Dabbling in Doyle

Some time in spring last year, I had a crack at writing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. It was for a submissions call shared by Jenny Green from our writing group, and I decided to have a crack at it. So, I wrote the story. It didn’t get picked up, but six months down the line,  Jenny shared another submissions call for Holmes stories, so I sent it off again, and this time it made the cut. Rather than – all right, as well as – promote it (link at the end of this post), I’d like to share my thoughts on the process.

Why Sherlock Holmes? It’s one thing to write a detective story, or a murder mystery, but quite another to do it in the style of one of the biggest names in the genre, using one – or rather two – of the best-loved characters in fiction. I’d never really thought about writing either a murder mystery or a Holmes story, but it seemed like too good a chance to pass up. The fan in me won out.

I’ve seen, heard, and read a lot of different versions of Holmes. I like the classic Basil Rathbone movies, though I deplore the way that Watson is dumbed down (this is not a shot at Nigel Bruce, mind). I enjoy the Jeremy Brett TV series, and even get a kick out of the Guy Richie movies. I was a huge fan of Sherlock, though less impressed with the third series. I’ve watched a few episodes of Elementary, and I’ve read the whole canon of Doyle’s stories. Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk is excellent. But my first memory of Holmes & Watson and my most enduring connection to them, is the BBC’s radio dramatisation of the whole canon, and the only adaptation where the same actors (Clive Merrison and Michael Williams) play Holmes and Watson for every one of Doyle’s stories. More on that later.

The challenges of writing a pastiche are obvious. How can I match the style? How can I walk the line between following the conventions and creating a rehash of clichés? How do I keep it a pastiche rather than a parody? I’m not 100% convinced that I’ve done any of these things, but I’m pretty pleased with how it ended up.

On the other hand, a pastiche has several advantages. I don’t have to develop the characters, build a whole world, explain why and how Holmes is so clever, drop in any backstory, or anything like that. The work is done for me. I can just ignore it all and stick to the story – or in this case, the case.

This is where things got fun. The original submission call was for “The Paranormal Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” so I had to write the Great Detective with a difference. However, I wasn’t interested in having him meet Dracula, solve an extraterrestrial murder, or even be cryogenically frozen and appear in the future. I wanted to write a story that actually fit with the “known” facts of the canon. I don’t want to give away my solution for how I chose to do that.

That was the first step. Second was the crime. This was actually a lot harder to figure out, as I had to basically work backwards from the crime scene – in this case, my murder victim – and trying to leave clues and evidence as I went. Then stir the pot with a few false leads. The word limit of 7,000 was a help in this. In most of the short Holmes cases, you’re never in the dark for too long. There’s a case, some evidence gathering, and a solution. Doyle’s novels stretch out the middle stage (and, in two of the four stories, include many chapters of unrelated ‘romance’), but his short stories are tight. This worked to my advantage. My favourite Holmes cases are locked-room style ones with plenty of physical evidence for deductions, so that set me off on the path.

(Another convention I love is when Holmes looks over a client, observing and deducting. I actually wrote a whole scene of this, but sadly had to cut it due to length constraints, which is a shame)

So I had Idea One: The Paranormal Element, and Idea Two: The Crime. Crossing them was not really a problem, as the Idea One actually bookends Idea Two, creating two “mysteries” as it were, which I could deal with separately. But I knew there was something else I had to really get right, something more than plotting a decent crime or giving it a weird and wonderful twist.

Holmes and Watson.

For me, the stories have never been “Holmes” stories – they’re Holmes and Watson stories. Without the relationship, or without the right balance, it’s not quite the same. This is where those BBC dramatisations come in. Actually hearing the characters speak to one another really formed my opinion of them as a duo. Holmes may sometimes belittle Watson, run roughshod over him, and frequently deliberately mislead him, but he has a way of showing Watson just how much he means to him. Watson can be observant, and attempts deductions of his own. He often makes mistakes, but these are actually helpful. “It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light,” is how Holmes puts it. In the BBC versions, the warmth, and the occasional sparks that fly, between the two friends is readily apparent. Trying to show this was even more important to me than making an interesting murder mystery.

I can’t say how well I succeeded, only to repeat that I’m pretty happy with it. My hope lies in Machiavelli:

“A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme, so that if his ability does not equal theirs, at least it will savour of it.”

If nothing else, I think I had more fun writing this story than almost anything else I’ve written.

The story “The Adventure of the Etheric Projection” was published in the Sherlock Holmes Special Issue of Jersey Devil Press’s online magazine. Here’s the link for a free pdf download:

http://www.jerseydevilpress.com/?p=7011

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2 thoughts on “Dabbling in Doyle

  1. That was a great story. I’d say you more than succeeded. Have you considered publishing that story on Amazon? Do you have the rights to? I’ve seen very niche ebooks that are short story length. As long as you say in the description exactly how long it is, it’s worth putting it out there as a stand-alone.

    I loved that you mentioned it was just plain fun to write and think about. I really think the only good reason to write is because you really enjoy it. Then the work tends to be much better.

    Like

    • Cheers, Brad. I’ve not thought about Amazon. I’d have to double-check what Jersey Devil says about future stuff (I’d guess I can do it in 3-6 months, and as long as I credit “First published in…” then that’s probably all I need.

      On the other hand, I’m not sure where I’d stand with the estate of Conan Doyle. I think in the states Holmes & Watson are public domain, but not 100% sure if that’s everywhere. I think that Holmes stories are fair game, though the estate “officially endorses” some stuff like the Horowitz novels. One to look into.

      The only thing I did think of doing is keeping it around to go into a future collection of short stuff.

      Like

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