Alan Lance Andersen has recently produced the book The Affairs of Sherlock Holmes by Sax Rohmer. This book, which is sadly not available for sale in Europe, begins with a preface on the subject of writing Sherlock Holmes pastiches. He has permitted me to reproduce it here.
Strap in as there's a lot to read.
Over to Alan.....
Rivals of Conan Doyle:
Inherent Problems for Modern Authors
Writing Sherlock Holmes Pastiches
By Alan Lance Andersen
Modern authors from John Dickson Carr to Nicholas Meyer have attempted to recapture the mood of gas-lit London and the mystique of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventures of Sherlock Holmes by writing “new” Holmes novels and short stories. Such authors usually seize upon certain elements of the Holmes canon — the tobacco in the slipper, the violin, the use of cocaine — to lend an air of verisimilitude to their “Victorian” stories. Yet these attempts invariably fail to capture the original flavor of the Conan Doyle tales.
On the other hand, Conan Doyle’s contemporaries — such mystery authors as Robert Eustace, L.T. Meade, Clifford Halifax, Richard Harding Davis, and Sax Rohmer ( whose stories are featured in this volume ) — were writing about characters of their own invention; nevertheless they sound more like Conan Doyle than do any of his modern deliberate imitators. It is my belief that this results from the Victorians sharing a common linguistic and rhetorical background, world view, and social mind-set which later writers can never fully understand. Writers of “new” Victorian mysteries would do well to focus on the language and societal culture of the period rather than on furniture and dress; and they should avoid having characters behave in ways which, clever though they may be in terms of plot, are nevertheless out-of-character for a 19th Century writer to include in a story.
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Most mystery writers acknowledge Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for their roles in the development of the mystery story as we know it today. Throughout the history of detective literature, there have been outstanding writers whose works have helped to shape the mystery genre. Beginning in 1891, The Strand Magazine began featuring a Sherlock Holmes short story in each issue, which assured instant success for the new publication. Prior to that time, there had been only two Holmes tales, both novels. The first, A Study in Scarlet, was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887 and the second, The Sign of the Four, was published in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890.
It was with the publication of A Scandal in Bohemia in The Strand Magazine in July 1991 that stories really caught on. They made Conan Doyle’s career and catapulted The Strand Magazine to the position of premier periodical of its day. It was not long before other writers of short mystery fiction began to appear in Pearson’s Magazine, Cassell’s Magazine, The Harmsworth Magazine, The Royal Magazine, The Windsor Magazine, The Ludgate Monthly, and The London Magazine — as well as in The Strand Magazine. Such authors included L. T. Meade, Robert Eustace, Clifford Halifax, Jacques Futrelle, Baroness Orczy, Brett Harte, Jack London, Guy Boothby, Arthur Morrison, E. W. Hornung, William McHarg, Edwin Balmer, Samuel Hopkins Adams, Francis Lynde, Catherine Louisa Pirkis, William Hope Hodgson, Ernest Bramah, Richard Harding Davis, Robert Barr, Cutcliffe Hyne, Grant Allen, and Sarsfield Ward (before and after he took the pen name of Sax Rohmer). These authors created their own characters — detectives and master criminals — and the first golden age of mystery writing began.
A number of modern writers have undertaken to write their own Sherlock Holmes mysteries, yet none of these recent stories has ever fully captured the quality and flavor of the original. Eric Zorn writes in the Chicago Tribune, “One can scarcely turn around in a bookstore without seeing (Holmes) rocketing into space, solving President Kennedy’s assassination, or consorting with clones and vampires ... Modern writers, using all the gimmicks at their disposal, seem determined to cash in on the late Arthur Conan Doyle’s work.”
Even if we discount the science fiction and fantasy writers of Sherlock Holmes stories and focus on those honestly trying to recreate the style and tone of the original canon, we find that modern authors invariably fail to capture the flavor of the Conan Doyle stories. They use the “trappings” of Sherlock Holmes — the tobacco in the slipper, the violin, the use of cocaine — to lend an air of verisimilitude to their “Victorian” stories. But these imitators often attempt to introduce ideas of their own which are not consistent with late Victorian times, language, or literary conventions.
Other modern writers have written period mysteries set in 19th Century England using their own characters or fictionalized versions of historical figures. Some of these stories are quite successful in recreating Victorian-seeming prose, while others fall into the same traps as the Conan Doyle imitators.
Among the better known of the latter-day Sherlock Holmes novels are Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and The West End Horror. Meyer’s stories are intriguing, his knowledge of Holmes is thorough, and his attention to detail is excellent. The main problem with these stories is that Meyer is an inveterate name-dropper. He insists on peopling his stories with such famous figures as Sigmund Freud, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw.
While Holmes would certainly have had dealings with celebrities like Wilde and Shaw, Conan Doyle would never have actually named them in a story; he would have used euphemisms like “a notorious poet” or “a celebrated playwright.” In The West End Horror, Holmes is called in to help capture Jack the Ripper. Perhaps the worst example of this is a scene in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution with a cameo appearance by a character from Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. This plays no part whatsoever in the story; it simply gives Meyer the opportunity to footnote, “Here is one of the great accidental meetings in recent English history, pregnant with all sorts of irony.”
The fact is that Conan Doyle never mentions real people by name in his stories. It was a matter of Victorian reserve to be subtle about such things. Conan Doyle features the King of Bohemia in one of his tales, at about the same time that Robert Louis Stevenson was writing stories in the New Arabian Nights about Prince Florizel of Bohemia — who in turn was helped in solving a mystery by “a celebrated London detective.” Conan Doyle and Stevenson were correspondents at this time, and “borrowed” each others characters. But it would have been in poor taste to name them. Good taste was everything to a Victorian gentleman.
Conan Doyle might have had Dr. Watson come home to find Holmes taking cocaine, but he would never have been so indiscreet as to quote Holmes’ unfortunate language while under the influence. But in Michael Hardwick’s Revenge of the Hound, an entire chapter is devoted to describing Holmes’ aberrant behavior and his berating of Watson during a cocaine session. This so shatters the familiar image of Holmes’ and Watson’s domestic scene that it ruins the rest of the book. One of the things that makes the Sherlock Holmes stories so endearing to readers are the glimpses of domestic life at 221B Baker Street, and Hardwick totally failed to capture that mood.
The biggest problem with many modern Sherlock Holmes stories is that the author comes up with his own pet notions about Holmes and tries to be cute in his portrayal. For example in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes asserts that he and Watson homosexual lovers. Even if that were true — which it is NOT — Holmes would never say anything about it. If one is going to write stories using someone else’s characters, the least one can do is be faithful to the original.
Another problem for the modern writer is that the English language has changed considerably since Victorian times. While we can read and easily understand Victorian prose, we tend not to think in that style, which makes writing it difficult. Furthermore, phrases that sound perfectly normal to us may not have even been used back then. In the recent television production of Jack the Ripper, which is set in 1888, Michael Caine starring as Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline says to another character, “Shut your face.” According to Wenworth and Flexner’s Dictionary of American Slang, this figure of speech was not used until after 1915, and it is an American expression — not British. Such anachronisms, while subtle, can create an overall effect in which the story simply does not “ring true.”
Zorn writes, “Revival pastiches typically have been greeted with hoots of derision from true Sherlockians, a righteous bunch who do not suffer gladly transgressions upon the sacred memory of Holmes and Dr. Watson.”
A good way to get a feel for authentic Victorian language is to read Castle Books’ Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, a two-volume facsimile edition of original mystery stories from Strand Magazine, Windsor Magazine, The Royal Magazine, and other publications from the era of gaslight and hansom cabs. These stories, written by the 19th century writers listed above, read very much like those of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One sees numerous similarities in style — and these are the hallmarks of late Victorian prose. One will also be able to pick out the elements of Conan Doyle’s personal writing style, for they stand out distinctly once one is steeped in the language of the period. The original illustrations reproduced in these facsimile editions also help create a feeling for the Victorian era.
One of the best of the “rivals” is Richard Harding Davis’ In the Fog, a trilogy of short stories originally published in The Windsor Magazine. A group of gentlemen at a private London club regale each other with tales of a convoluted mystery that so engages the interest of Sir Andrew, an elderly gentleman and devoted Sherlock Holmes fan, that he fails to depart for the House of Lords to make a speech on the Navy Increase Bill. The surprise ending of this story is a true Victorian masterpiece.
The prolific L.T. Meade, one of the foremost women mystery writers of the time, collaborated with Dr. Edgar Beaumont to write a series of stories in which Dr. Clifford Hallifax (Beaumont’s pseudonym) solves a number of insidious crimes. With Robert Eustace, she penned a trilogy of stories about Madame Sarah, The Sorceress of the Strand — a villainess to rival Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty.
Some late Victorian mysteries featured the villain as a protagonist who habitually outwitted the police. E. W. Hornung’s cricketer and notorious master thief A. J. Raffles was so popular that the series was continued by other writers after Hornung’s death.
Baroness Orczy — better known, perhaps, for her tales of the adventurous and heroic Scarlet Pimpernel — penned a series of stories about Patrick “Skin O’ My Tooth” Mulligan, a lawyer with a reputation for winning particularly close criminal court cases.
All of these mystery stories — and those found in other anthologies — illustrate the style of writing, the social attitudes, and the literary conventions of the late Victorian and Edwardian period. There is a naive freshness to these stories and a mystique not easily captured by modern writers.
The most “successful” of Conan Doyle’s plagiarists was a contemporary unemployed architect by the name of Arthur Whitaker, whose story, The Man Who Was Wanted, was subsequently believed by Adrian and Denis Conan Doyle to have been written by their father. The story of literary feuding and fiascoes that surrounded the publication of Arthur Whitaker’s story is presented in its entirety in Jon L. Lellenberg’s Nova 57 Minor.
Unlike Sir Arthur’s modern imitators, Whitaker wrote his Holmes story at the same time that Conan Doyle was at the peak of his popularity; and there is a ring of authenticity in the narrative that modern imitators are lacking. Still, Whitaker’s story might never have seen the light of day were it not for a series of misadventures which led to his manuscript being discovered among Sir Arthur’s papers after his death — with no mention of the typescript’s origin!
Although Whitaker’s attempt to imitate Conan Doyle’s literary style was more successful than those of modern imitators, it did not feel quite right to Holmes aficionados. Whitaker wrote the story in the style of the period and included all the traditional trappings of a Sherlock Holmes story, but his personal writing style differed from Sir Arthur’s! This was lost on sons Adrian Conan Doyle and Denis Conan Doyle (who not only deified their father’s memory but who had also reportedly been paid $15,000 for the story) — but it was not lost on daughter Jean Conan Doyle. Lellenberg says Jean was certain The Man Who Was Wanted was not written by her father when she first read the story in the Sunday Dispatch, and that she was put out with her brother Adrian for not telling her of it’s impending publication.
Lellenberg writes “Adrian lacked the special knowledge, or insight, or prescience (or whatever it is) of the dyed-in-the-wool enthusiast ... for whom the story did not ‘ring true.’ Some have that sensitivity, while others do not. Only one of Conan Doyle’s children had it, and she had not been consulted.”
Adrian Conan Doyle was adamant in his denunciation of writers who “plagiarized” his father’s characters. Lellenberg describes Adrian preventing Ellery Queen from publishing an anthology of Sherlockian parodies and pastiches. A promising series of Holmes pastiches by mystery writer Stuart Palmer was “nipped in the bud” when “the legal heirs of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set up shrill wails of agony at the very idea of the continuance of the series.”
Adrian described his views on plagiarism and the Whitaker story in a letter to Vincent Starrett:
“Is it not infuriating that one can be put to so much trouble and inconvenience, after 40 years, thanks directly to the abominable habit of a would-be writer in making use of characters invented by an established Author.”
Considering his attitude, it is amusing to note that Adrian Conan Doyle himself subsequently wrote a series of Sherlock Holmes stories in collaboration with John Dickson Carr in the 1940s. These stories have interesting mystery plots and are fairly constrained in their adherence to the original format, yet they are flawed. John Dickson Carr’s writing style is so forceful that his personality comes through in spite of his efforts to imitate Sir Arthur.
In a review of Edward B. Hanna’s The Whitechapel Horrors,another book in which Holmes is called in to help capture Jack the Ripper, Bruce Southworth points out that books shortcomings (Once Upon a Crime, Vol. 1, No. 4). At one point early in The Whitechapel Horrors, Watson espouses the out-of-character sentiment that “the poor are poor because they’re deserving of nothing better. They could rise above their station if they wished ... Those who choose to live like animals do so because they are animals.” Southworth point out that this quote colors the rest of the book.
In another passage, Holmes mutters a celebrated modern obscenity. According to Southworth, this is “Not an uncommon word nowadays, but (one) which, in my almost 25 years of involvement with the adventures of Holmes, and the ‘writings about the writings,’ is a first.”
It is very doubtful whether the word in question was used in that fashion in Victorian England. It was never used in print when I was a boy; Watson would certainly never have quoted Holmes — even if he had said it.
Southworth writes, “It is an extensively researched and well-written Ripper novel. As for Hanna’s efforts to write a Holmes novel, this must be judged a failure. If you ... pretend that the characters of Holmes, Watson, Mycroft, et al. are other than those created by Doyle, you will enjoy The Whitechapel Horrors. If you are a Holmesian purist, this is not the book for you.” By this standard, The Man Who Was Wanted is a success, for the characters are very true to the canon. Southworth further points out, “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle advised would-be pastiche writers to invent their own characters rather than use his. Hanna should have heeded the sage advice from the man who knew Holmes best, his creator.”
This final statement refers to Conan Doyle’s letter to Whitaker (reproduced in Nova 57 Minor), wherein Sir Arthur writes of The Man Who Was Wanted, “You should ... change the names and try to get published yourself. Of course you could not use the names of my characters.”
It is the modern authors who take Sir Arthur’s advice that are most successful. Victorian mystery stories were very much formula writing, and were sometimes rather stuffy and naive. By combining the Victorian style with modern plot and characterization, it is possible to come up with stories that are even better than some of the originals.
A particularly successful period novel is Peter Lovesey’s Bertie and the Tinman, which actually reads as though it were written by a gentleman of the 1880s, but which has more excitement and humor than is usually found in the writing of that period. In this case, the detective is Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales and future King of England. Since Lovesey is not attempting to imitate another writer’s style of writing, the use of a historical figure as the hero is appropriate.
Another noteworthy period novel is The Detective and Mr. Dickens, by modern author W. J. Palmer, in which Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins are enlisted to help Inspector Field — a Bow Street policeman found in Dickens’ sketches in Household Words — to solve a murder committed by a group of “gentlemen.” Dickens and Collins are able to enter London’s private clubs to gather information where Inspector Field would never be accepted. The tale is presented as “a secret journal” supposedly penned by Wilkie Collins after Dickens’ death.
While quite successful at recreating the world of gas-lit London, both Bertie and the Tinman and The Detective and Mr. Dickens suffer from a problem common to many modern writers of Victorian and Edwardian novels. They are much more explicit in describing sexual details than any 19th Century writer would have been. This is a matter of propriety. We know that there were rakes and libertines in the 19th Century, but writers of that period would have used euphemisms, vagueness, or pretended innocence rather than offend public sensibilities. This matter of propriety and taste were so codified in Victorian times that the euphemisms and phraseology actually became part of the literary style.
Historical novels with flaws in fact or style are painful to the knowledgeable reader, but well-crafted period mysteries that pay attention to style and detail are often among the very best writing in the mystery genre.
A very young A. Sarsfield Ward wrote the science fiction murder mystery The Green Spider in 1904, years before creating the most infamous villain of mystery fiction, Fu Manchu, under the pen name of Sax Rohmer. He was also the creator of Bazarada — a mystery solving magician based on Harry Houdini. Many of his later detective mysteries were so like Sherlock Holmes that — with the names and locations changed — they read more like late Victorian Holmes pastiches than those penned by modern writers who try so hard to write like Conan Doyle.
His book can be bought by US readers from here