It's a Sherlock Holmes story, Watson, but not as we know it.

Loretta asked in the last post: Gary, what do you think of the "Faux Holmes" that are popping up now, like The Italian Secretary? Personally, I've yet to find one that rings true, but YMMV.

I believe Sherlock Holmes is now out of copyright, except for some very late stories, and I presume that's why there's been a surge of Holmes stories and the movie cashing in paying homage to the world's greatest detective.

I haven't read The Italian Secretary, so I don't know about it, but as a general rule IMHO the emulations fail to capture the combination of style, atmosphere, and character.

My view is, the moment you write in your own interpretation of Holmes and Watson, you may as well be writing your own detectives rather than using someone else's. For that reason I think if you're going to do it, you have to aim for ultra-emulation.

The only exception I've read to prove that view wrong is a book called Sherlock Holmes and the 1902 Fifth Test, by Stanley Shaw. In that book the narrator is not Watson, but another man entirely who's a cricket fan, and the POV character reveals Watson to be considerably smarter than the self-deprecatory biographer gives himself credit for. At the end of the book, the POV character and Dr Watson find themselves batting for England to save the test match, disguised as the actual players who were supposed to be there!

There was an SF anthology called Sherlock Holmes In Orbit which I read years ago (they took pains to say they had permission of the estate), and I thought a few of those stories were pretty good. They succeeded by not even trying to emulate the original style, and were so far outside the Canon that it didn't matter.

Another thing which the Holmes copyists do that doesn't work, IMHO, is mash him up with famous characters. (I don't know of a story in which Holmes meets Spock, but I'll bet someone's done one.) Or they introduce Holmes into famous incidents where he patently was not.

This sort of mash up is sensationalism for the sake of grabbing reader attention. But the essence of Holmes is that he eschews the sensationalist cases and applies his skills only to those which present features of interest, no matter how humble the client. (Okay, Conan Doyle himself broke that rule a few times, but that only proves even the best writers can get lazy, and those cases were rarely Holmes' best.)

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen wisely excluded Holmes because his character would have been overwhelming.

If I were insane enough to try a Holmes story myself (and I might be that mad) I would stick to a short story, because that's the natural length for Sherlock Holmes. I would pick a humble client with an odd tale to relate; a case that presents features of interest, and I would target the earlier period during which Watson and Holmes shared rooms. In other words a classic Holmes tale. Then I'd allocate about a month to edit the short story into the right style, which would be very, very hard. Oh, and I'd include this line:

"You interest me strangely," said Holmes, leaning back in his chair. "Pray continue."


11 comments:

Loretta Ross said...

Now that I'd like to read!

Actually, I'll admit it might be fun to take a stab at one myself. Of course, I'd have to start by re-reading all the original stories.

I know what you mean about the making-Holmes-get-involved-with-historical-people-and-places-gratuitously thing! You see that all the time in any book or story that has to do with history or time travel. Makes me want to write a short story about someone who travels accidentally to 1912 and mysteriously fails to find himself anywhere near the Titanic.

It's kind of the way, in fantasy literature, that an elf lord or knight or something will wander into our world and invariably meet an historian or museum director or librarian who's passionately interested in whatever sort of society they come from.

RWMG said...

And it's always Cleopatra who gets re-incarnated, never the vegetable seller in the market.

Gary Corby said...

There's probably a tale to be told in all the time travelers who visit the Titanic appearing at the same moment, causing the ship to capsize.

Robert, I have pretty much the same issue with people who claim to have lived past lives. I can only conclude Cleopatra was afflicted with a multiple personality disorder.

Amalia T. said...

How long until Sherlock Holmes moves from fictional character to established Mythology of that period in history-- that is the question! At which point, all the faux Holmes books will become legitimate as variations of different cultures. 1000 years? Will people look back at the Holmesian Philosophy of law enforcement?

Gary Corby said...

I totally agree with that Amalia, and I'm sure it'll be less than a thousand years before people assume Sherlock Holmes was a real person about whom legends sprang up.

Loretta Ross said...

Gary, I hate to admit this, but I know people who think that already! Apparently Doyle had a professor at some time that he openly admired (been awhile since I heard this, but I'm thinking his name was Bell?) and some people have decided he was the "real" Sherlock Holmes and that Doyle based his stories on this guy's "exploits".

Loretta Ross said...

Here you go. I Googled it.
http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2088/did-sherlock-holmes-really-exist

Amalia T. said...

Loretta, that is AWESOME! Thanks for the link and the info!

Gary Corby said...

Loretta, I'm with Amelia. That is just amazing!

I loved the description of tracking down on what date "A Case of Identity" took place, especially considering the exquisite logic is all based on random facts that Doyle surely invented on the fly.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

How did you like Nicholas Meyer's SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION and THE WEST END HORROR? I believe they were credible. Mr. Meyer wrote and directed STAR TREK II : THE WRATH OF KHAN. And you can used hardcover of THE WEST END HORROR for just a penny from Amazon. How cool is that?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Roland, and welcome to the blog!

I wondered if someone would mention The Seven Percent Solution! I've read it, but not The West End Horror.

The Seven Percent Solution of course is a credible book and it was interesting to read, but I don't think it "works" as a Sherlock Holmes story.

Consider this Turing Test for Holmes: if you lined up all the canonical Holmes novels plus The Seven Percent Solution, would a reader fresh to Sherlock Holmes spot the odd one out?

I claim the answer is yes. There are noticeable differences, not only in writing style but in character.

Now a detective pair that I would love to read is Einstein and Jung.