Canon Thursday: Importance of the Great Hiatus

I’m a big fan of two cult-hit television shows that are, in retrospect, considered to have been far ahead of their times and cancelled extremely prematurely: the sci-fi western Firefly and the understated high school memoir Freaks and Geeks. Both of these shows died early deaths and went on to great posthumous acclaim.

Sherlock Holmes very nearly suffered a similar fate when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famously annoyed and bored with his hero, decided to off the detective at the Reichenbach Falls. As most Sherlockians should know, the outcry agains this act was as fierce as any outcry against a tv cancellation and resulted in Conan Doyle bringing Holmes back, first with The Hound of the Baskervilles and finally for good, allowing fans to imagine Holmes living forever with his bees.

I can only imagine an alternate universe in which the same thing happened to my beloved television shows–a world in which someone realized that a mistake had been made in killing them through cancellation and rectified it by recommissioning them. (This has been known to happen, famously in the cases of Chuck and JAG).

Here’s the point and question: Would Holmes have been as popular if he had never died and been reborn? Some tv shows never face cancellation and therefore never reach the level of mythical veneration that something like Firefly has attained. If Conan Doyle had continued to write Holmes stories constantly, without any tragic hiatus, might the detective have failed to become quite the icon he is today? After all, the heartbreaking death of a hero is a story arc that thrills humanity wherever it occurs, and the added resurrection makes the story even more captivating.

What do you think? How important is the Great Hiatus to the ongoing popularity of Sherlock Holmes?

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What’s a Pastiche?

Some of my fellow Holmes authors have been engaging in friendly discourse about pastiche and what it really means, so here is my addition to the conversation.

According to dictionary.com, a pastiche is “a literary, musical, or artistic piece consisting wholly or chiefly of motifs or techniques borrowed from one or more sources.”

By this definition, most, if not all, Holmes-related fiction qualifies as pastiche. This is the definition I espouse. Other authors have a different viewpoint, notably celebrated Sherlockians David Ruffle and Dan Andriacco, who consider true Holmes pastiche to be only works that imitate Conan Doyle’s style and employ Watson as their narrator. Personally, I find such a narrow definition to be unnecessarily limiting.

When I think of the idea of literary pastiche of any kind–Holmes is by no means the only character employed in this way–I do not expect authors to strictly adhere to the original creator’s style. For instance, I do not expect books that use Jane Austen’s characters to sound exactly like Jane Austen (an impossible task) or books that contain Dracula to sound like Bram Stoker. I am prepared to sound utterly heretical when I say that some subsequent writers actually improve on the writing styles of the original. After all, certain classics are venerated because of the beauty of the writing, but some are venerated for other reasons.

In the same way, I don’t expect writers of Holmesian pastiches to strictly imitate the Conan Doyle style to merit the word. Conan Doyle was a master at plotting and characterization, but he is far from my favorite author with respect to artistic and evocative language use. As a result, I enjoy it when contemporary writers use their own style and language to paint his world and characters with their own colors.

I was not aware that anyone except Conan Doyle wrote stories about the Holmes characters until a few years ago when a friend introduced me to The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King, the least traditional sort of pastiche imaginable. And yet, King’s Holmes is the one I read about from the first page of A Study in Scarlet, and her world is Conan Doyle’s. To me, her books are pastiches, however far from the creator’s style they fall.

I have one single qualification when it comes to pastiche. I do not require a Watsonian narrator, a Doylean voice, or even a Victorian setting. What I do require is authenticity of  character. An author’s characterization of Sherlock Holmes and any other canonical characters employed must resonate with Conan Doyle’s characterizations, or I believe a story fails as a Holmesian pastiche. To state it another way, perhaps my qualification is actually a demanding one. I require more than a reach for Conan Doyle and the employment of Watson; I need to hear Holmes’s heartbeat echoing through the pages of a book to feel that I am reading an authentic pastiche.

As a final word, I am glad to say that no matter how much we talk about the use of the word “pastiche,” I have yet to encounter any author who is against the idea of employing Holmes in non-traditional ways. We may differ on the subject of nomenclature, but we definitely agree on the value of all sorts of stories about literature’s greatest consulting detective.

Canon Thursday: Watson’s Wives

 

 

 

 

 

 

We all know about Watson’s first wife, Mary Morstan, who famously fell in love with the good doctor during The Sign of Four. What is less clear is why, after her death during Holmes’s Great Hiatus, Watson is mentioned as having another wife.

I’m curious about your opinion on this. From a Doylean perspective, the author might have made a continuity mistake, something he definitely did on a regular basis, or he could have been echoing his own life as a widower who later remarried. Conversely, when playing The Game, some people do timeline gymnastics to make Watson only have one wife, but for most people, the possibilities are nearly endless because so little is said about his remarriage.

What do you think? Author mistake? Natural character progression? Anomaly? Let me know in the comments.

 

Do You Play The Game?

 

On Episode 23 of the Baker Street Babes Podcast, which you will soon be able to hear, we discussed the topic of Old and New Sherlockians: generation gaps, the changing face of the Holmes fandom, and a whole host of related issues. One thing we touched on was the idea of playing The Game.

Playing The Game means treating the Sherlock Holmes stories as if Holmes and Watson were real and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was simply Watson’s literary agent. It includes things like finding explanations for Watson’s inaccuracies and placing events in the stories in historical and geographical context. In the past, or so I am told, a certain amount of acrimony existed between those who played The Game and those who took a Doylean approach, which considered the stories in light of the author’s life and times.

For many years, it seems, most Holmesians took one approach or the other. In more recent times, however, a whole new influx of fans has arrived, some who have seen only screen adaptations and others who have read the stories but are not aware of The Game or its detractors.

Perhaps because I am American and did not grow up knowing other Holmes fans, I was not even aware of the concept of playing The Game until I encountered the novels of Laurie R. King, who plays it in her stories by putting Holmes and Watson into historical context and allowing them to meet real-life historical figures. The idea that people played The Game on a more personal level escaped me until I wrote my own novel and began to interact with other authors and passionate fans of the stories.

Personally, I find The Game immensely entertaining and appealing. Fans of the BBC Sherlock series have continued the legacy through the #BelieveinSherlock campaign, and a huge group of Sherlockians worldwide continues to play it in the traditional way.

At the same time, I also find the Doylean approach helpful, as it allows the reader to understand the canon more fully by connecting with its author. In recent years, historians like Alistair Duncan have illuminated little-known facts about Conan Doyle that provide valuable insight into Sherlock Holmes. The idea that anyone would dismiss these facts because they are incompatible with The Game is unfortunate indeed.

When all is said and done, I play The Game when I write. Readers of my novel will encounter not only lightbulb inventor Thomas Edison, but many other historical persons with whom they may be less familiar, such as John T. Murphy and Tootie McGregor. When I read, however, I go back and forth. I enjoy Watson’s secretive references to things he cannot share with the public, and I have as much fun as anyone imagining Holmes meeting Queen Victoria. As a lover of literature, however, I cannot help also having the author in the back of my mind as I try to understand his purposes and why he chose to present the material the way he did. I cannot give my whole brain to The Game; Conan Doyle looms too large in my consciousness.

Here’s my question to you: Are you aware of The Game, and do you play it?