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.