June 04, 2021

From book to film, and back again

Behind the Book by

How a classic film series and a legendary killer inspired Robert J. Harris' new Sherlock Holmes adventure.

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In 1942, the rights to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories passed from 20th Century Fox to Universal Studios. Rather than continue to tell the adventures of Holmes and Watson in their original Victorian setting, Universal had the unorthodox but brilliant idea to bring Holmes and Watson into then-contemporary London, which added a jolt of modernity to Conan Doyle’s work and gave the war-weary British public a chance to see the heroic detective battling the Nazis on the silver screen.

Robert J. Harris’ A Study in Crimson takes its inspiration both from those films and the original stories. The result is a World War II-era adventure in which the iconic sleuth must hunt down a copycat of Jack the Ripper. In this essay, Harris explores how this unique fusion of literature, film and history came to be.

"The name of Sherlock Holmes will always be associated with a hansom cab racing through the fog-bound streets of Victorian London—but suppose he had been born later. Just imagine if he had been there when his country most desperately needed his help."

This is how I might have introduced A Study in Crimson if the concept of Sherlock Holmes in World War II had been my own invention. But it was Universal Pictures who in 1942 brought the detective forward in time in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, the first of a classic series of 12 films starring Basil Rathbone. This was done with the full approval and support of the Conan Doyle estate. In fact, Conan Doyle’s son Adrian Conan Doyle declared this to be the best Sherlock Holmes film ever made. One might argue accordingly that these new adventures have much more of a claim to be an official part of the Holmes legacy than many of the other pastiches on the market.

All of this was in my mind when the idea occurred to me of adapting this version of the character for a novel. I grew up watching these films on television, and Basil Rathbone has always been my Sherlock Holmes, with his faithful Watson played by Nigel Bruce. Watching them in later years with my own children, I was struck by how seamlessly the transition from Victorian times to wartime London was made. This was due in great part to the fact that Rathbone and Holmes were already well established as the duo in two earlier Victorian-set movies and a very popular radio series.

In recent years, I have written three novels for younger readers in my Artie Conan Doyle Mysteries. In these, I imagine the young Conan Doyle having a series of adventures that will later inspire the creation of Sherlock Holmes. One of the most important aspects of these stories for me was that the mysteries should be worthy of the great detective himself. This naturally brought to my mind the notion of writing a Sherlock Holmes novel, but what held me back was that there are already so many Holmes pastiches out there, and that unless I had a different approach, there would be little point in my adding another.

Then one day my eye lighted upon my boxed set of the Basil Rathbone Holmes films. The producers, writers and directors of those films had managed to transfer Holmes to the 1940s while still retaining all the qualities that make him so memorable. Would it be possible, I wondered, to do the same thing in a novel?

I was very taken with the idea, but it was some weeks later before I had my plot. I was leafing through a Sherlockian biography of Holmes when I came to a chapter on Jack the Ripper. Holmes and Jack have confronted each other a number of times in books and on screen, and it occurred to me that the blacked-out streets of London provided a perfect setting for a new Ripper, one who called himself Crimson Jack. This would not only present Holmes with a worthy case but would also maintain a strong connection with the character’s Victorian roots.

I hope readers will be hugely entertained by the result, and perhaps even be ready for a further adventure.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of A Study in Crimson.

Robert J. Harris

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A Study in Crimson

A Study in Crimson

By Robert J. Harris
ISBN 9781643137582

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