Some thoughts about fictional detectives

Detective stories aren’t really about solving mysteries.

Very few detective stories are Encyclopedia Brown-style “solvable murder puzzles” where the reader can find every clue necessary to discover The Truth. Even most of Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes stories are not solvable puzzles; Sherlock has insights and background knowledge the reader does not. Most mystery stories play with hunches and suspicions, but almost never with full, fair data. This is because most mystery stories are not as much about the mystery as they are about the mystery-solver.

Mystery novels featuring a private eye or a detective are almost always primarily character studies. We are likely to spend a lot of time watching smart people struggle with difficult problems. We are going to spend a lot of time ‘in’ their brains, following their patterns of thought and learning about how they think. Their personalities become the entire organizing logic through which we see a world. Though the mystery may change every novel or every week, the window we see the world through– the detective– does not.

It is therefore necessary that the detective’s brain be a fun place for the audience to hang out. The detective must look at the world in a fresh, fascinating way. If the story has long-term character development, he or she must have secrets, or drama, or something fraught and tense that they can think about all the time– some problem that lives wholly or largely in the brain. An interesting nut for the detective to crack. Our shared fantasy of fictional detectivehood is generally a fantasy of an incredibly smart, troubled person whose brain is so mysterious and cool that we must spend many books or many episodes of television unriddling it.

And despite the fact that they have no ongoing character development whatsoever, the Sherlock Holmes stories are, of course, the ultimate example of this. Most modern-day adaptations of the story add significant character development to Holmes in order to make his brain even more interesting. It is fitting that the “fandom” for the Sherlock TV show fixates so heavily upon Benedict Cumberbatch and his character as an object of (often sexual) fantasy: Sherlock Holmes stories were always about ordinary people fixating on and obsessing over and worrying about the much-more-interesting life and brain of the famed detective, and fans replicate those patterns in the real world. They adopt Watson’s worshipful awe as their own. Sherlock Holmes stories have always been about ordinary people describing and marveling over the fascinating brain of a much more interesting and important person, and this very much par for the course for detective stories in general.

It is true even when the detectives in question are not tremendous, wonderful, sexy, pedestal-standing people. The Wallander books by Swedish author Henning Mankell– who died, actually, in October of this year– are a character study of an incredibly ordinary person with extremely typical problems. But Kurt Wallander’s problems have interesting stakes, and his brain becomes interesting because we care about it and because its contents are familiar enough that we sympathize with them. He may remind us of people we know, dads and grandads we know.

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This weird frisson between his highly unusual problem-solving detective brain and the difficult familiarity of his problems is even more effective in the three excellent seasons of the Swedish TV show starring Krister Henriksson. Henriksson’s Wallander is the ultimate cranky old community misfit, uncomfortably occupying both a position of power and a position somehow outside the normal functioning of the community. He is always both exactly where he needs to be and terribly out-of-sorts. We watch with fixed attention as he experiences a variety of absolutely tragic miseries and stumbles over them with his sad, fraught detective brain. I, personally, would watch an episode consisting entirely of Wallander crankily trying and failing to board a flight at an airport. Though he’s no Holmes, this is exactly the kind of fascinating broken loner detective brain we all expect and crave from the genre.

Of course, the loner identity is the other side of the detective-brain coin. Because they think so differently from other characters in their fictional worlds, our detectives are very often major loners. they run the full gamut from ‘amusing and eccentric aloneness’ to ‘apocalyptic aloneness.’ They may have a partner, and they may have a family, but there is usually something about them and their precious brain and precious problems which makes it hard for them to fit in with the rest of their community. Holmes is a loner. Wallander is a loner. Rust Cohle and Sarah Linden and Alec Hardy and John Luther and Stella Gibson and Will Graham and, reaching back, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are all loners, to greater or lesser degrees. Here in the US, Netflix has just released a BBC TV show called ‘River’ where Stellan Skarsgaard, trying very hard (and failing) to not sound as Swedish as he actually is, acts the part of a completely bonkers detective who is so alone and miserable that he hallucinates the presence of his murdered partner almost 100% of the time. Our logic goes: if we are going to spend this much time in a stranger’s brain, it better be interesting. And ‘interesting’ usually means ‘broken’– so ‘interesting’ and so ‘broken’ that this person must be totally, astonishingly alone.

Of course, this is not all innocent drama. It is political that one of our major entertainment genres is primarily concerned with telling elaborate melodramatic stories about the precious brains and precious problems of imaginary good-guy policemen. And it is also wierd that we are glorifying and idolizing a bunch of imaginary people whose behavior nevertheless conforms pretty closely in many cases to untreated depression and other serious untreated mental illnesses, especially when these problems are credited with giving them their “appeal” and “charm” and “mystery.”

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And these imaginary people are all so elaborately broken! Now, I don’t actually know any detectives personally, but I hear tell that the vast majority of them are fairly ordinary people whose lives feature no extraordinary, melodramatic level of brokenness or aloneness. Most people, I think, are aware of this. The Sad Lonely Detective Man is very obviously a trope that we use because it is fun, not because it tells any great truth about detectiving or detectivehood. I think the point of detective stories is to give us a place where we can do outrageously melodramatic character studies, where we can feel free to stretch out and roll around in the misery-mud with a bunch of wan-faced wasting men and women. The framing fiction of a ‘detective story’ has built-in goals and built-in villains and provides excellent structure upon which we can hang the frail, tortured skins of our imaginary brain-dudes.

I think this genre has largely become about what it is like to be various kinds of lonely sad person. We may not really have any idea what it is like to detect shit, but we all know exactly what it is like to be sad. The detectives are all establishment figures, System People, and that makes it easy and uncomplicated for the average person to empathize with their complicated sadness. We definitely need this place in fiction where loads and loads of imaginary sad characters can putter over fairly-formulaic problems while the story really focuses on how sad and interesting their brains are. I am not being facetious! There are so many of these stories, and they are all so similar, that there really must be something in them that we want. They aren’t filling a niche; they are filling in a gigantic crater of lonely sadness. They’re doing a good job.

Of course, I am not being entirely fair to the genre. The formula is much more varied than I have described it. You have shows like The Blacklist, where ‘the detective personality’ has been displaced from the actual detectives onto their criminal consultant; you have the US version of The Killing, which features loners but gives them absolutely no hint of abnormal brilliance. Broadchurch has one drama detective and one relentlessly ordinary detective, then partially swaps their roles at various points in the story. You have stuff like Columbo, which turns the misery-brain trope on its head, featuring instead a very down-to-earth detective who is interesting for his common friendliness. You have anti-detective stories, like Twin Peaks, where the detective’s smart-man expertise makes absolutely zero sense to the audience. The genre is so big that I cannot ever cover it comprehensively. There are endless twists on the formula. You can probably name many yourself.

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But we do cleave to the formula a little too tightly. For example, we will even stretch it to include baffling examples of “anti-establishment” policemen. On The X Files we followed the adventures of two rebellious FBI agents who, over the course of the show, somehow managed to shed almost 100% of their institutional qualities and become entirely anti-system rebels while inexplicably retaining their jobs– and even when they lost their jobs, we received two replacement agents who began an identical journey from scratch. We’d apparently rather jump through those bizarre hoops than deviate even slightly from the time-tested detective-man plan!

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about this lately because I am halfway (well, slightly more than halfway) through writing an interactive mystery story myself. In some ways, it is extremely formulaic: it features a very alone adult man who has a melodramatic past and who is trying very hard to solve a murder case. But it also deviates from the formula in a few ways I think are important. I have been taking absolutely for-fucking-ever to write this story, but I am making consistent progress, and that’s giving me a good environment to slowly mull over what I think of these tropes and whether they are useful or good for me. It is important to think about what you are supporting or buying into through the tropes and stereotypes you use in your work. I have a better idea of what I like, now.

But: I would recommend staying far, far away from TV Tropes when doing this kind of thing. Losing yourself in TV Tropes has never been better than simply marathoning a TV show or chain-reading an entire book series and just allowing yourself to get lost in someone else’s story. A writer reading TV Tropes is like an alien trying to learn what a cake tastes like from a cookbook. The best solution is to simply go eat the cake.

A final story: since first or second grade, I have been repeatedly and relentlessly informed by all my peers and many of my elders that I am extremely weird, and that I have an unusual way of putting things and of looking at the world. I can’t disagree. As a child I had an encyclopedic command of large numbers of useless facts, an aggressive, double-barreled stare, a complete lack of interest in all gendered social activities, and a habit of constantly trying to get and hold other people’s attention. Though this stopped being a problem for me over a decade ago, when I was very small I derived enormous amounts of angst from my defective personality. But in third grade, after a life-changing classroom reading of The Red-Headed League (that I still remember with bizarre detail), I ended up absolutely inhaling Sherlock Holmes. I read almost all of the original canon without stopping and later re-read it all on a yearly basis, novels and all, all the way up through high school. I found the stories soothing, not least because they were about a weird person whom everyone seemed to worship.

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As a child I took Sherlock Holmes as proof that someone could be weird and smart and alone, but nevertheless fulfilled. I sort of idolized the Holmes-Watson pair as an example of complete and ultimate friendship, and I took it as proof that if I could only do one or two things extremely well, then someone would admire me for it and be my friend. It did not occur to me until much later that the Holmes-Watson friendship is actually rather shitty, and that Watson is constantly trying to get away from it by marrying people and having a career. I also sort of glossed over the fact that Holmes is a sexist and that he probably would have despised me if he were real. For quite a long time, my secret role model and idol was a caricature of a grouchy fictional British detective, and I can tell you: it didn’t do me much good.

In high school I changed my behavior dramatically and became rather decent at making friends. My opinion of Sherlock Holmes changed too, and although I still think those stories are the finest short stories ever written, I no longer treat glorified miserable smartass aloneness as a thing to aspire to. As a result, my relationship to the entire goddamn mystery genre has changed. I don’t necessarily laugh at these stories, but I do a lot of laughing with them, with their melodramatic mud-rolling misery, and I think I enjoy them in a more genuine way now that I can treat them as inherently absurd.

I think the true sign of real comfort with a genre or style of writing is the ability to treat it as completely ridiculous. Not necessarily all the time, but some of the time, certainly. I would give a lot to be a fly on the wall in some of my favorite detective shows’ writers’ rooms. I would like to see whether they laugh at themselves, and how much. I think I can guess which writers’ rooms are relentlessly po-faced.

Hint: it’s probably not the best ones.

On Visionary Fantasy

When I first read the Song of Ice and Fire books by George RR Martin, I was pretty much entranced by them. I was unemployed at the time, and had nothing to do every day but send out job applications, play Red Dead Redemption, and read books– so I ended up reading every book in the entire series in two weeks flat, finishing just two days before the most recent entry in the series– A Dance With Dragons– came out. So I read that right away, too. For just under three weeks, I spent about 75% of my waking hours in Westeros. I had entered one of those weird fiction-induced flow states where nothing in the real world seems quite real, and your imagination seems more physically powerful than any of your actual muscles.

About a week after I finished the books, the glow wore off, and I started having serious misgivings about what I’d read. Namely, the fact that practically every female character in every one of those books is raped or at the very least threatened with sexual violence, like, all the goddamn time! When you look back and see exactly how often rape is brought up in those books– how often it is used as a weapon against people of both sexes, but far more often against women– it gets really disturbing. It really began to wear me down, no matter how hard I tried to focus on the book’s good parts.

So I started reading up on critical responses to the ASOIAF books to see if anyone else had picked up on this, and was gratified to see that a lot of people, actually, had. This humorous article covered my misgivings most comprehensively, pointing out the books’s sheer, overpowering amount of rape, the amount of slut-shaming, the stereotype-riddled characterization of most of the major women, and the similar bizarre stereotyping of the (rare) plucky lady adventuress heroes.

This article spoke so clearly to my growing misgivings that I simply had to share it on Facebook, which I did, only to discover that this made at least one of my Facebook acquaintances nuclearly angry that I would dare criticize a “medieval” story which has “gritty realism,” because GRRM is only trying to be “authentic”.

Now, I studied medieval and early modern Europe for four years in college, culminating in a focus on cultural history (history as it is expressed by the cultural productions of the era, including plays, church records, bible translations, pamphlets, newspapers, etc), so I am very familiar with how women were treated and thought of at that time. Yes, it was bad, but women were not actually getting raped every minute. Some of them even managed to defeat the restrictive bounds of their patriarchal cultures and wield actual power and get serious respect. Sometimes they subverted their patriarchal culture in exciting ways which I wish were better-known and more-admired. I don’t know if it’s bizarre enlightened foolishness which makes us think that the past was an uninterrupted orgy of violence and oppression, but it wasn’t. When you take a step back and look at the great diversity of world cultures, the past wasn’t even consistently sexist or homophobic. And though those moments were rare, we should seek them out and celebrate them and hold them up for everyone to see. Pretending that the past has always been completely bad sometimes ends up working to the disadvantage of progress, by subtly validating modern oppression. I’ve seen that kind of thing happen a lot with regards to the areas of my own study. I’ve seen people sighing that the past was bad, so we shouldn’t be too disappointed by a lack of progress in the present. I’ve seen people using their imaginary vision of the past to justify fucked-up fantasy worlds in the present. And when those fantasy worlds get as popular as GRRM’s have, it’s a problem. Medieval European culture in particular wasn’t the torrent of abhorrent violence you’d believe it was if you took GRRM’s books for actual commentary about the past.

Because they’re not, really. They’re superficially medieval political dramas, and the past has practically nothing to do with the plots and characters in the story. 100% of the stuff in the book is the pure creative creation of GRRM himself. As Tiger Beatdown put it in the article linked above,

A Song of Ice and Fire is known for being “gritty” and “authentic,” so really, aren’t I just objecting to the realism? Reader, here are the things that George R. R. Martin changed about Ye Olde Medieval Europe, when he set out to write A Song of Ice and Fire: Religion. Geography. History. Politics. Zombies. Werewolves. Dragons. At one point, when asked why his characters were taller, healthier, and longer-lived than actual Medieval people, George R. R. Martin explained that human genetics and biology do not work the same way in Westeros as they do in the real world. So George R. R. Martin considered that he could change all of that while maintaining “authenticity.” Here’s what he left in, however: Institutionalized pedophilia.

Everything in those books was put there deliberately by a man who is clearly very experienced at his craft. So it’s not accidental: GRRM wanted to write a story in a world where rape and the oppression of women and female children are common, everyday things. That’s the kind of imaginary world he cooked up in his head. And there’s nothing ‘authentic to the past’ about it. So what the fuck, I ask you, is going on in his head?

I feel that the only reason to have a story set in a world where rape normalized is if you’re going to make some kind of point about how rape is actually bad. Like, the only excuse I can see for ASOIAF’s rapeyness is if in the very last book, all the female characters get up and announce “all y’all rapey men SUCK, do you hear,” and then they take over the world and put all the rapists in jail. Because if this isn’t some long game on GRRM’s part to tell a slow parable about how terrible rape and patriarchy are, there is really no excuse for this shit in a story written in and told to the modern world.

I am totally serious about this. If we are committed to changing bad cultural shit in our own time, we have to express that stuff in our stories. The future lives partially in our inventions. Gene Roddenberry’s idealism in Star Trek is a great example of this: his stories broke the taboos of their age, changed television standards, and so inspired the world that they resulted in the creation of an actual spaceship named Enterprise. If you can’t imagine a just world for your fantasies, are you committed to bringing about justice in the real world? I’d say: no. You are not. You are basically celebrating bad stuff, actually. Unless you are telling, as I said, a long parable, and one of the punchlines is “oppression is bad!”

I bring this all up now because I’ve had the joy of reading a couple of fantastic fantasy books set in a world where gender equality is normal, homophobia is absolutely nonexistent, the only time (that I can remember) that rape is mentioned is when someone says you can’t do that, and half the important characters are complex women with real goals and skills and (about 99% of the time) actual personalities. The books? The Gentleman Bastards series by Scott Lynch.

These two (soon to be three) stories are superficially based on medieval/early modern Italian city-states– just as superficially as GRRM’s magical land is based on England. They center around a group of con men who have crazy caper-y adventures stealing loads of gold from rich people in years-long cons full of false identities, magical traps, crazy contraptions, sneaky plots, and last-minute game-changing reveals. They’re pretty much excellent– excellently written, excellently imagined– and they’re even more excellent because they’re full of so much goddamn JUSTICE, particularly when it comes to gender equality and LGBT rights.

The first book in the series features: a mafioso’s clever daughter who is expected to grow up to be chief of thieves herself, a pair of female gladiators with a secret, a noblewoman who is basically the family moneymaker due to her crazy alchemy/botany skills, and one extremely powerful and important politician woman who I can’t talk about without revealing secrets about the story. The book is filled with mentions of female guards walking around with spears and swords. It includes female thieves, lots and lots of gladiators who are women, and more. Wherever Lynch has a chance to point out yes, both genders can accomplish this thing, both genders are accomplishing that thing, right there in front of your face. There are also a number of sidelong references to the fact that in this universe, homosexuality is just dandy, and celebrated right alongside heterosexuality.

The second book takes it up a notch. We learn, early on, that sailors in this universe believe it is an unforgivable sin to go to sea without many many women on your ship. If you are not on sea with women, the god of the sea will get so pissed at you that he will fucking destroy you! So, naturally, there are tons of women on every ship, many in leadership positions, and everyone is cool with them reaching great heights of power and influence. One of the most important characters in the story is a woman who is a pirate and a mother and whose three-year-old kids are on the ship with her. In some scenes, she goes straight from stabbing people to feeding her kids dinner, and everyone takes this in stride. She is part of a pirate’s council where most of the captains are women. Also in this story: lady soldiers, politically powerful lady naval officers, a disabled lady ex-soldier who is a casino security master who replaced her injured hand with a fucking robo-arm that she fights people with, a lady pirate captain who is a lesbian, various bisexual and gay pirates, and on and on and on: just loads and loads of rock-solid idealistic fantasy flying around.

Now, it is possible to read books like the Gentleman Bastards series and say “well, okay, but all the main characters are still men, so this isn’t idealistic enough for me.” But I’m willing to take this victory and enjoy the show. It’s also possible to say “well, if you want us to imagine idealistic universes, why are you stopping with gender and sexuality? Why aren’t you pissed off that there are poor people in this story, or cruel dictators, or torture?” But again, I’m willing to say that this thing, right now, is pretty great, and we shouldn’t knock it. Every story will need to have challenges for its protagonists to overcome, so there’s no point in writing a story set in a perfectly idealistic world. But there is a point in helping us imagine ways in which cruelty and oppression can be overcome by showing it in the story. And when it comes to gender and sexuality, a great way to show that is to simply show a universe where most people, to be frank, are better and kinder than we are.

If GRRM doesn’t have the strength, conviction, or vision to imagine such a world, whatever. Fuck that guy. I’ll be reading The Gentleman Bastards instead.

The Adventure of the Empty Pastiche

Spoilers ahead for the book The House of Silk.

The first Holmes pastiche to be authorized by the Conan-Doyle estate– whatever the hell that means, in a world already filled with Holmes pastiche– is The House of Silk. It was described in The Guardian as ‘a no-shit Sherlock,’ and it certainly is: its author, Anthony Horowitz, cleaves close to the Holmes of old. Close enough, anyway, to be sometimes boring. It’s a book with too little ambition. and the ambitions it does have aren’t big enough to be interesting.

I did enjoy the book. I read it one year ago, on an airplane flight, and it was a quick, mostly enjoyable read which only disappointed me in retrospect, after I’d finished it, and had started mulling it over in the context of my own familiarity with Holmes stories. Parts of it were enough like the originals to leave me quite astonished. Other parts were weak enough to leave me bemused and disappointed. Watson has an entirely different, weirdly sentimental feel to him, but Holmes himself feels largely like Doyle’s Holmes.

Like Doyle’s Holmes at his most boring, anyway. Sherlock Holmes has always been a flat character– but his flatness has texture. A critical component of any good Holmes tale is the moment when his logical exterior is broken by triumphant pride, suppressed glee, blackest depression, or the sympathy of wisdom. Doyle did it constantly– he understood that the exceptions to the rule of Holmes’s personality were the moments which would truly endear us to him. However, Horowitz isn’t willing to take any risks, and so his Holmes breakout moments aren’t particularly interesting. At one point, Holmes feels regret. He trickles on lukewarmly regretful until it becomes boring and then, to put these weak and sickly demons to rest, burns down a building in about the second to last paragraph– offscreen, as it were, and entirely without excitement.

Horowitz-Holmes is just too goddamn flat, and it’s because Horowitz-Holmes is just too goddamn faithful to Conan-Doyle. Which, of course, is to be expected from an ‘authorized’ pastiche.

Holmes pastiche ranges from the woefully bad to the ludicrously odd to the thought-provoking and back again to the traditional. Authors reinterpret Holmes constantly. To be honest, Doyle wrote more than enough traditional Holmes. He wrote Holmes until Holmes wasn’t even properly Holmes anymore. We can feast to fullness on authentic Holmes, and we do. There are over sixty of these stories: we have so much Holmes that he has transcended Doyle’s personal genius and become a public legend. In a way, the immortal partnership of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson belongs to us all, and we may do what we like with it. Frankly, I have read the original stories a hundred times, and I am ready and willing to see a twist on the formula.

That’s why I read pastiches at all: because I want to see another, unique, different kind of Holmes. I read The Seven-Per-Cent Solution because I wanted to see crazy Holmes. I read The Final Solution because I wanted to see ancient anti-Nazi Holmes. I watched the Jeremy Brett Holmes because I wanted to see a bipolar Holmes. I watched the BBC’s Sherlock because I wanted to see modern, nicotine-patch-wearing, high-functioning-sociopath pretty-boy Holmes. I watched the Robert Downey Jr Holmes because I wanted to see a character almost entirely unlike Doyle’s Holmes punch Germans in a forest while being shelled by a tank. And– while I’m being honest– I watched The Private Life of  Sherlock Holmes because I wanted, eagerly, to see ambiguously-gay Holmes scurry about Loch Ness with his hands on his hips while a ludicrous femme fatale who uses a secret umbrella code for sending messages to foreign spies tries to seduce him with a fake French accent. Holmes is open to interpretation, and better for it. Why should we be satisfied with only one kind of Holmes? Not even Doyle was boring enough to want that!

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Scandalous art from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes’s movie poster. Hilariously, this poster gives away the ending of the movie.

But it isn’t entirely Horowitz’s fault– he was, after all, commissioned by the Doyle estate itself, and there is  probably not a lot of room in that organization for the ‘exciting reinterpretations’ market. What’s interesting about Horowitz’s book, though, is that he didn’t even really do a straight-up imitation of traditional Holmes– though he pretends that he has. While he kept the characters’ personalities dull and faithful, he did stray away from the nature of the original tales in a foundational way.

Here is the secret of The House of Silk’s  ‘House of Silk’: it’s a brothel for child rapists!

Not particularly traditional at all! In Conan-Doyle’s stories, the darkest and most-twisted thing an evildoer generally did, aside from murder, was imprisoning a young lady or destroying her honor (by revealing a consensual affair, of course). There isn’t even a single acknowledged rape in those stories! To justify his dramatic departure from the traditional, Horowitz uses the oldest (and, it seems, only) kind of Holmes-pastiche framing device: this is a story ‘too delicate’ to have ever been told to the public. Here, however, the delicacy is that everyone in the British government is raping little boys. Sometimes even torturing them to death!

It’s grim as hell. Traditional Holmes tales are escapist adventures; they explore the dark corners of society, but only to a toetip’s depth. Because it deals in actual darkness, the entire plot of Horowitz’s book is just about as divergent from the traditional Holmes tale as any wild, ‘unauthorized’ pastiche. Underneath his assertions of faithfulness, Horowitz seems to have realized that we didn’t need more traditional Holmes– we needed his Holmes. His Holmes in his grittier London, with his malevolent child-rapists and vast government conspiracies. His personal vision.

So who is this Holmes, and what does he tell us about Horowitz?

Graciously, Horowitz actually gives us (in the ebook, anyway) the ten rules he used to guide himself into the book’s final form– the ten rules which were the mold for his Holmes. He insists that staying true to the original was a major goal, so these notes function not only as a guide to his pastiche, but as a guide to his entire opinion of who the character originally was.

As interesting as that is, however, I think I would have liked the book better if I hadn’t seen them. Perhaps you will feel the same way, when you see rules 2 and 3:

2. No women. Of course it was tempting to create a romantic lead, to give Holmes a love interest. But re-reading the short stories before I began work, I came almost immediately upon that famous sentence – ‘To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman’ – and knew at once that it would have been madness to try and create another Irene Adler. I did briefly think of bringing Irene back (I believe she appears in the second Holmes movie) but I felt somehow it would have been taking a liberty and anyway Watson had already set the seal on that subject: ‘All emotions and that one (love) particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.’

3. This is very much related to rule number two. There would be no gay references either overt or implied in the relationship between Holmes and Watson. This was hinted at in Billy Wilder’s film, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes which has a scene with Watson tangled up with dancers from the Bolshoi ballet. But it is of course silly and wrong – although I did have an advantage, being a modern writer, in that I was able to examine some aspects of the sexual mores of Victorian England in a way that Doyle could not.

No women… and no gay stuff! (Well, no normal, wholesome gay stuff between consenting adults, anyway– only men who prey on little boys.) I can understand the desire to keep romance out of a Holmes pastiche, since Irene Adler is ‘the woman,’ and it’s not in the originals, and given the importance of the mysteries, there isn’t always any room for it. But the way Horowitz puts it– with the assumption that any major female character would have to be a love interest– is a little galling. The women in the book are extremely minor, and hardly any time is spent on them. There is certainly room for women in many traditional Holmes stories, so I really can’t understand why Horowitz kept them out of his book almost entirely.

But it’s the contradictory dismissiveness of point 3 that really gets to me. The reference to Billy Wilder’s gay Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes— “it is of course silly and wrong”? Who is he to say that? And while normal adult homosexuality was inappropriate for his adaptation because it is not authentic to the original, picking apart “the sexual mores of Victorian England in a way that Doyle could not” so that you can write a book about Holmes investigating a child brothel– something just as inauthentic– is still somehow fair game? It seems that Horowitz only stuck to the traditional form when it helped him keep women and gay men out of the protagonist pool.

As much as he’d like to believe it, Horowitz didn’t write Doyle’s Holmes. It’s not just that Doyle ‘could not’ write a book about child-rapists. Let’s be honest: he was a creature of his time, and probably never even wanted to. This is not really about authenticity. Your Holmes tells us about the kind of writer you are, and not the kind of man Doyle was. Thanks to these liner-notes, all I’ve learned is that Horowitz is a casually-bigoted ass, and one whose Holmes isn’t much likely to grow into his own. The moment when Holmeses separate from the bough and become their own is the moment when they start being worth my attention.

And now to return to the big issue at stake: the value of pastiche, and of aggressive re-interpretation.

I first read Sherlock Holmes stories when I was seven years old. I have read every story at least twelve or thirteen times. Since middle school, I have read most of the corpus almost every year, and I frequently pick the books up to find my favorite stories. I have watched almost every Holmes movie on Netflix. I have seen plenty of boring Holmeses. If you’d written an interesting woman into your story, Horowitz, you might have won me over. You might have caught my attention with a gay Holmes, or with a Holmes who sheds a tear, or a Holmes who meets the queen, or a childhood Holmes, or a black Holmes or an asian Holmes or a Holmes who is an astronaut or a robot or a resident of steampunk London or Soviet Russia or ancient Rome. The House of Silk might have interested me with any of these, or even with something infinitely more tame– but it didn’t even try.

The major reason that Sherlock Holmes is still popular today has a lot to do with the various re-interpretations that have kept the character alive for us over the years. There’s the excellent BBC series, Sherlock, that puts him in the modern day; there’s the Robert Downey Jr movies, which are entirely their own thing but still fun as heck; there are things like Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, a terrible TV show from 1999 where (you guessed it) Sherlock Holmes lives in the future and rides around in flying squad cars with Watson’s great-great-granddaughter, who is also the chief of police. Holmes has value as a legend– as a modern kind of trickster-hero, living by his wits, passing in and out of fiction in a hundred forms.

And I couldn’t care less about ‘accuracy’, or truthfulness to the books. He’s better this way.