Recently, I had an e-mail conversation with a well-known and highly respected Sherlockian about writing stories based on the Conan Doyle canon. David is something of a purist. He likes my writing, but it gets up his nose (both nostrils) that I have had the effrontery to give the Great Detective a wife in my books.
In the course of our conversation, he mentioned several other Holmes novels written by people other than Doyle in which a certain liberty was taken with the character and his background as originally written. At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I tend to agree with him.
There’s an adage that when you drive, anyone who drives faster than you is a lunatic, and anyone who drives slower is a roadhog. The same might be said of pastiche writers. We all set our own boundaries, beyond which we will not step. I can deal with Holmes travelling to the US for a case, for instance. In my new book Return to Reichenbach he comes to Ireland. I can live with Holmes being a basset hound. Or an android searching for Moriarty on a holographic suite.
Bring Holmes into the 21st century. It’s charming. But for pity sake, keep him in London. Keep Watson a former army doctor. And keep both of them male.
If you take too many liberties with the character, they lose all meaning.
Since I had my conversation with David, I’ve been pondering the issue. As pastiche writers, we are obliged to treat the original material with respect. However, does that necessarily demand slavish adherence? Having read a fair number of Holmes-inspired tales over the years, I know one thing to be true: we all draw the line in the manner that suits us best.
At one end of the scale we have writers like David. For them, every detail of the canon has been scrutinised, analysed, and followed. At the other end, we have writers such as the creators of the CBS series, Elementary, whose canon seems to go no further than Holmes is a detective with a friend called Watson. Everything else seems subject to the whim of the screenwriters. Watson is now a woman, not a practicing doctor, and the setting is modern-day New York, rather than a Victorian era London. For me, it’s several steps too far.
Then again, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss brought Holmes into the 21st century (as Basil Rathbone brought him into the 20th just a few decades earlier.) I loved A Study in Pink, the first episode in the peripatetic series Sherlock, but S3 rather hit the skids and took the detective into more maudlin territory. The series’ creators are self-confessed Holmes fans. I hope they remember the love they had for the original tales and take us back to stories that are more recognisably canon.
Nor is it Holmes, alone, who suffers from over-enthusiastic fans who take a favourite creation into strange and unchartered territory.
Recently, there has been a spate of films / TV shows, that have mucked about with series I enjoyed as a child. Starsky and Hutch, Star Trek, The Man from UNCLE and Hawaii Five-O have all been butchered, sorry, adapted for the modern audience. In my opinion, all these adaptations fell far short of the mark of the originals. There’s a reason why Star Trek, for instance, was such a huge success. The sense of optimism about the future, the camaraderie between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the fact that Mr Spock was a Vulcan and eschewed human emotions. Yet, when it was decided to revamp the series, almost all these key elements was abandoned. Suddenly we had a far more dystopian world and a much more cynical Star Fleet; the relationship between Kirk and Spock in particular was fractious and, worst of all, Spock began a romantic relationship with Uhura. Here’s a question: If you love a series so much you decide to remake it for a new generation, why would you obliterate all the elements that made you love it in the first place?
Where we draw our line is as individual as the authors themselves. When I began to write A Biased Judgement, I wanted to explore the psychology of the main character, as well as reveal how he really feels about his work, his friends, and his world. To that end, I have allowed him the opportunity to tell the story himself, and because he’s writing a diary, he can be more open than he might be in any other format. I have given him a secret wife because she allows me to explore an aspect of Holmes that Conan Doyle never did. However, I am at pains to make sure everything else in my novels is as faithful to the original tales as possible. The period, setting, and characters are all, I hope, recognisable. I also follow the chronology of the canon and weave those tales through my narrative. By putting the original stories into the context of Holmes’s daily life, I can explore different aspects of Doyle classics such as The Devil’s Foot and The Dancing Men.
Other writers take greater liberties with the text, at least in my opinion. I like the way Laurie King writes, but I couldn’t get on with her depicting a sexual relationship between a 60-something Holmes and a teenage girl. Also, in my opinion, Holmes and Watson shared one of the greatest platonic friendships in the history of literature. Making them lovers just undermines that friendship. In the Seven-Per-Cent Solution, writer Nicholas Meyer showed Holmes as a mentally disturbed figure whose addiction fed his paranoia. The writers of Without a Clue showed Watson, played by Ben Kingsley, the real mastermind of the operation while Holmes, Michael Caine, was a mere frontman. There are things of interest in these depictions, but canonical they ain’t. Your mileage may vary.
Here’s a question: At what point does the pastiche stop being a pastiche and become something else entirely? Is The Muppet Show’s “Sherlock Helmock” a tribute or a joke? What about Star Trek’s Mr Data chasing a holographic Professor Moriarty on the USS Enterprise? Can we consider House a pastiche? What about all the dogs, ducks and other animals that solve crimes and call themselves Holmes?
Is it possible to be too rigid? One of the most beguiling things about the Holmes and Watson original stories is their flexibility. The stories are so rich, they serve as a starting point to any number of tales. Then again, can we take our creative licence too far and torque those original stories beyond recognition? What is our responsibility to the canon?
Seriously. I’d love to know what you think. .