Thursday, December 17, 2020

Doyle writes a pastiche

I don't think I have to explain the long history of disrespect for pastiche in the Sherlockian world.

It's natural, of course. You come to something as a fan, hope to repeat your original enjoyment of that thing, and your attempt to feel that same joy fails. It's as much your fault as the author's, for even having that expectation. The Sherlock Holmes novels I got into during my first summer as a Holmes fan weren't Conan Doyle. In fact, they're works generally thought of as crap, even in one or two cases, by their own authors. But at the time, I loved them and enjoyed them at a level that even the Canon itself doesn't bring me any more.

Pastiche, an honest attempt by any writer to capture the magic that a fellow writer once worked, has the great tragic nobility of the charge of the Light Brigade -- attempting a glorious thing that is probably doomed to failure. Sometimes it's even a spectacular failure. But any writer that loves the written word has to try pastiche at some point, to see if one can use another writer's tricks.

Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

You might have had the thought that his later Sherlock Holmes works are actually pastiches of his original Sherlock Holmes stories from the early nineties, containing the same elements, but not quite measuring up. Did Doyle slip in one written by his wife or secretary? Improbable, but a few of them are just off enough to make one wonder.

This evening, however, was the first time I realized that Conan Doyle borrowed very much from another author within the Canon itself. And I'm not talking about Poe, who gets referenced right off the bat when we are practically told straight on: This detective is not a Poe detective. He's better.

No, what I realized tonight was that Conan Doyle gave us a Baroness Orczy story, shuffled in the middle of a bunch of Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Baroness Orczy created a popular historical stage play -- two genres that Doyle always wanted to be successful in that had a long London run after opening in 1903. She wrote a novel of the same title after her play, called The Scarlet Pimpernel. Many other novels featuring the character followed, in 1906, 1908, 1913, and 1917 . . . yes, 1917, the same year Conan Doyle published the short story "His Last Bow."

The general premise of the Scarlet Pimpernel stories is that we're introduced to a set of characters amid a dangerous historical time, villainy is afoot, and at a key moment -- voila! -- one of the characters was the Scarlet Pimpernel in disguise all along! It's a grand moment in every Pimpernel tale, and the moment the reader waits for, like the M. Night Shyamalan of her day, readers new her story mechanic and it made her very popular. So popular, in fact, that Conan Doyle had to be aware of it.

While I haven't seen any mention of Doyle reading The Scarlet Pimpernel or seeing the play that started its popularity amidst all the documenting of his life that has gone on, the very timing of "His Last Bow," which is basically a Scarlet Pimpernel story with Sherlock Holmes in place of the Pimpernel seems to show that Conan Doyle surely borrowed the scheme from the Baroness.

And, in that respect, wrote a pastiche. Right there in our Sherlockian Canon.

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