I just returned from a trip to Seattle, where my sister worked hard on turning me into a fan of the BBC’s newest “Sherlock” show, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Her ploy worked—I am now waiting in suspense for the much-anticipated third season. Discussing the shows and how they follow and differ from the original stories got me thinking about the various literary pastiches on Sherlock Holmes.
“Pastiche” was explained to me as a visual art term that refers to a painting done in the style of a master. It’s also the generally accepted term for a work of fiction about Sherlock Holmes that is not by his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle didn’t protect his characters with copyright, so anyone can write about them, which I find a sort of delightful situation. I’ve only read a tiny percentage of the published Sherlock Holmes pastiches and spinoffs out there, and I tend to like the ones that introduce a new character who shows us Holmes through their eyes.
Laurie King’s Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell series takes a new tack by using the perspective of a character who is (or becomes) Holmes’s intellectual equal. Mary Russell is a smart, sarcastic, somewhat troubled 14-year-old when she meets the great detective in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and astonishes him with her powers of deduction before winding up by telling him off for making the simple mistake of thinking she’s a boy (she is dressed like one at the time). King is a great hand with plot and character, and it’s fun and sometimes suspenseful to watch Holmes and Russell’s relationship evolve over the course of several books spanning many years. I enjoy seeing an older, more mature version of Holmes, and Russell herself is a character to be reckoned with, sometimes fairly popping off the page with her courage, intelligence, and unruly developing emotions.
Another look at Sherlock Holmes from the perspective of a smart female character is Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes children’s series. Springer gives Sherlock (and Mycroft) Holmes a little sister: Enola (turn it around), who lives out on the family’s country estate. In the opening book, The Case of the Missing Marquess, Enola’s mother disappears, and Enola moves to London and sets up shop as a “finder of the lost.” Enola uses her specifically feminine Victorian knowledge to solve cases that elude Sherlock throughout the series. Meanwhile, she must evade both her older brothers, who believe a teenage girl shouldn’t be out on her own. This series comes off as a romp, but some serious issues, such as poverty and gender roles, are addressed amidst Enola’s escapades.
In Tracy Barrett’s young readers’ series The Case Files of Sherlock Holmes, the great detective himself is long gone from the scene. The time is now, and Xena and Xander Holmes (weird names, but so is Sherlock) find their great-great-great-grandfather’s notebook of unsolved cases and decide to complete his work. These stories are a lot of fun for kids who want to grow up to be detectives, as I used to (working in a bookstore comes pretty close at times). According to my sister, Holmes isn’t supposed to ever get married or have descendants, but somehow, when I’m having fun reading a good kids’ mystery, I can’t be bothered to care.
These examples only scratch the surface of the vast body of Sherlock Holmes pastiches and spinoffs. It’s odd that Sherlock Holmes, a character whose creator got so sick of him he killed him off and only brought him back because he needed income from the stories, is real enough and complex enough to remain active in our collective imagination well over a hundred years later. Conan Doyle may have gotten sick of Sherlock Holmes, but it seems the rest of us never will. Some would say Conan Doyle was unwise to overlook perpetuating the copyright on his works. To me, it seems Sherlock Holmes was his gift to the world, and we lucky writers and readers get to unwrap that gift as many times as we want.
Amanda MacNaughton is a bookseller at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters and Redmond, Oregon. She has been reading Sherlock Holmes stories since she was eight or nine. When she and her sister used to play Holmes and Watson, Amanda always played Watson. This should tell you everything you need to know about her.