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.

Monday, March 4, 2024

A Screwball Mystery with a Sherlockian Angle

The Hounds of the Hollywood Baskervilles, by Elizabeth Crowns, is a mystery novel set during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Struggling young private detectives Babs Norman and Guy Brandt are trying to keep their business alive by unmasking the force behind the dognapping of Asta from the Thin Man movies and Basil Rathbone’s cocker spaniel, among other canines.

Hijinks ensue, not the least of which is the embarrassment that follows “Sherlock Holmes” losing his dog. For good reason the book has been compared to Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s. We put the author under the magnifying glass to learn more. 

Q. This book is much different from your Time Traver Professor trilogy. What prompted you to go in that direction?

Boy, oh boy is it different! That’s saying it mildly. Obviously, while having Arthur Conan Doyle as one of the featured characters in the Time Travel Professor series and, by the way, there will be one more book before that adventure is complete, I read not only about him and what he wrote in the Sherlockian Canon, but many of his other books like The Lost World, obvious from the most recent book in that series, A War in Too Many Worlds. So much of it is a mashup between that and H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. Those books, however, are in the “alternate history” genre which is a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy.

I’ve been veering away from that direction and into good old-fashioned traditional historical mysteries and started with contemporaries or inspirations for Doyle, like Poe and Agatha Christie, but for some reason I couldn’t seem to divorce myself from the humor. My agent and I got into a debate when it came time to pitch this project to publishers. She wanted to label my novel as a cozy, and I disagreed. Usually when I describe a cozy mystery to someone unfamiliar with the term, I say, “Think of Murder She Wrote.” Cozies might have dead bodies or other crimes, but there never is a lot of blood or violence and no graphic sex. It’s always implied or behind closed doors.

When I think of a cozy, it has an amateur sleuth. It takes place in a quaint small town. It’s a Hallmark mystery with someone who owns a bakery or works as a librarian. It’s usually a female who is dating the town’s sheriff, and she has a “talking” cat or dog. Yes, I know I’m exaggerating about the talking pet, but there are quite a few cozies where someone might have a magical or psychic cat—but not in my books. As Sherlock Holmes would say in The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, “…no ghosts need apply,” but there are authors who do that, and some do the paranormal element well. I have a hero dog in my book, but he’s more like a self-taught search and rescue dog and smarter than the actual K-9 on the police force.

Hounds of the Hollywood Baskervilles falls into the subgenre of soft-boiled crime, versus hardboiled noir, because it involves two professional private eyes in the large city of Los Angeles. They might be young and inexperienced and sometimes make blunders, but they have legit licenses and this is the way they make their living. In noir, everyone seems bad-to-the-bone with a bleak ending. Hounds has a feel-good ending, and many of the characters will prove themselves worthy of redemption.

Q. Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, William Powell, and Myrna Loy are among the major characters in this book, with Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart in minor roles. Dashiel Hammett and Lillian Hellman also appear. How long did you spend researching the people and the era of this book before you began writing?

I laugh when I’m asked to do an author interview and one of the questions is: “Do you have a hobby, or what do you do in your spare time?” Who has spare time? Writing historical fiction, which I can’t seem to tear myself away from, takes an enormous amount of research. The name I go by in my ASH investiture is A Collector of Obscure Volumes from The Adventure of the Empty House. As you can imagine, I own a crazy library collection beyond Doyle. Besides a lot of nonfiction and biographies, I try to read a lot of fiction written in the time period that my novel is in and, of course, I watch a lot of Turner Classic Movies. A little less than two years ago, I won a trivia contest at a prominent mystery convention. Apparently, I was the only one in the entire room who had read the book version of The Thin Man and knew a specific thing different in the book than from the movie. I’d tell you, but if you read my book you’ll find out.

Q. Which came first—the plot or the research? In other words, how much of the storyline emerged from immersing yourself in that time and place?

The answer to that question will surprise you. Obviously, in writing my alternate history series with Doyle, I had to read the Canon over and over. Besides A Study in Scarlet, where Holmes meets Watson for the first time, the other stand-out story for me has always been The Hounds of the Baskervilles. It was also the first of the fourteen Rathbone-Bruce films. What’s ironic is that both Rathbone and Doyle had something in common—they hated being typecast. Doyle wanted to kill off Holmes and write other things. Rathbone wanted to return to theater and Shakespeare.

But getting back to your question, my background is in film production and film history. One of my best friends, who sadly is no longer with us, used to be an actress in Hollywood during the forties. She gave me the legal rights to her life story, but the challenge of putting those adventures into print was she wasn’t famous. However, she was the type of person who always read mysteries and watched everything from Murder She Wrote on television to TCM to NCIS and Law & Order. If she wasn’t watching a mystery on television, she watched Animal Planet or Nat Geo Wild, because she was a major animal lover. One day, the lightbulb went off in my head. I told her, “I figured out how to write your story. We’ll turn you into an actress-turned-PI and you will solve mysteries. How does that sound?” She loved that idea and gave me her blessing. She was my inspiration for Babs Norman who would solve celebrity cases. Who would be her first big client? That’s where my Holmes background came in. During the forties, Basil Rathbone was synonymous with Sherlock Holmes in Hollywood.

Q. From the title onward, there are a lot of Sherlockian references and Easter eggs in this book—such as characters named Jefferson Hope and Wiggins—as well as Canonical quotes. Is it fair to say this book owes a lot to our Baker Street hero?

Dan, you know the answer to that. But of course! Also to Basil Rathbone. As a kid, I grew up in Cincinnati just like you. Having only three network channels on an analog television set, my only exposure to Holmes was through the old Basil Rathbone films on Saturday afternoons or late at night. William Gillette? Who was he? I didn’t luck into Granada Television or Jeremy Brett until much later, and I had a lot of catching up to do.

Q. What’s next for the B. Norman Agency?

In the last chapter of Hounds, the reader discovers that one of the missing dogs belonged to Humphrey Bogart. He and one of my hero private detectives exchange banter and business cards. So now, I’ll let you play Sherlock Holmes. If Hounds takes place and solves the crime towards the end of 1940, in what famous movie does Humphrey Bogart star which is filmed and released in 1941? That’ll clue you in to what the next major crime novel is about. Now, I’ll keep my mouth shut and let you do the sleuthing.

Q. What question haven’t I asked that you want to answer?

You might run out of space. Just kidding. If you want updates, sign up for my free monthly newsletter at elizabethcrowens.com. Don’t worry, I won’t spam you. Who has time if you’re writing historical mysteries? Newsletter subscribers also get inspirational insights and free eBooks of Best of the Caption Contests based on a popular post I have on Facebook at facebook.com/thereel.elizabeth.crowens. If you send me a FB request, send me a private message to say you heard about me through Dan’s blog so I know you’re not a robot. You can also find me on Instagram.com/ElizabethCrowens and x.com/ECrowens.

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