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Monday, August 17, 2015

Some Friendly Advice to Pastiche Writers

Sherlock is everywhere - this is a pub in Switzerland 
This is the Golden Age of Sherlockian pastiche. Thanks to the heroic legal efforts of Leslie Klinger to free Sherlock, it has been definitively established that the character of Sherlock Holmes is not protected by U.S. copyright laws.
Anyone can write fiction about Sherlock Holmes, and sometimes it seems like everyone has.
I’ve been guilty of writing pastiches, and I’ve even written an essay about how to do it. (See “The Peculiar Persecution of JohnVincent Harden,” which includes the essay.) Recently, however, I received a new insight from an old book review.
Philip A. Shreffler, then editor of The Baker Street Journal, reviewed L.B. Greenwood’s Sherlock Holmes and the Thistle of Scotland in the March 1990 issue of the BSJ. In the course of that review he made the following astute observation:
There are at least three criteria that must be satisfied in order for a work that presumes to imitate the Holmes stories to succeed: Its plot must be structured similarly to the originals; Holmes and Watson must be characterized as they are in the Canon; and the syntax and diction employed must match Arthur Conan Doyle’s.

That seems simple enough, but a fair number of pastiches fail at all three – and for mostly good reasons.
Take plot structure. A novel-length pastiche that followed the structure of the original would have to be fairly short (from the 43,372 words of The Sign of Four to the 59,452 of The Hound of the Baskervilles), with Holmes missing for half the book.
Syntax and diction? I don’t think any writer can ever completely master the voice of another.
Where I have less patience is with the Shreffler’s second point – remaining true to the characters of Holmes and Watson. Please, pasticheurs, if you must “demythologize” our heroes to fit your own vision, at least give them their own names and don’t pretend that they are our old friends.  

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