock Holmes-themed that is faithful to Doyle’s characters. Since then, my opinion has evolved and changed. I’m going to re-articulate it.

Just today, I hear of Sherlock published this piece, which does a great job of explaining the viewpoint that pastiche should be a word reserved only for works that directly imitate Doyle’s storytelling style. (By that definition, as a reader and book reviewer, I personally prefer Holmes-themed works that are not pastiche about a million times more than most of those that are, but that’s a topic for another time.)

I don’t have a massive quarrel with IHOSE’s definition–technically. The problem is, words are not used in a vacuum, especially not in fandom. Somebody has to decide which works are “enough like Doyle” or “trying hard enough to be like Doyle” or “traditional enough” to warrant the word. Works that “fail” someone’s subjective test are, all-too-often, relegated to second-class status: In other words, fanfiction. This is the ugly little secret, and I’ve been seeing it happen ever since I entered the Sherlock Holmes world as an adult.

Let’s make one thing crystal clear. All pastiche is fanfiction. Breathe into a paper bag and repeat: All pastiche is fanfiction. Anything written by a fan of something, inspired by that something, is, by definition, fanfiction. There is nothing inherently negative, suggestive of low quality, or second class about fanfiction. It’s been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

Fanfiction is a perfectly good word, and pastiche, however you choose to define it, is a perfectly good word. The problem is, human beings have a nasty habit of taking perfectly good words and giving them very problematic contexts, contexts meant to exclude and shame others.

This is what I’ve seen happen over and over with the pastiche vs. fanfiction issue. (To be clear, I am not saying everyone who espouses the use of the word “pastiche” is prejudiced or intolerant. Many are lovely. However, the culture of exclusion around the term is one I’ve observed repeatedly for years.)

Fandom context means that pastiche, as much as we’d like it to be, isn’t just a technical term for a type of fanfiction. All too often, it’s an in-word, a word used to describe what some consider to be the only “right” way to express creativity in the Sherlock Holmes world. Sure, there’s a catchall category for what those “other people” (often times young people, people of different gender, millennials, people of the Internet generation) create, but it’s not high and mighty pastiche. That word is only for the works of correct people, who write what they’re supposed to write.

Frankly, I’m tired of it. If I had my druthers, we’d call it all fanfiction and stop acting like “fan” and “fandom” are only words that apply to new enthusiasts, instead of being really broad words that have open arms to welcome all who are enthusiastic about something, regardless of age or duration of interest or any other factor.

Some of us write fanfiction that is published and sold. Others of us write fanfiction that we kindly share with the world free of charge. Still others write fanfiction that is only for our own eyes and enjoyment. It’s all creative. It’s all part of the Holmesian experience, and none of it deserves to be categorically excluded. (Of course we all have opinions about what we prefer or what is better and worse, but that has to do with personal taste and preference, not excluding entire categories of creativity because they don’t fit our mold.)

I know it’s not going to happen. Pastiche is not going to disappear as a word, and I’ll probably still use it in certain contexts, even though I wish fanfiction would suffice. But honestly? Please form your own opinion. This post is not intended to feed into the idea that there’s one right way to think about fandom concepts or a correct way to be creative.

If someone says to you, with that trademark disdain in their voice, “That’s not pastiche; that’s fanfiction,” smile at them and say, “Thank you. That’s an amazing compliment.” Because it is. Fanfiction is awesome, and when you create it, you’re awesome too.

How to purchase my novels of Sherlock Holmes:

(Book 1) The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 2) The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 3) The Detective The Woman and The Silent Hive is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide from Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Holmes: An Open Letter

CushingHolmes

TO: Mr. Sherlock Holmes

221b Baker Street

London, England

Dear Mr. Holmes,

As an avowed part of your adoring public, it has come to my attention that today marks your birthday. It is no secret that you are not particularly fond of marking the day, which is understandable. I doubt I would be overly excited to be one hundred sixty-one either.

I wonder how you will celebrate. Drinks at the pub? A trip to the moors? Viewing The Asylum’s Sherlock Holmes with your brother? Or perhaps a quiet day with Mary Russell, who, I hear tell, shares your penchant for immortality.

I think, really, you’ll probably play chess today with the old specter who haunts Baker Street. No one much minds him any more. We live in an age when ghosts are nostalgic remnants of a bygone time. He will walk up the seventeen steps and greet you as an old enemy—after a hundred years, do old enemies become friends?—and the two of you will sit down with kings and pawns between you, remembering the days when the city was your battleground.

We who form your public are fond of saying that it’s always 1895 in your world, but that’s not quite true, is it? That illusion is for us, for those who would escape into the pages of your friend’s embellished words. But you live beyond those pages, and that year cannot define you.

Sometimes we writers try to make you immortal through logical means. We invent serums and spells and incantations, but all we really need are our words and our imaginations. You live in every year when we envision you there; you take any form our narratives can construct; and you live forever because nothing can die that is remembered.

I’m quite sure you find immortality absurd, but lest you deny the power of the words we give you, let me whisper “Norbury” in your ear. You were once a man alone; you became an ink drawing colored in by the softening lines of friendship. You met the world through the pen of another.

You are still meeting that world the same way. Dr. Watson is also immortal, you know, only today he wears more faces than your disguises ever created. He looks out through the laughing eyes of my rainbow-haired friend. He has thousands of Tumblr followers. He works days at an employment agency, and at night his fingers ache from penning the words he can’t keep inside. He rides public transportation, earbuds blasting heavy metal into his brain, journaling the outline of his next story. He’s a university lecturer who narrates your tales to freshmen purely for love of telling them.

Millions mark your birthday—in apartments, pubs, libraries, and schools. After all, who better to celebrate your day than the ones who love you most of all? For being one of the most seemingly aloof men of literature, you certainly played a masterful trick, Mr. Holmes. You made the whole world your closest friend, and in so doing, you made yourself live forever.

Many happy returns to you and to us.

——–

How to purchase my novels of Sherlock Holmes:

(Book 1) The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 2) The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 3) The Detective The Woman and The Silent Hive is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide from Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle.