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Sherlock Holmes

SHERLOCK HOLMES . . . Personation, pastiche and parody

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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.

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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.

Ellery-Queen-Sherlock-Holmes-Versus-Jack-TheThe 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.

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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:-

Seven_Percent_Solution_first_edition_US“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.

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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.

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Riviera Gold

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I haven’t written one of my The Postman Delivers features for a while – because he hasn’t! I don’t know about other reviewers, but while my Kindle is pretty much bursting at the seams, print copies have been like hens’ teeth since The Great Lockdown began back in March.

But today a real book arrived, reassuringly solid, with a beautifully designed cover and actual pages to turn. The Mary Russell series, written by Laurie R. King, is apparently a big seller in the States, but although this is the sixteenth, the books have passed me by up until today.

It is 1925, and we are in the exotic and sun-soaked French Riviera and amateur detective Mary Russell is teamed up with the man himself, none other than Sherlock Holmes who must be fairly elderly by now!

What the pair get up to is, for now, a mystery, but I have bumped it to the top of my (mostly digital) TBR pile and when I have discovered what is going on, you will be the first to know.

Riviera Gold is published by Allison & Busby, and is out now.

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THE TV DETECTIVES . . . Part three

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The final five in my personal list of the best twenty five British TV detectives all have one thing in common, and it is that they were dominated by bravura performances from the lead characters. Of course the other twenty actors, Helen Mirren, George Baker, Rupert Davies et al were good – maybe even excellent – but these five were in a different league.

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A big man, playing an outsize role – that was Robbie Coltrane’s portrayal of Eddie ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, the criminal psychologist whose astonishing powers of analysis gave him the nickname Cracker. Fitz smoked too much, drank too much, gambled way, way too much; in so many ways, especially for his long suffering wife (Barbara Flynn) and the police officers who employed him (Christopher Eccleston and Geraldine Somerville), the overweight and overbearing Scotsman simply was too much. Cracker was no Sunday evening show to snuggle up with; it was brutal, bleak and frequently uncomfortable viewing, featuring some genuinely disturbed and disturbing criminals, perhaps none more so than the truly frightful Albie Kinsella (Robert Carlyle). There were three series between 1993 and 1995, with two specials in 1996 and 2006. The series was set in Manchester, but the initial writing by Jimmy McGovern, and the inclusion of such actors as Ricky Tomlinson somehow gave the shows a Liverpool mood. This was never more evident than the episodes featuring the murderous Kinsella, who claimed that much of his rage was fuelled by the injustices which followed the Hillsborough disaster. There were moments of bitter humour, particularly in the exchanges between Fitz and some of the more unreconstructed coppers:

Jimmy Beck: Shall I tell you why I can’t stand lesbians?
Eddie “Fitz” Fitzgerald: Please.
Jimmy Beck: Queers are OK, as long as I don’t turn my back on you, you’re OK. Two queers doing it, that’s two women going spare. But two lesbians doing it, that’s two men going short.
Eddie “Fitz” Fitzgerald: You can tell he reads The Guardian can’t you?

Four

Fictional detectives can be many things. Some are brutal, some are happily married with stable families, many are embittered, doing a difficult job despite personal heartbreak Few, however, have been poets. One such was Adam Dalgliesh. His creator, PD James not only made him a published and widely respected poet, but also gave him the highest police rank of all my chosen coppers – by the end of the novels he had risen to the rank of Commander in London’s Metropolitan Police. Of the fourteen Dalgliesh novels ten were filmed for ITV, each starring Roy Marsden ans the cerebral detective. Two other novels, Death In Holy Orders and The Murder Room were commissioned by the BBC with Martin Shaw playing Dalgliesh. Marsden was perfect as the slightly old fashioned gentleman detective who, rather like Lord Peter Wimsey, was of independent means, thanks to his wealthy family. Tall, always beautifully dressed and with a studied elegance almost out of keeping with the often brutal deaths he had to investigate, he was a compelling screen presence. Dalgliesh does have romantic relationships with women, but they are usually on his own terms, and characterised by his reluctance to commit himself fully. Althouh the TV adapatations were not always resolutely faithful to the novels, they still retained the original elegance and sense that we were engaging with something rather more profound that a crime fiction potboiler. The series began with Death Of An Expert Witness in 1983 and concluded with A Certain Justice in 1998.

Three

Another suave and quietly spoken detective graced our screens across eight series between 2002 and 2015. Foyle’s War had the benefit of being almost exclusively written by its creator Anthony Horowitz, and the continuity of tone and atmosphere was almost tangible. Michael Kitchen played Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, a policeman operating on the south coast of England during WWII. He is a Great War veteran, a widower, and has a son serving as a pilot in the RAF. Wartime England was not a tranquil oasis of plucky folk all pulling together, keeping calm and ‘carrying on’. Regular criminals rejoiced in the police losing manpower to the armed services and relished the blackout regulations. A new breed of villain emerged – men and women who sought to exploit the stringent austerity regulations imposed by the wartime government. Sometimes Foyle finds these are relatively petty spivs, ‘Wholesale Suppliers’ like Private Walker of Dad’s Army, but on other occasions they are much higher up the food chain – factory bosses or high ranked civil servants. With the rather dour and troubled Sergeant Milner (Anthony Howell) at his side, and ferried everywhere by Samantha Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) with her ‘jolly hockey sticks’ charm, Foyle is frequently underestimated by the criminals he pursues, and often viwed with suspicion by his superiors, who suspect him of being a member of ‘the awkward squad’. The final two series saw the end of the war, and Foyle working for MI5, but Kitchen’s impeccable and understated screen presence never faltered. He had a superbly quizzical facial tic, something like a sideways grimace; when he produced that, we always knew that he knew he was being told lies, and it was only a matter of time before he upset the official apple-cart, and had the real crooks under lock and key.

Two

I haven’t made it the basis of my long-deferred PhD thesis, so there is no peer-reviewed data, but there can be no fictional detective with as many stage and screen – and radio – impersonations as Sherlock Holmes. In my lifetime I can name Rathbone, Cushing, Wilmer, Hobbs, Merrison, Gielgud, Plummer, McKellen – and that’s without mentioning the times he was played for laughs, or modernised beyond the pale. Each of these gentlemen brought something different to the role, but for me the late Jeremy Brett will never be bettered. His untimely death in 1994 ended a series which began a decade earlier, but with forty two canonical stories completed his legacy is beyong compare. Why was he so good? Where to start! Purely physically, Brett had the dry and sometimes sardonic voice, the crisp and mannered delivery and the piercing stare. The raised eyebrow, the steepled fingertips and the eyes half-closed in contemplation were, of course, totally studied and practiced, but how effective they were. Brett was rarely called upon to demonstrate Holme’s skill as a pugilist, but nonetheless his movements gave the impression of a man of intense vitality and energy stored like a coiled spring. The wonderful production values did the series no harm at all, neither did the fact that several ‘A’ list actors graced the show with their presence, in particular Colin Jeavons as Lestrade, Eric Porter as Moriarty and Charles Gray as brother Mycroft. Watson? I think that such was Brett’s dominance that it didn’t matter too much who played Watson, and although David Burke and Edward Hardwicke put in perfectly adequate performances, neither would come to be mentioned in the same sense that we look back on Rathbone and Bruce, or Cushing and Stock. Jeremy Brett’s personal life was complex in the extreme, and his deteriorating health became a great challenge as the series reached its premature end. Perhaps it was this personal distress which made viewers of a different and more complex Holmes – a troubled man whose inner conflicts were hidden beneath the icy exterior.

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And so to number one, the nonpareil. Some of my choices – or their positions in the ‘chart’ – will not have met with universal agreement, but that is fine. This, and any other ‘best of’ feature is never going to be based on irrefutable data, or numbers, or scientific evaluation. It’s all about emotional impact, memory, and whichever heart-strings are tugged. I was pointed in the direction of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels when I was an earnest young teacher at a posh preparatory school back in the mid 1970s. Last Bus To Woodstock was still relatively hot off the press and – thank God for public libraries – I followed the progress of the quirky Oxford copper into the 1980s. When TV finally caught up with the reading public, and commissioned The Dead of Jericho, broadcast in January 1987, it was a revelation. In my mind’s eye I saw Morse as being a rather younger version of his creator, but here was a revelation. John Thaw was already a TV star, but gone was the brash violence, snarling cockney slang and horribly flared trousers of The Sweeney. Instead, we were shown a private, circumspect and conflicted man. Sometimes uncomfortable in company, but bolstered professionally – and sometimes personally – by the down-to-earth solidity of Sergeant Robbie Lewis, Morse was a genuine one-off. Apparently from a humble background, his intellect encompassed rattling through The Times crossword, a love of the divine music of Mozart and Wagner and a ‘cleverness’ which made him a constant irritant to Chief Superintendent Strange, memorably played by James Grout. This will be controversial, but I contend that John Thaw took the character of Colin Dexter’s Morse and shifted it from being simply memorable, to being immortal. A screen version better than the original book? I can already hear cries of ‘heretic!’, ‘burn him!’. Sorry, but I will approach my funeral pyre with my head held high. Thaw’s Morse will live for ever in my memory, whether cruising around the streets of Oxford in his blissful red Jaguar, or hunkered down over a decent pint trying to explain something to the slightly dim Lewis (beautifully imagined by Kevin Whately) or – most memorably, alone in his house with a glass of single malt in his hand, pondering the imponderable with, perhaps, Siegfried’s funeral music from Götterdämmerung playing in the background. Nothing will ever cap this for me and, for what it’s worth I can still hum every bar of Barrington Pheloung’s wonderful theme music to what was the best detective series ever broadcast on British television.

READ PARTS ONE AND TWO OF MY BEST TV DETECTIVES
BY CLICKING ON THE IMAGE BELOW

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THE MUSIC OF CRIME FICTION

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This look at how music features as a soundtrack to many crime fiction novels will ignore works which simply have song titles or lyrics as chapter headings, or books which mention various popular songs merely as a device to establish the authenticity of the era in which the action takes place. Also, we will largely leave alone the police procedurals of the maverick Detective Inspector type where the cop in question wears his musical taste not perhaps on his sleeve but certainly on the pages of the narrative. Much to the distaste of most of his colleagues, Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne has a penchant for country music, particularly the lonesome heartbreak of Hank Williams, while his Yorkshire counterpart Alan Banks veers in the more sophisticated direction of niche blues and jazz. Neither of these performs music, however, except perhaps humming along to something on the car music player.

While everyone is familiar with dear old Endeavour Morse, particularly in his John Thaw personification, glumly consoling himself with his precious recordings of Mozart and Wagner, he squeezes in as a performer of music only because of the TV adaptations. In the novel The Dead of Jericho (1981) he meets the soon-to-be-murdered Anne Scott at a party, but the TV version has them both as members of an Oxford choir.

Death and the MaidenColin Dexter’s stories of the wonderful curmudgeon are among the widest read in the last quarter of the 20th century, but less well known are the Vienna-set novels of Frank Tallis featuring policeman Oskar Rheinhardt and his young pyschiatrist friend Dr Max Liebermann. The younger man often plays piano for Rheinhardt melodic baritone as they seek solace from the stresses and strains of catching murderers.

Not only are the pair devotees of their sublime fellow townsman Schubert, but Death And The Maiden (2011) actually features a walk-on part by none other than Gustave Mahler, as Liebermann and Rheinhardt track down the killer of a diva from The State Opera. Among other police officers and investigators who can do rather more than knock out a tune we must include James Patterson’s prolific profiler Alex Cross who, when the mood takes him, plays a mean jazz piano. The violin offers our own Sherlock Holmes a more healthy alternative stimulus to one, two or even three pipes of his favourite tobacco, or a syringe full of his opiate of choice. In A Study In Scarlet we learn:

“His powers upon the violin were very remarkable, but as eccentric as all his other accomplishments. When left to himself he would seldom produce any music or attempt any recognised air ….he would scrape carelessly at the fiddle which was thrown across his knee.”

In the next movement we will hear of the embittered intelligence operative who not only plays a mean Fender Stratocaster, but also owns a jazz/blues club in London.

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