Writing Portfolio

21.3.14

More studies in Sherlock

Although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote four Sherlock Holmes novels and 56 short stories, the adventures of this great fictional detective in print do not end there. Since the demise of his creator, many authors have taken up the pen (or the typewriter, or even the laptop) to continue the great detective’s career. Strictly speaking, these are regarded as ‘non-Canonical’ adventures (the ‘Canon’ in a Holmesian context being the works of Conan Doyle and no-one else).

This even happened during Conan Doyle’s lifetime. When his friend William Gillette asked him for permission to write a Holmes stage play in 1899, in which he wanted to take a few liberties with the character, Conan Doyle famously replied: "You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him"; incidentally, that play, which was called Sherlock Holmes, was the first time that the phrase "elementary, my dear Watson", later popularised by the Basil Rathbone filmes, was used.

Of the various Holmes pastiches over the years, two have really stood out for me – a short story and a novel. The former is Colin Dexter’s ‘A Case of Mis-Identity’, not a stab at telling one of the many ‘untold’ tales that Conan Doyle alluded to in Dr Watson’s narratives but never wrote (which is what most would-be Holmes authors do, most notably June Thomson who has written a very good series of books) but a clever retelling of ‘A Case of Identity’ which is buried in the short story collection Morse’s Greatest Mystery. The novel is The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer, which purports to have been written by Watson in old age and tells the ‘real’ story behind the Great Hiatus (the gap in the adventures between Holme’s ‘death’ in ‘The Final Problem’ and his return in ‘The Empty House’); in Meyer’s version, Watson becomes so concerned about Holmes’s drug problem that he and brother Mycroft trick the great detective into travelling to Vienna, where he becomes a patient of Sigmund Freud.

Other stories have him involved in various crossovers with other works of late nineteenth century fiction, getting involved in the hunt for Jack the Ripper (a particularly popular subject-area), going to America for a whole series of adventures, fathering a child with Irene Adler (it’s a boy, who grows up to become Nero Wolfe) and continuing to solve crimes after retiring to do some beekeeping in a cottage on the Sussex Downs. A recent fictional biography – a work of fiction written in the style of a biography of a famous fictional character, taking the conceit of said character being a real person to the extreme – by Nick Rennison has him playing a key role in the early development of MI5 and MI6 (in this interpretation, Professor Moriarty becomes an Irish nationalist whose importance is overstated by the Holmes brothers). Many well-known people from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries make guest appearances, and in turn Holmes and Watson have themselves made a cameo appearance in one of the Flashman books. Recently, and rather timely given the impending centenary of the First World War, there’s even one in which Watson rejoins the Army in 1914 and ends up investigating a series of murders committed on the Western Front.

This brings me to the main subject of this post, which is a review of two Holmes pastiches, namely The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz and The Holmes Affair by Graham Moore.

As with the novels mentioned above, The House of Silk is presented as having been written by Watson in old age (and subsequently consigned, as these things are, to his tin dispatch box in the vaults of Cox & Company at Charing Cross), when he looks back on a case that he couldn’t write about in the 1890s because of the sensitive nature of the case, although there are no Victorian celebrity appearances here. Moriarty plays a cameo role, but he’s not central to the plot.

Instead, the sensitivity concerns the nature of the mysterious establishment of the title – which I will not divulge here for fear of spoiling what is a pretty good plot, but safe to say that it’s a dark secret that is as offensive to our own time as it would have been to the Victorians.

When it comes to crime writing, Horowitz has a good pedigree, having worked on the screenplays for TV shows like Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Foyle’s War in addition to his fiction which is mostly aimed at the teenage market.

Conan Doyle’s style was well-mimicked, although some modern-day sensitivities did creep in. For example, the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes’s gang of cheeky street-urchins, are portrayed in a way that shows the harshness of their lives, living rough on the mean streets of late-Victorian London.  Indeed, this version of Watson makes much of the social issues of the day which adds a new dimension to the story.

My quibbles are minor. Horowitz says in the notes at the end that he wanted to portray Holmes going into an opium den because Conan Doyle had never done this, although I seem to recall Watson discovering Holmes undercover in one in ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (which in turn formed the basis for the crack-house scene in the most recent series of Sherlock). He also presents a list of rules for anyone else wishing to have a go at writing their own Holmes adventure, although he does spoil the effect of these by admitting that he didn’t entirely keep to them himself.

All in all, a good effort that is certainly superior to most Holmes pastiches that have been published over the years.

Moore takes a different approach, balancing two parallel plots – the first is set in 1900 and involves Conan Doyle himself, while the second is set in the present day (well, 2010) and concerns members of a Sherlock Holmes appreciation society (itself quite the contemporary topic, what with the increase in interest in the stories thanks to the TV series). In 1900, Arthur Conan Doyle (he didn’t get knighted until 1902) investigates a series of murders in London after receiving a letter-bomb in the post; meanwhile, in 2010 avid Holmes fan Harold White attends a prestigious ‘Sherlockian’ gathering in a New York hotel, which is marred when one of the society’s leading members is found dead in his room; this leads onto a hunt for a missing part of Conan Doyle’s diary which covers the part of his life which is being played out in the 1900 plot.

Now I’m not a fan of this split-plot device – I’d much rather just have one thread to concentrate on. That said, it can make for a very good story if it’s done well.

This, alas, isn’t. Of the two plots, I personally preferred the 1900 adventure with Holmes’s creator. Still trying to move away from the shadow of Sherlock Holmes seven years after killing him off, Arthur (as he is referred to throughout the proceedings) finds himself having to use the detection skills he bestowed upon his fictional creation, with his friend Bram Stoker acting as a sort-of ‘Watson’. Throughout his adventure, during which he visits Whitechapel, dresses up as a woman to infiltrate a women’s suffrage meeting and is temporarily incarcerated in Newgate Prison, he meets people who tell him how much they enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, much to his own irritation.

By contrast, the 2010 plot stutters and I for one found it to be less interesting; like Arthur back in 1900, Harold is forced by circumstances to have a go at being a detective, and uses his knowledge of the afore-mentioned Canon to make his deductions while dealing with a freelance journalist (who, naturally, may not be all that she seems) and a (fictional) descendant of Conan Doyle himself.

Stories centring on Conan Doyle are not unknown – these are usually about how he came to write The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first Holmes adventure he wrote since he’d given the detective the Reichenbach Falls treatment. Moore’s story touches on this, as the events that take place do indeed prompt Conan Doyle to resurrect his famous detective.

There are also a few things Moore gets wrong; American words and spelling abound, and while I don’t find this as distracting as I used to there are a couple of howlers which jar the 1900 plot; Moore manages to have a London policeman in 1900 addressed as ‘officer’ rather than ‘constable’, and there’s a laboured joke at the expense of women’s suffrage campaigner Millicent Fawcett that centres on the assumption that Londoners in 1900 would have used the word ‘faucet’ instead of ‘tap’. More seriously, in the present-day story Moore somehow manages to have the body of a man found dead in suspicious circumstances in New York repatriated to Britain and buried within two days. This is obviously impossible, and it’s the sort of detail that a crime novelist needs to iron out before their books are sent to the publisher.

In conclusion, I’d be interested if Horowitz writes another Holmes adventure. Not sure I’ll be on the look-out for any of Moore’s other works, though.

4.3.14

The strange case of the return of Jonathan Creek

Maybe it was the Winter Olympics, perhaps it was the arrival of the second series of House of Cards on Netflix, or it could be that my trying to catch up with Top Gear via BBC iPlayer had something to do with it. Either way, I managed to miss the news that Jonathan Creek was returning for a new series until a couple of days before it was broadcast. The return of this late Nineties detective show struck me as odd, because those of us who hanker after a private investigator who sees things that others don’t nowadays get our kicks from Sherlock. Besides, the actor in the title role has moved on too, becoming that bloke who always gets the questions wrong on that over-rated panel show QI. Have I missed something?

I have certainly managed to miss the various one-off specials of Jonathan Creek that were broadcast over the past few years (the last actual series aired ten years ago), but I used to like this show so I tuned in to watch the latest offering on Friday evening. Having done so, I was most surprised to behold a Jonathan Creek who has ditched the duffel-coat, moved out of his windmill and evidently moved on from being the creative consultant to a stage magician. Even more implausibly, he’s now married to Susan from Coupling. Character development is all very well but this is taking things too far.

Worse still, us viewers were shown the crime being committed in the first ten minutes. This may have worked with Columbo, but that was how that show operated; it doesn’t work for Jonathan Creek, where the mystery was invariably of the locked-room variety (often with apparently supernatural overtones), and the highlight was always when Jonathan, having utilised his talents for lateral thinking and creating illusions, showed everyone how a seemingly impossible crime was committed. This, rather than the more conventional identifying of the motive and the culprit, was always the thing that made Jonathan Creek different from, say, Inspector Morse and Agatha Christie’s Poirot. What was writer David Renwick thinking?

Robbed of the main attraction, the show struggled on through the sight of Alan Davies riding a donkey, a less-than-subtle Sherlock piss-take – Jonathan reluctantly took on an assistant who, aside from looking like a cross between Benedict Cumberbatch and David Tennant, made observation-based deductions that turned out to be completely wrong – and a couple of puzzles which didn’t really hold the viewer’s attention. 

Not being privy to the inner workings of the BBC, I don’t know why they decided to resurrect Jonathan Creek. Furthermore, it is a mystery to me why Mr Renwick decided to mess around with the show’s formula which has worked so well in the past. But I cannot help but think that these were the wrong decisions.