I’m delighted to welcome Laurie R. King to Medieval Bookworm today! Laurie is the author of 21 bestselling crime novels, including the historical series featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. I reviewed the first in the series on Wednesday. King’s upcoming novel Pirate King is set in 1924 Lisbon, London, and Morocco.
I met Sherlock Holmes one September morning in 1987, when I sat down with a pad of paper and gave birth to his apprentice.
Strictly speaking, of course, I had encountered Holmes before that. The PBS series with Jeremy Brett was broadcasting, and no doubt I’d read one of the stories in high school, Hound of the Baskervilles, maybe, or The Speckled Band. However, I didn’t really meet the detective until the week both my kids were off at school for the first time, and I wrote the line, “I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.”
That’s when I realized I had no clue who Sherlock Holmes was.
The next day I got my hands on a two-volume paperback of the four Holmes novels and fifty-six short stories (with small print!) Reading the Conan Doyle stories was a revelation. Sherlock Holmes is a thinking machine, right? And he’s filed in the Young Adult section of the library, because those are boy’s adventure stories, right?
Not that both qualities aren’t tucked securely behind the adventure. When Holmes looks at a client (The Red-Headed League) and says, “Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing,” the surface meaning at first seems to be that Holmes is demanding a great deal more of himself than normal human beings do. That his list may also be a gentle pulling of Watson’s leg tends to be set aside. But when Watson comes into their shared rooms (in Hound of the Baskervilles) and protests at the quantity of tobacco smoke in the air, Holmes’ reply is definitely snort-worthy: “It is a singular thing, but I find that a concentrated atmosphere helps a concentration of thought. I have not pushed it to the length of getting into a box to think, but that is the logical outcome of my convictions.”
Holmes passion was in the stories I read, too. Not so much a passion for women—as Watson says, “all emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced [sic] mind.” And Holmes himself clearly states (Devil’s Foot) “I have never loved, Watson.”
However, the rest of his statement is where a reader begins to doubt this passionless exterior: “…but if I did and if the woman I loved had met such an end, I might act as our lawless lion-hunter had done.” Similarly (Three Garridebs) when Watson is shot, Holmes’ “face set like flint as he glared at our prisoner…’By the Lord, it is as well for you. If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive.’”
A person who admits that he would be capable of murder is no passionless thinking machine.
As later generations were to find with the Star Trek character Mr. Spock, passion under iron control (be it anger or eroticism) is far more fascinating than passion freely expressed. Reading the Conan Doyle stories knowing that the man at their center is a man seething with clamped-down passion makes for a very different vision of Sherlock Holmes.
It also opens all kinds of doors when it comes to writing about Holmes’ married life. But perhaps that is a blog post for a different day.
Laurie’s thoughts on Sherlock Holmes, including a chronology of his age, can be found on her web site.
To order a signed copy of the upcoming Pirate King, visit the Poisoned Pen.