HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Are you watching the new Arthur and George series on PBS? It’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, investigating a case of possible injustice, with his trusty sidekick, Woody. (Who happens to be played by Edith’s missing magazine editor on Downton Abbey.) Anyway, it’s great fun. (Especially when Doyle tries to fend off his fans who always ask the same questions about Holmes and Moriarty.)
And I’m happy to be immersed in the time and the rhythm and the language, because I’m writing (and Hallie, is, too) a Holmes-inspired short story for the new anthology (to the right is the current one) edited by famed Sherlockians Les Klinger and Laurie R King. (No pressure, right?)
So it’s a perfect day to talk things Sherlock. And Tilia Klebenov Jacobs—a great friend of Jungle Red, whose new novel, hurray!, is below—has been thinking about Sherlock, too.
Thank you, Sherlock Holmes
Whenever we sit down to enjoy a good crime novel, we should thank Sherlock Holmes and the Victorians who spawned him. Fans of crime fiction are, I suggest, latter-day Victorians in global outlook. The genre owes its essential nature to those selfsame Victorians: it is optimistic, logical, and highly moral.
In 1870, England’s Universal Education Act required all British children to attend school until the age of fourteen. Within twenty years, a newly literate population had emerged, one with a thirst for entertaining reading. The partnership of Strand Magazine, launched in 1890, and Arthur Conan Doyle perfectly satisfied this fresh appetite for smart fiction. The star of the publication was Doyle’s most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes: a new Holmes story typically increased the already large circulation of Strand Magazine to a half million copies. Thus was the first superstar sleuth born, setting the stage for much subsequent crime fiction.
Consider, dear reader, the following.
In modern crime fiction, the protagonist, whether detective, private eye, or amateur mystery-lover, is generally a vigilant observer of details that sail past other characters. Even when she follows her gut instead of the evidence, an observable reason for her decision tends to emerge later. The close observer of seemingly random factoids is the person who solves the whodunit. This is perhaps most evident in cozies: think Agatha Christie or, on our side of the pond, Ellery Queen.
Morality. The Victorians prized lawfulness, and by solving the crime and unmasking, capturing, and/or killing the malefactor, the protagonist of crime fiction reaffirms the essential balance of social order so prized by the generation that first fell in love with Sherlock. Modern crime fiction follows this pattern as well—even noir fiction, that creation of a later, more cynical century. And although a noir detective may be morally compromised, it is because he sees the pervasive social rot others ignore. Philip Marlowe’s dark and lyrical musings merely present truths the audience would rather not confront. Even in the darkest of crime fiction, however, justice inevitably triumphs and evil is punished, within or beyond the confines of the justice system.
Indeed, if there is such a thing as crime fiction in which the crime goes unsolved and the villain unpunished or at least unmasked, I haven’t heard of it, nor would I care much to read it. In this I suspect I am not alone, for in a deep sense any crime novel constitutes a primer on Western civilization and what it holds most dear. The typical crime fiction book puts a keen-eyed but ordinary champion at its center, one who reaffirms the essence of social order and its ultimate victory over evil, chaos, and lawlessness.
What do you think of that, Watson?
HANK: When did you read your first Sherlock, Reds? What’s your favorite? And on the screen: are you a Brett, Rathbone or Cumberbatch?
Tilia Klebenov Jacobs is a graduate of Oberlin College and Harvard Divinity School. When Tilia is not writing she is teaching (aka "getting paid for bossing people around"). She has taught middle school, high school, and college; currently she teaches writing to prison inmates and is a judge in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition in San Francisco. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published to critical acclaim. Tilia lives near Boston with her husband, two children, and two standard poodles.
What if the world didn't want you to go straight? Out on parole after almost ten years in prison, Emet First is repairing his shattered life. He has friends, a job, and his first date in a decade. The young woman, Mercedes Finch, is lovely but wounded. When her deranged brother learns about Emet's past, he will stop at nothing to destroy him--and suddenly Emet has everything to lose.
Kirkus calls it "a quirky romantic novella about a reformed ex-con and the enterprising young woman who helps him rediscover his self-worth." They also say, "Jacobs creates an enchanting world.... A charming story for those who enjoy a quick, action-packed, romantic fairy tale."