New Sherlock Holmes anthology's appeal is elementary, my dear!
Mystery guru Otto Penzler talks about Sherlock's timelessness and the writers – including Stephen King, P.G. Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis, Anne Perry, and even O. Henry – who can't resist adopting him.
Deerstalker hat? Check. Victorian-era London? Check. Dr. Watson valiantly trying to keep up? Definitely check.
Many of the tales in The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories are as Sherlock Holmesian as they come. But readers will deduce the big twist from the cover: Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t write most of them. Instead, this anthology – touted as the “biggest collection” of Sherlock Holmes stories ever – is full of fond tributes by other writers.
Stephen King is here, offering a savvier Dr. Watson than we’re used to. P.G. Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis, Anne Perry, and even O. Henry make appearances too. But not every setting is invitingly gaslit: One story takes on a Martian moon, and another in heaven. And several are funny (or at least funny peculiar), including a few written self-mockingly by Conan Doyle himself.
The world’s most famous detective, it turns out, has spawned more than century of mimicry, and he still makes writers want to borrow him for a spell. Or a book. Or a series.
To paraphrase the words of Sherlock’s biggest fans, these writers keep the memory of the master ever green. And, mostly, ever-Victorian. In general, says Otto Penzler, editor of the new anthology, “it’s wrong to have him in a different era. We want him where we know him to be.”
In an interview, Penzler – who runs the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City and owns The Mysterious Press – recalls his first encounter with 221B Baker Street, the evolution of the famous detective’s appeal and the qualities of a perfect Holmes story.
Q: How did you first become interested in Sherlock Holmes?
I remember it as if it happened yesterday. I was 10 years old, 63 years ago. Miss (or Mrs.) Gibson was the librarian at my grammar school, P.S. 9 in the South Bronx on 138th Street.
Twice a week, we had one hour in the library where Miss Gibson would talk about books – what books were and how to take care of them. For the second half hour, we were allowed to take one book and read it.
I pulled an anthology off the shelf, and there was a title in there called “The Red-Headed League” that got my imagination going. I was about three-quarters done reading when the bell rang. I didn’t know what happened, and it drove me crazy.
For the next week, I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had to know what happened. I think the delayed gratification is what embedded this affection for Sherlock Holmes in my brain, and it became a lifelong thing. It resonates strongly to the present day.
Q: The book includes parodies and pastiches of Sherlock Holmes. What’s the difference?
A pastiche attempts to emulate the style as closely as possible. When it’s really well done, you have the sense that this could have been written by Arthur Conan Doyle.
A parody takes elements of the characters and emphasizes them to so much of a degree that they become funny. In the original stories, for example, Dr. Watson frequently is baffled when Holmes makes an observation of some kind. In a parody, Holmes may make one of these deductions based on an observation and go through a long convoluted explanation of how he got to that point. Then the subject will say “That’s not true at all,” and give the true answer.
Q: While they’ve inspired their own parodies, you don’t see much writing about, say, Sam Spade or Hercule Poirot that isn’t by their creators. Why does Holmes make so many writers want to borrow him?
Holmes is really the pinnacle. You could walk down the street in midtown Manhattan and ask any casual person if they’ve ever heard of Sherlock Holmes, and they’d say yes. He’s become a part of the language in a way that no one other detective ever has.
Part of it is longevity. He was there at the very beginning. Although Edgar Allen Poe invented the form in 1841, detective fiction was not at all popular until Sherlock Holmes came along. And that didn’t happen until he started writing the short stories in 1891.
They struck a reading chord with the public that was unimaginable. Harry Potter is as close as anything I could imagine to his influence.
Q: What did Conan Doyle think of his creation?
When he killed Sherlock Holmes – he thought his historical novels were far more important and far better – he got an amazing amount of hate mail. One woman addressed him as “you brute.”
He brought Holmes back eventually, and people lined up waiting for the delivery trucks carrying Strand Magazine, which ran the stories in a serial fashion.
Because of Holmes’s popularity, silent movies were made and he became enormously successful on the stage. Then he became a popular character in radio, comic strips, comic books, television, and movies.
Q: Some characters from literature and pop culture are transplanted into different time periods. Think of Shakespeare’s plays being set in various eras. But while there are exceptions – like TV’s “Elementary,” which relocates him to modern times and turns Dr. Watson into a woman – Holmes is almost always a creature of his time, stuck forever in 1895. Why is that?
Even though he existed for 50 years – the first book was 1887, and the last story published in 1927 – we associate Sherlock Holmes with the Victorian era, with hansom cabs, gaslights, cobblestone streets.
Very conservatively, there have been 30,000 works about Sherlock Holmes. In that vast number, there are those who’ve tried pretty much everything. They make Holmes and Watson a gay couple, or they make Watson or Holmes a woman. I’ve read stories where Holmes and Watson are rats or mice. People have done whatever it is possible to do to Sherlock Holmes.
There are a few stories where he does travel through time. But mostly, it’s wrong to have him in a different era. We want him where we know him to be.
Otherwise, it’s like trying to take characters from “Cheers” and putting them somewhere else. We want them in “Cheers” because that’s where we’re comfortable with them, like we want Nero Wolfe to be in his brownstone on 35th Street, and we want James Bond to be in a cool car.
Q: What are the keys to a perfect Holmes story?
The ideal story is set London in 1895. There are moments in the nighttime so the gas lamps can be lighted and you hear the clip-clop of a horse pulling a hansom cab through the deserted streets.
I want Sherlock Holmes to be Sherlock Holmes, to have the author attempt to emulate the style as much as possible. I want a moment where he sees something and makes an extraordinary deduction from what he’s observed. And I want a good mystery that is baffling and peculiar.
So many odd things happen in the Holmes canon. I want that peculiarity, and I want a satisfying solution.
Q: These days, writers might get away with a parody of an iconic literary figure, but they’d expect to get a call from an attorney if they tried to write a new work about, say, Kinsey Millhone or Easy Rawlins. How did the legal issues work with Sherlock Holmes?
Some of the writers did get calls. In later years, the Conan Doyle estate has been extremely litigious. Writers had to get permission from the Conan Doyle and pay for the right to use that character. But Sherlock Holmes is now largely in the public domain.
Q: What’s the state of the Sherlock Holmes literary industry these days?
It’s relentless. I would say it an averages 10 books a month, mostly fiction, and magazines still run short stories. Strand Magazine has been revitalized, and they frequently have Sherlock stories, and they appear in e-magazines. They’re produced at an astonishing rate.
Q: Is it lazy of writers to grab someone else’s character and try to write in another author’s style?
That’s largely true. Most parodies and pastiches are by lazy writers who have no ability to create their own characters. But I don’t think it’s easy for the really good writers. It’s a greater challenge to make their Sherlock Holmes believable than to continue writing about their own characters.
Q: Do you look forward to even more Sherlock stories?
I love the character, and I love it when good writers come to Sherlock Holmes and write a good story. But there’s an awful lot of self-published authors, and too many of them love the idea of writing. I wish they’d stop writing Sherlock homes stories. I wish they’d stop writing, period. Is that too harsh?
But there’s an expression in the Baker Street Irregulars realm that refers to keeping the memory of the master ever green. I like that people are drawn to Sherlock Holmes as readers and writers, and I don’t think there’s a character in fiction more worthy of emulation, of being brought in front of more readers on a regular basis.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.