Other articles by John C. Sherwood

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The following essay was originally a posting to the HOUNDS-L listserv. I share the author's views, and I thought this piece was good enough to make this page. Read and enjoy.

Sherlockian Pastiches: The Dilemma

by John C. Sherwood
Artistic director, The Victorian Villa Inn

I'm certain that I share with other Sherlockians and Holmesians a sense of being torn by the varied realities that exist within the "world of Sherlock Holmes." Part of me is utterly mystified by the repeated references one comes across to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle having "conceived" the Canon. And yet another part of me understands the widespread delusion that, somehow, Dr. John H. Watson relinquished all control of his notes to Doyle and that the Literary Agent was in fact the Author.

Having said that - and if the latter premise indeed were true and we are not reading chronicles related by Watson-as-Biographer - it goes a long way towards explaining why there are so many different "Holmeses" within the "canonical Canon" itself. In fact, the premise helps us to understand why so many of the later "stories" actually appear to be "pastiches" flowing from the (presumably) mighty pen of Doyle-as-Author himself.

Take, for example, the very different "Holmeses" of "A Study in Scarlet" and "The Sign of Four," the very first chronicles -- or shall we say "stories"? -- ever written and published, although the first occurs around 1881 and the second around 1887. In the first example, Holmes is youthful, glib, friendly, chimeral, outgoing, arrogant and full of energy, full of brightness and even fun. In the second, he is taking cocaine thrice a day, and when he is not occupied with the case he is moody, brooding and pessimistic. We see glimpses of these two "Holmeses" throughout other "stories," and we reconcile them by claiming that, at times, Holmes must have been "manic depressive" or simply dual-natured. But perhaps Doyle-as-Author was dual-natured himself and this tendency emerged in his writings, based on his imagination-of-the-moment.

And yet there is a third Holmes who appears from time to time, who is neither of these other Holmeses - not the chemist, code-breaker, paralegal, actor and amateur anthropologist. This Holmes is a creative force who searches for things outside of the realm of crime -- a varied mind that encompasses the multiple lives of a scholar, art lover, book collector, historian, musician, traveler and author. This man is interested in ancient charters, the love poetry of Petrarch, the Buddhism of Ceylon, a variety of European writers, the masterful violin-playing of Sarasate as well as the craftsmanship of violin-making, the beauty found in fine paintings, the practicalities of bee-keeping and the delights of pure reason that led him to write -- while still in his 20s -- a series of Winwood Reade-esque reflections called "The Book of Life."

This is a consistent, almost pointed characterization that emerges in many of these separate chronicles/stories. Each new aspect reflects on the same notion that here is a brilliant, wide-ranging mind that embodies the expansiveness of the Victorian era and the increasing opportunities becoming available to the rising middle class of English society.

In addition to fattening a cheque-book, either (1) Watson was well aware of what an astonishing human being Holmes was and sought to capture his character for the benefit and inspiration of others, while acknowledging his weaknesses and self-contradictions, or (2) Doyle was well aware of what a truly astonishing human being was capable of being, and sought to describe such a character for the benefit and inspiration of others, while recognizing that any human being would have to have drawbacks and inconsistencies.

Beyond the "traveling wound" and the "James/John" controversies, we find in the characterization of these various Holmeses a curiously consistent thread -- the flash of a scintillating genius, through a glimmer here and a sparkle there, all adding up to a collective blaze that illuminates the body of work we call the Canon, even if individual entries are pale and dull compared to the whole.

So, when we read some of the other "pastiches" (beyond those that Doyle-as-Author himself supposedly wrote later in life), if we fail to note that spark, that glimmer, that slight jewel-shine that catches our eye and reminds us of that overall, highly personalized genius -- well, something is missing, something is wrong, and it doesn't ring true. The writer has failed to convince us that he is either Doyle-as-Author OR Watson-as-Biographer. There is no subjective OR objective reality on which we can hang (that is, suspend) our disbelief.

However, if the Pastichewright DOES show us something new, something jewel-like, it awakens our own inner genius. We recognize Holmes (or some version of him) as the man we met before, and the Master walks among these pages once again. That's a rare event, and such a perfect fiction is hard to forge, but it's no less an accomplishment than what Doyle-as-Author might have set out to do when attempting himself to re-invent Holmes for the later "stories." In fact, in some cases, the accomplishment probably is greater.

For the "purist," "The Seven-Percent Solution" is a fabrication to be dismissed. I happen to dismiss it myself, because of all of the historical and canonical inaccuraces and surmises. But there's no doubt that Nicholas Meyer re-awakened some very real conception of Holmes for many, many thousands of people who had forgotten (or never known) the delight of reading about this man of genius living in a time when genius could thrive. *THIS* Holmes looked like what *A* Holmes should look like. That's why Meyer's fiction ranks highly -- very highly -- when compared with, say, "The Veiled Lodger" or "The Mazarin Stone," both found among the "sacred" writings, but neither of them conveying a well-realized sense of what *A* Holmes truly should resemble.

Naturally, I hold a higher esteem for those works that I prize as having come from the pen of Watson-as-Biographer. I have enormous respect for all those that might even have come simply from the pen of Doyle-as-Author. However, if there exist new tales that provide a joy of sudden discovery, and convince me - however briefly - that another Biographer has been located at last, so be it. A truly successful "Sherlock Holmes story" conveys to my judgment an appreciation of insightful genius, regardless of its source. Genius can and does thrive all around us, and isn't necessarily found only in the same old place, between the covers of only one set of 60 "stories" about this or that version of Holmes.

There are many true chronicles yet to be written. Let them come.



© John C. Sherwood
MysteryVisits, Kennett Square, PA 19348, (610) 925-5767
News desk, Wilmington News Journal
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(800) 323-7766
Artistic director emeritus, The Victorian Villa Inn, Union City, MI, USA
- (800) 34-VILLA for inquiries
E-mail: jcsherwood@yahoo.com
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