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All Historical Mystery Coverage

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes canon found a home and a ravenous readership in the pages of The Strand Magazine in the late 1800s. Now, more than a century later, author Lyndsay Faye has continued that tradition with her own Holmes adventures in the modern-day incarnation of The Strand. Fortunately for Holmes aficionados, if you haven’t been able to keep up with the publication, 15 of her tales (including two new stories) are now available in a new, collected volume, The Whole Art of Detection: Lost Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes.

Faye divides the collection into neat time periods in Holmes’ and John Watson’s lives, with adventures occurring pre-Baker Street, during the early Baker Street years and post-Reichenbach Falls. There are even a few tales set in Holmes’ later years. While not as memorable as Doyle’s best stories, Faye does an admirable job of filling the gaps between some of those tales with interesting asides. The stories are at times emotional—such as the case of “An Empty House,” in which Watson contemplates leaving London and the painful loss of his wife and Holmes behind, only to discover Holmes is very much alive. Other stories, like “The Adventure of the Memento Mori,” are shocking, as our intrepid pair discover a devious criminal slowly poisoning the patients in a women’s home.

A lifelong devotee of Doyle’s works, Faye broke onto the book scene with the Holmes novel Dust and Shadow, earning critical appraise from the Conan Doyle estate itself. Her short stories may be even better. Faye easily captures the essence of Holmes and Watson, both in voice and style. Readers will feel as if they are in the cozy confines of 221B Baker Street right alongside this often feuding and sometimes teasing pair of old friends or, better yet, sitting beside them in a bouncing carriage as they race to rescue a would-be victim from an otherwise heinous end.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes canon found a home and a ravenous readership in the pages of The Strand Magazine in the late 1800s. Now, more than a century later, author Lyndsay Faye has continued that tradition with her own Holmes adventures in the modern-day incarnation of The Strand. Fortunately for Holmes aficionados, if you haven’t been able to keep up with the publication, 15 of her tales (including two new stories) are now available in a new, collected volume, The Whole Art of Detection: Lost Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes.

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The Inheritance, book five in Charles Finch’s well-written Victorian crime series, follows the activities of the detective agency run by gentleman sleuth Charles Lenox, along with his two partners, in a time when these newly formed partnerships are just beginning to gain credibility in the public mind. Sometimes it seems like a drawing room soap opera, all genteel furnishings and horse-drawn carriages; other times like a detailed and engrossing murder plot. As luck—and the author’s skill—would have it, it’s both.

For the inheritance in question, the “who” and “why” are standout questions. Who is the mysterious benefactor who has given not one, but two generous bequests to Lenox’s childhood friend Gerald Leigh? The first anonymous bequest enabled Leigh to attend the prestigious Harrow School as a boy; the second and most recent provides opportunities for Leigh to significantly advance his scientific career. Perhaps of greater significance, why were these legacies so mysteriously given? Leigh contacts his old friend Lenox after an absence of nearly 30 years to ask for help in finding answers.

As schoolboys, Lenox and Leigh pursued an exhaustive but ultimately unsuccessful quest to discover the identity of the legator. This time around there’s an urgency to unmask the friend—or enemy—who has offered the generous sum. A couple of members of London’s East End gangs have a deep interest in seeing that Leigh disappears for good, and Leigh’s solicitor is found dead before he can shed light on the charitable legacy.

While illustrating a warm picture of the men’s friendship as it grows and mellows through the years, Finch also provides a skillfully drawn social portrait of the late 1800s, without being ponderous or intruding on the course of the story. He adds tidbits of interest about the industry, progress and politics of the time, including breakthrough discoveries in the burgeoning field of microbiology. Leigh’s backstory draws a lively, sympathetic and often dryly humorous portrait of this uncommon scientist as he cuts a new path in an era where manners and protocol hold sway.

As this mystery unfolds, Finch conjures the palpable excitement of the day over such groundbreaking developments as the telegraph and electricity, as England—and the rest of the world—stand on the brink of great change, as the paths of the genteel and the common are poised to intersect and change the social contract forever.

The Inheritance, book five in Charles Finch’s well-written Victorian crime series, follows the activities of the detective agency run by gentleman sleuth Charles Lenox, along with his two partners, in a time when these newly formed partnerships are just beginning to gain credibility in the public mind. Sometimes it seems like a drawing room soap opera, all genteel furnishings and horse-drawn carriages; other times like a detailed and engrossing murder plot. As luck—and the author’s skill—would have it, it’s both.

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Smoke and Mirrors is the second book in a wonderful crime series by author Elly Griffiths, who also writes the equally entrancing Ruth Galloway mysteries. Smoke follows the series debut, The Zig Zag Girl, published in 2015.

In the early 1950s, Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens, now on the Brighton police force, and stage magician Max Mephisto are part of a core of men who formerly served in a special unit in World War II, working with Britain’s MI5 intelligence service to deceive the enemy through various trickeries and illusions. Readers meet several members of the small team of “Magic Men” in this and the earlier book, as Griffiths creates an imaginative, tightly constructed storyline with all sorts of intriguing possibilities for future adventures.

In Smoke and Mirrors, children’s fairy tales take a gruesome turn when two missing children are found dead in the woods in a parody of the Hansel and Gretel story, their bodies marked by a trail of candy. The victims appear to be part of a group of youngsters who are turning classic fairy tales upside down and creating their own spin on the plots, then enacting them at a homegrown children’s theater. One of the victims, 11-year-old Annie Francis, appears to be the creative mind behind the stories, inspired perhaps by her grammar school teacher, Miss Young, whose imagination may be outpacing her good judgment.

The bizarre murder takes place against the backdrop of a professional theater performance of Aladdin, a Christmas pantomime featuring Max Mephisto himself, but it brings up a creepy coincidence: Thirty-nine years earlier, a young girl was murdered not far away, in a theater production of the children’s tale Babes in the Wood, and at least one of the current actors in Aladdin—another member of the Magic Men—was in that 1916 production, when the children’s tale likewise turned dark and tragic.

Griffiths’ exceptional and subtle sense of humor sometimes contrasts—or places heightened emphasis—on scenes that depict cruel and tawdry acts. In a way, there are few innocents in this tale. Everyone is interconnected, and even the victims’ motives may be cloudy. An inventive backstory and threads of connection elevate the story above the ordinary run of mystery novels.

Smoke and Mirrors is the second book in a wonderful crime series by author Elly Griffiths, who also writes the equally entrancing Ruth Galloway mysteries. Smoke follows the series debut, The Zig Zag Girl, published in 2015.

Thomas Mullen’s Darktown is a novel readers won’t soon forget—not just because of its thoroughly engrossing, suspense-filled plot, but because of the historical, moral complexity contained within its pages.

Darktown follows the story of Atlanta’s first black police officers in an era of heightened racial prejudice. In 1948, the eight-man police division cannot arrest whites, drive police cars or even set foot in police headquarters through the front door. Despite this, they are committed to forging an important path of integration and justice in the face of hatred from their white counterparts on the force.

The story focuses in particular on Officer Lucius Boggs and his partner, Tommy Smith, as they investigate the possible death of a black woman at the hands of a former white police officer, Brian Underhill. The officers came across the pair after a car accident in a primarily black portion of town. But because of Underhill’s connections within the department, he is turned free without even a citation.

His female passenger, Lily Ellsworth, turns up dead a short time later.

Mullen, an award-winning author and a resident of Atlanta, swiftly constructs a moral challenge for the black officers as they dare to question whether a white man may have committed her murder. With the rest of the predominantly white police department fighting them at every turn, the tension immediately ratchets up.

The story evokes parallels to racial injustices within the law enforcement community that persist to this day, making this an even more compelling and thought-provoking read. Mullen paints a vivid portrait of racial inequality and a dark period in American history that cannot soon be forgotten.

Darktown has been acquired by Sony Television for development as a television series, with Jaime Foxx to executive produce.

Thomas Mullen’s Darktown is a novel readers won’t soon forget—not just because of its thoroughly engrossing, suspense-filled plot, but because of the historical, moral complexity contained within its pages.

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Cheryl Honingford’s debut mystery opens in the autumn of 1938. America is in the midst of the Great Depression, Europe is on the brink of war, and radio is in its heyday. Ambitious young radio actress Vivian Witchell has landed a role in a popular mystery serial “The Darkness Knows” on Chicago’s WCHI radio. She plays the role of Lorna, sidekick to the series hero, and she’s determined to make a name for herself. At first Vivian plays up to her costar, the equally ambitious but enigmatic Graham, but soon finds herself up to her eyes in real mystery when she discovers a body in the employee lounge. It’s the station’s big-name actress, Marjorie Fox, whose public popularity unfortunately does not extend to her colleagues at work. A note found with the body also contains a veiled threat against “Lorna,” and the station owner soon assigns a private detective as Vivian’s protection.

Vivian finds herself attracted to PI Charlie Haverman, and an unlikely scenario unfolds as the two look into what—or who—lies behind the murderous events, which appear to involve letters from an unhinged fan who calls himself “Walter” and who seems to confuse the radio characters with real-life people.

Who might benefit from the aging actress’ death? The search uncovers a host of radioland suspects who seem willing to do almost anything to grab more on-air time and a chance at fame—including Graham, the handsome hero who has a way with women; a couple of wannabe starlets; a star-struck station engineer; and an enterprising midget who unexpectedly lands a choice promotion.

Familiar plot scenarios are not always a bad thing—we often read to relax and visit comfortable territory. Here, however, the author has offered a predictable, plot-driven narrative, missing a golden opportunity to provide the details of an exciting historical milieu in which real adventure could flourish. The author has chosen a great premise—a world in the shadow of war, prime time for a burgeoning form of public entertainment—but never seizes the seemingly endless possibilities for intrigue and story development.

This series has lots of room to grow, and hopefully later installments will leave the shallows and add a generous dose of atmosphere.

Cheryl Honingford’s debut mystery opens in the autumn of 1938. America is in the midst of the Great Depression, Europe is on the brink of war, and radio is in its heyday. Ambitious young radio actress Vivian Witchell has landed a role in a popular mystery serial “The Darkness Knows” on Chicago’s WCHI radio.

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In Jason Overstreet's debut mystery, The Striver's Row Spy, the FBI's first African-American agent has a secret agenda. Sidney Temple's assignment is to move to Harlem, New York, in order to infiltrate “dangerously radical” Marcus Garvey's inner circle and report any incriminating activity to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. But Sidney is secretly working to thwart the FBI's investigation while aiding black leader W.E.B. Du Bois. As Sidney and his spirited wife, Loretta, rise in Harlem Renaissance society, his mission becomes far more dangerous than he ever imagined. We asked Overstreet a few questions about his new novel.

This is your debut novel, and it’s such a unique view into Harlem Renaissance-era New York, as well as the beginnings of the FBI. What inspired you to write this book?
A film entitled The Lives of Others, which won the Academy Award for best foreign film, inspired me. I wanted my novel to feel like that film felt in terms of pace and suspense. I loved the intimacy of the story and how it presented a spy who had feelings about his subjects. Everything wasn’t simply black and white to him, you know, good guy versus bad. It was complex, and he was conflicted with his assignment, the politics involved. I began trying to imagine a man of color being assigned to spy for a government entity. I looked up who the first African-American FBI agent was and found the name James Wormley Jones. He had been assigned to spy on Marcus Garvey. I imagined a man who might take such a job for a different reason than Jones. I imagined a man who was a W.E.B. Du Bois loyalist, as Garvey and Du Bois were rivals. And that’s when Sidney Temple was born.

I imagine that this novel took a lot of research about topics ranging from 1920s New York to the history of the FBI and its surveillance of Garvey and Du Bois. What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research?
I was surprised to learn that Marcus Garvey was dead serious about finding a way to return all African Americans to Africa. It wasn’t some pipe dream. I was also surprised to learn how young J. Edgar Hoover was when he was first put in charge of the FBI’s General Intelligence Division. He was only 24.

After spying on Du Bois and Garvey, Hoover used the FBI to monitor Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and groups such as the Black Panther Party. How do you think the monitoring of citizens has continued today?
I really couldn’t say. I’d like to think they’ve evolved, at least past thinking of every black leader as a communist threat.

How do you think Sidney Temple, a—secretly—ardent supporter of W.E.B. Du Bois, would feel about the current climate of race relations in America?
I think he would be so proud that Barack Obama was elected the first African-American President. And I believe he would feel that we’re on the right track and have made tremendous strides. But I think he’d be bothered by the mass incarceration of black men and the seemingly systematic and routine way they are targeted by many police officers. But in terms of voting rights, housing rights and integration as a whole, he’d be ecstatic. He’d be so happy to simply have the right to raise his voice anywhere in the country without the fear of being lynched, as was often the case during the 1920s in the South.

What do you admire most about Sidney Temple?
I admire his idealistic nature, tenacity, love of family and his hopeful spirit.

What was the most difficult aspect of writing this novel?
Doing loads of research and making sure that each character’s voice was not only unique, but was befitting the time period. It was also a fun challenge to write fiction around lots of actual history. The book is full of true events. I also tried to talk about racism without hitting people over the head with it. There is a fine line if you really want to make your point.

Have you always been a fan of espionage or did learning about the history of the Bureau get you interested?
The latter.

Did any authors or musicians from the Harlem Renaissance inspire you while writing this novel?
The African-American poet Claude McKay inspired me. He traveled a lot, spent time in the Soviet Union, London, Morocco. He was willing to do anything to keep his writing dream alive, doing various odd jobs, etcetera, all while encountering extreme racism. He was brave and unwilling to settle for being treated as a second-class citizen. He could seamlessly mingle with upscale whites, and genuinely befriended many prominent ones, all the while trying to prove his worth as a colored writer against insurmountable odds. But no matter how much rejection he encountered, he seemed to hold on to his charismatic and positive personality. He was a true artist.

What’s next for you? Will we be seeing more of Sidney Temple and Loretta?
The sequel to The Strivers’ Row Spy is almost complete.  

Author photo by Wendy D.

Jason Overstreet tells us about his mystery debut set during the Harlem Renaissance, The Striver's Row Spy.
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Thomas Mullen has a knack for stepping into someone else’s shoes and telling stories from their unique perspective. It’s that ability that fuels each of his novels, including his latest, Darktown.

Set in 1948, the novel follows Atlanta’s first black police officers when the Jim Crow era of segregation was still in full effect—six years before Brown vs. Board of Education, seven years before the Montgomery bus boycott, and before the first key victories of the civil rights movement. In order to make these black police officers palatable to the white community, they had to operate under a number of Jim Crow restrictions. They could only patrol black neighborhoods. They couldn’t drive squad cars. They couldn’t even set foot in the main police headquarters for fear of being beaten by other white officers, many of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Mullen talked with BookPage during his visit to the 2016 Southern Festival of Books in Nashville.

How were you, as a white person, able to write with authenticity from a black person’s point of view in the novel?
Doing historical fiction forces you out of your comfort zone. It forces you to try to imagine what it would be like to be in this completely foreign environment. You can’t expect to just parachute into another culture and write about it well. It takes work, it takes a deep amount of respect and knowledge. If you don’t have knowledge about something, then your impressions are going to be thin and flat and, by definition, you’re going to write stereotypes.

There were all kinds of divisions between wealthy and poor and middle class and poor, longtime Atlantans and newcomers, educated and non-educated. So, I wanted to make sure my characters felt very three-dimensional and made use of all this diversity.

I was initially a bit wary that this seems to violate some taboos that some people have, to write a character that is a different race than yourself, but I felt that if I took the time and did the research that I could do this well. I think that fiction is all about empathy and seeing the world through other people’s eyes, whether they are a different race, a different gender, or in a different time period. In the science fiction community, it could be a different kind of creature entirely. That’s one of the great things about fiction. How can I as a writer ask my readers to take that empathetic leap if I’m not even doing it?

 “I think that fiction is all about empathy and seeing the world through other people’s eyes, whether they are a different race, a different gender, or in a different time period. . . . That’s one of the great things about fiction. How can I as a writer ask my readers to take that empathetic leap if I’m not even doing it?”

What was going through your mind as you were reading up on the mistreatment of these officers?
People ask me, were you shocked by what you read? And no, not really. Maybe it’s because I’ve studied the civil rights era and mid-20th century America a lot. It’s disturbing, it’s enraging, it’s definitely sobering and depressing, but I don’t think it should be seen as shocking to anyone. We should be taught enough about this that it doesn’t blow our minds. I thought it was very compelling and there were a lot of possibilities for interesting characters with unique dilemmas that I could bring to life. The civil rights movement is getting further in the rearview mirror, and there are whole generations now that don’t know the stories apart from what they hear on television and what they see in history books. I think that fiction, by dramatizing characters and seeing through their eyes what it was like to go through that, can make certain things pop that don’t quite pop in textbooks.

Did you do any interviews in your research?
The original eight have passed away. I was able to find a few people who started in the ’60s and knew of some of the original eight. They told me that even in the early ’60s it was very dysfunctional in terms of the white cops not working with the black cops. I also found articles written in the ’80s and ’90s catching up with some of the officers. Some of the articles were quite long, and that’s how I read, in their own words, how the white cops would try to run them down, the white cops would make monkey noises, the white cops would drop the N-word in front of them and on the radio. So, a lot of stuff that happens in the book I got from that. I also found a couple of digitized interviews done in the ’80s from a big oral history research project in Atlanta. There were two done with some of the original black cops, so I got to hear their words and stories and the way they spoke and that was helpful.

Was the novel done by the time Ferguson and events like that started to happen?
I sent a draft to my agent around Labor Day 2014 and was tightening and editing stuff in the summer when Michael Brown was killed. At no time did I ever go back and tweak things or alter characters based on what happened. But it was strange to see race and policing land under that national spotlight in a way that hadn’t happened since Rodney King. I can’t say that this book was a response to that summer, but these are issues that have always been percolating under the surface. These will always be relative things to talk about.

You are originally from Rhode Island and spent several years in the Washington, D.C., area, before moving to Atlanta. Do you feel with this book you’ll be embraced as a Southern writer?
I was worried at first that I wouldn’t be embraced. But I’m a writer and where I live doesn’t really matter. My first three books are set in really different places. I didn’t feel like I was pledged to a certain location where my geographic muse was. This is the first of my books actually set in the South that can actually be put with Southern writers or on a regional bookshelf.

You’ve got a sequel in the works?
My editor is editing it right now. It’s set two years later with all the surviving characters in Darktown.

Thomas Mullen has a knack for stepping into someone else’s shoes and telling stories from their unique perspective. It’s that ability that fuels each of his novels, including his latest, Darktown. Mullen talked with BookPage about the first black police officers, writing outside your race and more during his visit to the 2016 Southern Festival of Books in Nashville.

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The year is 1921, the start of Prohibition. Mafia runaway Alice “Nobody” James has escaped trouble in Harlem by traveling cross-country by train while bleeding from a bullet wound. Max, a black porter, intervenes and checks the white Alice into the Paragon Hotel in Portland, Oregon. The hotel is an exclusively African-American sanctuary in a segregated city under siege by the Ku Klux Klan. There, Alice meets a host of compatriots who soon become like family as they bond together to search for one of their own, a biracial boy they fear may have fallen into the hands of the Klan.

With her sixth novel, stage actress-turned-novelist Faye, known for her Edgar-nominated Jane Eyre spoof Jane Steele, offers a surprising historical mystery that addresses America’s sexism, racism and anti-immigrant white power movements.

“I always write about something that’s pissing me off right now,” Faye says by phone from her New York home. “I find parallels to what was happening a very long time ago, because I don’t think anybody would be particularly interested if I just stood on a soapbox and said, ‘Racism is bad.’ But if I can set stories in other time periods, it’s sort of like Shakespeare setting Macbeth out of town: ‘Don’t get confused, this is not about you—this is those Scottish guys!’”

Alice’s escape to Portland allows Faye to write about a piece of history that she has long hoped to ponder in fiction. Born in San Jose, California, Faye moved with her family to Longview, Washington, a small town close to Portland, when she was 6 and remained there for 12 years. The move from her racially diverse San Jose birthplace to the predominantly white Longview revealed to Faye a dark section of American history—the Pacific Northwest’s deeply racist roots. The original Oregon settlers envisioned a utopia free from crime, poverty—and any nonwhite persons. Prior to statehood, any blacks who refused to leave the territory were sentenced to flogging every six months. In 1870, Oregon refused to ratify the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed voting rights to people of color, and didn’t correct this error until 1959. For black people, Oregon was hell with only a few havens. One of these was Portland’s Golden West Hotel, upon which the Paragon Hotel is based.

Along with exploring present-day social and cultural upheavals through a historical lens, The Paragon Hotel also allowed Faye to re-create the spoken language of 1921, both in Harlem and Portland. Faye proudly admits to having a passion for historical accuracy.

“That’s why this is a love letter. It’s very much not just a quest for identity but a quest to actually love that identity.”

“Slang is very, very much a part of my research process,” she says. “If you’re just looking through the boilerplate slang of the 1920s, you’re going to be finding a lot of words that didn’t really come into vogue until 1925, -6, -7. That was really the height of the flapper era, and I was not interested in those words; I was only interested in how you spoke in 1921.”

Lacking a lexicon embedded in the arts and music of the pre-flapper era, Faye struggled until she stumbled upon an unlikely helping hand from someone who also knew how to sling the slang. “I was at a loss for quite some time,” she says, “until I attended a writer’s residency for a month down in Key West, Florida. There is tons of stuff from Hemingway down there for obvious reasons, and I found a huge volume with all of his [World War I] war correspondence.” She explains that a large percentage of the slang in The Paragon Hotel comes straight out of Hemingway’s 1918 letters.

Faye also credits her own years on stage with giving her the ear to recognize slang and use it effectively in her fiction. “I’ve never taken a creative writing class,” she says. “I was trained as an actor and worked as a professional stage actor for 10 years, and I was also trained as a singer, and there’s a real lilt in the ’20s stuff. I think that the rhythm of it is almost as important as some of the words. Even where they’re talking about very serious things, there’s this glib overtone to where they’re even replacing words with almost nonsense words. It’s fascinating.”

To voice the Portland perspective, Faye created Blossom Fontaine, the Paragon’s residential club chanteuse, whose sultry, outgoing stage personality belies the inner turmoil and discomfort she and many of her friends feel about America’s history of racism and sexism.

“In the case of Blossom, whose life has been defined by what society says, the question of who she is has been so important her whole life that when she meets Nobody, who has been taking advantage of hiding in plain sight, it’s such an asset to her,” Faye says. “Nobody lived in such a dangerous environment that she didn’t spend a lot of time really sitting down and defining herself. Blossom, on the other hand, has been so assertive and determined about who she is and so locked into a system. You’ve got two women who are coming at it from completely different directions. That’s why this is a love letter. It’s very much not just a quest for identity but a quest to actually love that identity.”

Will we see a sequel to The Paragon Hotel?

“I would love to say yes, but I never really know. So far, this is a standalone, but I wouldn’t rule it out,” Faye replies. “However, at the moment, what I’m working on is turning Hamlet into a modern-day crime novel. The working title? The King of Infinite Space. I’m very excited about it.”

This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo by Anna Ty.

With her sixth novel, stage actress-turned-novelist Faye, known for her Edgar-nominated Jane Eyre spoof Jane Steele, offers a surprising historical mystery that addresses America’s sexism, racism and anti-immigrant white power movements. 

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Having taken Sherlock Holmes and his stalwart companion Dr. Watson to the darkest reaches of the uncanny and the supernatural in his Cthulhu Casebooks series, James Lovegrove now gives the Great Detective a much more traditional, even cozy sort of case. Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon finds the sleuth investigating mysterious goings-on at an isolated manor, where someone may be trying to make heiress Eve Allerthorpe go mad. We talked to Lovegrove about Holmesian tropes, holiday traditions and more.


When first starting work on Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon, did you look at any Holmes tales in particular for inspiration?
More than anything I drew inspiration from The Hound of Baskervilles. It’s the most Gothic and ghostly of all the canonical tales (even though, of course, there’s nothing actually supernatural in it). The mood of the novel and its powerful sense of place—Dartmoor at its bleakest and most forbidding—were what I most hoped to replicate in Christmas Demon.

Do any of the original stories strike you as particularly festive? If you had to make a Christmas reading suggestion (after readers finish your own book, of course), which Doyle story would you pick?
Conan Doyle wrote only one Holmes tale that’s explicitly Christmassy, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” It’s not the greatest of them all but it’s sprightly and fun, with Holmes even pardoning the culprit at the end in a gesture that might well be regarded as appropriate (time of charity, season of goodwill and so on).

You’ve written several other Holmes stories and novels over the years. Has anything gotten easier about slipping into Conan Doyle’s world and voice? Has anything gotten harder?
What’s become easier is getting the relationship between Holmes and Watson right. For me, that lies at the heart of the original stories, and it’s as important for any Holmes pasticheur to handle well as offering deductions, mysteries and the rest. The trick lies in striking a balance between Holmes’s arch cerebralness and Watson’s abiding decency. The two balance each other out, and if you get the balance wrong, making Holmes too curt and irascible and Watson too passive and baffled, the whole thing falls apart.

What’s become harder for me is, simply, coming up with new ideas for plots, new variations on the old themes, new challenges for our heroic duo. But then the challenge is fun.

What would Holmes love about the modern world? What would he hate? How would Watson deal with the 21st century?
Holmes would doubtless find the Internet an unbeatable detection tool. He uses newspapers, encyclopedias and almanacs constantly in his profession. The Internet would give him everything he needs to know, and more, right at his fingertips. He’d probably hate the Internet’s more fatuous and unsavoury elements, though: cat videos, memes, “influencers,” trolls, bots, the lot.

Watson, I feel, would embrace modern-day advances in medicine. He’s very proactive as a doctor—at least, that’s how I portray him in my tales.

Where did the idea to do a Holmes Christmas story come from?
My wife. I was umming and aahing about what sort of Holmes book to do next, and she said, “Why not a Christmas one? People love Christmas books, and you’re such a grump about Christmas. It’d do you good.”

Holmes’s famous ability to find and discern clues from footprints is vitally important in this book. How on earth do you go about working that out as an author? Do you imitate it yourself? Are there books one can read on the art of reading footprints?
No great trick to it. I just sat down and thought it through. Holmes often finds footprints useful in his investigations, and there are few mediums that record footprints better than snow. A book on the art of reading footprints is a nice idea, though!

Speaking of Sherlock Holmes tropes, do you have any favorites? Any that you dislike?
The trope I’m not fond of writing, myself, is the scene where Holmes infers huge amounts of detail from a person’s appearance or from some inanimate object. It’s hard to do well. Yet it’s a necessary component. I’m also not a fan of him being privy to information the reader doesn’t have. Conan Doyle did that a lot, bless him, but I don’t feel that that is playing fair. I want the reader to have a chance, at least, of working out the solution before Holmes reveals all.

How do you plan to celebrate the holidays? Are there any Christmas traditions you particularly enjoy?
My birthday falls on Christmas Eve—like Eve Allerthorpe’s does in Christmas Demon—so for me the holidays are kind of a double-edged sword. I get presents, but so does everybody else, and that makes my birthday feel a little less special. My wife goes a bit crazy in our house, with decorations on every floor and no less than three Christmas trees (one in the hallway, one in the kitchen and one in the area where she has her yoga studio). She gets very excited about the whole thing, and I’m happy to go along with that, although left to my own devices I think I’d take a rather more Scrooge-like approach.

Where would you like to take Holmes next?
I’ve recently completed The Beast of the Stapletons, a sequel to The Hound of the Baskervilles. That will be published in late 2020. I also have a collection of Holmes short stories out in January, which includes a tale set in my Cthulhu Casebooks universe. After that, I have no plans. I’ve written more words of Holmes by now than Conan Doyle himself did. It may be that the time has come to take a break.

 

This interview was conducted by BookPage and sponsored by Titan Books. All editorial views are those of BookPage alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

We talked to James Lovegrove about his festive holiday mystery, Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon.

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A dead body is “a brilliant jumping-off point,” remarks British novelist Stuart Turton, speaking by phone from his home in Hertfordshire, England. “I can’t think of a more freeing starting point for a novel.”

Case in point is Turton’s second novel, The Devil and the Dark Water, which begins with both a body and a bang. As passengers board a trade ship in the Dutch East Indies in 1634, a person with leprosy wrapped in bloody bandages appears, curses the voyage and then bursts into flames. A demon named Old Tom may be responsible for this person’s death. To bring himself up to speed on such matters, Turton took an online course on demons. “If you’ve got a few hours,” he says, “they teach you how to identify and banish demons, which is just bizarre. I don’t believe in any of this, but it was fantastic.”

An unexpected layover back in 2003 led Turton to the inspiration for this gripping mystery. After missing a flight to Singapore, the author, who readily admits that he is “terrible at sticking to plans,” found himself stranded in Perth, Australia. To kill time, he visited a maritime museum, where he learned about the 1629 shipwreck of the Batavia. Years later, he decided to fictionalize the ship’s saga. The actual story is apparently so horrible that “it wouldn’t have been fun to read,” Turton says.

“I felt like I was my own little ship sailing in between these different lighthouses and trying to get my characters to safety . . .”

Before writing this book, he returned to Perth, visited Indonesia (where his fictional ship, the Saardam, leaves port) and studied records in the British Museum and the British Library. He scoured passenger manifests from the 1600s, borrowing names for many of his characters. “Research is my favorite part of writing,” he says. “It’s just an excuse to travel and go to great places.”

The Devil and the Dark Water is filled with realistic details about life aboard the Saardam, including characters who bathe with buckets of seawater and must lean overboard to go to the bathroom. When asked how people survived such miserable voyages, Turton curtly replies that they “mostly didn’t.” He is hardly married to the minutiae of history, however. “The moment it interferes with my plot, I throw it away,” he admits.

History isn’t the only thing this author gets rid of. Upon the publication of his blockbuster mystery The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018), he burned his notes in a backyard bonfire. An exquisite combination of Agatha Christie and Groundhog Day, Turton’s first book stars a detective who inhabits the bodies of eight different witnesses in an attempt to solve and prevent a murder. Editing Evelyn’s necessarily precise timeline nearly drove Turton mad, however, so the bonfire felt like a symbolic way to free himself to write something completely different.

Turton plotted his latest novel using a method he calls, appropriately enough, “lighthousing.” He explains: “I felt like I was my own little ship sailing in between these different lighthouses and trying to get my characters to safety at the end of the book. It sounds weird to say, but I almost left it up to them to find their way through.”

As for this book’s dead body, Turton created a trio of Dutch women to investigate. There’s “fiercely intelligent” Sara, who is planning to escape her greedy, abusive husband, Jan; her genius young daughter, Lia; and Creesjie, Jan’s mistress and Sara’s friend. Although Turton read about the daily lives of women at that time, he admits to taking some liberties. “I made mine totally Charlie’s Angels,” he says. “I wanted them having witty banter, being really engaging characters and not being meek and dour, constantly humiliated by the men in their lives.”

Also on board is a Sherlock Holmes-type detective named Samuel Pipps, who could quickly get to the bottom of these bizarre events if he weren’t imprisoned, being transported to Amsterdam to await execution for an unknown crime. That leaves Pipps’ detective work to his devoted bodyguard, Arent Hayes, a hulking figure with an enigmatic past.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Devil and the Dark Water.


Despite this Sherlockian setup, Turton says he’s not a huge fan of the beloved character. “The miracles of Holmes’ talents always seem to happen within the first two pages of the story; then he spends the next 15 pages never using those talents again.” Instead, Turton has been an Agatha Christie enthusiast since reading her work at age 8, when he realized that Christie’s books were board games to be played against the author. Turton wants his own readers to feel the same invitation. “All the clues are there in front of you,” he says. “Just get out a notepad and start making notes. This is something we should be enjoying together.”

How about Turton’s own detective skills? Has he ever tried an escape room?

No, he says with a laugh. “Everyone expects me to be great at Scrabble because I’m a writer. I’m terrible at Scrabble, and I think I’d be terrible at escape rooms. Pure pride has prevented me from going into one.”

 

Author photo by Charlotte Graham.

A dead body is “a brilliant jumping-off point,” remarks British novelist Stuart Turton, speaking by phone from his home in Hertfordshire, England.

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