Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Teaching Holmes - Pastiche and Parody

WARNING: Long post and ponderous. Includes a list of print and internet resources at the end.

I'm assisting two professors with crime fiction themed freshman seminars this Fall. I gave presentations on searching library resources and the Internet for material related to detective fiction and Sherlock Holmes to three classes. It is interesting to try to condense the searching possibilities into 45 minute to an hour sessions when I could talk half a day on any single source.

I was talking with one of the instructors about my interest in parodies and pastiches of Sherlock Holmes and she offered me the opportunity to discuss this topic with the class. Last Thursday night night was the night. It's been a long time since I had to do any class prep so my timing and organization were a bit off but it was fun... for me anyway. Here are the highlights of what I covered.

I defined pastiche as something done in the style of, or recognizably influenced by an author's works, akin to an homage. This is more of a popular culture approach than a formal literary definition.


One approach to a pastiche is to write a story the way Doyle would have done. The fun comes in when the author takes a theme, style, or character and develops new situations and twists. What if Watson was smarter than Holmes; Moriarty wasn't a villain; Holmes got married; Holmes met Dracula; Holmes was involved with Jack the Ripper; Holmes resisted the Martians in The War of the Worlds. The problem is that it you frequently end up with pastiches and parodies that are clumsy, forced, and just don't work.

Sherlock Holmes is an ideal subject for pastiches.

The legalities of using the Holmes character and events from stories are tricky. In the U.K. all sherlock Holmes stories are in the public domain. In the U.S., stories published before 12/31/1922 are in public domain but not those after.

Holmes is known to more people than any other fictional character and there are Sherlock Holmes societies around the world.

More parodies and pastiches have been written about Holmes than any other fictional character. In The Alternative Sherlock Holmes: Pastiches, Parodies and Copies, Peter Ridgeway Watt and Joseph Green write:
Sherlock Holmes is unique. His creation gave rise to an extraordinary sub-genre, the Sherlock Holmes pastiche, which has, indeed, become a literary form in its own right.

Watt and Green point out only a few other detectives have been the subject of pastiches - Philip Marlowe, Nero wolf, James Bond.

The first known period pastiche (conforming to "the historical and geographical domains of the Canon") appeared in 1893, five or six years after A Study in Scarlet and was written by J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan), a close friend of Doyle.

Doyle himself gave the world the motivation for writing pastiches. In The Problem of Thor Bridge, Watson tells the reader about the "travel-worn and battered tin dispatch box...crammed with papers, nearly all of which are records of cases to illustrate the curious problems, which Mr. Sherlock Holmes has at various times to examine." And in The Five Orange Pips, Watson writes "I am faced with so many which present strange and interesting features that it is no easy matter to know which to choose and which to leave."

In the Canonical works, Watson alludes to over 100 cases investigated by Holmes but about which chose not to publish or Holmes wouldn't let him.

We looked at the trailer for the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movie which will be released Christmas day, 2009. Having read Holmes' stories, the class felt that, based on the trailer, if the names Sherlock Holmes and Watson were removed there would be no way to tell that this is a Sherlock Holmes story. It comes across as more of a Victorian James Bond.

I see the Sherlock Holmes pastiches as falling into six groups. Most of these are actually sub-groups but there are enough works that can be assigned to each that they deserve to be treated separately.

1. Cases mentioned in the Canon but not published (more than 100).
The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes by Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr.

2. New cases not based on references in the Canon.
The Italian Secretary, Caleb Carr
The Final solution, Michael Chabon

3. New case involving historical characters or events
Sigmond Freud - The Seven Percent Solution, Nicholas Meyer
Jack the Ripper - Castle Rouge, Carole Nelson Douglas
Jack the Ripper - The Last Detective Story, Michael Dibdin

4. New cases involving fictional characters and events
Dracula - The Tangled Skein, David Stuart Davis
Mary Russell - The Beekeeper's Apprentice (and others), Laurie R. King Mary Russell and Holmes marry. King also links Holmes with her modern day San Francisco police detective, Kate Martinelli.
War of the Worlds - Sherlock Holmes' War of the Worlds, Manley Wade Wellman

5. Reworkings of Canonical cases
Irene Adler, A Scandal in Bohemia - Goodnight, Mr. Holmes, Carole Nelson Douglas. William Baring-gould speculated that Holmes and Adler later had an affair in Montenegro that produced a son, Nero Wolfe.

6. Stories that somehow relate to Holmes
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, Mark Haddon
Holmes on the Range, Steve Hockensmith

NOTE: I had started on my outline of types of pastiches when Rafe McGregor posted Sherlock Holmes for Beginners on his blog. It was quite useful and provided examples of book falling into his categories. Thanks Rafe.

I asked if someone could write a story that would be instantly recognizable as a Sherlock Holmes story without mentioning Sherlock Holmes. I described Michael Chabon's story, The Final Solution, where the names Sherlock Holmes and Watson are never mentioned. The story takes place in 1944.

Chabon tells us that the old man is reading The British Bee Journal and has a "battered coal-scuttle in which he had once kept his pipes." He is asked by the local police to assist in a case and at the crime scene "...he reached into the old conjuror's pocket sewn into the lining of his cloak and took out his glass. It was brass and tortoise shell, and bore around its bezel an affectionate inscription from the sole great friend of his life." And if those are not enough clues, one of the local detectives thinks, "He had heard the tales, the legends, the wild, famous leaps of induction pulled off by the old man in his heyday, assassins inferred from cigar ash, horse thieves from the absence of a watchdog's bark."

Holmes "lived" in a particularly rich time for stories that cross-over with Science fiction and Horror. Shadows over Baker Street is a collection of stories associating Holmes with the H.P. Lovecraft universe. For example, "A Case of Royal Blood" by Steven-Elliott Altman pairs Holmes and H.G. Wells in a secret and sensitive case involving the royal family of Holland mentioned in "A Scandal in Bohemia" and "A Case of Identity".


Parody is a near relation of pastiche. I see the parody as not mean-spirited or disrespectful but an exaggeration of characteristics.

Watt and Green write that
The Sherlock Holmes parody sub-genre is exceptional in several ways: not only in its extent, but in that the 'turns of thought and phrase' of both the author and the characters he created are its central subject."

The authors describe a book of parodies, Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie and Murder in Pastiche where Marion Mainwarning parodies nine contemporary fictional detectives.
after that, with the exception of Sherlock Holmes, there has been almost nothing. No major parodies of any of the other great detectives of the twentieth century would seem to have been written.

Watt and Green describe the characteristics that make the Sherlock Holmes stories unique. These characteristics could apply to pastiche as well as parody.

1. The style, the ingenuity, seemingly inexhaustible detail of the stories; the ambience of 221B Baker Street; the setting of Victorian London with fog, hansome cabs, gas-lite lamps, blundering police.

2. The name Sherlock Holmes. Watt and Green believe that had the name been something plainer it wouldn't have inspired parody. Early parodies used such names for Holmes and Watson as
Picklock Holes and Dr. Potson
Thinlock bones and Dr. Whatsoname
Hemlock Jones
Shamrock Jones and Dr. Whatsup

3. Watson. Prior the Holmes, sideicks/assistants/chroniclers were not well developed.
The invention of Watson was, perhaps the one single factor that established the uniqeness and the pre-eminence of the Sherlock Holmes Canon.
Doyle's first choice for a name was 'Ormond Sacker'.

4. Holmes' powers of logical deduction, his arrogance, being nearly always right are characteristics that can be used in both parody as well as pastiche.
In parody, Holmes can be not merely arrogant, but pompous; not always right, not even sometimes right, but wrong. His methods can be copied and then shown to be fallacious.

We two looked at two examples of a Sherlock Holmes parody.
"How Watson Learned the Trick" by Doyle himself. Here Watson tries to show Holmes that he has learned the trick of making seemingly improbable deductions, but is totally wrong.

"The Really Final Solution" by Nick Pollotta where the author exaggerates the wild machinations to bring down the criminal
"But then, when the little blonde girl asked for more --"
"We had already had the mastiff tied and helpless!"
"So, the carriage ride to the boathouse--"
"Was a sham! And therefore--"

The students preferred Doyle's parody of his own work to Pollotta's. Doyle's parody was more subtle in that was close to scenes that happened in the stories while Pollotta went with wild exaggeration.

Watt, Peter Ridgway and Green, Joseph. The Alternative Sherlock Holmes: Pastiches, Parodies and Copies. Ashgate Publishing Company, 2003. ISBN 0 7546 0882 4. An excellent resource book

Kaye, Marvin (ed.). The Game is Afoot: Parodies, Pastiches and Ponderings of Sherlock Holmes. St. Martin's Press, NY, 1994. ISBN 0 312 10468 5. Excellent collection that includes interesting commentary.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Robert Hale: London, revised, expanded, and illustrated, 2001. ISBN 0 7090 6738 0. Contains the parody "How Watson Learned the Trick." Editor Peter Haining makes the case that there are twelve more stories that should be included in the Canon.

Reaves, Michael and Pelan, John, editors. Shadows Over Baker Street: New tales of Terror. Del Rey, 2005. ISBN 978-0345452733. A generally good marriage of Arthur Conan Doyle and H. P. Lovecraft in horror pastiches. I particularly like the Neil Gaiman contribution, A Study in Emerald, which won the 2004 Hugo for Best Short Story.


Rafe McGregor. Crime Stories & Weird Tales. This is an all around great blog and source of discussion about Sherlock Holmes. I drew upon Sherlock Holmes for Beginners for this presentaiton.

Eternally My Dear Watson. A nice overview of the Sherlock Holmes spoof.

There is also an index to Canonical characters.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sherlock Holmes (Canon and Pastiche). Nice annotated lists.

Sherlockian.Net: Pastiches, parodies and new stories. some of the links no longer work but is an good resource.

Parodies at Crimeculture. Has reference to film parodies of Sherlock Holmes. Interesting site for discussion of crime.

Whodunit: a serial of aliasses. This is an Ellery Queen site but this page has an interesting discussion of Sherlock Holmes pastiches.

Sherlockian Who's Who. I looked here when gauging the current popularity of Sherlock Holmes.