Monday, March 4, 2013

The Good, the Bad and the Just Plain Ugly: Creative Liberty Gone Too Far

Everyone blogger is entitled to at least one rant, so I shall take that opportunity (warning spoilers abound):

When an author approaches a pastiche, there should be some consistency in character - right? After all, isn't a pastiche supposed to be a loving tribute, an homage to the original author's work? A pastiche should show that this particular author shows devotion or interest in another character or story, that they have taken the time to craft an entire story's plot to fit that character. That's what a good pastiche should do.

Of course, there is the occasional writer who shows little interest in the character they are carrying on. In that case, they take creative liberties. Sometimes their stories have redeeming qualities, but more often the liberties which are taken outweigh the good. Sure - every writer who is handling a pastiche is taking creative liberties. The very essence of what a pastiche is is a creative liberty. However, when an author's creative liberty swallows the story whole than you have a problem - especially when you are the Sherlockian fanatic that I am.

Every once and a while, you'll come across a story which is really well done. Despite an abundance of liberty taking, the story is handled so well that you cannot help but like it. For instance in both "The House of Silk" by Anthony Horowitz and "Dust and Shadow" by Lyndsay Faye, Sherlock Holmes faces the authority of the law when he becomes embroiled in the villain's deadly scheme. Both stories deal with the detective's public image about to shatter like a mirror and how he must regain the public's trust and solve the case. Plot threads like this are nearly nonexistent in the canon, however they do provide some wonderful character insight. My first thought of Sherlock Holmes is not him deftly breaking out of jail, and yet it becomes quite credible if handled in the right manner. Obvious love for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character is displayed throughout these two books and even though a large portion of their plot is devoted to a large creative liberty, it makes sense.

But what if you are crying foul - that's not big enough of a creative liberty. What about something like "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution?" You cannot get more liberty taking than in Nicholas Meyer's novel which takes the entire canon and flips it on its head. Here we;re presented with a Sherlock Holmes who is badly addicted to cocaine and who needs immediate medical attention. Meyer's novel gives us an entirely different view on what happened to during Holmes' three year absence from Baker Street following the Reichenbach Falls incident. In Mr. Meyer's universe, that never happened. You cannot get more distant from the canon that this novel, but you know what - it works! Meyer shows his obvious love for the characters of Holmes, Watson, Mycroft and maybe even Professor Moriarty. Their names are just there for marquee value, they're present because Nicholas Meyer loves Sherlock Holmes and has managed to create a beautiful piece of writing.

We've looked at some good - maybe its' time to observe some of the bad. To be perfectly honest, I thankfully haven't run up across too many bad pastiches. Perhaps my biggest quibble with pastiches is when authors try to use Sherlock Holmes has a name-only. For example, Larry Millett has written a quite lengthy series which details Holmes' involvement in a number of cases set in Minnesota. Nonetheless, Holmes is not the main character of these books. They are a jumping off point for Millett's own detective. One wonders why he simply didn't write his own mystery series with his own character instead of using Sherlock Holmes and then not using him.

When it comes to creative liberties, there isn't more much liberty taking than in the late Fred Saberhagen's series of books which chronicle the life and death(s) of Count Dracula. You don;t get much further away from Doyle than in "The Holmes-Dracula Files" which portrays Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula as...cousins. Yes folks you read that right - the man who so denied any existence of the supernatural whatsoever is related to the Prince of Darkness, Master of the Undead, King of the Vampires - Count Dracula. Granted, Saberhagen's book works out well for the first 3/4 or so. It's not until the end when we learn of this strange family bond (plus we get the Giant Rat of Sumatra thrown in for good measure). As a one-off story it might have been tolerable, and then...he wrote the sequel. "Seance for a Vampire" finds Sherlock Holmes and Watson way out of their depth when the detective is kidnapped by vampires.

Again, these two books are tolerable. The style of writing is good and for the most part Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, Mycroft Holmes and even Count Dracula (even though he's presented as a protagonist and not an antagonist) are treated fairly well. I certainly wouldn't be the first person to recommend both of these books to the die-hard Sherlockian, but at least they do have some good things in store. But, we're about to go where no man has gone before and returned alive. We're going to pull back the curtain which conceals the Just Plain Ugly. What we are about to look at is by far the worst pastiche I have ever come across.

"Sherlock Holmes: War of the Worlds" is an abysmal mess. I really don't even know where to start with it. If I had the heart, I'd look at all of its shortcomings, but I just don;t have the time. To be fair, Manly Wellman and Wade Wellman are two competent writers. Their episode of "Rod Sterling's Night Gallery" entitled, "The Devil is not Mocked" is a wonderful piece of fiction, and even makes us wonder - in a world filled with the Nazi menace, how much of a threat can one man like Count Dracula be. The same cannot be said for this book, and I wonder if the two men ever read a Sherlock Holmes story before. The presentation of the man who is called Sherlock Holmes in this story sounds nothing like the character we have come to love.

The fact that he is romantically interested in Mrs. Hudson is strange enough (Mrs. Hudson is about thirty or so apparently and widowed), but he just does not come across as likable at all. He has very few scenes with Dr. Watson and the dialogue between Professor George Edward Challenger is simply stilted in the extreme. The overall premise is not bad at first glance, but after reading the book I really wanted to distance myself from it as best as possible. It now sits on my shelf, never to be opened again - a sad reminder of what can happen when creative liberty is taken too far.

Well folks, we've come to the end of this tangent. If we can look on the bright side of things, I'd say that on a whole I have encountered more good pastiches than bad ones. While not everyone is qualified to create a pastiche, those who are oftentimes excel magnificently. Maybe when the memory of some of the weaker Sherlockian pastiches have faded from memory, we can look unto a more certain future for the Sherlock Holmes-reading public. 


  1. The challenge with a Sherlockian pastiche is to create something original without straying too far from the source material. You want everything to remain compatible with the original stories, without simply rehashing them.

    But you, my friend, have gone off lightly. You've obviously never read the book where Holmes travels in the Canadian west. The book is so bad that it literally reads like a fictionalized history textbook... it's even illustrated with the same historical paintings/photographs that my Grade 7 history textbooks used!!! But as though that weren't enough, it pretends that during the Great Hiatus, Holmes wasn't really pretending to be dead. No, he and Doc Watson were out in Canada, chillin' with the Indians -- I mean, Native Americans, for we must be Politically Correct my dear Watson! -- and they keep introducing themselves as SHERLOCK HOLMES AND DOCTOR WATSON... with Colonel Moran potentially behind every street corner with an air-gun! And with the whole world thinking Holmes is dead?????? Aaaaaargh! It's gotten into my brain and replaced it with Stupid!

    Me go eat cracker now.

    But seriously, I sympathise with your rant. I'm guessing that about 1/2 the Holmes pastiches I read in the past were plain shite and I don't remember most of them. Because the character is basically public domain now, it seems that the crappy pastiches keep growing while the good pastiches get fewer and fewer...

    1. The book you described sounds so bad, I couldn't help but almost want to read it just to see how dreadful it was. But then I remembered that life is far too short to read bad books.

      In retrospect, I am probably lucky in the fact that most of the pastiches I have read are good (or at least enjoyable). I am very picky when it comes to my pastiches and the only real reason I even bought "Sherlock Holmes: War of the Worlds" was to complete my collection of "The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" series released by Titan Books.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.