Tag Archives: Conan Doyle

Sherlock

Last week I mentioned the BBC TV series Sherlock in amongst all my ramblings, and as I’ve mentioned Holmes several times prior to this I thought maybe I would write a little bit about them both today. Depending where you are in the Sherlock series, there may be some spoilers – as I write this I have just watched ‘The Final Problem’, which ended the most recent series. I suppose I’ve also been thinking of Holmes more than usual in the last little while because my latest WIP is set in Victorian London and so I guess obviously has a lot of connections to these stories that I’ve loved.

As I think I’ve said here before, I have been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for a very long time. It began one summer when we were visiting my grandparents’ farm and, true to form, I ran out of things to read because I read everything I had brought too quickly. My grandmother lent me a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that I guess she had gotten from a book club she belonged to, and I read it the rest of that visit by the light of an oil lamp. It was a pretty good way to be introduced to Conan Doyle’s stories.

I loved them (I guess obviously) and read her copy of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes as well, and then went on to devour all the rest of the tales. I have a very battered collection of all the Conan Doyle stories that has travelled with me from place to place everywhere I have lived, and I read them through again fairly regularly (remember, I love to re-read). It’s safe to say that Holmes is one of my favorite characters, as I think I’ve said more than once before.

Part of this is because so many of the stories really do just work very well, narratively: they’re exciting and surprising and have genuine moments of horror and humour. So they are just good stories, even if (as I think I’ve mentioned before) they don’t all stand up so well when you really start picking away at them. I think also, although I wouldn’t have realized it at the time, Holmes was another character likely to resonate with me: more than a little strange, not really very good at relating to the society around him (I’m reasonably suspicious how much of his ‘disinterest’ in people is an act), probably spends more time thinking than he really should. However odd he is, Holmes is also always passionately (no really) devoted to the idea of doing the right thing and helping people who need to be helped. He’s prepared to go to prison for that, he’s prepared to die for that. So whatever else he may be, Conan Doyle’s detective is a probably implausibly heroic creation, and I think that’s part of why I like him, too, as I get older and less fond of ‘shades of grey’.

So much for the original. The Sherlock TV series was one I approached with a little bit of trepidation – the idea of a modernized Holmes seemed like something that could very easily be done wrong (I didn’t get past the first episode of the American Elementary series) but I heard good things and so I gave it a try. I liked the first series very much, and I think the writers for it did about as good a job as it would be possible to do of updating Holmes for this new century. I loved the little animations of clues flying around the screen showing Holmes’ deductive mind at work, in particular.

The show has continued, I think, to be generally good since then, although not always of exactly even quality, and I think it has gradually gotten less and less like the Conan Doyle stories as they’ve gone along, until ‘The Final Problem’, which just aired, really only has a very tenuous connection to the original source material at all. I will need to mull it over a bit more, but I think that even considered in isolation, the episode had some very real problems and it may be time to leave this version of the characters. Perhaps the writers have another surprise, although I think the fixation on surprises may be part of the problem.

No doubt some people would suggest this is the reaction of a Holmes purist, and a lot has been written about how fans of Conan Doyle can’t come to grips with the new version. I like to think that’s not true in my case. I think many of the changes made to the characters and settings were actually quite clever and appropriate (I love their version of Irene Adler), and if Cumberbatch’s Holmes is more extreme in basically all forms of his behaviour than Conan Doyle’s character, I think that’s probably necessary. I actually thought the same with Robert Downey Jr.’s movie version of the character; I think for a modern audience to get the impact of how socially inappropriate and transgressive Holmes’ actions in the stories were, the writers need to turn up the volume on them a fair bit. The handshakes he ignores, barbs he conceals in polite phrasing, and of course his general lifestyle, would have been a lot more shocking to a Victorian audience that we necessarily appreciate today, and so both newer version of the character got their eccentricities turned up a few notches. I think that works very well.

It must be an interesting challenge for a writer – not one I have yet taken on – to pick up a character that isn’t yours and try to write new stories for them. It might seem obvious that the right thing to do is to make no changes and follow the original author as closely as possible, but I think imitation is never as good as the original, and I suspect most artists kind of chafe under restrictions that keep them from expressing themselves. So the question presumably becomes how far one can alter a character and make them one’s one before you’ve changed things enough that you also lose the appeal and attraction of the original character, which is surely a big part of the reason for doing a new take on Holmes or another established fictional creation.

I haven’t tried it yet, as I say, but I suspect it’s a very difficult balance to strike. For what it’s worth I think the Sherlock series has, on the whole, done remarkably well in coming up with a version of Holmes and Watson and their cases that’s something that has features that are entirely its own but is still recognizable as being drawn from the original material. I think perhaps in the last couple series they’ve gotten a bit too focused on more and more shocking revelations, and it is somewhat hard to see where they go from here. I can’t think of another unexpected bombshell they could throw in that wouldn’t be either a letdown from what’s gone before or seem (even more?) ludicrous that what they’ve just finished doing.

I hope I’m wrong and that they’ll yet surprise me. I would love some more Holmes stories, but if this series has run its race, I think they did very well.

And the originals are always there, in a little apartment on Baker Street, waiting for me to come visit again. One day I’ll get another oil lamp and do it properly.

Thanks for reading.

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Me vs. The Speckled Band

As part of working (slowly) on the Easter Pinkerton project I wrote about a couple weeks ago, I have been re-reading some Sherlock Holmes stories (a thing I tend to do anyway) and a night or two ago I got to ‘The Speckled Band’. I am told that Conan Doyle considered it the best of his Holmes tales, and while I don’t agree with this (something Sir Arthur and I can no doubt debate when I reach the great Writers’ Hereafter) it is a good un.

There is an issue, though. (This next bit is arguably spoiler-y but I think the Holmes stories are old enough that I don’t care) At the climax of the story, Holmes discovers that the murder weapon in this particular case is a swamp adder, ‘the deadliest snake in India’, as our hero describes it, that has climbed down a bell-rope into the bed of its victims. Which is pretty cool.

The problem is that there isn’t actually a snake called a ‘swamp adder’ in India or any place else, nor indeed a snake that looks all that much like the one Conan Doyle describes. Herpetologists and Holmes fans have wrestled with this problem and come up with a few snakey options for what the creature might actually be, but there’s a larger issue yet. Apparently snakes can’t climb ropes. (I didn’t know that either!) Thus, the whole premise of Conan Doyle’s story is impossible. Despite this, ‘Speckled Band’ was his favorite (I assume he didn’t know it was impossible) and despite the problems with the made-up snake and the made-up snake behaviour (the snake is also trained to respond to a whistle, which is also a problem because snakes are, apparently, deaf) people have been reading ‘Speckled Band’ for over a century, and it is routinely mentioned as a favourite.

Presumably at least some of that is the readership not knowing about swamp adders and snakes, and thus not knowing where Conan Doyle has gone wrong. However, I still enjoy it very much even knowing the issues with it, because Conan Doyle was right and it is a very good story. The central mystery is good, we get some opportunities for Holmes to show his deductive brilliance, as well as the somewhat rarer example of Holmes being (temporarily) mistaken. The atmosphere and tension of the climactic scene is very well done. In other words, the thing works, if you can put aside or cheerfully ignore all the snake-related issues.

This gets me to wondering (probably in part because I’m writing a story that will be set in the Victorian period, a period I am not expert on) whether we get too hung up on factual precision, getting every fact and word exactly correct, when we create. The example of ‘Speckled Band’, along with very many others, suggests that if you’ve got a good story, your audience will follow you, even if there are cases where you have an, ah, elastic relationship with the truth.

If you have a good story, I wonder if it might not be better to just write the thing and worry less about the facts. I know an overriding concern with accuracy can kill creativity. I think I wrote here a long while ago about a story of mine I wrote for a creative writing class with an opening scene that I set in Vladivostok, purely because it sounded like a suitably William Gibson-y place to stick a cyberpunk-ish story. My teacher pointed out (probably accurately!) that Vladivostok looked nothing like that. The story, which was meant to be the first piece of a novel, never recovered and I hardly did a thing to it or with it after that, because I couldn’t let the Vladivostok thing go. In this case, I don’t think the world lost a great story (I’ve written elsewhere about why my phase of trying to write cyberpunk was irredeemably bad) but the point I’m thinking about at the moment is that from a creative point of view, it probably would have been better to cheerfully ignore the whole issue with Vladivostok and just write the story. If it was a good story (it was not a good story), most readers would have cheerfully ignored it right along with me and enjoyed the narrative they were being given.

There is probably a minimum standard here somewhere, some tipping point past which even a well-written story gets dumped down from ‘enjoyable’ and ‘entertaining’ into ‘unbelievable, and in a bad way’. Some things do (to judge from internet reactions) seem to get particular subsets of readers particularly energized – getting facts wrong with guns seems as though it will get a reasonably large number of people excited, and computer-y people routinely point out all the problems with any kind of scene involving the internet and hacking. I freely confess to being scolded for ‘ruining’ the Clive Owen King Arthur movie by objecting to its problems with the truth throughout the film. (I still maintain that movie was pretty much self-ruining, though) If you get certain parts of your story wrong, people will notice, and it may bother them enough that they either give up on your story, or switch focus to finding all the other mistakes you’ve made, and then (often) pointing them out, a task which the internet certainly assists.

Part of this is (I think) that we love to point out our own knowledge. Part of this, though, is that places where a story strays from the factually possible is kind of a challenge to the reader: how ‘in’ are you, with this story? Are you bought in enough to stay with me through this, er, creative interpretation of the truth? You can, I think, only challenge your audience in this way so many times, or to a certain degree of severity, before the answer becomes: ‘nah, I’m out’.

I’m not sure if this is some precise calculation that a writer needs to constantly make, or (as I suspect) that this is one of those intuitive processes where you have to decide how essential certain facts may be to your story and to what extent they can – or in some cases must – be fudged in favour of your story. I am sure that in the end, if you have a good story, you probably have an audience that will follow it despite any factual blips that may be in there. If you have an immaculately researched, factually unassailable piece of work that isn’t a good story, all the research doesn’t matter because people won’t want to read it. I guess the more I think about this issue, and how to budget my time and energy as I work on this current project, the more I think I need to spend it on creating rather than on graduate-level research into the Victorians. I gotta have a good story before I need anything else. If I have one, I think my readers will forgive me for any swamp adders.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week.

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Another progress report (sort of) and more of me dumping a bunch of the contents of my brain at you.  I’m going to try to reduce the angst level of these updates, though – some of the things recent visitors to the blog are writing about remind me that it the big scheme of things having a bit of trouble writing imaginary stories is not that big a deal.

I’ve also been debating with myself over this favorite authors thing (which is way beyond ‘first world problems’ and into a whole different level of ridiculous) and trying to decide whether or not to include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I’m fairly sure it was my grandmother who introduced me to him, giving me two collections of his stories when we were up for a summer visit because I had already blazed through everything I had brought along to read on the trip and had (probably) adopted Being A Nuisance as a fallback activity.  Anyway I loved the stories, devoured them, and upon reflection reading Conan Doyle by the light of an oil lamp may be the ideal way to experience him.

The thing is that first of all I have never gotten around to reading The Lost World or any of the other Professor Challenger stories, and also if I’m honest, some of his later stuff is clearly not as good as the work for which he is most famous.  On the other hand, if you have created one of the Immortals, I think you get a bit of a pass if ‘The Three Gables’ is kind of alarming and ‘The Creeping Man’ is a bit crap.

By Immortals I mean the relatively short list of characters who get imbedded not just into the imagination of the time they were written but into imaginations from that point onwards.  We keep wanting to read their stories, watch the plays, watch the movies.  We want to tell new stories with the Immortals in them or create our own versions of them.  You know who I mean.  Robin Hood.  Dracula.  Long John Silver.  And Conan Doyle’s Immortal (of course), Sherlock Holmes.

As kind of a side note, this whole Immortals deal seems to have its origins (for me, I know this is hardly an original thought here) with an old Patrick Watson series called The Titans in which Watson would “interview” some great figure from history like Alexander the Great or Thomas Jefferson, ostensibly summoned from the past to have an amiable chat with a Canadian TV personality.  The show didn’t last long because, I imagine, watching Patrick Watson interview some actor in historical dress was a fairly daft spectacle, but even though my social historian training tells me I should have been hostile to the whole premise it was pretty entertaining, and the portrayal of Elizabeth, I confess, has basically continued to be how I have imagined Gloriana ever since.  The Titans also got me thinking about the fictional characters who stay with us just as much, if not more, than the Caesars and Napoleons who we think of as real despite all our reimaginings of them.

Anyway Sherlock Holmes is unquestionably one of those Immortals; reportrayed and and modernized and just reread a century after he first decided it was all right if Watson (John, rather than Patrick) kept a record of their investigations into life’s curiosities.  I was hooked from the start on the genius detective who is brilliant at everything except being a regular human being and his friend without whom he would be a complete mess, as even Holmes occasionally realizes.

After I got through those two volumes my grandmother gave me (the Adventures and the Memoirs, once she had persuaded me that the Memoirs were mysteries and not about Holmes in grade school or whatever) I got a complete collection and devoured the rest of the stories.  It’s a gift I don’t think I recognized the value of at the time, and wish I had been able to properly say thank you for:  thanks for introducing me to an Immortal.

Sometimes it’s fun to wonder which of our stories today will be among the Immortals;  I mean it’s possible that in 100 years people will still be reading Twilight, but give me leave to doubt it.  Harry Potter?  Katniss Everdeen?  Who knows.  These characters of ours sort of flicker and die, sometimes – when I was a kid the Hardy Boys (about whom more in another entry) seemed like an unsinkable franchise but I doubt very many teenagers today would know who the hell they are.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic because there are some Immortals of relatively recent vintage:  James Bond seems to have something about him that endures, and Batman, Superman and Spider-Man seem likely to be appearing at just the right moment for a long time to come.  Will, say, some of Stephen King’s creations stick around as Verne’s and Lovecraft’s have?  Will, indeed, people read William Gibson in 2084?

It’s just hard to tell who the Immortals of this generation of artists might be, just like it’s hard to tell whether this or that event going on around us or this person we just met will turn out have changed The Course of History.  It’s a puzzle we can’t solve, but it’s fun to exercise the brain trying anyway.  I mean, it gives you something to do while you’re trying to bang out another thousand words.

Word Count: 23,169

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