It’s almost impossible to calculate how many Sherlock Holmes pastiches have been published. The total must number in the tens of thousands. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original four novels and 56 short stories have been expanded upon by hundreds of other authors, from his son Adrian through to modern masters of the art such as Nicholas Meyer, Michael Chabon, Caleb Carr, Laurie R. King, Denis O. Smith and Anthony Horowitz, with notable outliers such as Stephen Fry, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King all chipping in with contributions of their own.
Understandably, the question often asked of Holmes pasticheurs like me – one we pasticheurs may often ask of ourselves – is why add to this preponderance of Sherlockiana? Aren’t there enough Holmes tales out there already? What new can you bring to the table?
The answer is that we are, first and foremost, fans. We love Holmes and his world. We love it so much that we want to enter it and engage with it creatively, and since the Holmes canon is now out of copyright and in the public domain, we can do that. We can do it freely, without let or hindrance, to our heart’s content. Unobstructed by dictates from a literary estate, we can mould Sherlock Holmes any way we like, shape him to our will, and make something personally and narratively satisfying out of the character and his methods, his environment and his habits, his allies and his enemies. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, fun.
It is fun, too, to offer something entertaining to other Holmes fans. We know there’s an audience out there, people who share our love and are eager for more. We write our novels and short stories with a view to giving them at least a hint of the thrill they have derived from the canon. We do this by playing fair. We honour as best we can the rules Doyle established: Watson narrates, Holmes deduces, the Metropolitan police flounder, the crime is gnarly but solvable, the villain is caught and unmasked. We may toy with these conventions, may bend them, even now and then break them; but we do so lovingly, with perhaps a sly wink to the audience. We want our readers to be in on the joke. The game is as much afoot for them as it is for us.
My own particular variant on the Holmes theme, which I have pursued across five novels so far, is to incorporate a fantasy or science fiction element into the plot. It’s never anything too outré, never something that might frighten the horses. (Having said which, I recently published the first of a trilogy pitting Holmes against gods and monsters from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, and that is all about frightening the horses, or at least filling them with a deep and abiding sense of equine cosmic dread). I come from a background in the SF/fantasy genres, having spent most of my career writing about apocalypses, ancient deities, vampires, aliens, superheroes, and all manner of other esoterica.
So I have brought steampunk overtones to one of my Holmes novels, The Stuff of Nightmares. I have introduced the topic of artificial intelligence into another, The Thinking Engine. And with my latest, The Labyrinth of Death, I explore Greek myths and mysticism as Holmes and Watson investigate strange goings-on at a country estate in Dorset where an occult sect, run by a charismatic leader, may be responsible for the fate of a missing girl.
Conan Doyle, in his Holmes tales, provided us with a wonderful hill to climb and sit upon. From the top, the view is terrific and it’s the perfect spot for a picnic. I’ve brought my favourite sandwiches, I’ve spread out my rug, I’ve uncapped my Thermos, and I’m having a lovely time. Won’t you join me?