Why Holmes Always Gets Reinvented, And Other Puzzles
Last week I had lunch in an Argentinian restaurant in Barcelona with the Sherlockian society. That may sound rather an esoteric thing to do, but within the context of the city’s ‘Freak Zone’ it seemed a rather wonderful way to spend the afternoon, munching empanadas and wondering what Holmes got up to Europe. It turns out that thanks to writers Sergio Colomino Ruiz and Jordi Palome Garcia we now know what Holmes was doing, for in ‘Sherlock Holmes In Barcelona’ a dastardly conspiracy takes him through some of the most iconic places and moments in Catalan history, starting with a fight at the monument I see every day, the stunning Arc de Triomf.
What is it about the consulting detective that makes him so infinitely adaptable? Guy Ritchie packed him off to Europe in a similar set-up in ‘Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows’, which also owed something to 1969’s delicious black comedy euro-romp ‘The Assassination Bureau’, which had starred Diana Rigg, Oliver Reed and a very big zeppelin. I’ve written several Sherlock Holmes stories, and one, ‘The Lady Downstairs’, was recorded by the BBC with Hannah Gordon as a crime-solving Mrs Hudson. I did another with a supernatural tinge for the ‘Gaslight’ series of Holmes stories. Of course we jobbing writers have all written Holmes tales, my favourites being those by Kim Newman, which are far superior to Anthony Horowitz’s officially sanctioned ‘House of Silk’. It seems Holmes is infinitely adaptable – but here’s a reason why;
Almost every creation with an underwritten central character is completely adaptable to any form, once you have the permission to cut loose with it.
Imagine if Mrs Bradley or Dr Thorndyke or Raffles the Gentleman Thief had captured the public imagination in the same way. Would they now be appearing in stories set in the present day, or in Russia? With a supernatural twist or the genders switched? Of the three, only Raffles was picked up and plonked into the hilariously sweary present, by Viz of all people…
Cyphers are endlessly adaptable; but why are they nearly all males? Can’t a woman have more than one image? Modesty Blaise, the female James Bond, failed to really capture public attention, and in recent years only Anne Parillaud’s ‘Nikita’ inspired other versions, although perhaps Scarlett Johansson’s ‘Lucy’ may do that too. I had planned three books in the ‘Plastic’ series, but the first novel, about a downtrodden housewife turned vigilante, did not find the readership I’d hoped for, so I shelved the other books, which I’d already started.
I’ve always admired Stephen King hugely for his ability to get to the heart of a story, and find his novellas to be perfect models of the genre. But here’s a question – why is his first book, ‘Carrie’, the only one that is consistently reinvented? Last night I saw it brilliantly performed at the Southwark Playhouse (and made the mistake of sitting in the front row, where I got sprayed with blood). It strikes a chord because it’s the Cinderella story inverted and because it has an easily identifiable heart. But its heroine’s fate is to be punished for demonstrating her power. What fascinates me about ‘Carrie’ is that it would be better told without its supernatural element. If Carrie wasn’t telekinetic but was instead driven into an act of madness by the way she’d been treated, the story would have been harder to write but would have leapt from genre fiction into the mainstream – and King can certainly do it, as he proved with ‘Stand By Me’. But like me and many other writers he overstuffs stories instead of stripping them back.
So is simplicity the key to longevity? Are we back to that old idea, the high concept? ‘Gone Girl’ is one of the cleverest titles for a thriller I’ve ever come across because it sets up the first half of the book in two words. We like to know a little, but not too much, about what we’re going to read. And that is perhaps the key to Sherlock’s success – we already know half of what we’ll get. We know all about the character – but nothing about the plot. It’s what I aimed for in ‘Plastic’, and failed to convey to would-be readers.
There’s one other element to consider in longevity of characters. Hardly any male comedic character and virtually no female comedic characters have survived multiple transitions. It sounds a ridiculously obvious thing to say, but comedy suggests a lack of seriousness. Galton & Simpson once put it very simply. ‘Comedy isn’t funny. Tragedy is.’ And the moment a woman is tragic, she’s accused of being weak.
Plenty for discussion there, I think!