Sherlockian fiction V non-fiction – money or longevity?

There has always been a constant supply of new books in the Sherlockian field. In the years post-Granada and pre-Downey Jr/Cumberbatch this supply was best described as a trickle. Now it is a fast flowing stream or perhaps even river.

This river encompasses non-fiction, fiction, art, fan fiction (including slash fiction), comics and so on. It all counts regardless of how worthy you think some of it is. My observation though, based on many years’ experience, is that the fiction tends to lack longevity.

If you think really hard, how many items of Sherlockian fiction do you know of that are still talked about even two years after they were published? The Seven-Percent Solution is probably the best known but even that may be down in no small part to the screen version of it. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes – which Steven Moffat waxed lyrical about at the 2012 Annual Dinner of The Sherlock Holmes Society of London – is famous for similar reasons (although I believe the film came first).

But really, if you’re honest with yourself, how many others have really lasted, in the sense that they are talked about reasonably widely, positively or negatively, more than two years after their publication? The answer, I fear, is very few and I cannot think of any other specific examples.

The reasons for this are, I think, twofold. Firstly, the rate at which Sherlock Holmes stories (both pastiche and, more usually, homage) are produced is frightening. They are being churned out at such a rate that no one title can ever hope to hold the attention. Even when a famous writer such Anthony Horowitz produces one it swiftly fades (although I didn't personally rate it all that much). The rule of supply and demand dictates that the value of an item falls if it can be found in abundance and that is the case here. If you open and read a new Sherlock Holmes story you can rest assured that a good half dozen or more will have been published in the time it took you to read it (and I'm not including fan fiction here). A “read it and throw away” mentality has been created by the sheer volume of output. Why read a story twice when there is so much new stuff to read?

The other reason is that a sizeable amount of what is produced is, to be frank, not all that memorable. Everything produced will find a group of people that like it but very little is produced that appeals to all Sherlockians. People like me, who prefer true pastiche to homage, are frequently disappointed when the book we pick up, which more often than not is labelled as pastiche, turns out to be a homage which bears little resemblance to the authentic Doyle. In my case such books are often put down after a few chapters - but that's just me.

Where the fiction does undeniably score is on the money front. My publishers MX Publishing (who produce a fair amount of homage works) told me once that their fictional Sherlockian output outsells the non-fiction 20-1 so while your moment in the sun as a writer of such things may be short you can at least look forward to more royalties than the non-fiction writer.

So we come to the non-fiction writers. As I am one this will come across as self-serving but that cannot be helped. Plenty of forgettable non-fiction books have been written (none of mine though I hope) but even the good ones don't sell in huge numbers. The non-fiction writer is not, by definition, in it for the money. However, if you write a good one, you have the comfort of knowing that your book is likely to stay on the shelf of the purchaser and be referred to for many years to come. The obvious examples (excluding my own as modesty forbids) include Leslie Klinger's New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. I, of course, refer to the annotations as the non-fiction element in that work.

Why is this? In part it is because of the situation for non-fiction being the opposite to that of fiction. Non-fiction Sherlockian book production  is a mere trickle compared to fiction so any one book gets to hold the attention of its reader safe in the knowledge that there are not dozens waiting to replace it.
Another reason is that non-fiction works are more likely, in my experience, to get comprehensive write ups in society journals. As a result of this they are brought to the attention of all Sherlockians whereas, increasingly, Sherlockian fiction output is mostly promoted through social media and is thus largely missed by Sherlockians of a certain age.

Non-fiction writers are also more likely to be well known in Sherlockian circles (perhaps, in part, as a result of their coverage in journals). All of the most famous authors in the field I can think of – Roger Johnson, Jon Lellenberg, Leslie Klinger, Nick Utechin, W.S. Baring-Gould, T.S. Blakeney, D. Martin Dakin, John Gibson, Richard Lancelyn Green, Jack Tracy – are noted for their non-fiction work.

So do you want money or longevity?

For more information on Arthur Conan Doyle and his time at Undershaw please refer to my book, An Entirely New Country which is available through all good bookstores including Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Classic Specialities, and in all electronic formats including iTunes, Kobo, Nook and Kindle .

The Norwood Author is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Waterstones UK, Amazon UK,  Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble, Amazon Kindle, iBooks for the iPad/iPhone, Kobo Books, Nook.

Close to Holmes is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Amazon USABarnes and NobleAmazon UKWaterstones UKAmazon KindleKoboNook  and iBooks for the iPad/iPhone.

Eliminate the Impossible is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook and iBooks for the iPad/iPhone.


  1. I will take the money till my bills are paid off, than longevity I think.

    Well said, thanks for putting it into words.

  2. I've found that, as you say, much of the SH fiction just isn't very good. Aside from a few authors, many who write Holmes fiction seem to be just using the character and universe to springboard their own author-insert original characters, or to run amok and twist the Canon into the direction they think it should go, regardless of canonical or historical accuracy.

    1. Of course that will be true of some and that is an opinion that was shared by Arthur Conan Doyle's daughter Jean (who died in 1997).