Even the written line – especially if it’s handwritten – looks like a dash across the page, as if in a hurry to catch something or be somewhere.
We’re chasing a thought, an idea, or perhaps the mot juste. It could be a phrase, or just sense of something that’s tantalisingly out of reach.
It’s as if you’ve spotted someone ahead you faintly recognise. You try and catch up, yet fail to close the distance. Perhaps this person has something for you; the thing you’ve been searching for.
I often find myself chasing the perfect poem. And at the same time, puzzling over what that might be, or whether I should be chasing it all. Is it a foolish – even infantile notion? Or somehow vital to becoming a better poet?
Invariably, I’ll recognise within a line or two, that it’s not the perfect poem – but press on, in the hope it’s still worth persisting with. We accept a sort of compromise; a certain lowering of expectations, that it’s not our Bridport winning entry but not hack work either.
Often we’ll enter some sort of delusional pact with ourselves. We’ll mute our reader-self, and allow the writer to press ahead, even if if we know it’s pedestrian work. We’ll have the good grace to let them have a go at least.
We know in ourselves we can make it better through revision. By unpacking our tools and chipping away, we work until it passes that invisible threshold of ‘muster’ that makes it a keeper; until it resembles something that cuts our own personal mustard.
Sometimes we won’t go for perfection. Imagine an architect biting on her Ryvita, making sketches for a multi-storey car park. She knows in advance it’s not going to be the Taj Mahal. But at the top of her game, she still might still stumble on a sort of perfect car park. But she’s already adjusted her ambitions before setting off. But at home, that night, she might pour herself a drink, pick up clean sheet of paper and a 2H pencil and start sketching the graceful arcs of a concert hall. In that moment, she’s reaching for something greater. She’s chasing a sort of perfection.
Of course, the idea of perfection in art has been almost universally rubbished (you’ll remember the scene in Dead Poet’s Society when Robin Williams ridicules Mr J. Evans Pritchard PHD’s graph of greatness, as if a perfect poem can be reduced to a mathematical equation: ‘A sonnet by Byron might score high on the vertical but only average on the horizontal…’
‘Excrement. That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. We’re not laying pipe. We’re talking about poetry. ‘Oh, I like Byron. I give him a 42, but I can’t dance to it…’
The implication is that magic; verve; spirit – whatever you want to call it – a certain visionary quality is what makes the difference, not syllable counting or benchmarking against stated objectives.
Having gained popularity in the 18th century, the concept of perfection in art lost ground in the 19th before finally being scrunched up and tossed out of the window by French poet Alfred de Musset who declared: ‘Perfection is no more attainable for us than is infinity.’ But was this a case of sour grapes? Perhaps he realised perfection simply wasn’t within his grasp. Rimbaud dismissed de Musset, saying he ‘closed his eyes before the vision.’ Rimbaud’s implication is that we need to make ourselves receptive to a higher state – like Coleridge downloading Khubla Khan from the muse, channeling his visions of Xanadu.
Today, more pedestrian concepts of technical skill, emotional resonance, and originality persist as barometers of excellence. Yet the idea of a poem’s perfection persists on a subconscious level at least for anyone with a good idea and a word processor.
I once had a dream of holding three or four pages of poems that I’d written. All the poems were quite short – none much longer than a sonnet. I remember my sense of sheer delight with them; they had a luminosity to them. Each had a sort of perfection.
I remember the feeling that they had a sort of lightness, detail and delicacy that set them apart from anything else I’d written. A sort of precious quality. I remember a sense of completeness, as if the chase was over – as if I’d caught up with that person and found – or even retrieved – what I’d been looking for. It was a feeling of relief.
Except I hadn’t written them. None of them existed and I couldn’t remember a word when I woke up. Only the shape and the sense of them. The chase wasn’t over. In fact it had only made the longing more acute. Having glimpsed this perfection, but with complete amnesia as to the words themselves, I was no closer to finding it. One might attribute this psychological ‘chase’ to a creative impulse – the desire to make; the Victorian urge to pile red brick on red brick. An evolutionary trick to keep you working. Keep you trying.
We all have our own ideas of perfection. I think Keith Douglas is close with How to Kill; surely Byron was near to getting Robin Williams to dance with Ozymandias. Both of these poems are touched by a curious magic; each line fits in the memory as perfectly as a sea-smoothed stone sits in the palm of your hand. Sifting through my own work I can see where I’ve achieved what I’ve set out to do – and then somehow gone beyond. And it’s only in these moments of creative liberation, where I’ve taken my hands off the handlebars (and somehow managed not to veer off the path) that I’ve somehow reached somewhere beyond, and transcended my own powers.
Sometimes we’ll have the start of what looks like it could be the perfect poem. Often this is a brilliantly strong idea or first line so good it’s as if its got its own energy source. It’s demanding to be developed, extended and explored. It would be a crime not to do something with it.
You can imagine, Wordsworth when he hit upon: ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud…’ I wonder whether at once he felt his pulse quicken; whether he called Dorothy in from the next room to check he hadn’t pinched it (perhaps she was too loyal to point out it sounded remarkably like a line from her own journal). This might be described as his ‘Yesterday moment’ – when Paul McCartney opened his eyes with that indelible melody in his head.
Wordsworth might have felt a responsibility towards that line – a duty to develop it. The same with Keats’ Ode to Autumn. The bar is set high from the outset. The opening line is a gift to set the poem’s heart beating, but how to sustain that sort of quality? Immediately the poet moves from inspiration to perspiration. The pressure’s on to make the poem as brilliant as the opening line. There’s a risk of trying too hard – or even trying to compete with yourself; ‘the ‘other poet’ – ‘the better poet in you’ – who came up with that line.
I think that’s why I think we should seek out the great poets’ second best poems. Don’t go for Howl; try Ginsberg’s A Supermarket in California instead.
‘Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?’
The pressure’s off here. It’s 1956. He’s on incredible form, but he’s writing what he wants. He’s not having to follow up an opening line of genius like: ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…’ Instead he’s in the flow state; he’s ‘opened his eyes to the vision’ in Rimbaud’s phrase.
I wonder whether Ginsberg had a moment of self-doubt afterwards, staring at the words on the page; was it little more than an inspired diary entry? It’s imperfections; its sprawl; the stacks of adjectives piled like tins on the shelf, are what make it perfect.
Is it useful to frame writing poetry in this way? To think of it as a Chaplin-esque chase through a crowded city street? Or The Wile. E. Coyote’s futile pursuit of the Road Runner through the canyons with armfuls of TNT?
Whether it is or not, the chase adds a sort of urgency to our writing life; a persistent, questing quality. Even if we never find that perfect poem (read it or write it) the chase spurs us on. Writing is often characterised as a struggle, perhaps even a noble one. And lest we forget, poets are ultimately lost causes. Whatever it is we’re looking for, we can’t help but keep chasing it.
For those too impatient to find out what happens at the end of the chase, let’s seek answers from Kaveh Akbar’s, The Perfect Poem
The perfect poem knows where it went.
The perfect poem is no bigger than a bear…
…The perfect poem is light as dust on a bat’s wing, lonely as a single flea.
Christopher James’ new pamphlet: The Storm in the Piano (Maytree Press), including four first prize winning poems, and three second prize winning poems, is published on 17 June 2022. Signed copies available from the author.
Sherlock Holmes: The man who never lived and will never die. The poster boy of Victorian fiction, doyen of the great detectives. But who was he? Who is he, besides a Hollywood star and fixture of Christmas Day TV schedules? Why does he command such a loyal following even now, a hundred and thirty years on since he first appeared in A Study in Scarlett?
I present here, a fresh new case: The Adventure of the Imaginary Detective. Together, will be looking for clues and carefully sifting through the facts. By the end I hope we will have reached a satisfactory conclusion. But for now, I would ask that you all remain within this room until the case is resolved.
Now it is impossible to imagine the outcry that followed the death of Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem. The Victorians wore black arm bands in the street. The national newspapers ran obituaries. 20,000 people cancelled their subscription to the Strand magazine. Except perhaps for the break up of The Beatles, there is no modern equivalent. To his fans, he was fully alive, leaping off the page, and glowing as brightly as the tobacco in his famous pipe bowl. This insatiable public appetite for Holmes perhaps was ultimately the reason why he eventually returned, never to leave us again.
But there is so much more to Holmes that the two-dimensional sleuth of popular culture. The Holmes of the original canon, the fifty six stories and four novellas, which we will confine ourselves to here, is a surprising, complicated and flawed character, foibles that only serve to make him more attractive.
‘I’ve found it. I’ve found it!’ These were the first words we hear Holmes utter in that memorable first adventure from 1887, and they echo down the years. They also serve as a manifesto. Holmes finds the solution time and again.
I stumbled into writing Sherlock Holmes fiction almost entirely by accident. My brother rang me up one day asking for a suggestion or a name for his online jewellery shop. I asked him what sort of pieces he had and he told me a about a strange ruby elephant he had acquired from an American collector. I thought for a moment and suggested the name ‘The House of the Ruby Elephant.’ Immediately this sounded to me like the name of Holmes adventure.
A quick internet search however, revealed that Anthony Horowitz had just published his Sherlock Holmes adventure: The House of Silk. I changed mine to The Adventure of the Ruby Elephants, and without so much as a plot, I began my first novel in earnest.
It begins with the escape of an elephant from London Zoo and leads Watson and Holmes on an unlikely search for lost Indian diamonds that leads them to Queen Victoria and the last Maharaja of India via rural Suffolk and Lord’s Cricket Ground.
Along the way, they encounter four sinister characters called the archangels – assassins in top hats and sharpened canes hell-bent on the destruction of Holmes and the acquisition of the diamonds. I’ve since written two more: The Jeweller of Florence, and published just last month The Adventure of the Beer Barons.
In this blog, we will learn only about the man. We will find out where he came from. We will meet his friends and his enemies. We will study his methods and try and think like him. But before we begin our investigations, a word of warning, from Holmes himself:
“It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.“
So let us not speculate, but acquire our data first, and by the only means Holmes would approve: by scrupulous observation.
The precursor to Holmes
Let us first consider his origins. Sherlock Holmes did not of course simply pop out of thin air, fully formed.
Now there are many who believe, or choose to believe, that Holmes was in fact quite real. And who am I to say they’re wrong? Was he just a figment of Dr Watson’s imagination? However most agree that Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was his creator.
Born in 1859, Conan Doyle (No hyphen) was 38 when the first Holmes story was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. As well as a writer of prose fiction, he was a poet, a playwright, a spiritualist and trained doctor, suggestive of course, of Dr Watson’s occupation. He was well travelled having been ship’s doctor on a whaling ship, but in the early 1880s settled down, like Watson to start a general medical practice, first with his friend, and later on his own.
However, and fortunately for us, Conan Doyle’s practice was not a success. With few patients, he filled in time by writing his stories. It is tempting to think that many of the characters that populate the adventures drew their inspiration from his list of patients. We also know he had a rival working around the corner called Dr James Watson.
Now while Conan Doyle proved a writer of great invention, and perhaps genius, he cannot however take credit for inventing the detective fiction genre.
Holmes may be the best remembered, but there were several who came before him and who are now considered the precursors to Sherlock Holmes. There was Inspector Bucket from Dicken’ Bleak House, but the most relevant to our enquiries perhaps was a character called Auguste Dupin, conceived by that master of the gothic, Edgar Allen Poe.
Dupin is now almost completely forgotten, eclipsed by the blinding light of Sherlock Holmes’ fame. Yet he reflects many of the qualities we later come to associate with Holmes. He is reclusive, eccentric and follows a rigorously scientific method. He has a superior manner, divorces himself from his emotions and regularly reveals the incompetence of the police. Does that sound familiar yet? If that’s not all, he also has a side kick who becomes the narrator of his stories.
Dupin’s first appearance came in 1841 in the Murders in La Rue Morgue, a full 46 years before A Study in Scarlett in 1887. I’d like to read you a little bit to give you a taste of Dupin and his methods:
Residing in Paris during the spring and part of the summer of 1840, I there became acquainted with a Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin. This young gentleman was of an excellent—indeed of an illustrious family, but, by a variety of untoward events, had been reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it.
Our first meeting was at an obscure library in La Rue Montmartre, where the accident of our both being in search of the same very rare and very remarkable volume, brought us into closer communion. We saw each other again and again. I was deeply interested in the little family history which he detailed to me with all that candor which a Frenchman indulges whenever mere self is his theme. I was astonished, too, at the vast extent of his reading; and, above all, I felt my soul enkindled within me by the wild fervor, and the vivid freshness of his imagination.
Seeking in Paris the objects I then sought, I felt that the society of such a man would be to me a treasure beyond price; and this feeling I frankly confided to him. It was at length arranged that we should live together during my stay in the city; and as my worldly circumstances were somewhat less embarrassed than his own, I was permitted to be at the expense of renting, and furnishing in a style which suited the rather fantastic gloom of our common temper, a time-eaten and grotesque mansion, long deserted through superstitions into which we did not inquire, and tottering to its fall in a retired and desolate portion of the Faubourg St. Germain.
Had the routine of our life at this place been known to the world, we should have been regarded as madmen—although, perhaps, as madmen of a harmless nature. Our seclusion was perfect. We admitted no visitors. Indeed the locality of our retirement had been carefully kept a secret from my own former associates; and it had been many years since Dupin had ceased to know or be known in Paris. We existed within ourselves alone.
We were strolling one night down a long dirty street in the vicinity of the Palais Royal. Being both, apparently, occupied with thought, neither of us had spoken a syllable for fifteen minutes at least. All at once Dupin broke forth with these words:
“He is a very little fellow, that’s true, and would do better for the Théâtre des Variétés.”
“There can be no doubt of that,” I replied unwittingly, and not at first observing the extraordinary manner in which the speaker had chimed in with my meditations. In an instant afterward I recollected myself, and my astonishment was profound.
“Dupin,” said I, gravely, “this is beyond my comprehension. I do not hesitate to say that I am amazed, and can scarcely credit my senses. How was it possible you should know what I was thinking of?’
“Tell me, for Heaven’s sake,” I exclaimed, “the method—if method there is—by which you have been enabled to fathom my soul in this matter.’
“I will explain,” he said, “and that you may comprehend all clearly, we will first retrace the course of your meditations, from the moment in which I spoke to you until that of the rencontre with the fruiterer in question. The larger links of the chain run thus—Chantilly, Orion, Dr. Nichols, Epicurus, Stereotomy, the street stones, the fruiterer.”
You will note that Dupin has a very similar manner to Holmes, the same apparent gift for reading minds and divining the seemingly impossible. He has the same supercilious way in which he explains his method, based on the twin sciences of observation and deduction.
There is the also same dynamic between the two men as Watson and Holmes; the same balance of power – Dupin superior in intellect, the other dumbfounded by his conclusions.
The story also has a Holmesian ring of strangeness to it. The bodies of two woman are found in a locked upper room – a mother and daughter, one of whom is found in the chimney. There are deep scratches and bruises on their bodies. Shall I tell you how it ends? If not, please skip on. An orang otang belonging to a sailor living close by escapes, climbs up the lightening rod, enters the women’s room and commits the murders.
The story was later made into a film starring Bela Legosi – although as you can see from the poster, they clearly didn’t mind giving the ending away.
The key difference of course between Holmes and Dupin, is that he is a Frenchman and his stomping ground is Paris rather than Baker Street. Transplanting this character to London was a canny move on Conan Doyle’s part, but I think you will agree that he owes something of a debt of gratitude to Edgar Allen Poe.
There was a real-life inspiration too. Joseph Bell was a Scottish surgeon whom Conan Doyle worked for while at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
He was a pioneer in several ways, both in his habits and interests. He was one of the first experts in forensic medicine, helping the police in a number of matters including the notorious Ripper murders. But it was the fact that he based his medical work on close observation, often diagnosing patients based on tiny, almost invisible symptoms that suggests he was a model for Holmes. He would also use his powers of observation and deduction to play games where he would deduce a man’s occupation and character merely by his appearance. You can well imagine Conan Doyle as an impressionable young clerk in thrall to Bell, totally impressed and mystified by the older man’s exceptional skills and masterful manner.
Robert Louis Stevenson, who also worked for Bell wrote to Conan Doyle write to the authors after reading the first Holmes adventure. ‘Why,’ he said, ‘Holmes is based on old Joe Bell!’
So let’s get to know Holmes a little better. I have spent the last five years in the company of Sherlock Holmes. Not in the form of a box-set or with the benefit of the iPlayer but sitting inside 221b Baker Street in my guise of Dr Watson. I have had the opportunity to observe him a close-quarters in his lesser known stories: The Adventure of the Ruby Elephants, The Jeweller of Florence and the Adventure of the Beer Barons. He is infuriating, unpredictable and ferociously intelligent. Indeed the biggest problem writing a Sherlock Holmes adventure is writing about a character who is more intelligent than you are. There have been many instances where I have ceased typing and stopped in astonishment at some utterance or revelation. It is as if I am discovering the solution at the same time as my fictional alter ego.
There are a few unspoken rules when writing Sherlock Holmes’ fiction. First and foremost, you must never kill off Watson, and certainly not Holmes, for the simple reason that it would spoil the fun for everyone else. It’s worth noting that this is not a rule Conan Doyle chose to follow himself.
There are other rules too. You mustn’t tinker with the chronology. You can’t send him off to India in 1890 when we know he was in Devon. If you do set a novel further afield, you need to set it during the great Hiatus, between his supposed death and his return in the adventure of the empty house.
There’s another important rule. In the novels, he is never Sherlock. Always Holmes, except in the company of his brother, where only Mycroft is permitted to address him by his first name. This presents problems for writers who must keep finding new ways to refer to him, without writing the word Holmes on every line. You end up writing many lines such as these: ‘I regarded my friend with a weary affection.’
Now let’s us consider the man and his habits
Holmes the hedonist
Holmes was inordinately fond of his pleasures. For a man famous for his brain work, by the same measure, he did not deny himself the pleasures of the flesh. Let’s look the beginning of The Adventure of the Illustrious Client:
Both Holmes and I had a weakness for the Turkish bath. It was over a smoke in the pleasant lassitude of the drying-room that I have found him less reticent and more human than anywhere else.
This is quite typical of Holmes’ self-indulgence, and there is something of the decadent nineties that pervades all the stories. After all, this is the decade bestrode by Oscar Wilde, who memorably declared: ‘Pleasure is the only thing one should live for. Nothing ages like happiness.’
In the Adventure of the Twisted Lip, Watson finds Holmes in an opium den:
‘I suppose Watson,’ said he, ‘that you imagine I have added opium smoking to cocaine injections and all the other little weaknesses on which you have favoured me with your medical views’ On this occasion, he was in fact on business rather than pleasure.
Then there is Holmes the smoker. Pipes, cigars, cigarettes, loose tobacco. You name it, Holmes smokes it. In fact without the references to smoking, the 670,000 Conan Doyle wrote across the adventures of Sherlock Holmes would be probably be halved. Never was there a worse case of passive smoking than the one suffered by poor Dr Watson. But you see smoking is considered essential to Holmes’ brain work.
“It is quite a three pipe problem,’ he tells Watson. ‘and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.”
Don’t you love the precision of that? He doesn’t know the solution to the problem yet, but he knows exactly how long it will take him to get there.
This is one of my favourite descriptions of Holmes’ habits and its inextricable link with his thought processes:
A large and comfortable double-bedded room had been placed at our disposal, and I was quickly between the sheets, for I was weary after my night of adventure. Sherlock Holmes was a man, however, who when he had an unsolved problem upon his mind would go for days, and even for a week, without rest, turning it over.
He put on a large, blue dressing gown and then wandered around the room collecting pillows from the bed and cushions from the sofa and armchairs. With these he constructed a sort of Easter divan, upon which he perched himself crosses legged with an ounce of shag tobacco and a box of matches laid out in front of him. In the dim light of the lamp, I saw him sitting there, an old brier pipe between his lips, his eyes fixed vacantly upon the corner of the ceiling, the blue smoke curling up from him.
The references are exhaustive, the most famous perhaps being the fact that he kept his tobacco in his Persian slipper and his cigars in the coal scuttle. These are two of the key references for any aspiring writer of Holmes fiction. Leave them out and you will leave the fans disappointed.
Smoking is not confined to quiet moments at Baker Street. Cigar and cigarette ash are often the key to solving cases too and we learn Holmes has written monograms about identifying different types of ash.
Now of course Sherlock Holmes is all about finding solutions. But when there is no case to absorb him, he turns to a solution of quite a different kind. I’m referring of course, to Holmes’ most notorious transgression: the 7 percent solution. Conan Doyle makes no attempt to conceal Holmes’ cocaine use, appearing as it does in in the very first line of The Sign of Four.
Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat Moroccon case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff.
It is hard to imagine even an Irvine Welsh novel beginning in such a brazen way. But he turns to narcotics only when there is no brainwork to be had. It helps him ‘escape from the commonplaces of existence.’
He requires constant stimulation of the mind – and when there is none, he either withdraws to his room, in a funk for days at a time, or reverts to his cocaine use. Indeed it seems quite probable evidence that Holmes was a sufferer from bipolar disorder – susceptible to unpredictable mood swings. One minute he is waking Watson in the dead of night to pursue a suspect through the rain, the next he refuses to leave his room for three days.
For the most part, brainwork dominates the stories. Holmes is not the man depicted in the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Junior version, swinging from chandeliers like Zorro. Notwithstanding several memorable episodes involving bartitsu, an obscure branch of the martial arts, which involves the use of a cane, and a spot of boxing, he is more commonly found in his mouse-coloured dressing gown, slumped in his chair until the small hours losing himself in a problem
Holmes is not merely a brain on a stick. Nor is he some sort of 19th century superhero. He is an unusual combination of both mental and physical prowess.
To anyone thinking of writing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. There is one simple piece of advice. Read all of Conan Doyle’s stories first. Yet it transpires that this is not something Conan Doyle chose to do himself. Despite his obvious mastery of plot and character, the books are full of continuity errors.
The mystery of the three dressing gowns.
Holmes dressing gown is described first as blue, then as purple, then mouse coloured. Conan Doyle clearly had better things to do that go rummaging through his old stories to keep things consistent.
Then there’s Dr Watson. Considering he is one of the two main characters, one would have thought that the author would keep a few notes as an aide memoir. But again, Conan Doyle is hilariously inconsistent. In one story the bullet wound he receives in Afghanistan is in the shoulder. In another it is in the leg. This gives the modern writer a dilemma as to which version he is going to use.
In the Man with the Twisted Lip, Conan Doyle even get his name wrong, with Mary referring to him as James, rather than John. (By the way, did you know that Holmes’ sidekick was originally called Ormond Sacker, before settling on John Watson?) And to keep up with Watson’s marriages is beyond the abilities of most.
There is even a Conan Doyle adventure that is set in the years after Holmes death in his tussle with Moriarty but before his resurrection in the Adventure of the Empty House. But if anything, these errors only add to the charm. And as I have found out myself, there is nothing a true Sherlockian enjoys more than pointing out an error. Indeed some have speculated that this was Conan Doyle’s intention – laying mysteries within mysteries. More likely he was churning out the stories at such a rate he didn’t have time to check them properly.
But what is that really appeals about the stories? Undoubtable, there is something in Holmes’ magnetic charisma and he dynamic between Holmes and Watson. Then there is the remarkably stylish prose, the quick as a whip plotting and Conan Doyle’s unique ability to create a vivid sketch of a character in just a couple of lines. Listen to this description of Inspector Bardle of the Sussex Constabulary — he was ‘a steady, solid, bovine man with thoughtful eyes, which looked at me now with a very troubled expression.’ Just a sentence but you get a very complete sense of his character and appearance. This is a remarkable skill, but an essential one for a writer of short stories.
But it is the alchemy of it all working together that makes it such a success. Yes, the adventures are formulaic, but there is wit and invention in abundance. Above all, there is an unusual facility of the language that elevates these stories above the commonplace. Shakespeare used approximately 28,000 unique words. Conan Doyle uses 35,000. He may have been writing popular fiction, but he saw no reason to compromise the quality of the writing.
So what have we learned about Holmes?
He’s a hedonist and man of action, but whose greatest pleasure is brain work. He’s an eccentric who owns three different coloured dressing gowns. He values friendship but has very few. He is detached from his emotions but is capable of feeling great pride and envy. He is blessed with an unusually brave and loyal friend in Dr Watson.
The stories have endured because of the quality of their writing and ingenious plotting. They are full of glamour and decadence – the Victorians and Edwardians enjoyed them in the same way we enjoy watching a James Bond film. But I think it is for the unique dynamic between Watson and Holmes and the quality of darkness and strangeness that the stories continue to appeal.
So, after 130 years, the Holmes phenomenon show no signs of abating. To spend time in the man’s company is to be constantly delighted and confounded.
But have we proved that Sherlock Holmes was imaginary? I’m not so sure. How often has Holmes told us that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?
So what are the ten things every aspiring Sherlock author needs to write a convincing Holmes novel or short story?
A splendid title, preferably with a colour in it: there are no less than ten adventures in the original canon that feature a colour in the title, from The Adventure of the Yellow Face to The Adventure of the Red Circle.
Some historical knowledge of the year in which your adventure is set. Your friend Wikipedia is the invaluable help.
All 56 Holmes short stories and four longer works. There is simply no point starting until you’ve read all of these. You will just annoy aficionados with your school boy/girl errors..
The MacGuffin – the object, person or idea that the protagonists seek and which drives the plot along. Think Rosebud in Citizen Kane. For your Holmes adventure this could be a suitably curious object of unknown providence. I used eight ruby elephants for my first Holmes adventure.
Some choice vocabulary. Holmes is an eloquent fellow. You may need to brush up your English if you are to produce a truly credible effort.
A brilliant villain – give him some suitably grotesque impediment, such as a missing ear or six toes on one foot. He should be a match for Holmes in strength and intellect. Don’t automatically reach for Moriarty.
Some light relief – there’s plenty of humour in the original canon, so bring on some light relief in the form of some helpful nitwit or ludicrous situation. In The Adventure of the Ruby Elephants, Holmes stuffs a diminutive monocle salesman (who insists on wearing two monocles at the same time) in a large Ming vase.
Some philosophical moments – some of the best of Conan Doyle’s writing is when Holmes muses on some aspect of the human condition from his lofty vantage point in 221B Baker Street.
Buy two new Sherlock adventures for a limited time only on eBay, including The Jeweller of Florence which is not officially available until 16 September 2016
Ever feel like running off to the circus? I had one of those days recently, but let’s face it, it’s not always a practical option. So I had to make do with a song. And that got it out of my system. I can’t juggle either.
So what’s your favourite double act? Is it Morecambe and Wise, Watson and Holmes, Palin and Cleese, Fry and Laurie, Vic and Bob, French and Saunders or Frost and Pegg? Personally, I always liked Smith and Jones myself. Anyway, here’s a little tribute to them all! Plus a nice picture of my son and I up a tree.
In the long history of my association with Sherlock Holmes there has rarely been a case of more singular interest than that of the Ruby Elephants. Leafing through my notes I am reminded that there were a number of features which also mark it as one of the most disconcerting we have yet encountered. For unlike many of our exploits it was not merely one problem, but a series that were interlinked in the most peculiar fashion. And yet despite its complexity I am quite certain that it elicited the most brilliant of all of Holmes’ feats of deduction. My friend, I know disapproves of my rating of his cases in this way. However he knows that it is for my own private amusement and need for order and for this he is prepared to turn a blind eye.
It was a morning in mid July when the summer heat was beginning to impose itself on our rooms at 221b Baker Street.
‘Do you see this simple length of wire?’ Holmes asked, holding a nondescript bit of steel up to the light. I glanced up from my newspaper. ‘In two years time it will make a man a million pounds. In five years it will make him ten million.’
‘Don’t be absurd,’ I muttered.
‘I have never been more serious in my life’ my friend insisted.
‘Then will he use it to pick a lock at the Tower of London?’
‘Nothing of the kind!’ Holmes was clearly in a playful mood. ‘Shall I show you?’
‘By all means,’ I sighed. ‘My practice is somewhat sluggish of late and I’d very much like to know how to conjure pounds and shillings from thin air.’ He furrowed his brow and began to manipulate the wire, bending it back on itself until it resembled something like a hair clip. He studied it again, rearranged an angle or two, then cast it onto the coffee table in triumph. It skittered across the polished wood and onto our bear skin rug. I picked it up and examined it.
‘I fail to see how it has increased in value,’ I confessed.
‘And that, my dear Watson, is why you are not a millionaire. You are a man of inestimable qualities, but you lack the essential gift of imagination.’ Holmes lit a cigarette, took a drag, then left it smoking in the ashtray. ‘Now you are aware,’ he went on, ‘that I have a somewhat haphazard filing system.’ I surveyed the sea of papers around our feet and swamping every available surface.
‘I am,’ I confirmed.
‘This,’ he said, holding up the folded wire, ‘is of more use than a score of clerks and a hundred filing cabinets.’
He picked up a handful of papers from his feet.
‘The notes,’ he announced, ‘from that curious case of the Laughing Earl.’
‘A ghoulish affair,’ I remarked.
‘And yet one you have not committed to paper, I note,’ said Holmes with a slightly peevish air.
‘I was under the impression that you put little stock in the written records I make of our adventures?’
‘No matter,’ he said, brushing this aside. ‘Pay attention.’ He tapped the sheaf of paper into alignment on the table top, then with a little cough and the air of a practiced showman, he picked up the wire between thumb and forefinger, fixed it neatly at the top of the pages and secured all five sheets together. I stared at Holmes. ‘Rather wonderful, isn’t it?’ he marveled, looking inordinately pleased with himself.
‘A million pounds?’ I repeated, incredulous.
‘If every man in Britain bought a hundred for a shilling,’ Holmes calculated, ‘it will not take long for our inventor to amass his fortune.’
‘Remarkable,’ I said, examining the bent wire it in the palm of my hand.
Holmes aficionados know there’s more to life than Professor Moriarty. The Sherlock Holmes stories contained an astonishingly colourful cast of cads, crooks and show boaters (most frequently wayward colonels for some reason). Indeed Conan Doyle was often at his best when drawing pen sketches of his villains. It is of remarkable how he can conjure them into life with just a few deft strokes.
Here is a list nine memorable scoundrels from the original canon, plus a surprise at number ten from my own, new Sherlock Holmes novel: The Adventure of the Ruby Elephants. Beware of some spoiler alerts, however, as some of these are not revealed as the villains until the end of the stories. You have been warned!
Irene Adler, A Scandal in Bohemia
To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes, she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.
‘What a woman – oh, what a woman!’ cried the King of Bohemia.
Colonel Lysander Stark, The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb
I saw the lean figure of Colonel Lysander Stark rushing forward with a lantern in one hand, and a weapon like a butcher’s cleaver in the other.
Charles Augustus Milverton, The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton
He was a man of fifty, with a large intellectual head, a round, plump, hairless face, a perpetual frozen smile and two keen, grey eyes, which gleamed brightly from behind broad, golden-rimmed glasses.
‘Mr Holmes, Mr Holmes,’ he said, turning the front of his coat and exhibiting the butt of a large revolver. I have been expecting you to do something original.’
Professor Coram, The Adventure of the Golden Pinze-Nez
It was a gaunt, aquiline face which was turned towards us with piercing dark eyes, which lurked in deep hollows under overhung and tufted brows. His hair and beard were white, save that the latter was curiously stained with yellow around his mouth. A cigarette glowed amid the tangle of white hair. ‘Tobacco and my work – that is all that is left to me.’
Baron Gruner, the Adventure of the Illustrious Client
The fellow is, as you may have heard, extraordinarily handsome, with a most fascinating manner, a gentle voice and that air of romance and mystery which mean so much to a woman. He is said to have the whole sex at his mercy and to have made ample use of the fact…The Baron has little waxed tips of hair under his nose, like the short antennae of an insect.
Mr Culverton Smith, The Adventure of the Dying Detective
With a shrill cry of anger, a man rose from a reclining chair beside the fire. I saw a great yellow face, coarse grained and greasy, with a heavy double chin, and two sullen menacing grey eyes that glared at me from under tufted and sandy brows.
‘What is this?’ he cried in a high, screaming voice. ‘What is the meaning of this intrusion?’
Colonel Sebastian Moran, The Adventure of the Empty House
It was a tremendously virile and yet sinister face which was turned towards us. The brow of a philosopher above and the jaw of a sensualist below, the man must have started with great capacities for good or for evil.
Colonel James Moriarty, The Adventure of the Final Problem
He is extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve and his two eyes are deeply shrunken in his head. He is clean shaven, pale and ascetic-looking, retaining something of the professor in his features. ‘It is a dangerous habit to finger loaded firearms in the pocket of one’s dressing gown.’
John Clay, The Adventure of the Red Headed League
‘John Clay, the murderer, thief, smasher and forger. He is a remarkable man, is young John Clay. His grandfather was a Royal Duke and he himself has been to Eton and Oxford. He’ll crack a crib in Scotland one week, and be raising money to build an orphanage in Cornwall the next. I’ve been on his track for years and have never set eyes on him yet.’
I awoke in a room that was perfectly dark. The floor was cold, and the air was damp, like that of a cellar.
‘Stand up, Dr Watson,’ came a voice.
‘Who are you?’
‘My name is Michael.’ There was a light in the form of a single flame. I heard another voice.
‘I am Raphael,’ it announced and another torch was lit.
Then behind me, another:
‘Uriel.’ And at the fourth point of the compass:
‘I am Gabriel.’ I was at the centre of the four flames.
The four of them wore identical black frock coats, top hats and strange, round spectacles with darkened glass. At the far end of the room, they gathered themselves into a knot, with blades flashing at the end of their canes, their eyes gleaming like demons.
Thanks to the generosity of friends and family, my wife and I celebrated our 40th birthdays in Broadstairs, Kent. That is not to suggest that they sent us away as a deliberate ploy to avoid spending the day with us! It was a literary birthday present of the best possible kind.
For those who don’t know it, (and I’m loath to make it more popular than it already is) Broadstairs is a glorious sun-drenched spot, bursting with pubs, bookshops, more pubs, ice cream parlors, fish restaurants and a great surfing beach.
We stayed in Bleak House, the imposing, fort like construction over looking Viking Bay where Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield. As an extra treat, we slept in Dickens’ own bed, which was reputedly also slept in by both Queen Victoria, and ‘Mr Slash’ from Guns and Roses, although we assume not at the same time.
After 5pm, we also had Dickens’ study, in the next room, all to ourselves. While my wife was powdering her nose, and draining the complimentary sherry, I went in and sat in the dark at the great man’s desk looking out at the moon over the bay.
Behind me on the walls were yellowing posters, play bills, manuscripts, pince-nez, paper knives and other assorted Dickens paraphernalia. It was perfectly quiet except for the distant brushing of the waves on the beach. Suddenly the door closed and the latch dropped with a loud click. The temperature seemed to plummet and I fully expected to feel Dickens’ hand on my shoulder.
That night there were fireworks over the beach, a 1920s flapper party going on in the function room below and the whole episode inspired this silly jazz-age number which I send out by way of a thank you to the delightful hotel staff, for the pals who subbed our memorable trip and to Charles Dickens for the inspiration. Gawd bless him!