Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Scylla and Charybdis of pastiche.

Two very different current novels of Sherlock Holmes have been filling the cracks in my reading time of late, and the natural comparison of the two has brought me to a couple insights on the dangers of writing pastiche.

Why do most non-professionals write their own Sherlock Holmes stories?

Well, obviously, because they like Sherlock Holmes. They like Sherlock Holmes so much that they want to write a story about him. And they know Sherlock very well.

Wherein lies the problem. If you like Sherlock Holmes as much as the average fan, you're very apt to center your story around him . . . to the detriment of the other characters in the piece. And since both you and a lot of your readers know Holmes so well, there is also a tendency not to flesh him out as one would a totally original character. So if the other characters aren't being written fully formed as Sherlock takes center stage, and even Sherlock is getting shorthanded . . . well, there aren't going to be too many truly deep and interesting folk in the story.

We have to care about the other people in the story to give Sherlock something to do that matters. Conan Doyle had a great hand at populating London with colorful, memorable folk, and their tales were what made Sherlock famous as much as the detective himself.

Of course, there are those writers who like something else as much as Sherlock Holmes and wind up using Holmes and Watson as framing devices to write about their other passion. A classic example of that sort of bad pastiche was Sherlock Holmes in Dallas, a novel in which Holmes and Watson came forward in time to try to solve the Kennedy assassination, only to be mired in historical detail without actually interacting with it. They wind up as mouthpieces for the author to regurgitate facts that one could read in a Kennedy assassination book without them.

Both books I'm reading have moments that might have been quite inspired had the writers built just a bit more fictional reality around them. But the fact that I'm handily switching back and forth between the two says something about their ability to draw me in.

It's a problem that goes back nearly as far as Sherlock Holmes himself.


  1. Oh God, pastiche writers! I'm just having a lively discussion with one and one of her dedicated fans who took offence at my trashing her book on the amazon review boards. I'll never understand how someone can think their first attempt at writing ever(!) is good enough to sell for $ 9,99...

    And of course, the crux with most female writers is that they invent a heroine who resembles themselves and then use her to "put Holmes in his proper place" by letting her spout twentyfirst century feminist platitudes at him. What cowes him enough to fall in love with this "wonderful and unusual" woman. Blech!!!

  2. I like pastiches, by and large. They can and should be fun, and they don't have to be dead serious, or totally in the correct period, or even centered around Sherlock Holmes.

    But I do insist that they be well written, well enough plotted to hold my interest, believable for the genre, competent in using the English language, spell checked, not axe grinding (your example of "Sherlock Holmes in Dallas" is perfect). And while it is true that there have been bad pastiches always, we are currently plagued with a veritable deluge of just god-awful-and-beyond-bad, incompetently written, barely-if-at-all edited pastiches from the print-on-demand houses. They cheapen the entire game.

  3. YAY! YAY! YAY!!!

  4. I'm all for passing a constitutional amendment banning all pastiches, save for out-and-out parodies, of course.

    1. One would imagine that the author of "Reading the Signs" would be against the banning of cinematic pastiches. Are the pastiches of the screen and print (audio as well) all that different?

    2. With all the dreck in all media foisted on us lately, I've gotten rid of everything save for various editions of the sacred 60 by ACD. And I've taken them to the mountain top. Should anyone need canonical edification, they know where to find me. (But bring offerings of beer when you come up; imparting pure Sherlockian enlightenment is thirsty work...)

  5. I adore pastiches, because I am greedy and want MORE Sherlock Holmes (and also more Sherlock, which I get in fanfic). More, more, more, more. And my standards are very lenient. But I would agree that quite a bit of the stuff out there is uneven--even when it's not self-pub. I would love to see some writers have the chance to take their skills to the next level, and you can only do that if you get proper editing help and heartless critiques. But whether or not that ever happens, I'm glad that right now we have so much to choose from.

    But, oh, yes, Silke--I hate hate hate hate that type of heroine!! Always a self-insert Mary Sue--ALWAYS. And if she pulls out the now-clich├ęd throwing knives, or out-deduces Holmes--particularly in a snotty way in the first scene--I am done.

    (Leah Guinn)

  6. Thank God, someone understands me! Thank you, Leah. And then they insinuated that I must not like "strong female characters", when the character was, in fact, a total anachronism, had a name similar to the author's and even worked in her profession....

  7. I hope in due course you'll let us know which books you're reading and let us know what your thought are on them.

  8. I quite enjoy a well-written pastiche. Alas, they are rare.

    The earlier Mary Russell novels were rather fine. The author's publisher has instructed her to write at greater length, to the detriment of the storytelling. Still, I enjoy the concept. Mary's hardly a cardboard feminist; if she makes the old fogies go "harrumph"--all to the better!

    A recent discovery (which you may have discussed long ago): Kim Newman's "Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Urbervilles." Written by Sebastian Moran, exhibiting a Flashman-esque charm & true evil!