Let’s Make English More Efficient!

Here are a few amazing words from an article a friend in Arizona sent. Bill DeMain compiled this list of single words for Mental Floss that express things and feelings that need a whole sentence (or two) to get across in English. See all 38 here, and prepare to wonder at the universality of human experience!

Boketto (Japanese) – when you gaze vacantly into the distance, thinking of nothing. My cats do that a lot.

Tartle (Scots) – that panicky feeling you have when you must introduce someone and their name has flown right out of your head.

Iktsuarpok (Inuit) – that feeling when you’re expecting someone to show up and you keep checking outside to see whether they’ve arrived.

Greng-jai (Thai) – that feeling when someone wants to do something for you, but you know it would be a problem for them, so you don’t want them to do it. (Too many of us aren’t that considerate.)

Gigil (Filipino) – when you have an irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze something, often accompanied by squealing “soooo CUTE!”

Lagom (Swedish) – when something is neither too much or too little, but exactly right. DeMain asked a pertinent question: “Maybe Goldilocks was Swedish?”

Zeg (Georgian) – the day after tomorrow

This word—actually, it’s more than one word—that I could use daily: L’esprit de l’escalier (French) – literally, stairwell wit—a retort that occurs to you only after you and your conversation partner have gone your separate ways. In my case, it could be L’esprit au milieu de la nuit. 3 a.m., maybe.

And here’s one I thought of myself: Repoussé (French) – appropriately, the word came to me in the middle of the night (some random synapse firing) and I made a correct guess about what it means. Repoussé is a metalworking technique in which the artist hammers on the back side of a piece of metal so that the design appears on the front. These amazing battlefield shell casings from a display at the Arizona Copper Art Museum are an example—probably where I encountered this word I didn’t know I knew.

Cumberbatch or Brett? Brett or Cumberbatch? Or Rathbone?

This series of posts about the stories in the recent collection, Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, edited by Richard T. Ryan, published by Belanger Books, began by asking the story authors—and you, our Facebook friends—which is your favorite on-screen Holmes/Watson duo? I learned two things: Holmes fans have clear favorites, and their views are strongly held!

I started recording your votes on a small notepad and was soon using both sides of the sheet.

Garnering the most fans (about a third of the total) was the classic 36-episode Granada television series (1984-1994) starring Jeremy Brett, with equal votes to the Watsons of first David Burke, then Edward Hardwicke. Of course, fans did note Brett’s deteriorating performance as the series wore on, due to a series of psychological and medical problems.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman also garnered quite a few votes for the BBC Sherlock series—about a quarter of the total. People said they liked the modern energy of these productions, but I was disappointed to learn (thank you, gossip trade) that the two actors actually don’t like each other. Cumberbatch is the better known, of course, but, in a complete aside, if you want to see Freeman in one of my favorite short comedic films, The Voorman Problem, I think you’ll enjoy it.

There were almost as many votes for Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as for Cumberbatch and Freeman. Still, fans couldn’t help but scoff at the poor characterization of Watson. I suspect it wasn’t Bruce’s fault; he was probably hewing to the instructions of the director, who may have feared audiences wouldn’t understand how smart Holmes was without a dim Watson for contrast.

From here, we get into small numbers, five percent of the voting or so, but what’s surprising is how many portrayals loom so memorably in our minds! Downey and Law, Miller and Liu (with lots of pushback on this one. A bridge too far for some), Caine and Kingsley (Without a Clue), Ronald Howard and Howard Marion-Crawford (first American series, 1954), Peter Cushing and André Morell (The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1959), Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin (Soviet television, 1979-1986). I’ve never seen most of these—or heard of some of them!

And, finally, some respondents thought “on-screen” portrayals was altogether too limiting a construct and proposed Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s performance of both Holmes and Moriarty in the ballet The Great Detective (1953), or the Clive Merrison and Michael Williams BBC Radio versions (1989-1998), and William Gillette, who portrayed Holmes on stage and in a 1916 silent film. And the very favorite depiction for one Holmes fan was the portrayal created in his own book. No one mentioned the various musical versions, probably for good reason.

Contemporary writers, who, in the case of the anthology mentioned, do adhere closely to the canonical conventions, have enthusiastically created adventures to fill in the time gap in which almost none of Conan Doyle’s stories are set and the hundreds of film, television, radio, stage, and other portrayals of these enduring characters show there are many stories still to be had. Or, as Holmes himself said, “One’s ideas must be as broad as Nature if they are to interpret Nature.” And contemporary writers continue to explore those limits. Enjoy!

Why Does Sherlock Holmes Endure?

For the past few weeks, I’ve reported here the thoughts of some of today’s leading authors of Sherlock efforts to reproduce his world. These authors care passionately about the Holmes/Watson legacy. They demonstrated this through their contributions to the anthology, Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, edited by Richard T. Ryan. It’s one of a series filling in the years 1881-1886, when almost no Holmes cases were reported. Contemporary writers, not content to assume the duo temporarily retired during that period, have enthusiastically created adventures to fill in the gap.

One last question I asked them was why Holmes and Watson have had such enduring reader appeal. (People who’ve seen these posts in social media have also weighed in on this question!) Author DJ Tyrer says that, for him, the attraction lies in the rapport between Holmes and Watson. Shelby Phoenix terms it their “genuine fondness for each other.” Tyrer says “There’s a depth to their relationship, their friendship, and their investigative partnership that is more than the sum of its parts.”

George Jacobs says that friendship helps anchor the sometimes aloof and calculating Holmes—“ultimately unknowable” says Katy Darby. Yet, Jacobs says, they’re both very likeable heroes, with Watson “the classic everyman,” so brave and loyal readers keep rooting for him, and with Holmes’s strong sense of morality—even when it contradicts that law or social convention. As Paul Hiscock points out, literature has many great detectives, but far fewer memorable sidekicks. “Readers can respect Watson, just as Holmes does. His relatability allows Holmes to be exceptional without alienating the reader.” (The duo of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock comes to mind.) Frequent Holmes/Watson pasticher David Marcum finds the pairing an “amazing narrative device to show a brilliant person—someone always two steps ahead of what’s going on—from the perspective of the everyman narrator.”

Add to all that the strength of Doyle’s writing, especially his characterizations, says Hassan Akram: “His characters live and breathe.” Also, Doyle focuses on the crime, Phoenix points out, not on tension and distrust between characters, as many writers do today. Darby points out that, because the stories “are easy and fun to read, they’re often underestimated as the highly skilled work they are,” in terms of plot, action, and character development.

Author George Gardner believes that our continued exposure to these personalities and their world has made the stories “readily imaginable to the reader.” We instantly recognize the names of Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, and Baker Street, but they are remote enough in time to give “an air of the fantastic to the stories.” Holmes is “the epitome of a detective” for many, many people, says Gustavo Bondoni, and readers have found his fog-covered streets a most evocative time and place. Even people who read his adventures in the World War I trenches, like Kevin Thornton’s grandfather, eagerly introduced them to later generations.

Developing and writing a story in the late-Victorian London setting, “is even more immersive than reading one,” says Akram. So, let’s see how he did with his story, generously larded with wry wit, “The Return of the Buckinghamshire Baronet.”

Here goes: A partially burned telegram is a clue to the distant town where Holmes believes a bank robber has hidden his loot. Holmes and Watson’s old acquaintance, a Baronet, lives there and is about to be married. He appears at Baker Street with the astonishing proposal that Holmes perform his “deducing” act at the wedding. (Holmes, not surprisingly, declines.) Still, the Baronet offers a week’s invitation to stay at his manor house before the ceremony, and there, another species of financial pandemonium soon erupts.

I asked Akram about his use of humor in this story, and he thinks “it’s more difficult to use humor to good effect when the characters are so familiar.” Thus, most of his story’s humor comes from their slightly dim friend and other minor characters. The personas of Holmes and Watson having reached “almost mythical” status, he says, requires that they be treated with complete respect. Doyle’s own sense of the absurd “has been underrated in the face of his more serious elements, though it’s clearly visible in a story like ‘The Red-Headed League,’ when Holmes and Watson burst into laughter on hearing the client’s story.”

The popularity of Holmes and Watson endures, regularly refreshed by the work of the authors mentioned above. Their stories in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885 are:
D.J. Tyrer – “The Japanese Village Mystery”
Shelby Phoenix – “Sherlock Holmes and the Six-Fingered Hand Print”
George Jacobs – “The Mystery of the Cloven Cord”
Katy Darby – “The Adventure of the Lock Hospital”
Paul Hiscock – “The Light of Liberty”
David Marcum – “The Faulty Gallows”
George Gardner – “The Adventure of the Damaged Tomb”
Gustavo Bondoni – “The Burning Mania”
Kevin Thornton – “Tracks Across Canada” and “Tracked Across America”

Beware of Foreign Entanglements!

While Victorian society often seems hidebound, clinging to a certain worldview (British is best), previous posts in this series have talked about how rapidly the world, and that world specifically, was changing. Travel was speeding up, the telegraph had been invented, laws were changing, and many Britishers had visited the Empire’s far corners, or, as in Katy Darby’s story, had served in the Army there. Of course, that wasn’t the only way Victorians learned about the rest of the world—it also came to them, for better or worse. In Belanger Books’s entertaining volume Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, edited by Richard Ryan, contemporary authors look at any number of external influences on Holmes’s milieu.

These external forces are all the more consequential because, as George Gardner maintains, “no other historical period is so iconic and fully-formed in the mind of both reader and writer.” Or, as author Kevin Thornton put it, “with a Holmes story, there is no need for back story, to explain who the characters are, what they do, and what the story is about. It’s all there as soon as you mention Sherlock or 221B.” A situation ready-made for exciting surprises.

Certainly, it takes a vivid imagination to figure out how such well-known characters would have reacted to the era’s untoward events, like the Irish separatists’ bombings. Gardner’s story has Watson “jumping at shadows,” but Holmes takes a more measured view, seeming to believe “the hysteria and fear around the Fenian bombers were a larger threat than the bombings themselves.” Another example is in Shelby Phoenix’s story, which involves a shop selling Japanese pottery, “actually pretty popular back in Victorian England,” she says. Bringing goods to England for sale inspired her malefactor to do the same with people.

“While we often picture Holmes and Watson living in a generic Victorian London, the Year of Mystery concept has encouraged me to think about their place in history—about a series of unexpected events that could have happened in the existing historical context,” says author Paul Hiscock.

Here are two stories that exemplify the cross-cultural influences of the time.

“The Mystery of the Cloven Cord” by George Jacobs begins with a visit from Scotland Yard Inspector Gregson, who is bearing an unusual scarf. Cut in half and rolled like a rope, it was abandoned at the scene of an attempted murder. A similar scarf was left at a recent break-in. The victims heard a Bengali dialect. Holmes and Watson soon find themselves in the middle of a foreign intrigue in which miscreants looked to the Thuggees—“bandits and murderers who would roam India, killing and robbing travelers”—for inspiration and had brought their methods to England.

In 1885, hundreds thousands of Britishers visited a major exhibition of Japanese art and culture, which burned to the ground a few days before DJ Tyrer’s story, “The Japanese Village Mystery,” opens. Holmes and Watson become involved when the Village’s proprietor approaches them within days of the fire, fearful he’ll be charged with arson. Watson is called away from this meeting to visit his patient, WS Gilbert (who, in real life, engaged a Village tea server to coach his “three little maids” for The Mikado). Gilbert has been attacked by a black-clad man with a Japanese sword. A similar man is seen combing through the exhibition ruins, and the proprietor insists the man is “a member of that sect of assassins known as the Shinobi.” Once again, foreign entanglements have a dangerous side!

The authors mentioned herein cleverly use foreign influences and experiences to increase the intrigue in Holmes’s world. Their stories in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885 are:
Katy Darby – “The Adventure of the Lock Hospital”
George Gardner – “The Adventure of the Damaged Tomb”
Kevin Thornton – “Tracks Across Canada” and “Tracked Across America”
Paul Hiscock – “The Light of Liberty”
Shelby Phoenix – “Sherlock Holmes and the Six-Fingered Hand Print”

Sherlock Holmes: Master of Disguise

Contemporary writers of Sherlock Holmes pastiches take inspiration from real events and characters, as well as having occasional fun with familiar Holmes tropes. In the entertaining volume Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, published late last year by Belanger Books, editor Richard Ryan included several stories in which Holmes capitalized on his considerable talent for disguise.

Here’s what some of the anthology’s authors say about that particular aspect of Holmes stories

“The ‘manic,’ childlike energy of Holmes’s disguises—particularly those in A Scandal in Bohemia or The Hound of the Baskervilles—is an oft-overlooked part of his character. Holmes is often seen as sober and serious, so I wanted to explore a different side of him,” says George Gardner.

Gustavo Bondoni said Holmes’s disguises let the detective mix and mingle with all classes of people, bringing him “out of the drawing room and into the world.” In my stories in which Holmes takes on a disguise, I deploy it for humor, as well as information-gathering. Poor Watson, poor Lestrade! They never recognize him. But the Irregulars? Not fooled for a minute. In another clever twist, in Katy Darby’s story, Watson, not Holmes, is the one getting to act for a change, when he impersonates the Lock Hospital Inspector Q. Forrest? Luckily the head surgeon who meets him is rather short-sighted … !

“A frail and twisted old man” with “rather strange personal grooming” appears in George Jacobs’s story, revealing himself to Watson in time to participate in a very interesting interview with a trio of Bengalis seeking justice. And in a Kevin Thornton story, an Irish navvy appears, “looking for all the world like he’d just finished a shift on the docks,” fooling Holmes’s astonished client, but this time, not Watson, who had guessed what Holmes was up to.

Let’s look at how two of these clever stories handle disguises:

Gustavo Bondoni’s story, “The Burning Mania,” takes a cue from two significant events of 1885: a new law permitting the operation of crematoria and the Irish bombings in various London locations. Lestrade asks Holmes to investigate the recent disappearances of eight criminal gang members very possibly linked to the bombings.

As they track the culprits, Watson says this about Holmes and disguises: “I always felt more comfortable when he did that”—a consideration as Holmes’s growing notoriety increases the possibility of recognition. Later, Watson acknowledges that, even without different hair or clothing, Holmes “could become completely unrecognizable in moments by changing the way he looked or even his personality,” persuading others “to see him as something different from what he was.” An insightful comment from the good doctor.

In “The Adventure of the Damaged Tomb,” George Gardner’s story, he similarly refers to heightened public alarm after the Fenian Bombings, so when Hamworth’s Catholic church of St. Mary’s is attacked with dynamite, severely damaging the ancient tomb of the Mountfalcon family, assumptions are made. In their lodgings one day, Watson nervously encounters “a heavy-set, red-haired man of about fifty,” with the “distinctive twang that categorized him with the Irish-American set.” Another disguise success!

The authors mentioned above used disguises to good effect in their stories in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885. Their stories are:
George Gardner – “The Adventure of the Damaged Tomb”
Gustavo Bondoni – “The Burning Mania”
Victoria Weisfeld – “A Brick Through the Window”
Katy Darby – “The Adventure of the Lock Hospital”
George Jacobs – “The Mystery of the Cloven Cord”
Kevin Thornton – “Tracks Across Canada”

Rules Made to be Broken

Only recently did I hear about Ronald Knox’s 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction, penned about a century ago. How much times have changed! Knox was undoubtedly attracted to the “10 Commandments” idea because he was a Catholic priest, but he also was a mystery writer who clubbed with notable mystery writers of his day. Below are his rules, and for many of them, I—and you, too—can think of entertaining exceptions! (Mine in parentheses.)

In contrast with the man pictured at left, who may feel his interpretation of the rules brooks no disagreement, we can see a lot of room for nuance here!

  1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow. (This leaves out the whole multiple point-of-view serial killer subgenre, but I will confess that, while multiple points of view don’t bother me, I don’t enjoy it when one of those viewpoints belongs to a predatory character. Creeps me out.)
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course. (So much for another whole category of thriller that agents and publishers today say they’re looking for, and books like Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes. Someone forgot to tell Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and Shirley Jackson about this, for three.)
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable. (Hmm.)
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end. (Agree. Sounds like cheating and very possibly boring.)
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story. (Yet one of my favorite detective quotes comes from Charlie Chan: “Theory like mist on eyeglasses. Obscures vision.” And this leaves out my all-time favorite detective, Judge Dee Goong An, in the novels by Robert Van Gulik. And S.J. Rozan!) The rule probably came about because a “Chinaman” had been overused as a sinister character, Fu Manchu moustache and all.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he (!) ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right. (This rule lives on in objections to plot coincidences. They are annoying.)
  7. The detective must not himself commit the crime. (Omitting a whole category of cops-gone-wrong and unreliable narrators. Tricky.)
  8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader. (Did you ever have a “what just happened?” moment while reading? That’s sometimes because you didn’t see—or weren’t shown—the clue. Agree, it’s bad when this occurs.)
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader. (I object! Nigel Bruce’s characterization of Watson in the old movies was bumbling, but Watson is far from stupid. And what does that say about the “average reader”?)
  10. Twin brothers (what about twin sisters, huh?), and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them. (Twins are a problem. But can move beyond clichéd mix-ups into unexpected territory, as in award-winning Japanese novelist Riku Onda’s fascinating mystery, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight).

Behind That Clever Mask

Quite a few contemporary short story writers look to Victorian England—and the Great Detective—for their inspiration. Yet there are aspects of Holmes’s erudition, personality, and behavior that Conan Doyle leaves discreetly unstated. Most notably, libido. We’ll get to how authors of several stories in Belanger Books’ recently published Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, address that gap.

Readers can miss some of the more subtle aspects of the Great Detective’s character, as well, if they focus too intently on his cleverness. Author Shelby Phoenix believes that focus obscures “the full richness of Holmes’s character”—eccentric, complex, yes, but also compassionate. Holmes keeps “the full colors of his personality” to himself, she says, showing them only in flashes and cracks. Holmes has a strong moral sense and can admit when he’s wrong, George Jacobs says. DJ Tyrer believes his occasional fallibility allows for a more well-rounded character than readers may imagine.

Prolific Holmes pasticher (is that a word?) David Marcum, among other authors in this collection, emphasizes the humanity that hides beneath the façade, “in the way that Mr. Spock insisted that he was Vulcan, denying and covering his human side,” while “some of his best scenes were when the mask slipped.” One of Marcum’s favorite aspects to the stories is the long, healthy friendship between Holmes and Watson, built on loyalty and, yes, a sense of humor.

When readers merely wait for Holmes to solve a crime, says George Gardner, they miss seeing his thought process and logical reasoning, as in “The Adventure of theDancing Men,” which lays out the detective’s code-breaking methods. Holmes’s conclusions aren’t magic; his cleverness is earned. But Holmes isn’t just a thinking machine, as Paul Hiscock points out, he’s always up for adventure. He cares for his clients and enjoys his work. If a Holmes pastiche overlooks this sense of excitement, he says, they “end up cold and lifeless.”

As Phoenix aptly summed up, “To focus only on what his mind is capable of doing is falling into his trap.”

In this Volume
Authors Gustavo Bondoni and Kevin Thornton commented that Holmes fans shouldn’t overlook the whole fascinating Victorian world with its atmosphere and its fog, its bright spots and blind spots. One of those Victorian blind spots is the bifurcated treatment of women (saint versus sinner). The three women authors in this collection took treatment of women as their theme.

Two of their stories key off of a major real-life debate in 1885 England: reform of the Contagious Diseases Acts. These laws were intended to counter the high rate of venereal diseases in the military, blamed on the prostitutes who camped out near army bases and navy ports. Dr. Watson, being both a doctor and former military man, had seen this problem up close, and had thought the laws were appropriate. That is, until in Katy Darby’s “The Adventure of the Lock Hospital,” an ex-soldier clergyman and Watson’s old friend bring to his attention the plight of a falsely accused young woman headed for a “lock hospital.” She was a former street-walker whose life turned around after the clergyman brought her into the church and found her a respectable job. Now she’s been misdiagnosed with syphilis, and her future is precarious.

(Under English law at the time, police could pull aside any woman they merely “thought” was a prostitute, forcibly examine her, and send her to a “lock hospital” for a period of months without trial. Available treatments were ineffective, even dangerous. The women lost their jobs, if they had them, and had to abandon their families.)

In Darby’s story, Holmes must identify the machinations behind the young woman’s arrest, while Dr. Watson strives to arrive at a correct diagnosis. And the pair isn’t above using some unorthodox, if dubiously lawful, methods—living up to the word “Adventure”!

In my story, “A Brick through the Window,” which I’ve written about previously, Holmes and Watson help crusading journalist William T. Stead. In real life, Stead not only fought the contagious disease laws, but also campaigned against the poverty leading London families to sell their young daughters into prostitution. Quite a spicy scandal at the time, as you’d imagine.

Shelby Phoenix’s “Sherlock Holmes and the Six-Fingered Hand Print” takes up the issue of female trafficking, in an atmospheric story of murder in a lowly Japanese pottery shop. Lord Byron Keeper, well-known gambler and man-about-town, has been entranced by the shopkeeper’s Japanese wife and is the chief suspect when the shady shopkeeper is murdered by someone who leaves behind a bloody six-fingered handprint. Only Holmes recognizes that two women’s survival is at stake. As Phoenix says, the satisfying outcome of this story is more evidence of Holmes’s deeply ingrained, if idiosyncratic, moral sense. And, she says, it reflects his wry remark in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”: “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies.” The authors mentioned above expertly portray Holmes’s many facets. Their stories in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885 are:
George Jacobs – “The Mystery of the Cloven Cord”
D.J. Tyrer – “The Japanese Village Mystery”
David Marcum – “The Faulty Gallows”
George Gardner – “The Adventure of the Damaged Tomb”
Paul Hiscock – “The Light of Liberty”
Gustavo Bondoni – “The Burning Mania”
Kevin Thornton – “Tracks Across Canada” and “Tracked Across America”

Letting Dr. John Watson Occupy Your Writing Brain

Authors of the 14 pastiches in the recent anthology, Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, edited by Richard T. Ryan, talked about how they time-travel from the 21st century back to the Victorian era for their stories.

Most of the anthology’s contemporary authors—including DJ Tyrer, George Gardner, and George Jacobs say re-reading some of the Sherlock Holmes stories gets them going. This, or watching one of the Basil Rathbone films, helps Hassan Akram “get into Watson’s mental atmosphere.” Tyrer uses the original stories to channel Watson’s voice and remind himself how Holmes talks. When Gardner starts writing, he tries to adhere to the stories’ basic structure: Watson sets the scene, a visitor arrives at Baker Street and explains the problem, Holmes (and sometimes Watson, too) investigates, the villain is apprehended, and the pair discuss the case in an epilogue. If Jacobs gets stuck, he finds a jumping off point by seeing how Conan Doyle approached an analogous situation in one of the stories. He also says that the audiobooks narrated by Simon Vance help him “keep the voice going in my head.”

As Gardner noted, “Watson has quite a direct voice suited for action scenes, but he still retains a Victorian flourish in some of his descriptions.” The language “has to be consistent not only with the era, but also with Watson’s social standing and experience,” Gustavo Bondoni says, adding that Watson is “a gentleman with a military (and medical past), he will think in very specific ways, and I don’t want to get out of that groove.” Katy Darby says “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it has to be accurate, otherwise, what’s the point?”

The stories have to establish the right tone, too. Paul Hiscock says that the author guidelines for one of the first of the many Holmes pastiches he has written advised that Watson should always refer to The Great Detective as Holmes, not Sherlock. This formal touch, even within such a close relationship, helps establish that correct tone and, with all his experience, he says, “these days I barely think about it.”

David Marcum has written so many Sherlockian pastiches that the can afford to, as he says, “simply wait for Watson to speak.” He says he never knows more about the situation than does Watson, “who is in the middle of it and watching it unfold” (spoken like a true pantser). This makes the story all very immediate to him, and he says he can re-read one of his earlier stories and, “except for a few plot highlights, the whole thing is a surprise to me.”

Getting into Watson’s head? Kevin Thornton says, “A slightly pompous, middle-aged, educated white man? I think I have that covered.” LOL

Let’s take a closer look at Paul Hiscock’s captivating story, “The Light of Liberty,” dealing with political and fundraising difficulties surrounding the Statue of Liberty. Designed and built in France, the Colossus was to arrive (disassembled) in New York in 1885, there to await completion of its pedestal. But a key piece of the statue—the Flame of Liberty—has been stolen from a warehouse near the docks in Rouen.

Holmes and Watson journey to France to sort out this tricky diplomatic business, which is perfectly suited to Holmes’s deft touch. You’ll meet French Inspector Lapointe, even more reluctant to accept Holmes’s help than his English counterparts. Liberté!

See how these authors put fact and fiction together. Their stories in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885 are:
D.J. Tyrer – “The Japanese Village Mystery”
George Gardner – “The Adventure of the Damaged Tomb”
George Jacobs – “The Mystery of the Cloven Cord”
Hassan Akram – “The Return of the Buckinghamshire Baronet”
Gustavo Bondoni – “The Burning Mania”
Katy Darby – “The Adventure of the Lock Hospital”
Shelby Phoenix – “Sherlock Holmes and the Six-Fingered Hand Print”
Paul Hiscock – “The Light of Liberty”
David Marcum – “The Faulty Gallows”
Kevin Thornton – “Tracks Across Canada” and “Tracked Across America”

Photo of Sherlock Holmes London statue by Oxfordian Kissuth, Creative Commons license.

Like, Literally, Dude!

Ticked off by verbal tics? Language-expert Valerie Fridland has written an entertaining book about the origins and utility of what many people consider bad speaking habits. Like “like,” vocal fry, and excessive intensification.

Many of these speech habits she covers in Like Literally, Dude are tiny, she says, like saying “Whaaa?” instead of “What,” but that dropped “t” is one of the many linguistic choices that help craft a person’s social identity and offer great guidance for authors writing dialog. Your Gen Z college student can’t sound like one of his professors!

Different versions of “what” have subtly different effects. “What-hh,” as she describes it, has a tiny puff of air after the strongly enunciated “t.” It’s what you say when you’re interrupted for the 43rd time while trying to write a tricky paragraph. “What?” is a normal, business-like query. But “whaaaa?” is more casual or characteristic of certain population groups. To my ear, it indicates not an actual question, but conveys a sense of true wondering. It’s what you’d say if a spaceship landed in your back yard.

Fridland’s book delves into many such features that distinguish one person’s speech from another’s. And, speakers vary their speech, depending on what they are (mostly unconsciously) trying to convey. She says we use vocal tics “to project different attitudes and stances toward what we talk about and who we talk with.” A goldmine for dialog-writers!

Her observation that young people and women generally lead the way in linguistic changes is especially interesting, as is the note that these are the very speech patterns that take the brunt of criticism, women’s speech having been historically “disparaged as chatty, gossipy, and less topically important than men’s.” And women typically soften their presentation so as to be non-threatening. When writing my novel Architect of Courage, told from a man’s point of view, I worked hard to reflect male speech patterns—for example, excising “I think” and “I want,” and replacing them with flat statements and “I need.”

Take “like,” like it or not. This much-maligned word serves a great many non-grammatical (versus ungrammatical) purposes in sentences. One of Fridland’s examples is “I exercised for, like, ten hours.” Anyone hearing that understands the speaker did not, in fact, exercise for 600 minutes, but more that it felt that excessive. Leave out the “like,” and the sentence says the same thing, but doesn’t mean exactly the same. In this role, “like” becomes “a way for a speaker to communicate a certain impreciseness or looseness of meaning.”  

“Discourse markers” are features of speech that don’t contribute to the actual meaning of a sentence (so, you know, actually, oh, um, uh), but convey a sense of the speaker’s intentions. Although we think of these language quirks as being of recent vintage—a deluge of undesirable flies landing in the ointment of perfect English expression—their pedigree is lengthy. Fridland’s example is, “Oh, I finally got a job!” In that sentence, the “oh” invites the hearer to share the surprise.

The tendency to start sentences, “Soooo, . . .” give the speaker a few seconds to gather her thoughts and signals the hearer to listen up. “Well, . . .” does the same. Such discourse markers appear in Shakespeare and date back more than a thousand years. So much for modern bad habits! “Like” used as a discourse marker can be found as early as 250 years ago.

So, if you like language and if you write dialog involving different ages and types of people, you may find this book, whose subtitle is “Arguing for the Good in Bad English” helpful as well as entertaining!

It’s a Fast-Changing World. It’s the 1880s!

Each Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery volume, published by Belanger Books, includes at least a dozen stories, filling in the years 1881-1886. Holmes and Watson were already together then, but Watson was uncharacteristically quiet about their adventures. In Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, edited by Richard T. Ryan, contemporary writers make up for Watson’s reticence, creating excellent adventures to help fill in the gap.

Naturally, the challenges in writing a story set almost 140 years ago are significant. No cell phones, no video surveillance, no DNA evidence, no criminal databases, and no other scientific or organizational trappings modern crime stories employ. I asked my fellow authors whether these differences are a help with their stories or a hindrance. Here’s what they said:

The Victorian setting allows for a more “classical” mystery, says George Gardner. For his story, he researched how much the Victorians knew about dynamite. He admits that he “may have bent some rules in terms of chronology there,” but since dynamite was invented by Alfred Nobel in 1866, George is on pretty solid ground, it seems.

The Victorian setting “is an advantage more than a hindrance as the instantaneousness of modern communications can get in the way of a good story,” says Kevin Thornton. The telegraph is the fastest communications technology available to Holmes, and in Thornton’s two stories, he makes good use of it. Another advantage, says George Jacobs, is that he can “keep Holmes’s mind at the forefront of the adventure.” What’s more, “having to rush around London (or farther afield) on foot or in a cab, and sometimes engage in fisticuffs with the villains” adds to the adventure.

The authors strive to be sure that not just the technology, but “the feel of every story is right,” too, says Katy Darby. This includes language and dialog, style and social etiquette, and even making sure the types of characters are true to their times. How to accomplish this? Darby says, “The 1860s-1880s is my second home, period-wise, and my Victorian library is ever-growing.” Shelby Phoenix noted what is an extra attraction of the Victorian era for her: It “allows for so many more paranormal approaches, and who can say no to making things seem spooky?”

It’s really a balance. By setting a story in the Victorian era, authors avoid having modern technology “short-circuit the elaborate investigation” they’d planned. Nevertheless, Holmes’s era was one of rapid scientific and technological progress, and authors must pinpoint when these advances took hold, says D.J. Tyrer. Over the period in which the Holmes stories are set—roughly 1885 to 1914—much about society, science, and politics changed. But, “whatever level of technology Holmes has access to,” says author Paul Hiscock, “I always see him as being at the cutting edge of forensic science.” Whatever the technological details, “a good mystery is about how the detective puts all the pieces of evidence together.”

Many authors say that one of the aspects of writing in that era that they like best is delving into those details. As an example, Kevin Thornton’s two linked stories involving shenanigans related to new North American transcontinental railways offered numerous enticing rabbit holes for this author to pursue. As Watson extols the excitement of shortening travel times, Holmes points out that “as the citizenry disperses, so does crime.” This observation foreshadows a visit from a representative of the much-indebted Canadian Pacific Railroad, fearful of a hostile takeover. Watson needs an explanation of this financial predicament, which leads to a lucid explanation of the constraints faced by a publicly traded company. Other examples of Thornton’s research include descriptions of the myriad ways Holmes could visually identify an American, military training, Eastern martial arts, American railroad moguls, the action of poison, and the lineage of the Earl of Derby, the Honourable Frederick Stanley. (In 1888, Stanley became Governor General of Canada, and Thornton helpfully notes that the famous hockey trophy is named for him.)

See how these authors put fact and fiction together. Their stories in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885 are:
George Gardner – “The Adventure of the Damaged Tomb”
Kevin Thornton – “Tracks Across Canada” and “Tracked Across America”
George Jacobs – “The Mystery of the Cloven Cord”
Katy Darby – “The Adventure of the Lock Hospital”
Shelby Phoenix – “Sherlock Holmes and the Six-Fingered Hand Print”
D.J. Tyrer – “The Japanese Village Mystery”
Paul Hiscock – “The Light of Liberty”