The West End Horror – Or How NOT To Write A Sherlock Holmes Pastiche

I think The Seven-Percent Solution was the first Sherlock Holmes pastiche I ever read.  It’s been quite a few years, but I remember liking it quite a bit at the time.  Enough that I sought out all of the original stories and inhaled them in a weekend.  Perhaps my tastes have changed – or perhaps Meyer’s follow-up doesn’t live up to its predecessor – either way The West End Horror: A Posthumous Memoir of John H. Watson, M.D.  is an absolute horror (not at all in the way the author intended).

The fact is, Nicholas Meyers does so much wrong in The West End Horror (it doesn’t even merit a plot summary) that it’s the perfect jumping off point on how not to write a Sherlock Holmes pastiche.   So here are my 5 simple rules on what NOT to do when writing your own Sherlock Holmes mystery.

Rule #1 – Don’t Name Drop.

In this, as he did in the The Seven-Percent Solution, Meyers includes a supporting cast of real life figures:  Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Gilbert & Sullivan and Sigmund Freud (in a repeat performance).  I suppose he’d argue that he included them because of their connection to the London theater, which is the setting for the mystery – but they could have all been replaced with entirely fictional characters and I can’t imagine anyone would have noticed.

We’ve all seen authors insert historical figures into a fictional narrative before *cough* Ahab’s Wife *cough* in what I can only assume is a misguided belief that by surrounding a fictional character with “real” people said character will in turn appear more real.  Sometimes it works.  More often is doesn’t.  More often the real-life figure appears historically inauthentic and the author has only succeeded in reinforcing that we are reading a work of fiction.

As in all things on this subject it’s best to follow Sir Arthur’s example.  Keep it ambiguous. Plop Holmes in a historically and geographically accurate setting.  Make passing references to an unexplored backlog of cases; in this way establishing a past, present and future for our characters.  If you must employ a character who has an actual birth certificate never give a name.  Let the readers connect the dots.

Rule # 2 – There is no Holmes without Watson.

Dr. John Watson writes about Sherlock Holmes.  Period.  There was no one else in the world on intimate terms with the man.  No one else who was there for every case.  No one else in whom the Great Detective put his trust.

And let’s face it… who else would put up with the arrogant twit?

With the exception of Mitch Cullin’s brilliant novel A Slight Trick of the Mind I’ve never read a pastiche where the omission of Watson didn’t create a great, gaping hole in the page.  Make no mistake – we love and admire Holmes because Watson loves and admires Holmes.

And for the love of all that is holy – Holmes  is not marriage material!

Which leads me into Rule #3.

Rule #3 – Holmes, married????! Pshaw!  My dear chap, Sherlock Holmes is the confirmed bachelor.

At the risk of alienating a certain group of Holmes’ fans – I’m not sure what else I can say about this.  My personal feelings on the subject are as follows:  Doyle wrote mysteries, not romances.  If you want to write a romance, or a mystery that features a romance, create your own Great Detective and give him another name.  Because, no matter how you slice it, Sherlock Holmes is a misogynist.  I’d say it was a part of his charm, except he’s not all that charming either.

Rule #4 – Don’t make excuses.

The conceit of Meyer’s pastiches are that he, Nicholas Meyer, has come into the possession of a long-lost manuscript of Dr. John Watson which reveals to the world a hereto unknown chapter in the life of the Great Detective.  The manuscripts are usually  damaged, with whole sections illegible, in a thinly veiled attempt to stave off the Holmesian enthusiasts from inundating Meyers with letters pointing out his inaccuracies.

I’m not sure why he worried… Doyle obviously didn’t.

You say pastiche,  I say plagiarism. No matter what you choose to call it – you’re ripping off Arthur Conan Doyle. If the man was still alive you’d be in court.  So once you’ve taken that bold step in your borderline criminal career, spare me the ethics.  Read the original stories and pilfer the hell out of them!!!!  Steal characters, case names, explain away those inconsistencies with wild and improbable leaps in deduction… or just ignore them altogether.

Rule # 5 – Sherlock Holmes Does Not Lower Himself to Fisticuffs

That’s right Guy Ritchie!  I’m talking to you! (Though I do sorta’ enjoy Jude Law as Watson).

The only physical exercise Holmes gets is a bit of a chase after escaping bad guys.  And even then I can’t imagine him accelerating above a determined trot.  As for physical combat… He and Watson carry pistols for a reason. I believe Holmes occasionally engages in swordplay – that’s perfectly acceptable as he’s able to maintain safe distance between himself and his opponent.  But hand-to-hand combat?  Risk a facer??? A possible concussion???   Anything that might damage that amazing brain?  Doubtful, dear readers.  Highly doubtful.

_______

Obviously, Meyers is not responsible for the complete list (even at that he doesn’t quite make the grade).  Ah well.  If, like me, you feel that the holidays & Sherlock Holmes just go together – please share your favorites (and least favorites) in the comments section.

And here’s what’s in my TBR Pile for the weekend:

Yup…that’s what I’ll be reading on Saturday evening: curled under a blanket, a cup of cocoa on the table next to me and my two dogs loudly and happily barking at the innocent and unsuspecting passersby outside (aren’t they adorable?).  Happy Christmas All!

Publisher:  E.P. Dutton & Co., New York (1976)

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7 thoughts on “The West End Horror – Or How NOT To Write A Sherlock Holmes Pastiche

  1. This sounds awful. I have no Holmes pastiche to relate, but I feel inspired to pass along the wonder that is Gilette’s Castle. If you haven’t been, you should run up to Connecticut to take a hysterical and historical tour through the mansion that Gilette built (he was the first actor to play Holmes on stage, and the one who gave him many of the attributes we associate with the great detective today). I would describe it, but you wouldn’t believe me. And ps I would marry Sherlock.

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  2. I had to add the link to that in your comment. And here I was thinking you’d taken a sudden interest in a disposable razor baron! 🙂

    Was he one of those actors who “lives” the part?

    Actually, I recant my statement re: who would want Sherlock Holmes. The real point I was trying to make is that I don’t think he’d want to marry any of us.

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  3. I agree with some of this (Holmes without Watson is what causes me to dislike the Laurie King books). But fisticuffs is quite valid— Holmes was actually an avid boxer. And I’d argue that he was not so much a misogynist as period-typical in his assumptions and quite willing to give a woman the time of day if she impressed him (as did Violet Hunter and Irene Adler– though admittedly I too cannot really see Holmes married. Still, some of the foremost Holmes writers, such as Baring-Gould, seem to subscribe to the idea, so whatever I suppose). I enjoyed the 7% solution, so I’ll have to form an opinion after I’ve actually read this.

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    1. Ami –
      Thank you for the great comment. I waited a few days to answer because you made me think.

      First, regarding Holmes and fisticuffs (love that word!) – While Holmes was an avid boxer, I just can’t imagine him engaging in an actual bare knuckle brawl during one of his cases. In the controlled environment of the ring, yes. Back alley, not so sure. And if so only in the most extreme circumstances.

      As for his being a misogynist – I recant my earlier statement. At least that portion of it. I still think Holmes and marriage don’t mix. But as for his opinions on women, to imply that he hated or even disliked them is too extreme. I do think that as a gender they seldom made a blip on his radar. Individual women, yes, have made impressions. But beyond that… meh.

      I, too, enjoyed the 7% Solution. It’s shaped how I’ve read all other, even the original, Holmes stories. I’d be interested in hearing what you think of The West End Horror when you’ve finished it.

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  4. WTF? Holmes doesn’t get married in any of Meyer’s Holmes pastiches, both _The Seven-per-Cent Solution_ and _The West End Horror_ are narrated by Watson, and the original Holmes most certainly did engage in fisticuffs (see e.g. his off-screen boxing match with Mr. Woodley in “The Solitary Cyclist”). And Sigmund Freud appears exactly nowhere in _The West End Horror_.

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    1. Hi Scott –
      Thanks for the comment. It’s been awhile, but please bear with me while I try to address your excellent points.

      First – I was using The West End Horror as a jumping off point to discuss issues that I had with Holmes pastiches across the board (on re-reading the post I realized that this might not be entirely clear). So, my comments on Holmes’ marriage were a reference to Laurie R. King’s series of novels.

      You are correct that Holmes did have an off-screen boxing match, but the fact that it was a “match” makes a difference I believe. I’d still argue that Guy Ritchie’s films feature a more physical version of Holmes that (I feel) misses the point.

      And lastly – I know that Freud is mentioned in The West End Horror. It may be that Watson is only referencing the events in The Seven-Percent solution. Still, I felt it was fair to include that mention as a name drop.

      If it will redeem me somewhat in your eyes, here are links to some Holmes Pastiches that I enjoyed (and didn’t enjoy) to varying degrees –

      Dust and Shadow

      The Italian Secretary

      The U.S. television show Elementary

      I also loved Caleb Carr’s The House of Silk (and am really surprised to see that I never got around to reviewing it).

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  5. Holmes was very athletic. In one Conan Doyle story, Watson is walking down the stairs, Holmes behind him, when Watson turns around there’s Holmes walking down the steps on his hands. In another story, Holmes unbends a fireplace poker that an irate visitor had bent out of shape. No mean feat, that. Try it sometime. There’s the altercation in the bar in the Solitary Cyclist mentioned above. Not a “match,” a brawl. Holmes dispatches the bully in a very short fight. And, of course, there’s the Final Problem wherein Holmes fights with Moriarty about Reichenbach Falls. Watson’s reading of the scuffle in the dirt suggests Holmes was not only a boxer but a student of jujitsu. There are other examples, but you should get the point. Try watching the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes episodes. There you’ll see the above episodes played out as Conan Doyle wrote them. The Robert Downey version of Sherlock Holmes portrays London as it probably was in reality. And we get to see Holmes outside 221B. Holmes had an encyclopedic knowledge of London which he didn’t get sitting on his ass at Baker Street.

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