The Detective’s Perspective

Because – let’s face it – detectives tend to be rather peculiar people. Sherlock Holmes is an aspie cocaine addict who shoots holes in the walls. Hercule Poirot is obsessive-compulsive and fashion-forward, and he solves mysteries by tidying things. Jane Marple is a nosy old lady who sometimes displays an almost creepy glee at the prospect of a murder. Sam Spade… Well, he just isn’t a very nice person. Moving forward, you have people like Adrian Monk and Shawn Spencer – an omniphobic genius and an ADHD nerd who disguises astuteness with a veneer of incompetence. And claims to be psychic.

Detectives are weird. On the whole, they seem to be a lot weirder than other fictional characters, perhaps barring those of science fiction and fantasy (though there is an entire subcategory of ordinary-person-thrust-into-strange-circumstances characters. Harry Potter and all of the Companions of Doctor Who come to mind).

Part of this undoubtedly comes from the trend in fiction that all strengths must be balanced by weakness (something like constructing an RPG character, I suppose) and that the weakness should be in somewhat the same category as the strength. Intelligence being a mental trait, therefore, personality flaws seem to be the accepted form of corresponding weakness. And sometimes those flaws verge on the territory of straight-up crazy.

The fun thing is that a detective need not be a reliable narrator, and that is something I can play with.

I’m going to talk about Mary Russell, now. In fact, I’ll probably talk about Mary Russell quite often, seeing as her memoirs (published under the name of her literary agent, Laurie R. King, and beginning with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) are my favourite post-Canon account of Sherlock Holmes. I grew up on those books, and they were one of the few works I read as a child that suggested that a girl could, with a little bit of work, be intelligent and powerful and attractive. (When I started on BEEK, Hermione was still frizzy and buck-toothed and never described in especially flattering terms; the various princesses I liked were either smart, shrewish, and pointy or vapid and in constant need of rescuing; and assorted other heroines had a bad habit of saving the day just by being pure of heart. I probably had appalling taste in literature at that point, but my taste might have improved sooner if there had been any really good literature available for little girls.)

The short version is that Mary Russell, age fifteen, foetal theologian and Virgil-addict, trips over Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs, bothers him into feeding her tea, and proceeds to become, as the title suggests, his apprentice. Adventures ensue.

At age ten, I was already a rabid Holmesian who knew the Detective well enough to be suspicious of any female claiming to be his apprentice. After all, to Sherlock Holmes, there was only one woman. However, at age ten, I was also a scholastic Catholic with an interest in folklore (which ties in closely to theology, in many ways), a rudimentary background in Latin, an unhealthy obsession with cryptography, two long blonde braids, and an overwhelming desire to trip over Sherlock Holmes in any locale, period. I gave it a shot.

Thus was I introduced to extra-Canonical Holmesian literature.

Pastiche, though, is a topic for a later post. Right now, I am dealing with perspective. Once I had gotten past my incredulity and really settled down to fall in love with Mary Russell, I began to realize that I was reading something vastly different from Watson’s writings. Part of that is due to the fact that Russell is a thinker on par with Holmes himself, which eliminates the element of awe involved with the solving of a case. Her style is frank and matter-of-fact, neither exaggerating the suspense of danger nor diminishing it. She understands what is happening and deals with it.

The other part, though, is that a person writing about herself is likely to miss a few things. For example, it took me a few read-throughs to realize that when certain other players are depicted as being dumb as broccoli, they are probably about as smart as I. Oh, the arrogance!

That’s alright, though; the whole point of Sherlock Holmes (and by extension, anyone as brilliant as Sherlock Holmes) is that he is infinitely beyond us mere mortals. We do get a glimpse of his perspective in LION and BLAN, but for the most part, we have to rely on Watson, whose adulatory accounts breathe hero-worship, at least until he gets fed up with Holmes’ quirks and foibles and switches to a blunter reporting style. Honestly, as much as I love Holmes, I think I might have eventually gotten fed up with him, too.

Russell is different. She gets fed up with Holmes with some regularity, but I don’t get fed up with her, because she’s just so relatable. Yes, she’s arrogant, often whiny and snappish, a definite know-it-all, obsessive, sometimes pedantic… But she doesn’t see herself that way. She’s smarter than everyone around her, and she knows it; and while living with her would probably become intolerable very quickly, living inside her head is sort of pleasant. It’s nice to be smarter than everyone else, just for a little while. It’s very, very nice to solve a case vicariously, following along with the detective’s thoughts instead of sitting back with a glass of sherry to listen to the Big Reveal on the last page. It’s not a story about a fairly average or slightly above-average person watching an extraordinary person be extraordinary; it’s a story about an extraordinary person and her extraordinary friend struggling to exist in a sea of mundane mediocrity – with a few criminal exceptions. It’s almost a relief when a really daunting nemesis surfaces, because it actually hurts to watch an amazing female protagonist stagnating.

(And to be honest, I’m sometimes an arrogant, whiny, snappish, know-it-all, obsessive pedant as well. In my case it is likely less deserved, but it has driven me to keep up with the series.)

Mind, I use Mary Russell as an example because I am familiar with her. Flotsam, of Martin Davies’ Mrs Hudson and the Spirits’ Curse, is quite something else as well, and breaks quite a few of the traditional conventions of the cosy mystery. Flottie could easily have ended up as an Irregular, had she been born male. She is bright, but not quite bright enough to require a counterbalancing personality flaw, and thus comes off as more adorable than compelling. Additionally, though her perception of Holmes as rather thick is understandable in light of her affection for Mrs. Hudson, the constant emphasis on that perception was at times enough to raise my Holmesian hackles. Of course, Flottie is a Watson (and so I feel justified in dismissing her, even though she is probably smarter than I… Wait, no, hang on…)

How does any of this relate to anything, beyond detailed rambling?

First of all, go pick up a copy of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, because I like it, and because you’ll miss a lot of my references if you don’t.

Secondly, my own project focuses on a brilliant, powerful, often snarky woman. Though mine has its origins in a game I played with my grandmother years before my first exposure to Russell, I freely admit that, having grown up on a steady diet of Russ and Holmes, my style and characterisation probably draw a lot from their combined influence. In fact, I suspect that, without Russ, this particular project would probably have proceeded along the lines of a comedy. Thankfully, I no longer see the idea of an intelligent woman as particularly humorous.

Written from the detective’s perspective, the weirdness is subsumed by the narrative. It’s not gone, of course, merely hidden just beneath the surface to be enjoyed by really serious readers and ignored by the rest. Subtle, like a dash of thyme instead of a cup of cayenne.

Besides, psychoses are fun.

Lost Without My Boswell

This is a writing-process update, rather than a specifically Holmesian update. (However, I was pleased to discover, thanks to one of the spectacular denizens of Brass Goggles, that Project Gutenberg has Punch. I’m not sure whether its particular brand of humor would have appealed to the Detective, but I can certainly see Watson seeking refuge in its pages if Holmes was insisting on being a particular ass.)

And, in reference to Watson, that brings me to today’s topic: The Watson. Having made it through PD James’ Talking About Detective Fiction, I can see the benefits and the drawbacks of making use of such a character. When trying to fathom the thought process of a genius, most of us are full of questions, and it is the Watson’s job to ask those questions so that the reader is not thoroughly left behind. After all, there’s no fun in mystery fiction if there is no chance of solving the mystery before the hero makes the big reveal in the last five pages.

However, a story about a hero, told in the first-person by someone who is not the hero, poses its own problems. The most immediate problem is that the narrator has to be boring in order not to upstage the actual main character. I’m not saying that Watson himself was boring, of course, but a good many characters modeled after him have been. Closely following that problem is the tendency of Watsons to cater to the lowest common denominator and thus come across as unspeakably stupid. There is a fine line between asking reasonable questions that reveal the unfathomable mind of the genius hero and asking obvious questions in order to force the hero into monologuing. Yes, heroes monologue, too. Again, I’m not saying that Watson himself was stupid, though he did have an unfortunate tendency to occasionally ask very obvious questions. In fact, he was probably of above-average intelligence. After all, he did make it through medical school, which was no mean feat, even in Victorian times.

Now, my problem is with writing a Watson who is like Watson and not like the hordes of Watsons floating around in mystery fiction. (What an appalling sentence.) Honestly, I’m not sure that I can do it.

There was never any question of my writing this book in third-person. (That is to say, he, she, it – a story told from the perspective of an omniscient narrator.) I like third-person, of course. I’ve written quite a lot in the third-person. But this one is supposed to echo Watson’s – the original Watson’s – narratives. That means first-person. (An “I” story, told from the limited perspective of a single person. The reader, therefore, knows what the narrator knows, and nothing more than that.)

Again, I run into a problem. I can either try my hand at writing a Watson and risk coming away with a character who is boring, nosy, and dim; or I can write from the perspective of my detective. (Detective’s perspective. I think I have the title of my next post.)

Now, I consider myself fairly bright. Perhaps even smart. Sharp. Intelligent. Maybe even smarter than average. (“I cannot agree with those who rank modesty among the virtues. To the logician all things should be seen exactly as they are, and to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers.” [GREE])

However, I am not a genius. Getting inside the head of a genius will certainly make for a better story and avoid the trap of a boring Watson, but… how? Holy beans.

I suppose the first step will be to acquire as much as possible of the body of knowledge of a well-educated Victorian. (Victorian technobabble poses problems, as well.) I’m a little nervous about scribbling down elegant turns of phrase with the notation “USE THIS IN STORY.” It’s just not my usual style.

In summary: No Boswell. Become genius ASAP.

Doing my Holmeswork – Introduction

Today, I hit the books – that is to say, I hit WS Baring-Gould’s Annotated Sherlock Holmes. It did not take me long to realize that this journey would bring me into contact with mounds of fun facts and that I would be lost if I didn’t have the option of sharing them.

For example:

We all know that Holmes’ grandmother was the sister of Vernet, the French artist (GREE). The Canon does not say, however, which grandmother – maternal or paternal. However, we do know that Holmes’ ancestors are English country squires. It does not take a very large leap to assume that, in a patriarchal society, a man would trace his primary ancestry through his father. Therefore, the family is English through the paternal line and French through the maternal.

So this will be my place to share.

For an indefinite period of time, I will be tackling Sherlockiana and Victoriana, literary analysis and pastiche, chat rooms, book clubs, scholarly articles, historical fiction, historical fact, chronology, philology, and criminology – and I will be posting my findings here, along with my musings, questions, and brain-bunnies.

Why?

Why does anyone dive headlong into mountains of research? I’m writing a book.