Soon after his first short story appearance in 1891, Sherlock Holmes became a phenomenon. The first parodies, by JM Barrie and Robert Barr (friends of Arthur Conan Doyle), were published within months, and dozens of light-hearted short parodies and pastiches continued to appear regularly in magazines for the next twenty years or so.
Conan Doyle’s final Holmes story appeared in 1927, and Conan Doyle himself died in 1930. From about 1940 “new adventures” by Holmesian specialists began to appear, fitfully, in magazines and private printings. More so than earlier pastiches, these tended to keep closely to the fictional world established by Conan Doyle. A selection of these tales was later collected in “The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1985), edited by Richard Lancelyn Green.
Conan Doyle’s copyright of his works originally lasted for fifty years after the author’s death. These rights were jealously guarded by the Conan Doyle Estate, in the person of Adrian Doyle, the author’s youngest son (above). So it’s no surprise that he should be involved in the publication of the first authorised Holmes pastiches. These “Exploits of Sherlock Holmes” (1954) comprise twelve cases mentioned but never recorded in the original stories. They were to be written by Doyle and mystery writer John Dickson Carr, but Carr fell ill after writing (or co-writing) six tales, and the remainder were written by Doyle alone.
Looking at the Exploits, it’s clear that the stories plotted by Carr are extremely imaginative. Carr was the master of the locked room mystery and he re-used ideas from his earlier writings here. The six stories by Adrian Doyle are closer to the language of the original Holmes stories. However, they are also closer in plot; each of the tales has taken its main story line from one of the Holmes adventures written by Conan Doyle. That said, it remains an enjoyable collection. Both men realised that the strength of the Holmes legacy lay in the short stories, which were generally superior to the novels.
The next pastiches were the by-product of two Sherlock Holmes films.
The first, Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper, by ‘Ellery Queen’ was published in 1967. This was a novelisation of the screenplay of ‘A Study in Terror’, co-produced by Sir Nigel Films Limited, a company formed by the Estate to exploit Conan Doyle’s works on screen. The book added a framing story wherein Ellery Queen reads a manuscript (written by Dr Watson) which sets out the action shown in the film. Queen then applies his own detective skills to ascertain whether Holmes correctly identified the Ripper. The Ripper section of the book was the work of pulp writer Paul Fairman, and the Ellery Queen part by presumably ‘Ellery Queen’ himself. An early line of Dr Watson’s narrative reads:
“It was a crisp morning in the fall of the year 1888″:
A warning for American writers attempting this sort of thing.
Next, in 1970, came The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a novelisation (by Michael and Mollie Hardwick) of the screenplay of Billy Wilder’s film of the same name. Again, produced in association with Sir Nigel Films. Wilder called the screenplay respectful but not reverential. The film was much cut by the studio before its release, and the resulting story is unwieldy and at times near parody. All this is reflected in the book. Still, some say it captures the Holmesian atmosphere reasonably faithfully.
The early 1970s saw a growing interest in Victorian/Edwardian detective fiction, and with Sherlock Holmes in particular. The Estate was aware that its copyrights would expire at the end of 1980, and authorised a number of Holmes pastiches (for which they took a share of the sale proceeds).
The first was Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Percent Solution (1974). A contemporary review states:-
“The story is couched as an alternative explanation for the period between Holmes’s supposed death at the hands of Moriarty (‘The Final Problem’) and his resurrection (‘The Empty House’). The hiatus which began with Holmes drying out extends into a case involving a pasha, a baron and a red headed temptress, during which Holmes instructs Freud in the mechanics of detection and gives some advice about the meaning of dreams.”
This highly successful novel is influential for two reasons. It’s the first story to mix Sherlock Holmes with real historical figures – in this case Sigmund Freud in 1890s Vienna – a plot device which has formed the dubious basis of countless tales since; and it’s the first book to question the accepted facts of the canon. Nicholas Meyer would develop both these themes in his second Holmes pastiche The West End Horror (1976), set in London’s 1890’s theatreland.
Now the gates had opened. 1977/8 saw the publication of Loren D Estleman’s Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula, Robert Lee Hall’s Exit Sherlock Holmes, and Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story. The first is a re-telling of a Dracula legend, with Holmes involved in the investigation; the second a Moriarty Lives! tale with elements of science fiction in the conclusion, and the last a return to the world of Jack the Ripper. These novels can best be described as adventure stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, rather than Sherlock Holmes stories. None of them were bestsellers, but they have all been reprinted over the years and have in turn inspired many more variations on these themes.
A few years earlier, another promising seam was opened with the publication of The Return of Moriarty by John Gardner; the first of what now seems an never-ending series of books by various hacks featuring subsidiary characters from the canon.
Finally, to top off the decade’s continuing fascination with all things Holmesian, 1979 saw the release of the film Murder by Decree – a grafting of Sherlock Holmes onto Steven Knight’s then popular Freemasonry/Ripper theories. A novelisation of the screenplay duly followed.
Now seems a convenient place to stop. By December 1980 when the Doyle copyrights initially expired (they were extended to 2000 a few years later) almost all the elements of the present day copyright-free Sherlock Holmes industry were in place. For good or ill, all had been authorised by the Conan Doyle Estate.
From now on, almost all the pastiches were in the form of novels (short stories required too much work, and didn’t sell).
This presented a problem. The original Holmes novels are structurally flawed; the author cannot present a very intelligent central character with a case to solve, and then have that character take two hundred pages to solve it without making him look slow or obtuse. Sub-plots, or a back story, must be introduced to fill the pages. This is why the genius of Holmes (and Doyle) is best seen in the short stories.
Conan Doyle only once solved this conundrum – with The Hound of the Baskervilles – the pasticheurs never have.