Leigh: Many fans of Sherlock Holmes give little thought to his creator, Conan Doyle. What first sparked your interest in him?
Alistair: I was initially far more interested in the creation rather than the creator. For me Conan Doyle was the man about whom a few pages appeared at the beginning of the Holmes books that I owned. My interest really gained momentum when I found myself living in South Norwood where Conan Doyle himself had lived.
When I wrote my first book (Eliminate the Impossible) it naturally included some details on Conan Doyle. As I researched I became more and more interested. This reflected itself in my second book (Close to Holmes) where the balance between Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes became something closer to 50/50.
Finally this interest culminated in my third book (The Norwood Author) where the book is primarily focused on Conan Doyle.
Leigh: Even though I write fiction, I spend quite a lot of time researching my books. I wonder what proportion of your time is spent on research, and what proportion of your time is spent writing?
Alistair: Good question and it has varied for each book. Taking the last book I would say that the allocation of time was roughly 50/50.
Leigh: How much of your research is conducted on the internet and how much of it consists of studying original documents and consulting other scholars?
Alistair: The internet is often a good starting point for any research but it is not good to rely on it. I generally begin with the internet and if a promising lead comes up I pursue it through libraries and other sources. For my latest book internet research was far less than the other two and most of my time was spent in front of microfilm readers at Croydon Library where films of the old Norwood newspapers are kept.
Leigh: Can you share with us the most surprising fact you have discovered about Conan Doyle?
Alistair: I unearthed the fact that he became president of the Upper Norwood Literary and Scientific Society. Very few books (in fact only one that I found) mentioned that he was even a member of the society. None had mentioned that he became president.
Leigh: You mentioned The Sherlock Holmes Society of London. Can you tell us something about the society? Can anyone become a member or do you need to have red hair – or have published a scholarly work on Sherlock Holmes?
Alistair: The original society began in 1934 but was suspended due to an unfortunate event otherwise known as the Second World War. When the Festival of Britain was held in 1951 it demonstrated such a continued fascination with Holmes that a small group decided to resurrect the society.
Unlike some other societies the SHSL does not operate any old-fashioned admissions policy. An interest in Holmes is deemed sufficient.
Leigh: Am I right that Sherlock Holmes became popular in the nineteenth century when people lived in fear of crime which the police struggled to control? Do you think the current crime figures explain the popularity of contemporary crime fiction?
Alistair: Holmes did indeed become popular in the 19th century. This was largely due to the increase in literacy that had been brought about by the 1870 Elementary Education Act which introduced the first compulsory state-funded schooling. I do agree that part of his appeal was down to the fact that he continually outwitted the official police at a time when they were not popular with the public. The public (particularly the working-class) had a distrust of the police. This had not been helped by what was seen as their dismal attempts to capture Jack the Ripper a few years earlier.
I think the modern interest in crime fiction is only partly motivated by current crime levels. I believe that if we lived in some crime-free Utopia crime fiction would still sell. I believe that is down to our love of a good puzzle and the fact that the ultimate puzzle is one where you’re trying to catch a killer.
Alistair Duncan has written three books about Sherlock Holmes and his creator:
ELIMINATE THE IMPOSSIBLE (2008)
CLOSE TO HOLMES (2009)
THE NORWOOD AUTHOR (2010)
Leigh Russell is the author of the Geraldine Steel crime thrillers:
CUT SHORT (2009)
ROAD CLOSED (2010)
Currently writing DEAD END (2011)