It seemed daunting, stepping into such big shoes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s. I’ll admit I was pretty anxious during my first attempt at writing a Sherlock Holmes story a couple of years ago (“The Fallen Financier”, published in George Mann’s Encounters Of Sherlock Holmes anthology). Once I’d given it a go, however, I was pleased with the way it worked out and wanted to try again. To continue the shoes metaphor, I found this particular set of footwear to be roomy, forgiving and surprisingly comfortable.
I’ve published two full-length Holmes novels since, The Stuff Of Nightmares and now Gods Of War, and while I’m not going to say the job is easy or effortless, there’s a delightful familiarity about visiting the Great Detective’s world and playing with all the characters, themes and ideas Doyle has bequeathed us. Above all else, it’s fun.
I must have been 10 or 11 when my father started reading the Holmes stories to me. Soon after, I was reading them for myself, avidly. I’ve never forgotten the chill I felt when the Hound of the Baskervilles made its first, spectral appearance through the Dartmoor mists, or when the swamp adder slithered its way down the bell cord in “The Speckled Band”. I was immersed in the tales, steeped in them, when I was young, porous and impressionable. That’s the reason, I think, that I find I can reproduce Doyle’s literary voice with relative facility.
Having said which, the last thing I want to do with my Holmes pastiches is copy Doyle slavishly. I’d be on a hiding to nothing if I tried. What I shoot for is an approximation, a version filtered through my own writing style and mediated by whatever understanding of plotting and characterisation I’ve accrued over the course of my twenty-five years as a published author. I try to keep my pastiches canonical, slotting the action into gaps in the established timeline of Holmes’s career and introducing traditional, time-honoured elements, e.g. the Baker Street Irregulars, Lestrade, Moriarty, Mycroft, baritsu, cocaine, Mrs Hudson. At the same time, I like to add something else: in the case of The Stuff Of Nightmares, an element of steampunk, and with Gods Of War, ancient mythology. There have been plenty of “straight” Holmes pastiches over the years; for me, it’s nice to shake things up a bit and play to my own literary strengths, which are fantasy and science fiction.
I make the effort not to tinker too much with the formula or stray too far from the beaten path. Otherwise one might end up writing something inauthentic, something which bears a superficial resemblance to the original but has little fealty. The Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films, for instance, aren’t true Holmes to me. They’re rompy action movies which happen to have lead characters named Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson who banter and bicker like they’re in a mismatched-buddy-cop comedy thriller. If Holmes and Watson don’t behave like the Holmes and Watson we know and love, what’s the point? If deduction, analytical reasoning and logical inferences based on the balance of probability aren’t given their due prominence in the story, then it ceases to be Holmesian and becomes an exercise in brand recognition and bandwagon jumping.
I’m not a stick-in-the-mud conservative about Holmes. I enjoy the BBC’s Sherlock and the CBS show Elementary. Although both ring the changes – using a modern setting and, in the latter, making Watson a woman – they’re also both true to the essence of Doyle’s works. The real challenge and thrill of writing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche is mingling the old with the new in a satisfying, entertaining way, to create an entity which is recognisably what it is imitating and yet imitates in a way no one’s seen before.
I’m happy to have walked a few miles in Doyle’s shoes and have plans to walk several miles more, given that I’m presently under contract to write another four Holmes novels. I hope that, along the way, I won’t cause the leather too much wear and tear or leave a hole in the soles, but I’m confident this sturdy pair of brogues are robust enough to withstand my tramping.
James Lovegrove’s Sherlock Holmes novels are published by Titan