Welcome! Like the book of the same name, this blog is an eclectic collection of Sherlockian scribblings based on more than a half-century of reading Sherlock Holmes. Please add your own thoughts. You can also follow me on Twitter @DanAndriacco and on my Facebook fan page at Dan Andriacco Mysteries. You might also be interested in my Amazon Author Page. My books are also available at Barnes & Noble and in all main electronic formats including Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iBooks for the iPad.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Q&A With Mystery Writer Michael Robertson

Recently I read a marvelous pair of books by Michael Robertson, The Baker Street Letters and The Brothers of Baker Street. They record the adventures of a British barrister and his brother who have Chambers at 221B Baker Street. Their lease contains the unusual requirement that they respond, but only with a form letter, to all letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes. It's a wonderful premise, and Robertson makes the most of it with some great characters and fluid, often funny, writing. He was kind enough to answer a few quesitons I had.

The Baker Street brothers don’t give any indications of being Sherlock Holmes fans, despite having Chambers at 221 B Baker Street. Are you a fan?

Hugely so, since I was about eight. I started with a very old edition of “Tales of Sherlock Holmes,” (it included A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, and several of the short stories) which my grandparents had in a little library next to the living room – a place just large enough to pull out a book, sit down on the floor, and read it through right then and there.

I read and re-read all of the canon (though I had no idea there was a thing called a canon, or that there were pastiches, or apocrypha, or Sherlock Holmes societies, or any of that) over many years. There are only a few authors I've paid attention to in that way – Doyle, Mark Twain, Tolkien, Dashiell Hammett. I know I should broaden my horizons.

Tell us a little about your relationship with Sherlock Holmes over the years.

I wrote my first take on the letters premise in 1979, when I was struggling with law school and foolishly thinking of screenwriting as an alternative career. I saw a newspaper article about how letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes were being delivered by the Royal Mail to Abbey House – a building that was then headquarters for the Abbey National Building Society, and which occupied pretty much the entire 200 block of Baker Street. A clerk at Abbey National (actually, a series of clerks over the years) had the job of sending responses to the letters.

Once I saw all that, my screenplay pretty much wrote itself. As you might suspect, not everything that writes itself is as good as it could be, and although the screenplay got me into Hollywood pitch meetings many years ago, no one made the movie at the time. In any case, in the screenplay drafts, both Reggie and Nigel were indeed fans of Sherlock Holmes, and they went so far as to try to respond to a letter in person as Holmes and Watson.

But that changed completely when I decided to approach the premise as a novel. Reggie became a non-fan, neither of the brothers tries to be Sherlock Holmes, and part of the fun (at least for me) of the novels is in forcing Reggie to deal with a phenomenon that he would just as soon ignore. For Nigel – well, in the first two novels, I’ve tried to leave his opinion of Sherlock Holmes open to interpretation. I get a bit more specific about it in the third.

The dust-jacket notes on both books say that you live in Southern California, and yet the books are very British in style. Are you American, British, or both?

I'm American. When I began the novels, I was determined to make them feel as British as possible, especially so because the first novel is purely from Reggie Heath’s point of view, and he must be a fish out of water when he arrives in Los Angeles. This meant quite a few trips for me to London, and many hours watching PBS. A turning point came in early 2003, when my employer (I still have a day job) incorporated a new product line from England, and I began working with the folks there on a daily basis. I began to discover things about the Brits that I hadn't learned just through research – and I found that I could write more and more like a Brit if I mimicked the wonderful emails of my colleagues at work and memorized what they said in meetings.

My favorite moment from those conferences was when a very proper (or so I used to think) young British woman, being pressured like the rest of us to do more work than we reasonably could, announced: “Why don't they just ask me to jam a broomstick up my arse and sweep the floors while I'm at it?” I'm still looking for a way to work that phrase into the next novel.

The books are set in 1997. Why is that?

I wish I could say it is part of a grand plan over the whole series of books. But it isn’t; it is tied to a very specific plot consideration from the first novel. I was living near downtown Los Angeles in the 1990s when an underground fire took place in a tunnel for the new Red Line subway. It was a dramatic thing; I wanted to write about it and to convey the Los Angeles that existed at exactly that time, and to use that hot, smoggy summer to pull Reggie – a confident British barrister – out of his element.

When I created the final draft of The Baker Street Letters, I considered bringing the timeline forward, but it just didn't feel right to do so. I was locked in on Los Angeles in those circumstances and at that time. In the second novel, The Brothers of Baker Street, I moved all the action to England, but I had to stay true to the time frame established in the first.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of setting a book in a time period that is too recent to be considered a historical setting and yet pre-dates much of the technology that we now take for granted?

The major disadvantage is that I am forever double-checking things like “Just how massive were mobile phones in 1997?” An occasional advantage is that with an earlier technological setting, I can create problems for my characters that wouldn’t exist today. It used to be that barriers of time and distance would be major elements in a story line, obstacles for a protagonist to overcome. They still can be, but in present day, a reader can quite rightly ask things like, “Why didn't he just look it up online?” and “Why didn't he just tweet her if he knew the train was bearing down on them?” Of course, it’s always possible to just say that the battery went dead; but you can’t use that excuse for everything.

I love the humor in both books. My favorite line in The Baker Street Letters is “This was sarcasm. Reggie recognized the tone for weekend holidays in Paris.” How do see the place of humor in mystery stories?

Mystery stories don't have to be funny, but I like writing dialog, and in dialog, there is always an opportunity for humor, even if the events taking place are dark. I think the British – and I mean just everyday Brits in the way they talk about things, not just authors – are masters at that. Also, my early training as a writer was in sitcoms (past their prime now, I guess), where every line of dialog must either be a punch line or must serve the dual purpose of both setting up a punch line and moving the plot forward. Of course the humor doesn’t have to come only from the dialog. A few weeks ago I watched an old film version of Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution,” in which there is a running gag about the barrister’s infirmities and his battles with his nurse. It worked wonderfully, as you’d expect.

What’s ahead for Reggie and Nigel?

The third novel (A Baker Street Translation, Winter 2013) focuses on Reggie and Laura and a major issue that still needs to be resolved between them. The fourth novel will bring the focus back to Nigel a bit. And somewhere down the line I might find a way to force Reggie to do what he did in my very first screenplay – respond to a letter in the guise of Sherlock Holmes.

I’m fond of Laura and the love story subplot. Her relationship with Reggie reminds me of Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises as well as my own Lynda Teal and Jeff Cody early on. Will we see more of her?

Much more. Laura has a couple of decisions to make, and in the course of making them, she pretty much takes over the third novel. I don’t want to say too much more beyond that, but for what it’s worth, I’m a great admirer of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, and the screen version with William Powell and Myrna Loy.

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