Newsletter - Spinning off from the Sherlockian Canon

Tuesday Apr 01 2014
by Jack

One of the most fascinating (and complex) stories in the history of popular culture is that of Sherlock Holmes, created in 1887 by a young unknown writer named Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes (and his sidekick Dr. Watson) would appear in 66 short stories and four novels over the next forty years (the Holmes “canon” of writings by Doyle himself, as opposed to the work featuring Holmes produced by others). The creation of Sherlock Holmes came well after the emergence of both the crime novel and the detective as the protagonist in it. Doyle did not break much new ground, but he did write a book (A Study in Scarlet) which was influential mainly because it was popular, and its popularity could be imitated by others. Holmes’s creator would at one point kill him off and then bring him back because of tremendous pressure from the reading public. Even before Doyle’s death, however, Holmes had – in the jargon of the digital age – “gone viral” in two interesting directions. One was the achievement of cult status for the canon, as countless fans used Doyle’s writing as an excuse for mock scholarship into matters that the master had left unsettled or unconsidered. What was Inspector Lestrade’s first name? How did Mrs. Hudson come to acquire a building in downtown London, the second floor of which she could rent to the detective? Could Dr. Watson have been a woman? (a possibility first suggested by Rex Stout in the early 1940s) What were the family origins of Professor Moriarty? One prestige organization for the fans, membership by invitation only, is the “Baker Street Irregulars,” founded in New York City in 1934 by Christopher Morley and sponsor of the Baker Street Journal since 1946. Because the Irregulars was not open to women until 1991 – an exclusion that deserves a separate essay – the “Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes” (ASH) was founded in the late 1960s. The other direction, of course, was the expropriation by other writers of (a) Holmes and/or Watson as comical characters in a literary process usually known as “parody”, or (b) the expansion of one or more of the minor characters or premises from the canon to serve as the basis of their own work in a process usually known as “pastiche.” While each of these developments deserves its own expanded analysis, I want to focus here on the pastiche element in recent crime fiction. It is difficult to appreciate the fecundity of the Holmes pastiche or its influence on Whodunit?’s inventory. Virtually every recurring character in Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon has been expropriated by at least one author to serve as the subject of a series of crime novels. The books resulting do not always attempt to imitate closely the style of Conan Doyle, but their inspiration remains plain. A subset of these works purport to be by Dr. Watson himself, but this is not an essential for the genre.

One of the most popular of the pastiches was published in 1974 by Nicholas Meyer as The Seven-Per-Cent Solution: Being a Reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. Hardly the first Holmes pastiche, this book probably owed something to the film They Might Be Giants, released in 1971, and in turn its best-selling nature was probably quite influential in encouraging other writers to crank out their own Holmes imitations. The essence of popular culture, after all, is not originality but imitation. Produce something that sells, and watch others step on the bandwagon. Meyer used Watson as narrator and Holmes as the brilliant detective, adding a nice touch in Sigmund Freud as an expert collaborator with Holmes. Actually, Freud is more than mere collaborator; he “cures” Holmes of his drug addiction and his hostile fantasies about Professor Moriarty, who it turns out had both tutored him and informed the detective of the scandalous truth about his parents. The mystery in this book is secondary to the characters.

The seventies was certainly a prime time for Professor James Moriarty. In the same year as The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, British writer John Gardner brought out The Return of Moriarty. In this work and its two successors, Gardner created an arch-nemesis of crime who was not to be confused with his younger brother, who was the Professor. And in 1978 Michael Kurland wrote the best-selling The Infernal Device, the first of a number of Moriarty books that included one published as late as 2014. Kurland’s Moriarty was not a total villain, often acting in collaboration with Sherlock Holmes to prevent some international catastrophe. Moriarty, who originally appeared in only two Holmes stories and was created especially to serve as the explanation for the detective’s death, was in the 1970s expanded by other writers into the master villain familiar to us today. He would appear again as “M” in Alan Moore’s comic book series “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” beginning in 1999. Curiously enough, the poet T. S. Eliot, who was a Holmes fan, used Moriarty as the model for Macavity, the “Napoleon of Crime” in his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which in turn served as the basis for the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical Cats, opening in London in 1981 and on Broadway in 1982. And it turns out that Thursday Next’s uncle, in the best-selling series written by Jasper Fforde, is the same Professor James Moriarty.

Moriarty is one of the first of the minor characters to receive an expanded treatment by the pastichers. The next was Inspector G. Lestrade (Watson never gives him a first name), who appeared in thirteen Holmes stories and was one of the major Scotland Yard characters in the series. Lestrade was described by Watson/Doyle is a thin ferret-faced little man, who was hard-working but limited in imagination. Nevertheless, he and Inspector Gregson were regarded by Sherlock as the best of a bad bunch, and he was not a stupid bumbler, which is the way he has been often presented. In 1985 British writer M. J. Trow published the first in a long series (sixteen books, ending in 1995) featuring a Lestrade who was perfectly competent even when operating without Holmes to provide him with inspiration. Trow gave Lestrade a first name –Sholto – and a family. Unfortunately, the books did not often travel to North America ,and we have only infrequently had one in the shop.

Prior to 1990 precious little appeared on the Holmes front involving the distaff side. Dr. Watson was married, while Holmes was not. Women appeared in the canon chiefly as victims. There was one woman that Holmes took seriously Irene Adler, who appeared in one story, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, although she is mentioned in passing in several others as the only woman Sherlock Holmes took seriously. His interest in her, it is made clear, is intellectual. But otherwise, nada. It was probably no accident that the first Holmes female to get her own fictional series appeared only a year before women were admitted to the Baker Street Irregulars. In 1990 American writer Carole Nelson Douglas published Good Night Mr. Holmes, a novel which fleshed out Irene Adler and brought her to life. Building on Conan Doyle’s creation of Irene as an American adventuress, Douglas gives her a backstory as actress and opera singer as well as detective who operates mainly in Europe. There are eight Adler novels, the last appearing in 2004. Collectors should beware, since several of the books are retitled in reprinting.

“Mary Russell walked into my life with the first line of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and took over. At the time, I had little knowledge of the Great War, England in the Twenties, or Sherlock Holmes, but that didn’t seem to matter to her, she just waited (graciously stifling her impatience) for me to catch up.” Thus author Laurie R. King explained her creation of Mary Russell in 1994. Mary was only fifteen at the time she first met Sherlock Holmes, who had retired to keep bees on the Suffolk Downs, but the two got along famously and eventually married. The series they share has been a long-lasting one, extending to thirteen novels by 2012.


Completing the list of minor female Sherlockian characters is Mrs. Hudson, another person with no known first name in the canon. Given the Christian moniker of “Emma”, Mrs. Hudson appears in four books written by Ontario author Sydney Hosier, published between 1996 and 1998. Mrs. H writes in the first person, and solves crimes her illustrious tenant is too busy to consider. Readers can interpret the limited run of the series in whatever way they wish.

A year after Mrs. Hudson first appeared in print authors Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Bill Fawcett, writing as Quinn Fawcett, began a series featuring Sherlock’s elder brother Mycroft. The first title was Against the Brotherhood, and it was succeeded by three others, with the series terminating in 2000. Mycroft Holmes, of course, was even more brilliant than his brother, but also more lacking in energy. As befits his canonical association with the Foreign Office, the books in which he features are mostly about espionage and international intrigue. Like the Mrs. Hudson books, these do not often reach North America.

Up to this point we have considered books which have been direct spinoffs from the Doyle canon. The list of minor characters created by A. C. Doyle has by no means been exhausted, but the fate of the Mrs. Hudson and Mycroft Holmes series (four and out) suggests that a new approach was needed in Holmes derivatives. This fresh look was certainly provided by Michael Robertson in a series that debuted in 2009 and has reached its fourth novel with no sign of tiring. Unlike most Holmes pastiche, the “Baker Street Letters” series does not attempt to imitate the canon. Instead, it picks up on the Holmes address and moves it into the twenty-first century. The premise of the series is that two lawyer brothers share the tenancy of 221B Baker Street. One of the conditions of the tenancy is that they must receive – and answer – all the correspondence which is still sent to Sherlock Holmes at his familiar address. This correspondence inevitably leads them in complex criminous directions. And Bob’s your uncle! This approach to Sherlockian spinoff seems a lot more promising than resurrecting another minor figure from the canon.

If we added the various and many Sherlockian items on the television to our list, we would have an even more massive collection of derivatives. Curiously enough, there are still new ideas to be explored.

[Note: the best collection of Sherlock Holmes material in the world is held 450 miles to the south of Winnipeg, in the University of Minnesota Library. The Sherlock Holmes Collection there runs to over 60,000 items, covering all forms of media, and is well worth a visit when in the Twin Cities area.]

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