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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Sherlock Holmes

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Sherlock Holmes

(or “The Ultimate Success”)

I’m currently in the midst of reading Kelly Hale’s fascinating (and undeservedly obscure) novel, “Erasing Sherlock”, and it occurs to me that a large part of the reason it works so well is that the phenomenon it describes feels so real. The book, for those who haven’t read it, is about a time-traveling historian who insinuates herself into the life of Holmes as a maid, in order to observe the Great Detective first-hand and discover details of his life, methods and motivations that Watson never wrote down. (Naturally, from there things Go Horribly Wrong, but I’ll leave it to you to find out how. Amazon’s still got it for sale…) The reason this feels so real is that large numbers of people do involve themselves in “The Great Game” of treating Watson’s writings as actual accounts of a real person, analyzing and studying them with an almost obsessive fervor to learn everything they can about Sherlock Holmes…despite the fact that not only was Holmes not real, neither was Watson.

So what exactly is it that makes the Holmes canon such a magnificent storytelling engine that not only could it generate four novels and fifty-six short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, not only could it generate hosts of additional novels, short stories, TV shows and movies by authors like Kelly Hale, not only could it inspire fictional detectives like “Monk” and “House”, but it could actually inspire people to treat it as though it was a genuinely non-fictional story about real people?

For starters, there’s the character of Holmes himself. Doyle imbued the man with a brilliant complexity that lends astonishing verisimilitude to the stories. Holmes doesn’t feel like a fictional character (and according to Doyle, was based on an actual person to some degree); he’s mercurial, contradictory, displaying a full range of the moods and feelings that real human beings display (for better or worse, sometimes.) He’s not exactly charming; in fact, you could make a good case that you wouldn’t want to get stuck on a long train ride with the man. But he is fascinating, which is absolutely key for any character that the audience is going to be following for any length of time.

But don’t underestimate the importance of Watson. For all that Holmes is the central character, Watson is as key to the series as the companion is to ‘Doctor Who’. (Which reminds me, as long as I’m plugging non-canonical Holmes, if you can track down the sadly out-of-print ‘All-Consuming Fire’, by Andy Lane, you’ll get an excellent Holmes/Doctor team-up.) Watson fulfills Holmes’ emotional need to explain his brilliant deductions, but more than that, he provides a mechanism to get those deductions from Holmes’ mind to the audience in a naturalistic way. A Holmes story without Watson would consist of Holmes grabbing a random man and saying, “He did it!” And where would be the fun in that?

But the final element, and the one that works the hardest to make the Holmes canon seem not just believable but actually real, is the world he operates in. Doyle set the series in what was, for him, the modern day, and grounded it in the familiar world around him. But Doyle’s great gift was in bringing those details to life in ways that made them accessible even to someone who didn’t live in Victorian London. To a reader picking up the Holmes series a hundred years later, Doyle paints a vivid picture of a time and place that we know to have been real, then inserts his fictional creations into them so seamlessly that it’s almost impossible to find the gap. We can believe in a police plodder like Inspector Lestrade, or a matronly boarding-house owner like Mrs. Hudson, or the thousands of tiny details on everything from slum life to hansom cabs to politics that form the world Holmes operates in.

Because of that, it’s small wonder that Holmes seems to have taken on a life of his own. Even when his own creator decided to kill him off once and for all, Holmes managed to survive because the audience wouldn’t let him be dead. How real is he? He’s got a survival instinct, that’s how real he is.

7 Comments

Wow, I thought I was the only person who ever read any of the Faction Paradox series (which Erasing Sherlock is part off).

The Holmes canon was my favourite reading material as a child, and I still dip my toe from time to time. With respect to the importance of Watson, I couldn’t agree more, which is why the two or three stories told directly by Holmes work considerably less well.

Actually, come to think of it, it’s also why Batman needs a Robin. Stories telling of super-human prowess rapidly become tiring when told from the perspective of the hero. Filter them through an ancillary characters eyes however, and by virtue of not revealing everything to an audience instantaneously , you confer on them a much greater longevity.

Love both characters and the stories are awesome. Always a good read.

In fact, I just signed up for dailylit.com – having “A Study in Scarlet” sent to me in installments each morning to read. Good way to start each day!

My introduction to Holmes were the 1939-1946 films starring Basil Rathbone, which I would watch as part of the Friday night schedule on Boston’s UHF 56 during the 60′s. I was in elementary school, and Fridays I could stay up to watch Creature Double Feature (from 8:00 PM to 11:30), Flash Gordon starring Buster Crabbe (11:30 to midnight) and Sherlock Holmes at 12:00.

Although the time period was reset to WWII, Rathbone had the character down pat (Nigel Bruce’s Watson and Inspector Lestrade were played as idiots, however). I remember my first viewing and the scene that enamored me to Holmes (and later) Arthur Conan Doyles’s other works forever. Holmes & Watson were in the apartrment and Holmes was staring out the window down the street. He turned around and told Watson they should be expecting a visitor. Watson huffed and laughed at Holmes, suggesting there’s no way he could tell a visitor was coming to his apartment just by looking at the crowd below. Holmes admonished Watson and pointed out a young woman below who wasn’t wearing gloves. His explanation was that any young woman would have to be in quite a hurry to forget to put on gloves before leaving her house. As the importance of coming to see him would be the most logical reason someone was in such a hurry, it was a simple deduction. Of course minutes later, there was a knock on the door and the young woman entered. Arrogance and brilliance. The classic Sherlock Holmes.

“(Which reminds me, as long as I’m plugging non-canonical Holmes, if you can track down the sadly out-of-print ‘All-Consuming Fire’, by Andy Lane, you’ll get an excellent Holmes/Doctor team-up.)”

Or the Talons of Weng-Chang, which was an unapologetic Holmes pastiche.

And I think part of the reason House hasn’t been as fun this season is that they’ve de-emphasized Wilson’s role as House’s Watson without finding an adequate substitute (Foreman’s too busy hitting on 13, Kumar isn’t given the screen time to fill the role and no one really likes Taub).

“having “A Study in Scarlet” sent to me in installments each morning to read. Good way to start each day!”

Trust me on this if you haven’t read it before: it actually does all make sense in the end, so don’t be too thrown by the drastic change in tone / setting halfway through.

Nice to see “Erasing Sherlock” cited here. It was an interesting take. As a Sherlockian, I see an awful lot of very bad pastiches, so appreciate the few novels that use the characters in interesting way from the viewpoint of different characters. A interesting contrast to “Erasing Sherlock” is the relatively recent “Jack Knife” by Virginia Baker with time travelers in Victorian London trying to track another researcher driven mad and amnesiac by the experience and becoming both Jack the Ripper and a Moriarty-like/Rupert Murdoch-like criminal and press lord.

My first introduction to Sherlock Holmes was through the TV series with Jeremy Brett, that was being aired weekly on PBS’s Mystery. The word “fascinated” does not do justice to the state that I found myself in. When the short stories that comprised the first season got their own collection (with a painted likeness of Brett on the cover), my mother wisely snatched it up and brought it home for me. Up until that point, I only read comic books, but Sherlock Holmes would turn me into a lifelong reader of fiction and literature.

Of course, in addition to those original, faded paperbacks, I now own at least four different collector’s editions of annotated Holmes collections, as anyone in my life who is stumped for a Christmas present eventually falls back on that option. Not a complaint mind you, just sharing.

EM

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