Monday, April 16, 2012

Currently on Twitter...

As part of an ongoing project on my Twitter feed, I'm delivering stories from the Sherlock Holmes canon in tiny installments of 140 characters or less. I recently finished up "The Resident Patient," a story which begins with a quiet walk through London and ends with yet another case in which the Great Detective misses out on bringing his quarry to justice because of a shipwreck.

The current story is "His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes," which opens "upon the second of August – the most terrible August in the history of the world," and closes with "the last quiet talk" Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson may have ever had.

Check out my Twitter feed for a daily installment, although I am usually inspired to post more than once a day. And don't forget you can read through the original canon online.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

GUEST BLOG: “You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him.”

Rarely can a telegram – sardonic; impatient; written in haste – have exerted so profound an influence on the course of popular literature. The author of the note in question was Arthur Conan Doyle, replying in 1896 to the actor-manager William Gillette, then in the midst of composing one of the earliest stage plays about Doyle’s most famous creation, in which Gillette was eager to include a romantic interest for the detective. The performer got his way (“it’s good to see the old chap again” was Doyle’s mordant response on seeing the final draft, amorous interludes and all) and the play was a success (and in at least two centuries – it was revived in the 1970s by the Royal Shakespeare Company). But Gillette’s new drama was only part of the first wave of stories about Holmes not to be written by his creator. What an army of pasticheurs has followed in its wake! Its members have written in such number and with so full a spectrum of approaches that the telegram has come to seem a kind of license, one which continues to be exploited to its furthest limits.

Here are questions which any pasticheur must ask before embarking upon a new Sherlock Holmes story: how closely do I cleave to the style and milieu established by Doyle? With what degree of fidelity do I try to emulate the originals? How closely can I approach Doyle’s intentions? And how far can one diverge from them before the result ceases to feel like Holmes at all? The range of answers has been considerable – from those who endeavour to come as near as possible to the kind of thing that Doyle might actually have written (Bert Coules’ artful Further Adventures or Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr’s pallid Exploits) to those who take the title character and, as in those accounts in which the sleuth is discovered battling zombies or meeting Tarzan of the Apes, place him in a story which Doyle would never have countenanced. Then there are the spoofs and the send-ups, the fashionable reimaginings and that subgenre which subverts Doyle’s originals to suggest that the stories in the Strand were in some sense mendacious (Robert Lee Hall’s bizarre Exit Sherlock Holmes; Michael Dibdin’s blackly comic The Last Sherlock Holmes Story; Nicholas Meyer’s ingenious The Seven-Per-Cent Solution).
All of this has been much on my mind lately as I’ve just contributed a pastiche of my own – The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner – to a line of high-quality, full-cast Sherlock Holmes audio dramas produced by the British company Big Finish (specialists also in Doctor Who, Dark Shadows, Stargate and more). Mine is their eighth Holmes tale and so far the producers, eager to cater for all tastes, have answered those questions about fidelity to Doyle in a variety of ways – from ultra-faithful adaptations (The Hound of the Baskervilles; The Final Problem) to straight pastiche (George Mann’s impressively authentic The Reification of Hans Gerber) to the wilder possibilities of the doctor and the detective squaring up to Count Dracula (in a version of David Stuart Davies’ novel, The Tangled Skein).

Artwork Credit: Alex Mallinson
It was my intention to combine the strengths of these approaches – to be as faithful as I could to Doyle’s style while taking into account the tastes and expectations of a twenty-first century audience. The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner is designed to fit snugly between two stories in the canon – The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane and His Last Bow. We begin with Holmes languishing in retirement, keeping bees in Sussex and believing himself to be done with solving mysteries.  The Titanic disaster has occurred only four months previously and, in the aftermath of the tragedy, Holmes receives two visitors in quick succession – the first being Dr John Watson, the second J Bruce Ismay, the (real life) Manager of the White Star Line and survivor of the sinking. Naturally, it isn’t long before those strange events which once dogged the great detective do so again and one of the most baffling cases of his long career begins.

I’m proud of the script for The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner and I was more than delighted with the cast. Holmes and Watson are played by Nicholas Briggs and Richard Earl, both highly accomplished British stage actors (and, in Briggs’ case, well-known to television viewers as the voice of the Daleks in Doctor Who) and their interpretations of their famous roles are emblematic of Big Finish’s take on Holmes – a melding of the traditional and the revisionist. Briggs is a mostly classical Sherlock, warmer than Benedict Cumberbatch, less eccentric than Jeremy Brett while remaining spikier and more intolerant than Basil Rathbone. Earl, playing the capable military man of the stories, is as soberly efficient as Edward Hardwicke though with a little of Jude Law’s dash and just a scintilla of the lovability of Nigel Bruce. Perhaps the team they most resemble – in their brio and full-blooded theatricality – is the delightful 1950s pairing of John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Meanwhile, Michael Maloney – that distinguished Shakesperean and frequent collaborator with Kenneth Branagh – plays Ismay with all his customary intellect and skill.

As is often the case in Baker Street, one adventure suggests another. In the course of writing the script – and also while listening to the cast bring it to life in the recording studio – something struck me as odd which had never, in repeated readings of the canon, seemed so to me before. Why does Holmes retire? He can’t be particularly old and his powers show no signs of waning (indeed, in His Last Bow, Holmes seems to be at the very top of his game). And so I began to wonder whether something might have happened to trigger his resignation, something about which the doctor has hitherto remained tight-lipped.
There are no answers suggested or theories propounded in The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner – but only hints and thinking aloud. Now, of course, it’s nagging at me – the question of why Watson is so coy about Holmes’ motives for devoting himself to the bees. I’m still thinking about it and I’ve set nothing down on paper but perhaps, in some form or another, I’ll return to Doyle’s creations again and explore them just a little further – always bearing in mind, of course, Sir Arthur’s invitation about marriage and murder and more. How generous he was to grant us all such freedom.

Photo Credit: Amelia Wallace
Jonathan Barnes is the author of two novels, The Somnambulist and The Domino Men, both published by HarperCollins. His website is

The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner is available now and can be purchased directly from Big Finish (on CD: or as a download:
You can read more about Big Finish’s range of Sherlock Holmes adventures at:

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Some Thoughts on Setting: “The strange setting in which their fate was cast” (VALL)

"But there can be no grave for Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Watson... Shall they not always live in Baker Street? Are they not there this moment, as one writes? ...Outside, the hansoms rattle through the rain, and Moriarty plans his latest devilry. Within, the sea coal flames upon the hearth and Holmes and Watson take their well-won ease... So they still live for all that love them well: in a romantic chamber of the heart, in a nostalgic country of the mind, where it is always 1895.” (Vincent Starrett)

So, it is always 1895, as the Sherlockians say – indicating that time is a rather stagnant thing for those who love Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson well. That time neither moves forward, nor backward – and Holmes and Watson are perpetually seated in their chairs in front of a fire at 221B Baker Street. But in reality, the canon manages to encompass a rather broad scope of time and space. Even by examining just the original novels, the reader finds “The Country of the Saints” (STUD), “The Strange Story of Jonathan Small” (SIGN), and “Lodge 341, Vermissa” (VALL). These backwards-reaching passages allow the reader to visit Utah, India, and Pennsylvania, respectively – with each separate episode set several years, even decades, in the past from the moment of their telling. Even The Hound of the Baskervilles features a brief foray into the past – the year 1742 specifically – with the reading of the Baskerville legend.

Do you think this is going to have future
consequences? Nah, probably not.
Pastiche and especially film and television adaptations seem to make easy work of time and setting in terms of Sherlock Holmes’s adventures. The Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone famously transported the Great Detective and Dr. Watson out of Victorian England, and into a variety of plots centered largely on war propaganda and jingoist sentiment – and based only very tenuously on the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Only two of Rathbone’s Holmes films were set in the nineteenth century: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939). Author Barry Grant, on the other hand, defrosts and revives the Great Detective after nearly a century of being frozen in an Alpine glacier in his two novels, The Strange Return of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes and the Shakespeare Letter. And in a similar plot device, Holmes is transported even farther into the future in the animated series, Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, where he is paired with a semi-robotic Watson and a female Lestrade.

So how does Holmes survive all these shifts through time and space (sometimes “space,” in a very literal, astronomical sense)? The Rathbone-Universal Pictures films opened with an explanatory title card: “Sherlock Holmes, the immortal character of fiction created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging. In solving significant problems of the present day he remains as ever the supreme master of deductive reasoning.” Surely the BBC’s series, “Sherlock,” with its modern Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson equipped with smartphones and Wifi, has more than proven that a fully contemporary adaptation can be done and done well. However, there is a distinct difference between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock using video chat with Martin Freeman’s John Watson – or even Basil Rathbone’s Great Detective and Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson traveling via airplane – and a Sherlock Holmes who has been forcibly transported to another century, set against of the backdrop of a digital Big Ben and trying to interact with a cyborg. Are we speaking merely to the issue of success or failure in concept and execution?

But Holmes’s body of knowledge and unique strengths were based as much on his knowledge of his time and place as it was upon anything else. So, to forcibly transplant him into another era – via frozen glacier or ill-timed temporal vortex – is to severely weaken him. Cumberbatch and Rathbone’s versions of Sherlock Holmes are certainly not creatures of 1895 in the way of Jeremy Brett’s Great Detective, but they are creatures of their time and place. Because if nothing else, Sherlock Holmes must be comfortable in his own world in the same way that he is comfortable in his own skin. He must know it in the same way that he knows varieties of tobacco ash, or bicycle tires, or the typefaces of various newspapers. To put him in a world in which he fights to understand basic concepts, tools and interactions, is to cripple the Great Detective in a very fundamental way – to see Sherlock Holmes struggle with the world around him would compromise the authenticity of his observations and the authority of his conclusions. A nineteenth century London would be quite alien to both the Rathbone and Cumberbatch versions of Sherlock Holmes, but their own worlds and spheres of existence were not.
All right, someone is going to have to bring me
up to speed here. The "CliffsNotes" version is fine.
There may be no one who has spoken more on the topic of setting – time, place and context – in the canon than the Sherlockian Vincent Starrett. He is, of course, the composer of the iconic poem “221B,” and the gorgeous lines that captured the imagery that so embodied the world of the canonical Sherlock Holmes. But canonical setting is more than just romantic gaslight and cobblestone streets, even for Starrett: "How often have I myself, in other years, climbed those seventeen steps that lead upward to the famous rooms and listened for the voices of their most famous occupants. Sometimes I have been almost certain that I heard them. And the old house in Baker Street still stands for all who remember it. It will stand as long as the cold London fog rolls in with the winter and mischief is planned and thwarted and books are written and read." What he speaks of is being able to recognize Holmes and Watson on sight – of the characteristics of time and setting that make them instantly identifiable – of their being when they should no longer be.

In 2009, the animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold aired an episode entitled, “The Trials of the Demon,” in which Batman is summoned by Sherlock Holmes into the past to solve a series of inexplicable crimes. Upon first meeting, Holmes is able to accurately deduce Batman’s identity through a series of (humorous) observations. Then with apparently only one observation, Batman is able to likewise deduce Sherlock Holmes’s identity. That observation? “The hat,” Batman says, to which Sherlock Holmes self-consciously adjusts his deerstalker. At the end of the episode, as they say their farewells, Holmes asks Batman to reveal how he really knew his identity. Batman smirks at this question, and finally answers before vanishing:

“Everyone knows who you are. You’re the world’s greatest detective.”
"All right, 'Rock, Paper, Scissors' and then
we'll know who has the silliest outfit."
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