“Solving for Sherlock Holmes” (by Dana Cameron)

Readers of Dana Cameron’s Anna Hoyt stories for EQMM know that this Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity Award-winning author, who is also an archaeologist, has a special interest in historical fiction. In fact, even when her chosen setting isn’t historical, she’ll often mix in a bit of history—as in her November 2012 EQMM story “Mischief in Mesopotamia,” in which her series character Emma Fielding, vacationing in Turkey, encounters mystery related to ancient artifacts. But Dana’s work isn’t restricted to historical, traditional, or noir mysteries (all of which she writes). She has also established herself in the urban-fantasy genre with her Fangborn series, which has new entries at both novel and short-story length coming in April (see the novel Pack of Strays from 47North and the story “The God’s Games” in Games Creatures Play). She is also a contributor to the upcoming anthology Dead But Not Forgotten, whose stories all have their genesis in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series—and in which Dana weaves a tale around the Harris character Pam Ravenscroft. Speaking of pastiches, I only just learned from the following post that Dana is now working on a pastiche featuring Sherlock Holmes—perhaps the most challenging of all characters created by another for writers to borrow and make their own. —Janet Hutchings

In the past few months, I’ve been overdosing on Sherlock Holmes, and with more than a seven-percent solution. Between attending my third Baker Street Irregulars and Friends Weekend in January, devouring the DVDs of BBC’s third season of Sherlock, preparing for a panel at Boskone entitled “Sherlock Holmes and TV,” and starting work on my own Holmesian pastiche, I’ve been wrestling with all things Sherlockian (including “baritsu”). Catching up on Elementary, rewatching Jeremy Brett, and watching Murder by Decree with Christopher Plummer and James Mason, has given me a lot to think about. Not just about Stephen Moffat’s treatment of female characters, who plays the best John Watson, or whether House is really a Holmesian show, but considering what goes into a good Sherlockian story. Does the story need to be strictly according the canon (the 56 short stories and four novels originally written by Arthur Conan Doyle) or can it contain allusions and references? Must the relationships be the same? What makes a movie or story “Holmesian?”

Most of the panelists at Boskone said a Sherlockian story absolutely requires an otherworldly, almost alien, detached Holmes with a ferocious brain. Some said you need a worthy opponent to showcase that brain. I agree with both, and suggested, as many Sherlockians do, that the friendship between Sherlock and John is what makes the stories immortal.

So far, as I’ve been working on this project, I’ve been intimidated by many things, but most especially this: How can I write a character who is Sherlock Holmes-smart if I am only Dana-smart? Sure, I used to play “deductions” as a kid, remembering the quote “you see, but you do not observe.” I used to mess with my classmates, remarking on the month of their birthdays (based on birthstone jewelry), the make of their parents’ cars (key chains with insignias), and the like. This was a lot of fun, but they were usually pretty annoyed when I told them how I did it, because it was obvious and no one likes a smartass.

But a pastiche requires more than that.

All problems can be broken down to their component parts, so I’m starting with the obvious. I know that Holmes is a collector of facts: I can make him expert in anything and everything, as long as it serves the story. But facts alone aren’t enough: I also need to ensure that there’s a good chance other characters won’t also know those facts or won’t link together the clues the way that Holmes would. I’ve also decided that it would be cheating to use tobacco ash or bee keeping or something else that’s shown up in the canon; it has to be fresh. It has to be mine.

Any Sherlock-type character has to be clever and quick. I suffer from what the French describe as l’esprit de l’escalier, meaning I only make the right connection or think of the right retort as I find myself at the bottom of the stairs, having left the party. But I have the writer’s friend—time—on my side and can take days or weeks to think up the clever part that might only take an instant in a story. Plenty of time for the spirit of the staircase to visit me.

But can I write in the character of Sherlock Holmes?

I tell myself, I wasn’t a werewolf, an 18th-century tavern owner, or a covert operative, and I managed to find ways to relate with those characters: Gerry’s idealism, Anna’s burning desire to survive, Jayne’s avenging sense of right and wrong. I can relate to the way Holmes observes people and behavior and class, even if I don’t know anything about his analysis of secret writing and ciphers. I can use the skills of my previous professional life in archaeology to create a crime scene and fill it with clues.

But it’s Sherlock Holmes

The remaining part of the puzzle seems to be in three parts.

Writing a Sherlockian pastiche is daunting to me because of the utterly iconic nature of the character. I know I can get around that by honoring the canonical details but making my take purely my own. I’m not trying to copy or improve on Conan Doyle’s creation—there’s no way I could hope to do either. I don’t want to compete with the character, merely play with the ideas he suggests.

That removes a lot of the burden right there. If I take elements I admire in the character of Holmes and expand on those, I can give them my own emphasis within the confines of the canon. For example, I’ll have to figure out my interpretation of the characters’ physical descriptions. To me, that would start with taking the various descriptions of Holmes and Watson et al, and looking through IMDB to see which actors I would cast in those parts. And then I’ll take something obscure that I do know about—perhaps the adventure will focus on a particular artifact or prehistoric earthwork—and make that part of the story. In the end, I’ll count it success if the story works as a mystery adventure and the protagonist feels like my Holmes in my world.

And then there’s the second step.

I’m going to cheat. But only in a manner of speaking, and only in the way that writers do.

Once I’ve laboriously figured out two or three serious deductions, I can add a few more that I won’t spell out. The character’s intellect will be established, but I won’t have to show the math every time, because, with any luck, I will have gained the reader’s trust. The writers of BBC’s Sherlock do this frequently: Sherlock deduces a character’s motives by listening to his story and then analyzing his clothing, bearing, etc. aloud for Watson or Lestrade. Later on, if Sherlock makes a completely wild assertion, say, deducing someone’s parentage from the state of his clothing, we accept that it is possible for him to come to that conclusion without knowing more.

The final step in solving for Sherlock Holmes is as elementary as it is important for any character: empathy. I find that no matter how neat a narrative I can construct, unless I love the characters for their flaws as well as their good points—and convince the reader of their veracity—the story just won’t work. That part will be easy.

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