Writing A Sherlock Holmes Pastiche
Going the Extra Mile for Authenticity

By Lee A. Matthias





A "pastiche" is a literary work based on another writer's work(s) or style. Essentially it is like a forgery, except that the writer does not claim it is by the author from whom it is drawn. Instead the writer "comes clean" and admits his/her authorship. In the art world, it would be like producing a Van Gogh painting, but admitting that you, as the painter, faked it. There's not much market for such things in that world. But in the literary, the world of books...

Writing a pastiche of another writer's famous work is different. It has the advantage of its own story full of twists and surprises to add to the attraction of having a new work in the style and spirit, and with the characters of the original. It's not seen in a single viewing, a glance, like a painting, but rather read over time, a "bigger meal," if you will accept the allusion.

This is only possible if the writer of the pastiche has the approval of the original author or the author's estate, or if that author's work has entered the "public domain," that point in the life of any copyrighted work when its subject and/or characters are no longer protected by copyright law. So, should a writer devise a story worthy of the original author's works, and that writer is able to "mimic" the original author's style sufficiently well to create a reasonably accurate imitation, then that pastiche can be an enjoyable reading experience. It even has the added effect of helping to keep the original works in the public consciousness such that their own value is enhanced and extended.

When I wrote THE PANDORA PLAGUE I little realized the advantages a book trading on the pedigree of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes would have in the market-place. I had seen the success of Nicholas Meyer's best-sellers, "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution," and "The West-End Horror," but I knew that a number of other writers had followed with their own pastiches soon after those books, and the market was threatening to become saturated. Still, for myself, I believed that I had a viable project, and at least a worthy start to a writing career.

But what I failed to realize was the "boost" producing a book in a bona fide genre and with classically-famous characters would gain for an unknown author. Where most naive new writers produce wholly original works and have to fight and scrap for every smidgen of attention and recognition they can get, I had a work that fit squarely on one of the most popular bookstore shelves, and thanks to my last name's spelling, right beside the Meyer books in the very same fiction section (mystery) as the originals. Buyers would know exactly what they were holding once they saw the cover. And aficionados of the genre would buy it in a heartbeat, knowing that, at the very least, it was a new story with their favorite detective in it. This was "golden" for a new writer trying to get established.

Somewhere, however, deep inside, I innately knew that whatever I wrote would have to pay its audience back for plopping down that cover price. Along with the recognition of the famous characters and series pedigree, there would be an expectation by the reader of the book that it would be a worthy entry into the series. Here I felt my basic story premise was perfect, for it fit the world of the original source quite well and it had the advantage of also fitting a modern audience. It had a story that had the requisite mystery tropes; it had actual famous historical characters in magician Harry Houdini, 19th Century actor and playwright, William Gillette, and Nobel Laureate scientist, Madame Curie; and it was a big-event, contemporary-styled suspense tale. I saw it as a modern thriller disguised as a Sherlock Holmes adventure. So the only reasons it would fail to satisfy a buyer was if the writing failed to match the standard set by the source, or it failed to meet the reader expectations set for suspense-thrillers.

Therefore, it was of primary importance to me to meet those expectations. I re-read the entire Sherlock Holmes series of books: 56 short stories and 4 novels. Then I read from among the scholarly books "about" the Holmes stories. There is a large body of scholarship on Sherlock Holmes, and I studied the best of it, making detailed notes. Next I studied Holmes's creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, reading several biographies and specialized studies. I did the same for my other character, magician Harry Houdini, and his profession of magic. I even read a psychological biography of the magician in order to get beneath the surface and render him completely, warts and all. Then I researched subjects from among which my book would draw its story, including anarchism, biological weapons, nuclear radiation, Madame Curie, and Holmes-portrayer, William Gillette. Eventually I produced an invaluable card file of data that I retain to this day. By the end, I had read over 60 books, and because of the intensity with which I attacked these subjects, I was forced to begin wearing eyeglasses. But, at this point, I could effortlessly write in the Doyle style. I was familiar with the streets of London, the English train schedules in 1902, the frequency of mail delivery in central London (5 times or more a day!), and hundreds of other bits and pieces of 19th Century British minutia. But that wasn't enough.

I had determined that I wanted to re-create Doyle's style so completely that I could produce whole stanzas that he might, himself, had written had he ever gotten around to it. So I looked at what might be called Doyle's "meta-patterns." These might be described as particular scenes and situations, as well as narrative patterns Doyle repeatedly employed in the construction of his stories. I conceived and structured my story with many of the same scenarios, many of the same patterns. Then I got down to the "granular-level." I developed a database of his characteristic sentences, sentence patterns, and word choices. I devised parallels to these, employing his rhythms, his word choices, his sentence construction. I wove these things into my narrative at key points throughout the book, so that Doyle, himself, might have wondered: had he written the tale, but forgotten? Friends told me that I had even begun talking like Sherlock Holmes or someone from England a hundred years ago. Finally, aware that Doyle had, here and there across the length and breadth of his stories, employed a distinctive, 19th Century style of British humor, I worked to re-create this, also. By the end of this process, I felt I had a novel that so closely resembled Doyle's originals that it would be indistinguishable to every but the most informed reader.

Once these details were in place, I then made it a goal to reduce the material to the point that it was a fast read, at the same time that it offered new insights to and details for the principle characters. This was so that it offered new and fresh things to even those "in the know," but wouldn't lose those who just wanted a good old adventure.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had in his stories occasionally referenced other cases Holmes and Watson had investigated. Most of these had extremely tantalizing, even humorous, titles or descriptions. So I introduced two new ones in the same spirit. Certain Holmes scholars had noticed anomalies or paradoxes in the stories, so I added to them. In one case, where all scholars had agreed about an insight, I "undid" it, so that the ambiguity would be restored. And wherever possible, I attempted to make the story authentic by weaving in real, historical people and incidents. All of this made for a book that I felt would stand head and shoulders above the competition while contributing an adventure that matched the source stories as well as could ever be done.

Most of this goes right over the head of the average reader. But should the story succeed in awakening reader interest in Sherlock Holmes, and should the reader ever return to the book, he/she will then notice these "touches," and get new enjoyment and insight into the tale and its milieu. And for the Holmes fan, the book will meet that fan's more discerning eye, and, with luck, join that fan's list of great Holmes pastiches. But for me, the challenge of writing something with such care that it could fit into the original "Canon" of tales as though it was one of them was the greatest fun of all.

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Inquiries to Lee A. Matthias: LateralTao@gmail.com