Why Holmes Always Gets Reinvented, And Other Puzzles

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HolmesLast 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…

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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.

ModestyI’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!

7 comments on “Why Holmes Always Gets Reinvented, And Other Puzzles”

  1. Tony Walker says:

    Joseph Losey’s version of Modesty Blaise, with Monica Vitti in the title role, supported by Terence Stamp and Dirk Bogarde, was a camp travesty. Pity, as I was a regular reader of the Modesty Blaise strips in the old Evening Standard, and looked forward to seeing her on screen. What did we get? A chubby (and that’s being polite) Italian actress posing in various costumes, Dirk Bogarde looking bored as he played the villain, and Terence Stamp looking lost. Ah well, there’s always the novels!

    Must check up on your ‘Plastic’ series – looks interesting.

  2. J F Norris says:

    A shame about your shelving the other PLASTIC books. I really enjoyed that book, one of your best crime thrillers IMO. I especially liked June’s uninhibited, very opinionated best friend (next door neighbor?) you know, the one with the vulgar mouth and the taste for Mojitos. I used to read passages of PLASTIC out loud to my partner. We’d crack up over some of those outrageous dialogue exchanges.

  3. Vivienne says:

    Interesting that you say Plastic did not get the readership you hoped for. What information can you glean, except numbers? I did read it, and did, at first, feel that your protagonist was a bit out of date- she was clearly younger than me but the downtrodden aspect was a bit outdated, if I may be so rude. However, I think another dilemma to be faced was that, after she had got herself sorted out and independent, you team her up with the young man on the boat. So, since women are still not supposed to go from chap to chap, was she going to stay with him or move on to any number of men. It is still fairly impossible to have a woman of action who is in a long-term relationship, the impression is that the male partner would be in charge, although I’d love to have someone disagree and give me some examples. Alas, happy ever after still rules.

  4. Gaz says:

    “Modesty Blaise…failed to really capture the public attention.”
    Eleven novels, two books of short stories, three films, a comic strip that ran nearly 40 years, three radio adaptions…….

  5. admin says:

    Versus Bond, Gaz, Modesty trails very, very far behind – what are the other two films?

  6. Gaz says:

    True, of course! One of the movies was a TV movie in the early 80s, whilst the other was a straight-to-video about 2003, so we aren’t talking Oscar material! To be fair, though, it did capture the public imagination, just not at the level of Bond.

    I’ve noticed that a lot of character types keep being resurrected. AUTHOR WHO INVESTIGATES MYSTERIES is one of those ideas that keeps being rehashed. CASTLE is just using the same basic idea as Paul Temple or Ellery Queen. In fact I believe that the character is getting married to the main female character, thus becoming MARRIED COUPLE WHO INVESTIGATE MYSTERIES. It must be easier to do this than try to adapt a particular character to the modern world (and if they are still in copyright, much cheaper). Holmes has been in the public domain for a while now, and because he is mainly a short-story character he carries less baggage with him. It’s not difficult to work mysterious elder brother, stalwart best friend, rival official detective, and brilliant but evil foe into any context you care to like.

  7. Steve2 says:

    Elementary is an excellent reworking of Holmes and Watson, and is more freeflowing than BBC’s update which has stuck closely to the source material. I had thought at first that two modern versions coming at the same time would clash but Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes is definitley worth a look. A female Watson has certainly allowed the show to develop- I’m avoiding spoilers so won’t write more. I saw Castle as a character following the recent US trend of non police who help the official force rather than following the Murder She Wrote path. A few years back US Tv went through a phase of teaming cops with flamboyant characters to solve crime (Mentalist, Psych and Monk being other examples), Castle has a strong reliance on humour which has helped it stand out (Nathan Fillion can carry a series, always a smile when the script references Firefly). They’ve also used the old Moonlighting will they\won’t they get togther card- whether they can carry on remains to be seen.
    As to female characters, Miss Marple probably holds the record for most actresses, so far though I don’t think anyone has gone for a modren (for the time) version since dear old Agatha first wrote her.

    Isn’t Dad’s Army being remade currently? Don’t know what the plans are for the new version. After seeing Garnville take over the Ronnie Barker role, I’ve lost appetite for revisiting old comedy characters!

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