Keith Hann debuted in EQMM’s Department of First Stories (in this year’s February issue) with a Sherlock Holmes pastiche that turns on some real historical events. The Canadian author is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Calgary, studying military and diplomatic history. He tells EQMM that it was his interest in Sherlock Holmes that prompted him to try his hand at fiction-writing. He has other interests in the mystery field too, having discovered, in copies of old pulp magazines, the work of writers such as Cornell Woolrich and John D. MacDonald.—Janet Hutchings
What makes a compelling Sherlock Holmes story? Not an easy question to answer—really, not a question that possibly can be answered with any authority. Why? Because we’re dealing with two separate elements:
- The needs of a “proper” Holmes story
- The needs of a good Holmes story
What makes a “proper” Holmes story is a matter of the fiercest contention, and the one more usually tackled. Should Holmes ever find love? Can we introduce elements of the genuinely supernatural? How valid is the appearance of the real-life special guest star? Can we place Holmes and Watson in a different time? Should gender remain a fixed point in a changing age? (I would like to pause for a moment of silence here over the many lives lost in the great “is Sherlock / Elementary a proper take on the canon” flame wars).
However, for all the passion it engenders, I can’t say I find arguing over what makes a proper Holmes tale very interesting: It usually just feels like two sets of subjectivities, bashing at each other like a pair of bighorn sheep. As such, today I’d like to talk instead about what makes a good pastiche—a structurally sound example of the Doyle-style traditional Sherlock Holmes tale. I’m not talking about the basics required by any bit of fiction, such as scintillating prose (though there is a bit of crossover). Nor am I referring to non-traditional Holmes tales (such as those with a supernatural bent): These can be as engaging as any traditional one, but the very strength of the non-traditional tale—the ability to dodge convention—makes it much harder to talk about the ways in which such stories should be constructed. So, without meaning any disparagement, I’m going to focus on how the best stories specifically modelled on the classic Holmes are fashioned.
I’m not claiming to be any great authority on the Holmes pastiche. This merely comes, like so many of you, from having read the canon a few times, with many pastiches in between, and developing my own particular prejudices. When first sitting down to write my own traditional-style stories, I thought about what my favourite tales—canonical and not—have in common. To me, these are the six structural elements featured in most (but not all) of the finest:
- A proper problem
- A plausible plot
- A good reason for Holmes to be confused
- A good reason for Watson to remain in the dark
- Judicious use of canonical elements
- Judicious use of period elements
1) A proper problem
. . . which, at least, presents those unusual and outré features which are as dear to you as they are to me.
To Holmes, regular crime was boring: He wouldn’t investigate everyday pickpockets or jaywalkers unless every last other criminal was in jail and the cocaine had run completely dry. He preferred problems involving the likes of coded messages, spectral hounds, and men walking into houses and never being seen again. One in six of the canonical cases actually have no crime committed at all: That they were merely unusual was enough for Holmes. On the other hand, 37 of the 60 stories feature murder or attempted murder. But even then, murder is not always the central feature of the case. The best of them play with this, so that the murder is but a gateway to a more perplexing matter.
What I’m getting at is that the central premise around which one constructs their story is the problem and that, in many Holmes pastiches, the problem is pedestrian. The plans/painting/famous jewel-encrusted Dingus McGuffin has been stolen. Someone straightforwardly has been murdered, and Scotland Yard can’t figure out who did it. Someone straightforwardly has been murdered, and Scotland Yard has the (falsely accused) suspect in hand. I think I’ve just described a good three-quarters of all pastiches ever written. Most of these are dull.
Let’s take a quick look at Doyle’s most beloved Sherlock tales. I’ll use the 1999 Baker Street Irregulars Top Twelve short stories list as the sample group, ranked from highest to lowest:
- The Speckled Band
- The Red-Headed League
- A Scandal in Bohemia
- Silver Blaze
- The Blue Carbuncle
- The Musgrave Ritual
- The Final Problem
- The Empty House
- The Dancing Men
- The Six Napoleons
- The Bruce-Partington Plans
- The Man with the Twisted Lip
What makes The Final Problem and The Empty House truly great is in many ways beyond the pastiche writer, as these stories achieve much of their power through manipulation of the canon, and only Doyle truly had that ability. There is a lively subgenre of Holmes end-of-life stories dealing with the last days of Holmes, Watson, or both, but I would argue that a pastiche, even if written just as well as those two—no mean feat!—could not connect with the reader in the same way, because we know that the story never “really” happened. Scandal uses a bit of that power, too, in proclaiming Irene Adler the woman. At the same time, none of these three wholly relies on this power; each has an entertaining problem at the root of things and Professor Moriarty would be a memorable character in any tale.
Of the remaining nine, only one—The Bruce-Partington Plans, coming in near the bottom of the list—is centred around one of those generic plot elements that drives so many pastiches. Instead of the attempt to recover a jewel, The Blue Carbuncle hands one over at the start, and the puzzle is how in the blazes it wound up in a Christmas goose, not merely who stole it. Silver Blaze features an apparent murder, but dresses it up with an additional, unusual theft (and ultimately it’s not really murder). The Speckled Band gives us a death to start, but we don’t know what caused it, and it happened two years prior to the story’s opening. The Musgrave Ritual ultimately might have a murder, but we never do know for sure, and it certainly doesn’t drive the story.
Note that when I say a good Holmes tale needs “a proper problem” that I don’t literally mean a mystery in need of cracking. Instead, I simply refer to anything that confronts Holmes with appreciable difficulties. A Scandal in Bohemia, one of the most beloved canon tales, has no mystery element in it, other than perhaps us attempting to discover just what Holmes has planned. It is more of an adventure story; Doyle wrote before the “rules” of detective fiction were codified, which meant that he had more flexibility than later authors, who often pigeonholed themselves into tight genre boundaries. Similarly, pastiche writers today should feel free to tell a crackling suspense or adventure tale featuring Holmes, even if there is no mystery, just as Doyle did. That does not mean the stakes need be high; all too often today we see Holmes faced with threats to the monarchy, Britain, or civilization itself. Doyle largely avoided such and did just fine.
I am also absolutely not saying that a murder or theft plot is automatically a bad one, or even incapable of producing a great tale. Three of the tales on the list feature a Scotland Yard detective with an apparent murder, after all, though I think it’s telling that most would probably not frame those stories—Silver Blaze, The Six Napoleons, and The Bruce-Partington Plans—in such a fashion. Doyle does a superb job draping these pedestrian elements in colourful fabric. Too many others do not.
2) A plausible plot
Conan Doyle made mistakes which completely invalidated some of his stories, but he was a pioneer. . . .
Conan Doyle and Poe were primitives in this art and stand in relation to the best modern writers as Giotto does to da Vinci. They did things which are no longer permissible and exposed ignorances that are no longer tolerated. Also, police art, itself, was rudimentary in their time.
The above comments by Raymond Chandler made some sixty-five years ago are of vital importance to the pastiche writer. It’s bad enough that Doyle was a better writer than most of us; we’re also held to a far higher standard than he ever was. Up here on the shoulder of giants it’s just a given that we will see farther, and the price of having the sum of human knowledge at one’s fingertips via the internet is that, sadly, we are expected to use it. You’ll note that The Speckled Band is ranked as number one on the 1999 list of the twelve stories most beloved by members of the BSI (and has been since its polls began back in 1944). If it was to be published today, it would be consigned to the ash heap as a well-told bit of utter implausibility, for snakes don’t really hear and don’t like milk and don’t climb ropes and aren’t especially trainable and— But it’s Doyle, and it’s damn good aside from those logical impossibilities, so we exalt it. Modern writers will never enjoy the same luxury.
3) A good reason for Holmes to be confused
Holmes shook his head like a man who is far from being satisfied.
“These are very deep waters,” said he; “pray go on with your narrative.”
This is closely related to the first point. Some might ask, “well, isn’t it the same?” No: Something might be a proper problem to us, but that doesn’t mean Holmes would necessarily have any trouble solving it. If a proper problem is the frame on which a good story is constructed, why Holmes doesn’t immediately figure it out is why we keep reading as it’s built out. It is very easy to squander a good dilemma with a pedestrian investigation of it.
That a good story generally needs something that actually challenges Holmes doesn’t mean that it only requires some simple bit of investigation, either. Holmes has access to vast resources in the form of his index, his Irregulars, his brother Mycroft, people like Shinwell Johnson and Langdale Pike, Watson’s medical and military expertise, and his own broad base of knowledge. If the problem only requires Holmes to go to the scene and have a look around, or ask the right people the right questions in the right order, before bringing that enormous arsenal of information to bear to crack it, then the tale will again lack tension. There needs to be pushback: people who argue with or fight him, all manner of coloured herrings and other aquatic life, and seeming impossibilities that must be puzzled out by Holmes, not his network (which at best should only assist), and we need to see this. The police, if involved (and sometimes Scotland Yard can have the day off), should be baffled for a good reason—the excuse of incompetence is another bit of luxury Doyle enjoyed that the modern pastiche writer does not.
Finally, having Holmes confused, the best stories avoid solving a perplexing problem by simply plopping the solution in his lap at the end. This is in part just a matter of embracing that detective story notion of the rules of Fair Play, the idea that you can’t just have the solution show up at the finale with absolutely no way for the reader to have known about it. Doyle did not always abide by this because, again, he wrote before these “rules” were codified, and so a Holmes pastiche has a bit more leeway here than other forms of detective story (to its advantage). However, I’ve definitely noticed a tendency for writers to abuse this. I’ve seen a great number of Holmes tales unnecessarily resolve the matter at hand via some bit of deus ex machina info delivery, a source the reader would never have expected and could never have known about, and which absolves Holmes (and the writer) of the need to do any deep thinking on the matter. One of the major rewards of a Holmes tale comes from watching that amazing mind do the work.
As an aside, oddly enough I’ve seen several pastiches fail by having it unapologetically obvious who the villain is and then the story primarily being about how Holmes brings about their downfall. Seeing as how this is Holmes we’re discussing (Irenes and Norburys aside), this tends to be painfully anti-climactic, as without a challenge there’s only the mechanical process of inevitable entrapment.
4) A good reason for Watson to remain in the dark
“A telegram for you, Mr. Holmes,” said he.
“Ha! It is the answer!” He tore it open, glanced his eyes over it, and crumpled it into his pocket.
“That’s all right,” said he.
“Have you found out anything?”
“I have found out everything!”
Almost inevitably, Holmes will eventually piece together what has occurred. However, at some point Watson (and thus us) needs to learn this as well, and as any reader of the canon knows, this often does not happen simultaneously. Long before the end of the story, Holmes regularly has a solid suspicion as to what has occurred, or even certitude, and only requires formal legal proof. Watson is essential to the success of the canon in many ways, but most significant is how he provides a filter through which we may be distanced from Holmes’ process of deduction, keeping us in the dark in the reasonable way that a good mystery requires. But this is easy to handle poorly. The staple of Holmes announcing that he merely prefers not to discuss things until all is perfectly ready can work on occasion, but is somewhat unsatisfying at best, ham-fisted at worst, and painfully overused regardless. When Holmes obviously knows what’s going on but is refusing to let Watson in on it, for apparently arbitrary means and for any significant length of time, the reader becomes removed from the story—dangerously passive and unengaged. Being along for the ride is fun, whereas if we can only watch on the sidelines as things pass us by then we’re liable to get bored.
Many authors have found better ways. In some cases the final reveal happens naturally near the end, with both Holmes and Watson learning the truth together in an organic fashion. Other tales might have the knowledge arrive somewhat sooner, but have the pacing of the story so tight that Holmes simply does not have the opportunity to announce to Watson what is happening until the very end; an attempt to introduce a lengthy explanatory scene in the middle of things would actually feel wrong (“There’s no time for this, Watson! Even now the hideous red leech races towards its final victim!”). Still others might have Holmes run off on some vital (and often time-sensitive) side quest, though while this removes his ability to spoil the story, it also threatens to derail it by separating our two main protagonists and having us feel we are viewing some unimportant sideshow.
Even if a story paces the reveal correctly, a common failing (in my mind, at least) is creating an inappropriate parlour scene for Holmes to deliver it, that time-honoured trope of detective fiction wherein all relevant parties are called to the parlour or other convenient place of assembly so that the detective can lay out his brilliance and publically expose the culprit. While sometimes the method makes sense to employ, there are two problems with it: one, it was last fresh when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a going concern, and two, it’s a staple not of the Holmes stories but of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, largely post-dating Doyle (The Bruce-Partington Plans and The Golden Pince-Nez have something similar, but there are twists, the results I think are more interesting than is usually the case, and the stories are the exception rather than the rule in the canon besides).
I’m not saying to avoid anything that any other writer has ever done (for God’s sake, we’re writing Holmes knockoffs here). However, employing the tropes of other detectives and sub-genres introduces a strong “meta” element into your story, risking you inadvertently pulling the well-read reader out of your tale and all the while not really giving you anything new to work with: you’re merely opening up a new box of clichés. The risk of making Holmes look like a poor-man’s Poirot or Dr. Fell rarely outweighs the reward.
5) Judicious use of canonical elements
“It was elementary, Watson,” said he, brushing past Mrs. Hudson, “for as I attempted to persuade Inspector Lestrade here, any analysis of the tobacco ash present at the scene of the crime would have told the examiner the same.” He fetched his deerstalker and pipe. “But now we face a singular matter; these are deep waters indeed. Come, gentlemen. Summon the Irregulars! Cocaine for everyone! The game is afoot!”
I didn’t have to think at all in writing the above paragraph and, I suspect, neither would most readers, were they called upon to create the same. Some of the power of the Holmes stories lies in those familiar elements in the canon we have come to cherish: poor, put-upon Mrs. Hudson; sallow, perennially unobservant Lestrade; Wiggins and his fellow scamps; Moriarty cackling from the shadows. Unfortunately, many writers wield these elements not as a scalpel but as a club.
It is easy to see how this happens. At times the writer is looking to make their tale more authentic, and one of the best ways to do that is to bring in those elements that that Doyle himself fashioned. Other times, the writer, carried away by their love for the canon, simply cannot resist the opportunity to play with such storied elements.
However, overdoing this risks a pastiche straying from loving tribute to unintentional parody. Almost all of us know about the deerstalker and pipe; I won’t bother going into those here. The canon uses some form of the phrase “the game is afoot” exactly twice; Holmes says it but once, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was his favourite. Most of us are aware of how one can use “elementary” improperly, but it is not required to use it at all. The Irregulars only appear in three stories, and are only prominent in the two earliest. Mycroft is busy, lazy, and a creature of habit; Moriarty plans, rather than executes—pastiche writers have both lofty figures directly involve themselves in Holmes’ life and the business of everyday crime with amazing regularity. Holmes’ deductions in Baker Street at the beginning of a tale are more central, but still, they do not appear in every tale and are not required either.
I suspect this will prove controversial, but I feel the introductory deduction scene in particular has lost any power it might have had. Any author can do it, given enough time to think one out, and oh so many have, but it is fundamentally a flavour or show-off piece that does nothing to really help your story. The advanced version, as seen in The Cardboard Box/The Resident Patient, is trickier to pull off and thus more impressive, but ultimately fails for the same reasons. If we’re reading a pastiche, we know who Holmes is and what he can do; the time spent on a deduction intro would be better spent thickening your plot or giving your characters some life. There are so many other elements that can establish one’s Holmesian bonafides in much shorter a fashion, and as far as deduction scenes go, one that winds up placing the criminal in the docket is much more useful.
6) Judicious use of period elements
Every Holmesian pastiche writer knows of the challenge of capturing the flavour of an increasingly bygone age, a time not just of Empire but of gasogenes, pince-nezs, the bimetallic question, and other bits of antiquity. There’s little to say on this, for a writer knows that anachronisms are to be avoided and makes the best effort they can. Whether or not one fails is not objective, but a determination made separately by each individual reader, based on their own individual base of knowledge.
A less considered problem is overfaithfullness to the period, an excess of fidelity. This is a problem common to genre fiction as a whole, where authors perform a pile of research to ensure they get the details of their fantasy setting, sci-fi story, or detective piece right, and then cannot resist the temptation to show their work. But any bit of info that doesn’t assist your story should be excised, no matter how fascinating you personally think it is. For one, it’s often not as interesting as the author believes. For another, for every story where I found the pointed use of period detail smooth and of some interest, there have been twenty more where it just sat like a lump of lead, even when fascinating still interrupting the story’s flow. In particular, I have never seen a single pastiche improved by a digression on authentic period train times. What does it matter if Holmes and Watson catch the 2:15 or the 2:30 at the satellite station in Lesser East Ludenshire-on-the-Moor? All I think when a story has Holmes break out his Bradshaw is that the author managed to track down a copy, and thus felt compelled to use it. Characters should move at the speed of plot, bound only by reasonable limits, and without exception any space spent on an incidental exploration of train timetables would have been better used fleshing out the plot or characters instead.
Again, I don’t claim this to be the one true path to the perfect Holmes pastiche; it’s more of a what-not-to-do, rather than a how-to-do-it. Just because something is structurally sound doesn’t mean it can’t flounder in a host of other ways. For instance, even if it passes muster as a sound story, you might feel it fails as a proper one. And of course a sound story might still suffer from leaden prose or any number of other basic blunders. Lastly, there’s always the exception that proves the rule, that superb story built out of the most basic or even hackneyed plots, archetypes, and the like.
In closing, I’d be particularly interested in hearing from any reader out there of Holmes stories that in your mind stumble over one (or better yet, several) of my points above and yet still wind up being wonderful. I would start the game off by suggesting J.R. Campbell’s “Lord Garnett’s Skulls,” as found in volume II of The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories. There’s been a theft, and a Scotland Yard investigator has told us of it: rather basic stuff. But the pacing is excellent, the missing materials out of the ordinary, we have a kidnapping quickly ladled on top, and the solution is provided in a fresh and delightfully ghoulish way. What comes to mind for you?
This an excellent and much-needed essay. Thank you. I will share it with other pastiche writers.