Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Be he never so humble there’s no place like Holmes

(When I signed up for a blog tour to promote my steampunk novel Questionable Minds, I wrote five blog posts for participating bloggers to use. One of the tour hosts dropped out, leaving me with an unused post, so you guys get to read it).

I was a Sherlock Holmes fan before I ever read the books.

As far as I can recall, I first learned of Holmes in Anthony Buckeridge’s book Jennings Follows a Clue. The eponymous schoolboy protagonist reads Holmes for the first time and sets out to become a master detective. This doesn’t work out well as a)British boarding school in the 1950s doesn’t have a lot of mysteries; b)Jennings ain’t no Holmes. Still, I walked away from the book with the clear impression of Holmes as a fascinating, pipe-smoking, super-genius detective.

I didn’t read the Canon until I was 11, when my parents bought me the complete set of Holmes stories for Christmas. It hooked me immediately: the exotic (to an 11-year-old in 1969) Victorian setting, Holmes’ amazing deductions and eccentric personality, the mysteries he solves. Is Sir Henry Baskerville really being hunted by the hound of ancestral legend? Why would a row of dancing stick figures or five orange seeds in an envelope fill someone with terror? What led a woman’s fiancé to vanish right after extracting her promise she’d always be true?

As I grew older, I began to appreciate the flaws in many of the yarns. In the horse-racing mystery Silver Blaze, for instance, the characters’ actions would have gotten them banned from the track for life; Doyle admitted later that he’d written it in complete ignorance of the racing world. Nevertheless, I still enjoy Doyle’s storytelling skills and flair for clever dialog. I love Holmes aphorisms, such as his reflection on the cruelty of life (“If there is not some compensation hereafter, then the world is a cruel jest.”) or on respecting ability (“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; true talent recognizes genius.”).

One of the series’ strengths is that Doyle doesn’t stick to a simple formula. Holmes often turns out fallible, completely misreading the situation in The Adventure of the Yellow Face, for instance. Irene Adler, the woman, outwits him in A Scandal in Bohemia. In some stories Holmes solves the mystery but still can’t save his client’s life.

Another strength is that for many of his clients, Holmes is the court of last resort (something I should have touched on in my last Holmes post). They’re in trouble, but not the sort the police can help with (“Somebody’s scrawling stick figures on your property? What are we supposed to do about it?”). Or they don’t want the police involved because there’s an element of scandal. Or the police can’t solve it, or think they’ve solved it but they’re wrong. Holmes emphasizes in a couple of cases that he’s an agent of justice, not law: if justice is on your side but the law isn’t, there’s no question which side Holmes will come down on.

Then there’s the massive fandom that’s grown up around Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Endless discussion of the discontinuities and illogical details in the Canon. Endless knockoffs, tributes and pastiches of the stories. The spinoffs, from Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice to Carole Nelson Douglas’ Irene Adler series. Black Holmes. Female Holmes. Martian Holmes. Sherlock Holmes in the present, or even in the 22nd century.

Plus, of course, the screen adaptations. Basil Rathbone was my first and probably will always be my favorite; Jeremy Brett is easily the best so far. We’ve also had Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Ian McKellan, Christopher Plummer, John Neville, Raymond Massey and Arthur Wontner (the “definitive” screen Holmes prior to Rathbone) in the role.Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes Atomic Junk Shop

My first published story was The Adventure of the Red Leech, based on one of the many unpublished stories Watson alluded to (“the repulsive story of the Red Leech and the terrible death of Crosby, the banker.”). I recently wrote a completely different take inspired by the same quote. Other unpublished stories have inspired other writers.

Holmes is a big part of why I wrote a steampunk novel: I wouldn’t want to live in the Victorian era but I have a lot of fondness for it as a setting. Hansom cabs and other horse-drawn carriages. Receiving messages by telegraph. Gas lamps and coal fires. Daring pursuits through fog-drenched London streets (though fog doesn’t show up in as many Holmes stories as the stereotype). The world of Questionable Minds is a Holmesian one, even though Holmes and Watson don’t put in an appearance. For much of the time, they’re investigating “the shocking affair of the Dutch steamship Friesland,” an untold adventure Watson says almost got them killed.

My protagonist, Sir Simon Taggart, is obsessed with tracking down the Guv’nor, the mysterious overlord of London crime. I doubt it’s spoilers to say the Guv’nor is Professor Moriarty, even though Simon doesn’t yet know this. If Questionable Minds sells enough that I write a sequel, eventually Simon will confront Moriarty and learn who hired his organization to kill Simon’s wife, Agnes. I have no idea yet how I’ll make that work without changing Holmes’ showdown with Moriarty in The Final Problem, but I’ve pantsed my way out of worse problems.

Professor Moriarty’s right hand, Col. Sebastian Moran, plays a role in the book. So does Jonathan Clay, the conniving schemer of The Red-Headed League. Moriarty bailed him out of jail, now Clay is stuck working for the Napoleon of Crime.

There are also references to several Holmes stories such as the case of the Sussex vampire and the untold tale of “the politician, the lighthouse keeper and the trained cormorant.”

Questionable Minds is available for Kindle and in paperback. If you like, check out my blog tour posts about loving the Victorians and on the enduring influence of Jekyll and Hyde.


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