"As a rule, the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be."

>> Friday, December 14, 2007

Lately at dinner, I've been reading a big hardbound edition of Sherlock Holmes stories with the original Sydney Paget illustrations from The Strand. Re-reading, actually, although I think the volume might contain one or two tales I missed when I first devoured the Holmes stories 20-25 years ago. It was a big book on the discount table at a Books-A-Million, and although it's one of those inexpensive, massive compilations similar to the old Avenels you could get through the 1980s, I thought it would be nice to have something sturdier than my tattered old paperbacks, and with those glorious illustrations, too. I also thought when I bought it--and here I was thwarted by my failure to look closely at the contents--that the book might have "A Study In Scarlet" and "The Sign Of Four," which I haven't read in forever and don't own; instead, it turned out I already owned three-quarters of the material. But for the price, hey, it was worth it for the pictures, the sturdy cover, and the 25% I didn't have.

Anyway, I've been re-reading Holmes and thinking a bit about the fuss over fanfic that I blogged about yesterday. And of course there's a connection: Sherlock Holmes is one of the most revisited characters in contemporary literature, with various novelists and screenwriters regularly giving us their take on the character. We've had Sherlock Holmes as a smitten teen and Sherlock Holmes as an eccentric old man fighting bouts of forgetfulness. Holmes in therapy. Holmes in space. Holmes as a villain. Holmes as an incompetent jackass fronting for the brilliant Watson. Holmes saving the world from eldrich horrors.


It's not a tough problem, but I suspect it gives an insight into why people might write and publish fanfic. So allow me to suggest three reasons people won't leave Holmes alone:

He's An Interesting Dude

If Hercule Poirot ever falls into the public domain, I suspect we'll see a few Poirot pastiches, but not many. Because Hercule Poirot is a quirky character, but not an interesting character. Don't get me wrong: I went through a lengthy Agatha Christie phase in my youth and I still consider Murder On The Orient Express to be one of the best locked room mysteries written. (They even made a good movie out of it with few changes, what does that tell you?) But boil it down and Poirot is an accent and some catchphrases.

Holmes is socially dysfunctional, almost as if he has Asperger Syndrome or something. He's a junkie. He make grandiose pronouncements about someone being "the fourth smartest man in London" in a manner that indicates he knows what the hell he's talking about. And yet, at other times, he seems to have an amazing lack of pretension--he often seems to be entirely outside the Victorian British caste system. He's capable of doing almost anything except, it seems, love. For all his social deficiencies, he forms a lifelong friendship and loyalty with Watson. And speaking of Watson: one of the most fascinating things about Holmes might be that he's a "Mary Sue" character who isn't Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Mary Sue"--Doyle's surrogate in the stories is Watson, the competent but ordinary schlub in awe of Holmes' abilities.

He's a great character to write, in other words.

He Lives In An Interesting Era

Gaslit, Victorian London. It's an interesting-looking era. Interesting things were happening. Hence, there's still a fascination with the age that shows up in some circles: e.g. steampunk or goth fashion.

You can hit me for saying this: it's an age that's alien and familiar. The London post and telegraph provide instantaneous communications... that can take all day to deliver. There's rapid transit that can take you across town in minutes... that requires horses. International travel is fast and convenient... by train and steamship. Educated men have vast repositories of human knowledge right at their fingertips... in the form of gazetteers and encyclopedias. Mass entertainment reaches thousands and superstars are thronged by hordes of adoring fans... at music halls and opera houses.

It's modern... and retro.

And Holmes' contemporaries at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, real and imagined, include Freud, Dracula, Jack The Ripper, Tesla, Edison, Hitler, Teddy Roosevelt, Einstein, Wells, Wilde... the list can go on and on....

Holmes and his German patent-clerk friend Albert versus a newly-risen Dracula? It almost writes itself.

Just Who Did You Think You Were Fooling With Your Brilliant Master Detective And His Less-Savvy Sidekick?

A common complaint I've seen in the exchange on Scalzi's blog is "why don't these people create their own worlds and characters?" Which seems reasonable. I prefer doing the same thing myself, partly out of laziness: inventing new things is much easier than researching existing ones. You write a Buffy fanfic and put it on the internet, I can only imagine you're risking irate comments from critics pointing out that you obviously contradicted season 3, episode 7 and didn't listen to the commentary tracks on the season 6 DVDs.

But there can be a problem with trying to invent--or reinvent, really--certain things. If you write a story about an intellectual super-detective and his narrating sidekick, you know what people are going to instantly compare it to? Go on, take a wild guess.

And if you're setting your story any time between 1870 and 1920, give or take a decade-or-so, you know you might as well just give up and name your characters "Holmes" and "Watson." Because everybody who reads your story is going to do that anyway. And even if your story is set in some other era, you're probably going to have to acknowledge the resemblance somehow. So who did you think you were going to fool?

Apply those premises to the Potterverse or Star Trek, and I think you end up with similar conclusions. E.g. Kirk and Spock might be interesting to write, Trek can be an interesting setting, and is there a point in creating your own Hornblower-esque Captain on a futuristic spaceship if everyone is going to compare it to Trek, regardless?

Write a Holmes story, and nobody's likely to complain much. Maybe some Holmes fan-club members. Even if you take liberties with the characters--say you write a story in which Holmes and Watson are lovers, or in which Holmes is a Martian--the highest consideration is likely to be whether your story is good, not whether it's canonical. Aside from the current state of IP law, I've yet to see a persuasive argument as to why contemporary characters and settings are different--why it's wrong to write a Rowling pastiche, as opposed to why it might be illegal.


Lis Riba Thursday, December 20, 2007 at 7:36:00 PM EST  

In your list of variant Holmes, don't forget Laurie King's Mary Russell series, published from 1994 - 2005 (and I don't know if more are on the way; I stopped reading after the 3rd).

The character definitely flirts with being a Mary Sue -- whether I'd categorize them as such depends how generous I'm feeling. [Then again, I consider Virgil's Aeneid to be Homeric Gary Stu.]

Eric Thursday, December 20, 2007 at 8:32:00 PM EST  

I regret to say I haven't read those. Are they any good?

I'd hasten to add that my list wasn't anywhere near comprehensive, which maybe is part of the point: hundreds of authors have taken their shot at Holmes in almost every media you could think of, and nobody derides the work as being "uncreative"--the only judgment is whether or not it's good. Nobody ever says "Why didn't you invent your own super-sleuth?" (Almost the opposite occurs: invent your own super-sleuth, and you inevitably invite a comparison to Holmes.)

It doesn't seem to me that there's a material difference in someone writing Sherlock Holmes stories vs. someone writing Harry Potter stories--there may be a difference in whether the thing can be published, but that's a different subject--legality as opposed to legitimacy.

Over in the comments on Scalzi's blog, some posters wondered why anyone would write ______ fanfic: I'm not a fanficcer, but I suspect they do it for some of the same reasons I list for Holmes fictions: interesting characters, interesting settings,and the "who are we kidding" issue (if you're going to write about a boy wizard at wizard boarding school, you almost might as well just go ahead and call him "Harry Potter," it's not like people won't notice).

Lis Riba Thursday, December 20, 2007 at 10:31:00 PM EST  

Like I said, I read the early books in the series and then lost interest.

The idea is that Holmes existed, but Watson's stories made him out to be older than he really was. The series begins in 1915, with 15-year-old Mary Russell discovering the famous detective is her neighbor. She's a rather sharp cookie herself, and, well, mysteries happen. I'll say no more to avoid spoilers.

Now, I read more than I write, but re: your last paragraph, one other important reason: community. First of all, writers/artists have a built-in audience for (hopefully) immediate feedback. No interminable wait for a submission/editorial/publication process before attracting notice from readers. And it's very much a gift economy; right now my reading list is overflowing with postings from organized holiday exchanges.

I happen to follow Harry Potter fandom, and after each book came out, everybody was sharing their interpretations of different scenes, and how such-and-such character was portrayed and reading into the gaps in JKR's narrative. [You wouldn't believe the number of essays written between Books 6 and 7 about Snape: good or evil] And some of these discussions inspired fics. It's not that big a leap from speculation to actually filling in the missing scenes.
And, of course, once you have this community and shared knowledge, you get injokes and playfulness.

I'd go on, but it's late and I'm rambling.

Lis Riba Saturday, December 22, 2007 at 4:10:00 PM EST  

Oh, one further take on Holmes for you: were you aware the TV show House M.D. is supposed to be a modern updating of Holmes, with the brilliant deductions focused around medicine rather than crime. He pals around with Dr. Wilson, instead of Watson, but has been shown to live in apartment 221B.

Eric Saturday, December 22, 2007 at 4:24:00 PM EST  

Heh! That's cool: I'm not a fan of House, but I'll give them credit for the Holmes references.

I've heard the show's gotten better since I last saw it back in its first or second season, when every episode seemed to be virtually identical. (Since moving two years ago, I've never bothered getting cable and have found I don't seem to miss anything, aside from the fact that I have to wait and wait and wait for Galactica seasons to come out on DVD or get my New Doctor Who fix from... [ahem!] "slightly less than completely legitimate online sources" [koff!], assuming, of course, that I've hypothetically seen any of those episodes, which I possibly haven't in any official sense [choke!]. I admit nothing.)

Lis Riba Sunday, December 23, 2007 at 7:14:00 PM EST  

Yay! Another cable TV dropout.

When we moved to our current house, we got cable modem service, but decided to wait on the TV channels. Sure, there are some shows I wish I could see, but nothing that could quite justify the monthly costs.

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