Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Interview: Alistair Duncan

The loveliness of Sherlockians never ceases to amaze me, which is why I keep trying to meet them as often as I can, especially when I'm abroad. So, just before I left for the UK this time, I put out a message I'd be in town - and Alistair and I decided to meet up. I turned up in Chiswick after dropping off my bags at the hotel and Alistair treated me to a lovely lunch and a wonderful conversation.
Alistair Duncan is pretty well known as a leading expert in all things Conan Doyle, so I don't really need to introduce him. What I will do, therefore, is to put down the interview questions I'd asked him and his responses. The occasion? Release of the third book in his Conan Doyle trilogy - "No Better Place", which examines the period 1907 - 1930 - a time not often dealt with by writers, as Steve says. Luckily, I also had the chance to meet Steve (Emecz), the happy publisher of Alistair's trilogy, a few days ago, and there's a nice video of him talking about the book.
So, here we go:
Chiswick, 4 August 2015


1. Would you call yourself a Sherlockian, a Holmesian or a Doyle(whatever)?
The first two are basically the same thing – I certainly don’t draw any distinction between the two. The third option is Doylean. I consider myself to be all of the above.
(J's Note: There's a bit of an explanation on this one. I told Alistair, quite frankly, "I don't know the correct term for Doyle enthusiasts, hence the blank. So far, I've heard the terms Doylean, Doylist and Doylockian - and none of them sounded quite right to me. What is the right term?" The gracious response was, "I believe I was the first person to coin the term Doylockian but that was purely as the title for my blog. People don't tend to blend Holmes and Doyle into one word. I don't think there is a "right" term. I personally use Doylean.")

2. You are an authority on both Sir Arthur and Holmes – which, in your opinion, is the better man? Why?
Both the man and the character had flaws and ACD liked to use Holmes to occasionally exorcize his own demons. Each of them is better than the other depending on which aspect of their characters you look at. Overall I’d say that they come out equal.

3. Your “Close to Holmes” has helped many a Sherlockian/Holmesian across the globe – thoughts?

Well it’s naturally nice to know that people have found the book to be of use. I tried to make it usable from a chair as well as on the streets of London.

4. You are a leading authority on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Would you say Sherlock Holmes is his best work?

It’s very subjective. It is most certainly his most enduring work. From his perspective his historical romances were his best work in fiction (especially The White Company). Aside from this he most rated his work on Spiritualism.

5. The third instalment of your biography of Sir Arthur is due soon. Do tell us more about the series: how it came about, what inspired you – and the frankly mind-blowing amount of research that shines through the work.

After I completed Close to Holmes I was determined to write another book but I had no idea what to write about. At the time, I was living in South Norwood and was only about 20 minutes’ walk from Conan Doyle’s former house on Tennison Road. I already owned a number of biographies on Conan Doyle and had noticed that they all skimmed the South Norwood years. While they contained information on the main family events of that time and the books ACD had written,  none talked about his day-to-day life. I knew that ACD was a man who always threw himself into his local community and it stood to reason that the years in South Norwood would not be any different.

I had easy access to the main library in Croydon where all regional newspapers were held on microfilm. I decided that I was best placed (at least geographically) to have a go at chronicling the South Norwood years and off I went. The Norwood Author was the result.

I had no intention of doing anything else but I was later persuaded to chronicle ACD’s years in Haslemere and Hindhead which I began in May 2010. The completed book An Entirely New Country was published in December 2011.

Naturally people asked if I would do any more but I shied away from it. I had no desire to tackle ACD’s Spiritualist period. I don’t believe in Spiritualism and I felt the only way the subject could be tackled was even-handedly. In all the biographies I’d read, the authors had made their positions clear at the outset and had treated the subject from that stated position. So it was either total belief or total disbelief (often accompanied by something close to mockery).

I wrote an article called A Case of Biographical Identity for the SHSL Journal in 2011, in which I stated that the subject had to be tackled even-handedly regardless of the personal belief of the biographer.

I doubted my ability to do this and determined to leave the subject alone.

My friend Brian Pugh (famous for his excellent ACD Chronology) was one of those who had asked if I was going to attempt those final 23 years and when I told him I wasn’t he intimated that he might try himself. I had faith in his ability having read his excellent biography of Bertram Fletcher Robinson (written with Paul Spiring).

At the beginning of 2014 I was unhappy that I’d not yet written another book (I really enjoy writing) and was casting around for an idea. However, I kept coming back to the Spiritualist period of ACD’s life. I contacted Brian who confirmed that he was no longer considering the idea and I finally decided to do it. The result, No Better Place, is officially released on August 10th 2015. I flatter myself that I have been balanced in my approach to Spiritualism but that is really up to the reader to decide.
As to my level of research. It stems from something that could be described as a mild form of OCD. I am almost literally terrified of missing something or getting something wrong. I will therefore quadruple check everything I uncover,  look for at least two or three corroborating sources for each item of research and run my thoughts by other ACD experts. Brian Pugh and Georgina Doyle have been great supports to me in that regard.
6. What would you consider to be the best period of Sir Arthur’s writing? What do you think made it so?

If you’re looking at his entire body of work, I would have to say the Hindhead years were his best. He produced his work in connection with George Edalji, his Boer War accounts and of course the third series of Sherlock Holmes short stories. When he left Hindhead his peak years were definitely behind him. For the non-fiction his burning desire for justice drove the quality of his results.
If you look purely at his Holmes output, his peak years were the South Norwood years when he penned the first two series of Holmes short stories.

7. Do you think Sir Arthur really disliked Sherlock? He must have loved the detective initially, at least. What do you think went wrong in the middle? Would you say Holmes and his maker were reconciled in the end?

I don’t think he ever disliked Sherlock. I think, if anything, he disliked the public’s obsession with Sherlock which is not the same thing. He recognised and acknowledged (repeatedly) that it was Holmes that directly led to his fame and fortune as a writer. Despite any anti-Sherlock things he may have said to people (especially journalists), his ire was more towards the public demand for Holmes that it was against Holmes himself.

I think he definitely made peace with Holmes shortly after penning his last Holmes story. He told a journalist (who interviewed him following the final story’s publication) that he now imagined Holmes and Watson in a literary afterlife. In so doing he effectively brought Holmes and his passion for Spiritualism together which I think, in his own mind, was the highest compliment he could pay Holmes and Watson.

8. The difference between Holmes up to FINA and post-resurrection EMPT onwards – thoughts?
Holmes is probably at his peak in the first set of short stories (Adventures). In the Memoirs, ACD knows that he’s going to finish off Holmes and I think he puts a lot of effort into finishing the series off in style. Nonetheless that set of stories is not better than the first (although they could be regarded as equal).
In the Return we see that ACD is writing Holmes slightly grudgingly but, at the same time, he’s got some enthusiasm because he has been able to do other things in the meantime. He also knows, and is encouraged by, the sheer financial reward of what he’s writing.

It’s the final two series, His Last Bow and the Casebook where we see things go downhill. Aside from some gems like The Illustrious Client and The Problem of Thor Bridge, we have some pretty dire efforts (such as The Creeping Man) which graphically illustrate that Holmes was no longer anything more than a money making machine for ACD.

9. What should we expect next from your pen? (Or keyboard!)
Not a clue at this point. I hope that an idea will occur to me or be suggested to me.
(J's Note: We had a nice little chat about how he should consider a pocket edition of "Close to Holmes." I do wish he'd do that!)

10. Any messages for your fans?
I have fans? That’s gratifying! Thanks for reading (and liking?) my books. As soon as I begin another I shall let you know.
And here's Steve's interview on one of his favourite Sherlockians:

Monday, 13 July 2015

Advance Review: Petr Kopl's The Final Problem

Petr strikes yet again! This time, prepare yourself to be stunned more than ever before!

Moriarty is fearsome, and Holmes is stupendous. Watson draws a salute. Mycroft turns up in all his clandestine glory, too. Petr is a True Sherlockian (or a Pucca Holmesian, as we like to call 'em in India) and his adaptation of the canon and canonical characters, even (or especially) with his brilliant quirks thrown in, captures Sherlock's soul in an unparalleled fashion.

To be honest, I have no idea what to say in this review. I have run out of adjectives to praise Petr's work, and this one outshines them all. How do you measure the immeasurable? The art is as (perhaps slightly more) breathtaking as ever. This book is a personal favourite of mine; I had the good fortune of attending the launch of the original Czech version in Prague.

I can safely say that this graphic novel is the BEST piece of art I have held in my hands in my entire life.

Petr had ensured that no Sherlockian/Holmesian will remain dry-eyed by his rendering.

If you already supported the project on Kickstarter, you are a wise Sherlockian, and shall be rewarded soon. (The Kickstarter project was funded in less than 12 hours - must be some sort of a record!) If not, you can still buy it on The Strand or on Amazon

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Launch of Improbable Press - A New, Unique Tribute to Sherlock Holmes

Not for the faint of heart.
Not for the conservative.
Not for the intolerant.
Not for those afraid of change.

This one is for the romantic Sherlockians.
For those who crave something new.
For those in need of a fresh adventure.
For the Johnlocked (but not exclusively).
For those unafraid to walk on grounds where angels fear to tread.
And especially for those who believe that Sherlock Holmes could not only love, but love well.

Improbable Press has been launched, under the able hand of Atlin Merrick, a much-celebrated Sherlockian fan-fiction writer. Here - check it out.

I am well aware that many Sherlockians balk at the idea of Sherlockian erotica, and wish to stay away. It's a matter of choice, of course, and those who wish to stay away are welcome to do so. However, I have the good fortune to personally know some of the folks behind Improbable Press - and I do not hesitate to say that these are full-blooded Sherlockians; people who love and respect Sherlock will all their hearts. Sherlock Holmes and his romantic adventures are in good hands. So, if the only concern is that this endeavour would somehow cheapen the detective we know and love, rest assured: this is a labour of love.

Everyone deserves to be loved; even (or especially) Sherlock Holmes. And personally, there's nothing more I'd like to see than for him to be happy, if only in the pages of a book.

I, for one, eagerly look forward to the new books!

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Thursday, 28 May 2015

14 Years of Sherlockiana - Happy Birthday to SHSI!

How time flies!

May 28, 2001 - Mr Sumal Surendranath, current President of the Sherlock Holmes Society of India, decided to create this group for fellow Indian Sherlockians to have a platform to discuss the master detective.

14 years later, SHSI has about 200 members, a bi-annual publication, a Facebook page, a blog and many, many, many international friends.

Quite something, eh?

So, cheers to SHSI and Indian Sherlockians, and a special toast to Sumalji!

Monday, 23 February 2015

Book Review: The Lighter Side of Sherlock Holmes

Are you depressed? Are you missing Sherlock Holmes? Are you pining for an adventure? MX has the perfect cure for you: The Lighter Side of Sherlock Holmes - a fantastic collection of Sherlockian art that will leave you in stitches!
Oh yes, it is that good. And very, very clever.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Glenn Schatell in New York last month at the BSI Cocktail Reception. Glenn showed me his book - a compilation of Sherlock Holmes cartoons by his father, Mr Norman Schatell. Now, regular readers of the Baker Street Journal, the Sherlock Holmes Journal, the Serpentine Muse and several other Sherlockian publications would no doubt be already familiar with the works of Mr Schatell...but for those who are not, Glenn has painstakingly compiled this utterly delightful treat. I say "treat" because there is something in it for each and every Sherlockian/Holmesian - no matter your age, temperament or style of humour!
The cover itself is a fantastic prelude to the humour that runs through the book:
I have spent many hours in the last few weeks giggling in the back of a cab after long (and often tiresome) workdays over the Kindle version of "The Lighter Side of Sherlock Holmes", which I bought as soon as I was back in India. I am sure my sanity was questioned - but who cares, it was too good to resist! The hardcopy turned up a couple of days back - even better! Just look at these:

Humour aside, the cartoons are also diabolically clever. Many, many times I would look at one, smile and come back to it after a few more pages - only to reach for the canon to figure out a reference (Google, too, at times). And when I figured out some all by myself...ah, well - it's a matter of great pride, ain't it? There are very few things in life better than clever humour. Here's the proof:


Almost three hundred pages of sheer delight! What more could a Sherlockian possibly want? This is an absolute "must-have" book for all of us. Let's end with my favourite:

Thursday, 8 January 2015

BSI Weekend Day #1: ASH Wednesday

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So I took plenty of them!
A bit of background before the goodies: ASH Wednesday is the informal dinner of the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, and is held on the first Wednesday of each month and kicks off the BSI Weekend each year. BSI (Baker Street Irregulars) has its annual BSI Weekend (around Sherlock's birthday) - well, it's the most awesome birthday party ever, with people from all over the world and goes on for days.
This is my first time - both in New York as well as at the BSI Weekend. Obviously, I'm wide-eyed and open-mouthed most of the time - and so it occurred that I thought of taking pictures (despite lugging my big camera all the way to NY just for this purpose) only after a bellyful of chicken fingers, fries and sauvignon blanc.
A roomful of interesting Sherlockians - a truly colourful variety of people, ranging from veterans to newbies, with talks of Rathbone to Brett to Cumberbatch - I can think of no better way to have spent my first evening in New York. Even though I'd only met only about four people in the entire hall previously (and knew perhaps four more through emails) - it didn't end up with me sulking in a corner by myself (quite the norm at large gatherings for the socially-awkward me); the folks at ASH are incredibly friendly and make you feel so welcome!
Now, without further ado, here are the promised pictures:

That's David Stuart Davies (yup, the well-known British Sherlockian pastiche-writer - all the way from Yorkshire!) with his lovely wife - and being photo-bombed by Maria Fleishhack (yup, the Baker Street Babe herself!).

Evelyn Herzog and Susan Rice - the driving forces of ASH!

Ursula Moran (the best dinner conversationalist ever) and Christopher Zordan (the man behind the Gaslight Gala)
Catherine Cooke - all the way from London! Amazin' lady.

Lyndsay Faye (oh yes, the Baker Street Babe herself), Scott Monty (heard of I Hear of Sherlock? the very same) and Maria with her autographed mug - sent to her by Benedict Cumberbatch! Awesome, ain't it?

Al Gregory, BSI - a most charming gentleman!

Fun pictures at ASH Wednesday, 7 January 2015, New York - oh, right, the location: Annie Moore's (50 East 43rd Street, New York, NY 10017). Look, that's me in there, too!