Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Thank you, Sherlock!

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.
      Holmes was the consummate Victorian gentleman, and so, as his heirs, are we.  His methods, which inevitably constitute a triumph of logic over unreason, are ours; his morals, which mandate that good win and evil be vanquished, are ours as well.  Furthermore, we share his and Doyle’s vigorous, nineteenth-century optimism, which posits that happy outcomes are not merely possible but essentially inevitable in the grander scheme of things.
         Consider, dear reader, the following.
     Observation.  Holmes’s hallmark is keen observation, a trait he shares with his creator:  Doyle, a medical doctor, was trained to examine his patients for clues before making diagnoses.  Observation was a key aspect of the scientific spirit of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Doyle’s vast audience already valued it.  Indeed, in his lecture “The British Bestseller—An Overview,” John Sutherland argues that “Holmes is much less an amateur detective than a forensic scientist, and as such, he is a Victorian through and through.” 

         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."


  1. Tilia, I really enjoyed your post; I don't believe I'd like crime fiction with the perpetrator going unpunished, either.

    Aah, as best as I can recall, Sherlock Holmes and I first met up along about fourth or fifth grade . . . favorite stories [there can't be just one] include The Hound of the Baskervilles, the Five Orange Pips, and the Dancing Men.

    And there's simply no way choose between Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and Benedict Cumberbatch . . . each brought something special to their interpretation of the great detective.

    Hank and Hallie, I'm really looking forward to reading your Holmes-inspired stories . . . .

  2. Oh, thanks, Joan, we are too! Because then they;ll be done, and writing a short story is always --challenging. And this is SUCH esteemed company!

    My favorite Sherlock? Well, Im; reading many of them again, to get my brain in the groove. l just finished Th Greek Interpreter. And The Dancing Men! (You know that's the only one where Sherlock failed to do what he was hired to do? Something like that…)l

  3. Is the font funny on your computer? Before I go to battle with it--let me know. WHY does it just randomly change?

  4. Jeremy Brett

    The Speckled Band (I always check the ceiling fan or light fixture in a hotel room, just in case)

    I graduated from Nancy Drew to Sherlock Holmes about age 12. My husband gave me a two volume annotated SH which I adore, though I lose the thread of the story because I'm reading all the footnotes.

    I would enjoy telling a SH story from the landlady's perspective.

  5. I first read Sherlock in middle school. Must have been Hound of the Baskervilles, although I don't really remember. I've got a soft spot for Jeremy Brett, but Benedict Cumberbatch is true to the spirit of the character while give him a modern sensitivity.

    The font in what, Hank? There are a couple of paragraphs in the post that are small, but everything else looks okay on my end.

  6. Margaret, I read somewhere that The Speckled Band (which I love!) is actually impossible..that it couldn't happen. I certainly believed it though, and like you, think about it all the time.

    And I LOVE the Mrs. Hudson idea!! And, a while ago, actually considered it. When I researched I found--it's been done. ( I was also going t make her a spy. And a bad guy. And then a good guy.) Sigh. All further ideas welcome!! Keep em coming!

    YEs, Mary, thanks, the random small font size. Grr, WHY does that happen?

  7. Tilia, congrats on the new book - sounds like fun!

    And weird that I'm actually working right now on that short story for Les and Laurie's next Sherlock anthology. What I love about their anthologies are the latitude they give writers to be INSPIRED by the canon but not bound by it. So my story is set in the present in Hollywood. (Period writing is not for the faint of heart.)

    You got me thinking: "no crime fiction in which the crime goes unsolved and the villain unpunished or at least unmasked"? Unpunished: often! You see that a lot in noir. Also in series where one book leaves with a cliffhanger. Or in books where the truth is complicated and "guilt" nuanced. The latter are my favorite kind of books.

  8. You are so right about period wring, Hallie! Rhys, and Susan, I don't know how you do it! I guess it's --simply a lot of hard work and research.. And a bit of channeling.

    I am thinking about taking a SH story and making it contemporary..not the SAME story, but a connected story. La dee dah. It'll come to me.

  9. Tilia,

    First, Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Café sounds like a fantastic story and its cover is making me swoon.

    Second, I love your thesis! I never thought of the connection between the Victorian culture/ethos and crime fiction, but it seems a compelling one. And here we think we're so modern...

  10. I'm with you completely. In fact, I enjoy crime fiction because order and morality are restored by the end of the book.

  11. Yes, font is funny, much smaller when next to an image.

    Brett, without question. Though I enjoy the Rathbone Holmes portrayal, for me Brett just IS Holmes.

    Wonderful post. Note on my blog today I've posted about the huge MX new Sherlock Holmes collection coming later this month. It's

  12. Hank, I am indeed watching Arthur and George on PBS and loving it. Martin Clunes is a favorite of mine (Doc Martin), and I knew that the character of Woody looked familiar. Thanks for clearing up that one. I read the book Arthur and George by Julian Barnes some years ago, and it remains one of my favorite reads. So happy the show is doing it justice.

    And, Hank and Hallie, I have the anthology of Sherlock related stories in your picture, Hank. I'm so excited that you two will be in the new collection, which I will be buying, of course. When is its ETA for publication? I can't wait to read your all's stories.

    Tilia, what an outstanding piece of writing your post is today! Informative, interesting, and intellectually stimulating but in a warmly written tone, not didactic. The Victorian posture of right prevailing and its connection to crime writing even today was one of those head nodding realizations as I read it. I often can tell that I want to read more of an author's writing by a post such as this one, and I am certain that Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Cafe is in my reading future. The title alone is worth the read. Clever.

    Favorite Sherlock? I do love Jeremy Brett, but now that I've finally started catching up with Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock series, I have to say that I'm now a Cumberbatch fan. I'm trying to remember when I first read Sherlock, and I'm thinking that it must have been sometime in junior high or high school, although I became forever attached to The Hound of the Baskervilles in my twenties. It's one of the few books that I have to reread every so often. Last year, I read a collection of stories along with my teenage granddaughter, who was reading them for school. It doesn't get any better than that, sharing reading you love with a child or grandchild.

  13. I don't remember when I first starting reading Sherlock Holmes. I was a kid, probably in junior high. In my mind Sherlock always looks like Basil Rathbone. I think Jeremy Brett nailed it in his performances and I thoroughly enjoy Cumberbatch and his Watson. So, win win win! Arthur and George is wonderful. Imagine pairing Doc Martin with Edith's MIA. Thank you for identifying George for me. These Downton Abbey people pop up everywhere. Those of you who enjoy Sherlock and haven't done so should read Laurie R King's series. They are sooo good.

    Is it just my faulty memory or did Sherlock seem to lose most of his clients? In Basil's movies it seems like he was always avenging the deaths of his clients. I haven't read the actual stories in years to see if that was the case.

  14. Kathy, thanks so much for your warm words of praise! I can tell you that what you saw here was a ruthless summary of the original piece, because as I got going I realized that I could probably write a thesis on this topic. There was just so much there in terms of fun historical facts and connections. I'm so glad you enjoyed this.

    I actually haven't seen Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock, so for me he is Alan Turing, another sleuth to whom we are forever indebted, though in an entirely different way.

  15. Hank, the font looks wonky to me too, in the same way you describe: next to the pictures it goes all small. Is it possible those bits are being treated as captions? That's what they look like to me--as though those particular paragraphs refer specifically to the pictures.

    However--a minor problem, that!

  16. Julia, thanks for your comment! I do think the artist did a fabulous job with the cover for Second Helpings, and I hope you enjoy the inside just as much.

    In some ways crime fiction reminds me of fantasy, in that the good guys generally win, and in a way that reaffirms the essential rightness of the moral universe. Hey, can you tell I have a background in theology?

  17. Joan, I think I first found everyone's favorite Victorian detective in sixth grade. My parents had a Sherlock Holmes anthology, so I know I read a bunch of the short stories in it. As an adult I discovered Nicholas Meyer's outstanding The Seven Percent Solution and The West End Horror. All I can say about those books is that if you love Holmes, you will love these. They're "rediscovered" Sherlock Holmes stories, very inventive and great fun all around.

  18. LOVe the Seven Percent Solution, Tilia! So incredibly clever.

    Trying to fix the font, although Blogger is not making it simple..sigh.

    Ye, Pat D., love Laurie King!

    Kathy, I think the pub date is fall 2016. We'll keep you posted, you can be certain of that!

    RIchard R, welcome! Checking your blog right now!

  19. Hank, the font looks much better now. Thanks!

  20. Hallie, how wonderful that you and Hank are both writing Holmes-inspired stories! Promise to shout very loudly when the anthology comes out!

  21. Tilia, yes, I LOVED The Seven Percent Solution and The West End Horror! Did you see the movie of The Seven Percent Solution starring Nicol Williamson as Holmes? He was fabulous.

    I must have read the Holmes stories when I was about twelve. Hard to say because it seems like I've always known them...

    And I am also writing a story for the anthology but trying to finish the novel first!

    I never much cared for Rathbone, but I adored Jeremy Brett.

    Now I'm a huge fan of Cumberbatch, and I think Martin Freeman is by far the best Watson.

    Tilia, I loved your essay. The links between Victorian morality and the modern detective story seem so obvious once you've made them. I'd love to read the entire piece. Is it available anywhere?

    And I love the premise of your book. Ordering now:-)

  22. PS No one mentioned Johnny Lee Miller's Holmes in Elementary. I think he's brilliant. Maybe he even does a better job than Cumberbatch of portraying Holmes's Asperger's Syndrome-like personality traits, while showing the humanity and the morality beneath.

  23. Deborah, I did see the movie of The Seven Percent Solution, when I was in college roughly a zillion years ago. I remember a good friend of mine remarking at the time that one of the things he liked about it was that Watson was a more active character than he usually is. It happens I read The West End Horror first of the two books, so I have a soft spot for it. Do you have a fave?

    Alas, there is no "entire piece"! I wrote with this blog post in mind, enjoyed myself way too much, then found I had to cut, cut, cut. (Anyone out there feel my pain?) But I'm glad you feel as I did, that the links are many, and still bind us strongly to Mr. Holmes. I wasn't kidding when I said I could have done a thesis on it.

    ...and THANK YOU for buying my book!

  24. Oh, right,Deborah, Elementary. Love it. And Lucy as Watson is so great.

    I still think about the Freud/Holmes partnership. SO terrific.And remember--"No backhand, Holmes! No backhand!"

    And I am obviously ridiculously out of it--what is The West End Horror? Off to look it up. No no no--I have to write!

  25. Hank, The West End Horror is another "rediscovered Holmes" story by the author of The Seven Percent Solution. And of course you have to read it immediately! What kind of writer doesn't occasionally ignore writing in favor of reading? (Evil grin.)

  26. Oh, you, Tilia! And, as always, you are SO right! Will do instantly!

    Thank you for a fabulous day, may you well billions of books, and see you all tomorrow!

  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

  28. Oh, you, Tilia! And, as always, you are SO right! Will do instantly!

    Thank you for a fabulous day, may you sell billions of books, and see you all tomorrow