‘And so it happened that an hour or so later I found myself in the corner of a first-class carriage, flying along, en route for Exeter, while Sherlock Holmes, with his sharp, eager face framed in his earflapped travelling cap, dipped rapidly into the bundle of fresh papers which he had procured at Paddington.’
Silver Blaze – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
People sometimes ask me, ‘Did you know that this is the only sentence in the entire text of the Holmes stories that refers even vaguely to the detective’s iconic deerstalker hat? Did you know he was addicted to tobacco, which he felt assisted the cognitive process, and intravenous cocaine? That he first began taking cases from fellow students at university when he was an undergraduate? That he kept his tobacco in a Persian slipper, had a jackdaw-like obsession with documents, and would often refuse to eat or sleep during periods of intense intellectual exertion?’
Do I know all these things? Do I know?
And my reply is usually along the lines of, ‘What DON’T you think I know about Sherlock Holmes? WHAT KIND OF A FANGIRL D’YOU THINK I AM, OF COURSE I BLOODY KNOW!’ I may not be a fully paid-up member of the Sherlockian society (I probably would be if they had regular meetings in Melbourne), but yes, I know – and I’ve got the keychain to prove it.
I’ve been to the Sherlock museum in London. I’ve read alI the books, I’ve watched all the movies (even the black and white ones; even the terrible ones – even the Gene Wilder one), and all the shows. I tried to buy a deerstalker when I was in the UK, but the really nice ones were out of my price range *sob*.
I was fourteen, and had just entered high school, when I discovered Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, and fell promptly in love with Sherlock Holmes. The puzzles he was presented with were intriguing, and his methods were ingenious, but it was the man himself I came to adore – eccentric, dryly witty, driven, and above all, ferociously intelligent. He was a far different character to most of the boys I knew in school, I can tell you.
Energetic, mercurial, with talent for disguise and a seemingly encyclopediac knowledge of small details – he wrote monographs on everything from bee behaviour to tobacco ash – Sherlock worked as a private consulting detective, and on occasion with Inspector Lestrade of London’s famous Scotland Yard. Recording his adventures with meticulous care was Sherlock’s friend and assistant, Dr John Watson, a former army surgeon. Holmes and Watson shared lodgings at 221B Baker Street, Marylebone, in London, overseen by their housekeeper, Mrs Hudson. Among Holmes’s other associates were various street denizens – publicans, merchants, shop-owners, and a collection of alley urchins who helped him with surveillance, whom he collectively nicknamed ‘the Baker Street Irregulars’.
I devoured Conan Doyle’s fifty-six stories and four novels – like, devoured. When Holmes dived to his death over Reichenbach Falls while grappling with his nemesis, Dr James Moriarty, in The Final Problem, I cried. I wanted to wear a black armband too, like all the fashionable young men and women of London did when Conan Doyle’s story was published. The public outcry at the time was so huge that Conan Doyle was forced to resurrect Holmes in a new set of stories, to everyone’s relief.
Sherlock has been my passion ever since. I watched Basil Rathbone don the deerstalker, and I loved Jeremy Brett, who played the role in a British TV series in the eighties. Young Sherlock Holmes (dir. Chris Columbus) was one of my favourite childhood films.
And the books! I have an old copy of Nicholas Meyer’s superb re-writing of the Holmes legend in The Seven Percent Solution, and more recently I’ve chased up Laurie King’s recreations of a Holmes drawn out of semi-retirement and contemplation of his beehives by American protégé, Mary Russell, in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Anthony Horowitz (the Alex Rider series) wrote The House of Silk with the permission of Conan Doyle’s estate, and Mark Haddon’s YA book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was an amazing nod to Conan Doyle, with a young protagonist whose eccentricities and logic are an interesting mirror of Holmes’s own tendencies. Holmes’s influence extends to kid’s literature (Encyclopedia Brown, Young Sherlock Holmes, The Baker Street Irregulars), anime (Sherlock Hound), games (Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) and many more.
The new iterations of Holmes have become my favourites though. While I’m not sold on the Guy Ritchie films, with Robert Downey Jnr (I do love him as an actor, but he’s not the man I picture as Holmes, somehow), I absolutely adore the BBC series Sherlock – Benedict Cumberbatch is brilliant playing Holmes as a ‘high-functioning sociopath’, and the series is a methodical updating of Holmes’s methods. But the version of Holmes that I’ve enjoyed most has been Johnny Lee Miller’s interpretation in the CBS series Elementary. Miller plays Holmes as a man whose peculiarities place him on a certain personality spectrum – someone whose blazing intellect and emotional disconnect create problems when he’s required to behave appropriately in social situations. Unlike Cumberbatch’s version, Miller’s Holmes is a more human character: he’s not unfeeling, but instead feels, thinks, and observes overwhelmingly, which makes him vulnerable to addictive habits. He finds social nuance utterly illogical and a bit of a nuisance, and he slaves everything to his investigative passions. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) directs Holmes gently, and keeps him on the straight and narrow, and I think a female Watson works brilliantly.
The character of James Mycroft in Every Breath is my own homage to Holmes, and Rachel Watts, as her name implies, is the practical girl Watson, the foil to Mycroft’s dramatic investigative flare.
The name Mycroft is, of course, a nod to Sherlock’s older brother, Mycroft Holmes, who spent his hours at the Diogenes Club (‘a club for the most unclubb-able men in London’) where members were asked to ignore each other completely and to absolutely refrain from speaking – guests who wished to verbalise were required to enter a separate chamber called The Stranger’s Room to engage in conversation. Mycroft Holmes was reputedly even smarter than his brilliant younger brother but too indolent to put his talents to use, except to act as an advisor to the British government in matters of policy – Mycroft was, effectively, a one-man walking think-tank for the British Home Office.
But for me, it will always be Sherlock whose star burns brightest. The characters in Every Breath are aware of the legend, and give knowing winks to the Conan Doyle stories. James Mycroft and Rachel Watts – like every fictional detective duo since 1887, when the stories first burst into the public consciousness – owe a great debt to Holmes. I hope I’ve done him proud.
Ellie Marney was born in Brisbane, and has lived in Indonesia, Singapore and India. Now she writes, teaches, talks about kid’s literature at libraries and schools, and gardens when she can, while living in a country idyll (actually a very messy wooden house on ten acres with a dog and lots of chickens) near Castlemaine, in north-central Victoria. Her partner and four sons still love her, even though she often forgets things and lets the housework go.
Ellie’s short stories for adults have won awards and been published in various anthologies. Every Breath is her first novel for young adults. – [X]