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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!



Editorial
Feb. 26, 2006


The Original Pastiche? Why, it's Elementary, My Dear Watson!

Last time I talked about the ambiguous meaning of some words -- no, no, I’m not still carrying on about that. But it’s a good segue for today’s topic, which is the pastiche.

So, what’s a pastiche? Well, that’s where the ambiguity comes in. A pastiche is something that is written to deliberately evoke something else, but I tend to think of it as more specific. I think of a pastiche as being something that is literally using a pre-existing property. As such, the slew of Conan novels that have come out since creator Robert E. Howard’s death -- books written by everyone from L. Sprague de Camp to Poul Anderson to, of all people, Harry Turtledove are pastiches. But barbarian S&S stories that are clearly inspired by Conan, whether it be Brak the Barbarian, or our own founding editor, Jeffrey Blair Latta’s, Fukitso the Unpredictable, are not pastiches. A pastiche, to my mind, requires more than just owing a slight debt of inspiration to a previous work.

Exceptions might be parody -- a story about, say, Bonan the Librarian (I made that up) wouldn’t technically be about Conan, but is obviously meant to derive its humour from the connection. Likewise, if a dead author had a particularly distinctive style, one could write a story, utilizing original characters, but in that style, and call it a pastiche.

Anyway, I don’t want to dwell too much on meaning. I just wanted to establish some parameters. Because what I was thinking about was: who wrote the first pastiche?

Think about it.

Excepting the re-telling of folk legends (a book about King Arthur or Robin Hood I wouldn’t necessarily count as a pastiche), when was the first time someone wrote a story that was deliberately meant to take a pre-existing character and plunge him into a new, not wholly canonical story?

Well, I’m sure better read people than I could come up with better examples, but I’m writing this, so I’ll just end the suspense.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writing Sherlock Holmes.

Okay, I hear the catcalls and boos from y’all, claiming an author can’t write a pastiche featuring his own character. That would just be another story in the canon.

Ah hah, but not necessarily.

You see, I was listening to a radio play the other night based on a late 19th Century play called “Sherlock Holmes” -- it may well have been the first Sherlock Holmes play (else, wouldn’t you call it something like “Sherlock Holmes and the …” just to distinguish it from the others?) The first draft was written by Holmes’ creator Doyle, then re-written by the actor who would take on the part, becoming heavily identified with the roll in the early 20th Century, William Gillette -- the two share co-author credit. And, indeed, it is perhaps hard to say how much of the finished product was Doyle’s and how much Gillette’s -- but Doyle, at least, was involved.

So why do I call “Sherlock Holmes” (the play) a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes (the stories) when Doyle himself wrote it? Because the play cheerfully and shamelessly cannibalizes pre-existing Holmes stories in a way that, realistically, Holmes should spend much of the story suffering from déjà vu. The play begins with Holmes seeking to recover incriminating papers from a woman who is threatening to use them to sabotage the up-coming marriage of some minor royalty (reiterating “A Scandal in Bohemia” -- and, purely coincidentally, having vague echoes in this week’s Two-Fisted Tale here at PDF, “The Serpent’s Nest” -- plug, plug). And, as in “A Scandal in Bohemia”, the normally asexual Holmes develops an atypical attraction to the woman. Plus, the case drags Holmes’ arch foe, Moriarty into the mix, as well.

You may remember, a few weeks back, I wrote a piece about the over-use of arch foes in fiction, pointing out how Moriarty only appeared in a couple of Holmes stories but has since become a regular fixture of Holmes’ pastiche? So here we see the progenitor of that: a Holmes pastiche, written by his creator, in which Moriarty is front and centre! There are other things, to -- passing references to cases that were chronicled in the stories, but as if they weren’t, and scenes lifted directly from the printed page, but put in a new context.

This, of course, is not unusual. Author’s frequently mine their own material if they can convince themselves it’s somehow in a different form, and therefore not derivative. Read some of Raymond Chandler’s short stories and you’ll see scenes almost identical to ones he later used in his classic Philip Marlowe novels, likewise I think Robert E. Howard mined his short stories a bit when writing his sole Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon. Edgar Rice Burroughs went the opposite route, taking elements from a Tarzan radio serial and using them as the basis for the novel, Tarzan and the Forbidden City. While Walter Gibson, chief writer of The Shadow (under the house name, Maxwell Grant) borrowed plots from his novels when writing The Shadow comic books.

Anyway, back to Doyle…

In a sense, “Sherlock Holmes” (the play) is almost the definitive Holmes story, a distillation of Holmesian themes…while taking the story in a direction largely contradicted by the stories (suggesting the romance might become more than platonic). It is meant to appeal to Holmes’ fans, even as it is too derivative to comfortably stand as an original story (not that it is completely derivative, of course -- in fact much of the story, to my knowledge, is original…unlike, say, another Doyle written Holmes play, “The Speckled Band” which was, of course, just an adaptation of a pre-existing story).

What’s interesting, given how early the play was written, is how we can see aspects already becoming cemented into place as “key” aspects of the Holmes mythos. From Prof. Moriarty to an Irene Adler-like love interest to a reference to Holmes’ drug use, these are all things that are often mined, and mined again, by later pastiche writers as signature elements that define the character (despite the fact that between them, they only appeared in a very few stories).

All you’d need would be a manor house with a family curse and you really would have the quintessential Holmes story.

What’s missing, though, is also interesting.

You see, many Holmes pastiches tend to miss what I consider key -- and unique-to-Holmes -- elements of the stories.

Many Holmes pastiches are more like action-thrillers, as Holmes runs about, duelling wits with Moriarty, who we know is the villain and often what he’s up to. A recent, to my mind ill-conceived, Holmes movie, “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking” tried to marry the character with a mix of Thomas Harris and CSI as Holmes investigates a serial sex-killer -- “ooh, pass the tea, mumsy, and let’s see if dear Mr. Holmes can rescue that teenage girl before the nasty foot fetishist defiles her like he has all the others!” Sorry, but I generally regard serial killer stories as something a writer comes up with when he can’t come up with a real plot -- as it simply requires an anonymous villain with no motive and where you know the hero won’t actually deduce anything of relevance until ten minutes from the end…but it does allow filmmakers to film teenage actresses in their nighties! The exception that proves the rule is the Sherlock Holmes movie, “Murder by Decree” in which Holmes investigated Jack the Ripper, which was pretty good…but in that, it really was treated as a mystery, utilizing then-‘new’ theories about the case…theories since reused by most Ripper stories, including From Hell.

At best, Holmes pastiches will be murder mysteries in a very formulaic, private eye sort of way.

And though Doyle wrote such stories, to me Holmes’ stories are often defined as the “curious incident” stories, beginning with an incident that is bizarre, but not even necessarily criminal, that leads Holmes to uncover some mystery. Such stories are trickier to write, because it requires coming up with some incident that genuinely seems intriguing, that will hold the reader’s attention even if there’s no murder or mayhem (at least, not yet!) which is why succeeding generations of mystery writers tend to settle for the safe and the easy of a murder in the first chapter. (Ironically, a successful example of the “curious incident” style of plotting were the Doc Savage pulp adventure stories!).

As I say, that’s what I think of as an aspect of Holmes’ stories…yet in the play, “Sherlock Holmes”, the story is more a simple adventure-thriller, where we know who the bad guys are and why, and where there’s a greater element of physical danger facing Holmes.

Another aspect of the Holmes stories that I would consider central, is the relationship between Holmes and Watson -- it’s a buddy story. And, in this case, most later pastiche writers would probably agree. Yet, ironically, that aspect of the mythos is rather underplayed in the play, with Watson having a decidedly secondary part -- though still around. Perhaps it’s understandable. After all, Watson’s part in the stories was to act as narrator and, in a play where the action doesn’t need to be narrated, Doyle may have felt he was superfluous.

As a play, “Sherlock Holmes” is actually pretty good -- at least the audio version I heard from Blackstone audio featuring an effective Martin Jarvis as Holmes and a brilliant Tony Jay (Beauty & the Beast, Lois & Clark) as Moriarty and, also for you genre fans, W. Morgan Sheppard in a smaller part as one of Moriarty’s henchman. It’s a lot wittier than I expected -- either Doyle was letting his hair down, or that was Gillette’s influence -- and even a bit exciting. Though I’ve heard some stage revivals of the play tend to camp it up, which might not work as well (in the audio version, it’s presented with a sense of fun, but is ultimately played straight). And apparently aspects of the play had been cannibalized for later movies (notably “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” starring Rathbone and Bruce) -- so for hardcore Holmes fans it might seem even less original than it did to me.

But Sherlock Holmes has become perhaps the most heavily, uh, pastichisized character in the English language (and probably in any language), having been featured in radio plays, movies, TV series, comic strips, and literally hundreds of short stories and novels, all written by later writers, putting Holmes in new pastiches…sometimes double pastiches (there’s a Holmes anthology featuring Holmes in stories inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos). Compared to him, Conan, even with his pastiche novels and comics, is a veritable babe-in-arms.

And, so, it’s kind of interesting to realize that Holmes may not just be the most heavily pastiched character, but might possibly have been the first…and that it was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself who started it.

Added March, 2005: e-mailer Shawn Drueck went back even further and pointed out that, apparently, after the publication of Cervantes' Don Quixote another author penned a sequel -- spurring an irate Cervantes to then respond with his own sequel -- this would've all been back in the 1600s!


D.K. Latta, editor

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