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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sherlock Holmes, Jack Johnson & Al Capone

Aside from Irene Adler, few characters from the Canon that appeared in only one story ever show up in pastiches. But Samuel Williams, Jr. has written a fascinating novel called Anomalous, featuring the thug Steve Dixie from “The Adventure of the Three Gable.” Other major characters in the book are the American historical figures Jack Johnson and Al Capone.  I had a number of questions about the book, so I asked the author. 

Let’s start with Sherlock Holmes: What sparked your interest and how did it develop?
When I was a student in high school, I read all of the Holmes Canon. I fell in love with Doyle's style of storytelling as well. However, I was disturbed that the only black male character ever depicted in Holmes lore was a criminal, grafter, and thief. I wanted to write Anomalous and give Steve Dixie some redemptive value.

I myself have at least two African-American friends who are Sherlock Holmes fans, so that can’t be extremely rare. Why do you think you are the first African-American to write a major Holmes novel? 

I may not have been the first to write a Sherlock Holmes novel, but to "publish a major Holmes novel.” There was a black gentleman in the late 1980s who wrote a Holmes play involving Othello that gained some mention. My friend Roger Johnson said there was a black writer who had published some pamphlet form of a Holmes writing, but not a novel. I, too, have many black friends who read Sherlock as well. 

What gave you the idea to combine Jack Johnson, Al Capone, and Sherlock Holmes in a novel? 

As I was developing Anomalous, I didn't think Steve Dixie was as well known among Holmes characters to carry the story alone, plus he had credibility issues. In college, I became aware of Jack Johnson and the prejudicial injustice served upon him legally. As I was looking at Johnson's historical timeline, I realized he was in Chicago at the same time Holmes was undercover. Since Holmes was a boxing enthusiast, it was not a stretch to connect the two so I did. I am interested in Mafia history as well and -- while a stretch -- decided to tie Capone in to add spice. 

This novel is deeply grounded in history, even to the point of extensive footnotes about the mafia. How much specific research did you do for the book?

For the adept reader, they'll realize I touch on an issue that existed in 1912 that still exist in 2012 and it is the White Slavery trade. Young women (even men) are still being exploited as prostitutes in our society. The Democrats and Mafia were in cahoots to make this illegal activity happen and I wanted to expose that. The only research I did was to bear out these facts. At the end of the book, Johnson even reflects on the hypocrisy of Capone's and Yale's indignation of Cody's involvement with an under-aged girl since they had to know what Colosimo did with under-aged girls in Chicago.

 How much of it actually happened, and how much of it could have happened? 

Colosimo, Torrio, the Aldermen were all real and were all in cahoots with the prostitution ring; this is well documented. At the end of the book, Colonel Swinton actually existed and did invent the tank. 

How long did it take you to write it? 

I wrote the first draft in 2003, the second draft in 2006 and finished the novel in April 2012.

You use the term “colored” a lot, even in your role as third-person narrator. Was that to make the language conform to the historical setting? 

Yes. Black/African-Americans were called "colored" during that era.

 At the end of “The Yellow Face,” Watson appears delighted that Lucy Hebron’s stepfather accepts her as his own.  And yet in Anomalous, Watson comes across as a racist. What happened to him?
Jack Johnson happened to him! Because Watson seemed delighted Lucy was accepted by her father doesn't mean Watson accepted interracial relationships as a whole. Notice I didn't focus on Watson as being prejudicial as a whole ... I focused on the hypocrisy of his challenging black boxer JJ for consorting with prostitutes while at the same time knowing men of his station in London's high society also bedded down prostitutes. Was it about race or the principle?

 There is a lot of frank talk about race in this book. Did you intend to send a message as well as tell a story?

I did. Society sometimes has a preconceived idea of who folks are when many of us don't fall in "fixed" categories. Dixie made bad decisions and allowed bad people in his life. But when he was exposed fully to Holmes/Watson there was a shift in his thoughts about his life, a positive shift. Plus, my Sherlock Holmes was exonerated because some Sherlockian historians thought Holmes to be a racist in the way he dealt with and spoke about Dixie in their initial meeting. My Sherlock Holmes is not a racist in relations to Dixie, he just hated criminals as a whole and Dixie fell in that category. 

Anomalous – The Adventures of Sherlcok Holmes Featuring Jack Johnson and Alphonse Capone is available from bookstores including in the USA Barnes and Noble and Amazon, in the UK Waterstones, Amazon and Book Depository (free worldwide delivery) and in electronic formats – iTunes (iPad), Kindle, Nook and Kobo.

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