One of the questions I’m always asked at book launches is who is your Sherlock Holmes. This is what happens when you write pastiches based on the great detective.
It won’t have escaped your notice that there is currently a plethora of Holmeses around, one for almost every taste, and that’s not even considering the giants of the past.
My Sherlock Holmes, the one lives in my head and speaks the words I write, is the one who took residence in my psyche when I first read the stories. I was very young and devoured the entire canon. To the best of my recollection, I encountered pure Conan Doyle long before I saw any of the films. That Great Detective, complex, brilliant, sometimes irascible but capable of enormous compassion, is who I am trying to capture in my fiction. Still, it would be disingenuous to suggest I am not influenced by any of the screen or television actors who have played the part.
The first Holmes I saw on screen was Peter Cushing. The film was Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles and I loved it. The colours were so vivid — ok, garish works, too — and Cushing was an intelligent, forceful detective. Only… Shouldn’t he tower over Sir Henry Baskerville rather than the other way around? At 6’5″, very few people towered over Christopher Lee. Cushing, on the other hand, was reportedly 5’11” which may be true, but was still too short to stand next to Lee. For all Mr C did a fine job embodying my hero, even as a child I was put off by fact that Holmes had to crane his neck to look up at his client. Tsk, tsk.
There may have been some Basil Rathbones next, but I have absolutely no memory of them. I saw Rathbone’s films in later years, of course, and I really admired his portrayal, but the stories? His Watson? No, no, no, no, no. Give me A Study in Scarlet. Give me The Speckled Band. And you know what you can do with your dopey Watsons… That’s not meant to be unkind to the talented Nigel Bruce, but the scriptwriters obviously never met a real doctor in their pitiful and, I’d imagine, unhealthy lives. No doctor of my acquaintance could be called stupid. Incompetent, maybe, but not stupid.
The next Holmes I remember, and the one who seemed to really capture the essence of book-Holmes for me, was Douglas Wilmer. Although his series Sherlock Holmes was short lived and a bit too influenced by Rathbone, Wilmer was a splendid detective. I was thrilled when he guest-starred on BBC’s Sherlock “The Reichenbach Fall” episode. He was the curmudgeonly member of the Diogenes Club who was so vexed when Watson (Martin Freeman) is making a fuss about finding Mycroft.
A raft (hmm, what’s the collective noun for a collection of Sherlocks? An ‘Irregularity’?) anyway, a whole lot of other Holmeses followed. Michael Caine and Rupert Everett, Ian Richardson and John Cleese, and many more. Some were interesting, others less so. I don’t think any of them made much of an impact on the character as I write him.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that I encountered a Holmes who seemed the true embodiment of the character for me. The sublime Jeremy Brett wanted to play the best version of Holmes the world had ever seen. He was meticulous in his research, and his insistence upon canonical accuracy was legendary. His Holmes is eccentric and mercurial, but is also wise and witty. He may sometimes be a challenging flat-mate, but he is capable of extraordinary compassion. If the Sherlock Holmes in my head is the Holmes of the stories, his voice and mannerisms are often that of the much-missed Mr Brett. So profound was his influence on me that I used his real name as a character in my book Sherlock Holmes and the Other Woman. He appears again in the book I’m currently writing, Return to Reichenbach.
Then came Benedict Cumberbatch. I loved seeing Holmes in a modern setting, but I loved the many references, both great and small, to the canon even more. This Sherlock is just as brilliant and as insightful as his predecessors, but he is, perhaps, more of a work in progress. And while others take exception to his rudeness, his inability to connect with people on a human level, I can still see enough of Conan Doyle’s creation to keep me interested. More than interested. As clever use of lights can reveal different aspects to a sculpture, so different interpretations of an iconic character are revealing of nuances we might otherwise miss. This Holmes is funnier than most of his predecessors, more vulnerable, too. This is the detective in chrysalis.
Through Cumberbatch’s portrayal, I have discovered more of Holmes’s humanity, and this has been a recurring theme in my own work. As I attempt to place the detective in the real world against a genuine historical backdrop, I return to the man at the heart of the stories. For this reason, I write the books in the form of a journal, written by Holmes himself. This is the best way into his heart. This shows the reader what he is thinking and, more to the point, what he is feeling.
My Holmes is also a work in progress. A man haunted by Reichenbach, but supported by a network of people who care very much about his well-being. He is sometimes bewildered by their affection, but never less than grateful for it. While he often pretends an indifference he does not really feel, the people around him know him well enough to understand the great heart that beats beneath that apparently-cold exterior.
Writers use whatever material is available to create characters and stories. One of the challenges in writing pastiches is to make the hero fresh and new, but still recognisable. I hope fans of the works of Arthur Conan Doyle recognise his detective in my books. I would also like to think the fans of Holmes’ many incarnations will catch a glimpse of their ideal version in my work, too.