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”

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.

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”

Finding Your Author Niche

The anthology, Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, edited by Richard T. Ryan, is one of a series filling in the years 1881-1886, the period between the stories “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Reigate Squire” when no Holmes cases were reported. This fallow period was interrupted only by “The Speckled Band” (one of my favorites), set in 1883. Contemporary writers, not content to assume the duo spent those years twiddling their thumbs, have enthusiastically created adventures to fill in the gap.

Each A Year of Mystery volume, published by Belanger Books, includes a dozen stories, one for each month, and even a bonus story or two from that year. Clearly, the Great Detective was capable of multitasking at a high level! The 1885 volume, which contains one of my stories, was published last December, and I asked some of my fellow authors how much experience they had with this very particular mystery genre. Turns out, a lot!

George Gardner’s story, “The Adventure of the Damaged Tomb,” was his debut as a Holmes/Watson pasticher, and three of the authors (including me) have had two or three published. But to demonstrate that the genre’s well of inspiration is far from empty, five of the authors have published repeatedly in it and one—David Marcum—has published 118 short stories and two novels involving Holmes and Watson.

“The Faulty Gallows” by David Marcum

Let’s give Marcum’s latest story, “The Faulty Gallows,” a closer look. In endnotes, he tells how in real life John “Babbacome” Lee “famously survived three attempts to hang him” for murdering his employer, and how James Berry, another real-life character, was the official executioner who tried and failed to execute him, repeatedly. Marcum provides pictures of both men, and Lee is dapper in his bowler hat. Berry looks unhappy.

Marcum did a beautiful job taking the raw facts of Lee’s narrow escapes and fictionalizing them. Holmes is asked to involve himself in this fiasco by a mysterious “acquaintance at Whitehall.” This device gives him a plausible reason to investigate and allows Marcum to wrap the circumstances of the botched executions in a larger conspiracy that Holmes tumbles to. By the story’s end, a bit remains unresolvable and, when pressed by Watson, Holmes asks for time. No too-neat-and-tidy ending here.

Holmes fans will realize that the mystery man is no doubt Holmes’s brother Mycroft, but since Watson hasn’t met him yet, he’s a cipher to the story’s narrator. Says Marcum, “Mycroft is a useful tool in pastiches—although as a strict Holmesian Chronologist, [I can’t bring him] in too early.”

Holmes is known for his brilliant deductions, yet “the story structures also allow for a lot of off-stage techniques to advance suddenly toward the story’s conclusion,” Marcum says. Contact with Mycroft, which doesn’t have to be explained in detail, sometimes accomplishes that. Mycroft’s murky Whitehall connections also can give some stories, like this one, a bigger frame.

Read more about Marcum’s Holmes addiction on his blog or visit his Amazon author page.

Who’s the Best Holmes and Watson On-Screen?

I asked this question of a certain kind of Sherlock Holmes expert: people who write stories in the Conan Doyle tradition. Quite a few contemporary writers take inspiration from Victorian England, Holmes’s wide-ranging if idiosyncratic erudition, and Watson’s genial writing style. I’ve had three such stories published and can attest to how much fun it is to don another writer’s hounds tooth suit.

The writers whose picks for best on-screen Holmes/Watson portrayals all appear in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, published last December by Belanger Books. Many of them have written a number of Doyle pastiches, and in the coming weeks, I’ll say more about why and how. They’ve generously shared their love of Holmesiana with me—and now you. *=one vote

*Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce
The 14 Hollywood films in this series are the classic of classics, released between 1939 and 1946, and the vehicle by which Americans first developed a relationship with an on-screen Holmes and Watson. Thus, “for tradition’s sake, maybe Rathbone-Bruce have the edge,” says author Hassan Akram. My own quibble with this series are well put by David Marcum, who says, “Basil Rathbone would be my favorite Holmes if he wasn’t saddled with Boobus Brittanicus Nigel Bruce, who was not Watson.” If you’ve seen the Rathbone/Bruce Hound of the Baskervilles [1939], you’ll know what he means.

***Jeremy Brett/David Burke/Edward Harwicke
In this Granada Television series, which over its 41 episodes (1984 – 1994) involved two actors in the Watson role, is the favorite of DJ Tyrer. “Not only does Jeremy Brett fit very closely to how I imagine Holmes,” he says, “but the series is a faithful adaptation, adding to the illusion.” George Gardner also favored this series, noting Watson’s direct voice and Brett’s “manic edge.” When he was writing, “it was Jeremy Brett’s Holmes that I saw.” Author Shelby Phoenix couldn’t be clearer: “It’s Jeremy Brett and David Burke all the way.” David Marcum takes exception. He says, Brett “did not play Holmes—he played himself, foisting his own physical and mental illnesses on the character.” (Brett took lithium to control his bipolar disorder, and the medication affected his health and appearance.)

**Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law
George Jacobs admits to missing the classic duos and to admiring the films featuring Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law from 2009 and 2011 (directed by Guy Ritchie ). Their “modern take” also appeals to Gustavo Bondoni, and Shelby Phoenix calls them “an iconic version.”

**Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman
This four-season BBC series (airing 2010-2017) is a tight runner-up for author Hassan Akram, and Kevin Thornton says Cumberbatch is “The only [Holmes] who has energized me enough in the last twenty years to sit and watch him,” suggesting an interesting tension between historical and contemporary influences in his creative process! The tabloids suggest the series would have gone on longer if the two stars had gotten along. It’s my current favorite, too, admitting great admiration for Martin Freeman. Interestingly, the producers image of Holmes was as a “high functioning sociopath.”

*Johnny Lee Miller/Lucy Liu
Here’s an unconventional choice. George Jacobs, who admits to missing the classics, found that the CBS series, Elementary, with 154 episodes that aired from 2012 to 2019, “had the best friendship chemistry and kept Holmes’s demons without losing his intrinsic goodness.”

Extra Credit
David Marcum provides a handy list of the many other actors who he believes have successfully played the Great Detective: Arthur Wontner (in a 1930s film series, set in the 30s), Ronald Howard (1954), Douglas Wilmer (in a 1964 – 1965 BBC series), Peter Cushing (a continuation of the BBCseries, airing in 1968), and Ian Richardson (1983). That Holmes has appeared in so many notable productions is irrefutable evidence of his lasting appeal.

So, who’s your favorite?

Photo of Benedict Cumberbatch by Fat Les, cc by 2.0 license.

Imagining Holmes’s Place in History – Guest Post by Richard T. Ryan

Where exactly is Sherlock Holmes’s place in history? Well, if you’re a writer the answer to that is rather simple: It’s anyplace you care to put him—within reason.

Like so many other pasticheurs, I enjoy placing Sherlock Holmes in situations that are grounded in reality. In other words, I think of my works as a blend of history and mystery. I like to think of it as Conan Doyle meets Dan Brown.

With a background in the medieval and early Renaissance periods, I’m always seeing various connections that span the centuries. As a result, druids figure prominently in one of my works, The Druid of Death, as does the ogham system of writing, used hundreds of years ago by the Irish.

In another work, I focused on the plique-à-jour style of jewelry-making, and was fortunate that the best example of this technique—The Mérode Cup—happened to be housed in the South Kensington Museum (which became the Victoria and Albert Museum some years later) and shown here.

An article about Fabergé eggs, and the discovery that Consuela Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough, had commissioned the Pink Serpent Egg served as the starting point for my novel The Merchant of Menace. Also worth noting is that the Duchess was the first person outside of Russia to own one of these masterpieces.

Sometimes an event sends me scurrying down the research rabbit hole. I was intrigued when I learned that a group of Scottish students had stolen the Stone of Scone on Christmas Day in 1950. They pilfered the artifact in an effort to attract attention to the cause of Home Rule for Scotland. In The Stone of Destiny, I changed things a bit to suit the history of Holmes’s times and had a group of Irish separatists abscond with the stone in order to delay the coronation of King Edward VII.

In my most recent book, The Devil’s Disciples, which is due out later this year, I once again examine the question of Home Rule for Ireland. This time I focus on the Fenian dynamite campaign that plagued London in the mid- and early 1880s. Among the targets was the London Bridge, followed a few weeks later by the Tower of London, the House of Commons, and Westminster Hall—all on the same night!

At that point, Holmes is contacted by Her Majesty’s government and tasked with bringing the bombers to heel. This is a more in-depth look at the question of freedom for Ireland, and I touch on such events as the potato famine; the support for the movement in America, specifically from a group called the Clan na Gael; and one particular individual who shall live in Irish infamy forever.

The challenge in my books is to insert Holmes into these events without disturbing the line that is history. Sometimes, it’s fairly easily accomplished, but at other times it can be a real struggle. And, of course, I also have to find a place for Dr. Watson, so in some instances it is doubly tricky.

If you’d like to check out The Devil’s Disciples, this link will take you to its page on Kickstarter, and you can see part of the cover and check out the various rewards. Right now, we are at 94 backers, if we get to 100, everyone will receive $50 worth of free Holmes ebooks as a bonus.

The Mérode Cup photograph is licensed by CC (view license here).

Thanks, Ellery Queen!

As always, the Jan-Feb issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is packed with good reading. Here are some of the standout stories for me:

“The Killing of Henry Davenport” by John Shen Yen Nee and S.J. Rozan – Admittedly, this story, set in London in 1924, was bound to be a hit with me, as it involves both Sherlock Holmes and my favorite detective, Dee Goong An (hearkening back to a real-life personage from the Tang Dynasty). Holmes, Watson, Dee, and the narrator, Lao She (another real-life character), set out to solve an English murder in which a Chinese man stands accused. The story is a foretaste of a new project Rozan is working on that fans (me!) eagerly await.

“The Soiled Dove of Shallow Hollow” by Sean McCluskey – It’s always fun to see a nicely crafted story in the mag’s Department of First Stories. A hint of more good stuff to come. And I’m easily seduced by a con job where the question of who’s being conned is up for grabs. Nice!

“The Bowser Boys Are Back in Town” by Hal Charles – You can expect some humor in a story that begins, “Like a loud rooster, the bomb in Beverly Dezarn Memorial Park awoke the entire town of Woodhole . . .” The bad-luck Bowser duo is on what turns out to be an all-too-brief (for them) return home from jail, but it looks like they’re headed back to the slammer.

“Can the Cat Catch the Rat” by Steve Hockensmith – This is another in his entertaining series about Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer, tyro detectives in an Old West where the frequent shenanigans offers steady employment. The surprise in this episode is that Old Red has finally agreed to let Big Red teach him to read. However, identifying the counterfeit coins someone’s producing requires nothing more than a healthy set of teeth.

Read these and more good stories in EQMM. Subscribe here!