IHOSE header

"His name is Hugh" [TWIS]

Hugh Ashton writes about Sherlock Holmes in various formats

There are a number of stories mentioned within the canon that were never actually completed by Dr. John H. Watson.  While The Hound of the Baskervilles mentions Holmes's investigation into the sudden death of Cardinal Tosca, it is up to the reader to ponder the details of the case.

That is, until Hugh Ashton discovered a number of notes from the good doctor, and completed a number of untold tales. Ever wonder what happened in the Conk-Singleton forgery case? Now, dear reader, you can discover the answer! These stories as well as several other Sherlock Holmes tales make up the author's Deed Box and Dispatch Box series.  Not content to settle on only editing the works of Dr. Watson, Mr. Ashton also writes the delightful children's book series, Sherlock Ferret, and has penned several thrillers and other short story collections.  I had a chance to interview the well-regarded Sherlockian via email from his home in Kamakura, Japan.

I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere:  You are well known for your traditional Sherlock Holmes pastiches, particularly your stories in the Notes from the Deed Box series. A number of your tales are untold adventures mentioned in the original Sherlock Holmes adventures. How do you develop a full tale from a mere mention of a case in the canon?

Hugh Ashton: The case develops itself. By this, I mean that I have a rather cinematic imagination, the scene presents itself in my mind, and the characters play out their actions, depending on what happens to the characters. Watson doesn’t know the ending to the case until Holmes reveals it, and neither do I, many times. I am perfectly capable of getting about 75 percent of the way through an adventure without knowing how it will work out.

I’ve been told I have a criminal mind, which would either make me a good cop, or a replacement for Moriarty (though I lack criminal tendencies, which is a good thing for all concerned, I feel). So I think like the villain in the case, and the motive, the means, and the opportunity come to me. I may then have to backtrack in the story and plant some clues for Holmes to discover (and Watson to see, but not observe). But basically, I am living the story as Watson lives it. It’s stretching things to say that I become Watson, but I see the adventure through his viewpoint, and I don’t have an overarching overview most of the time. Sometimes I will wake up in the night, or while eating breakfast, and exclaim “So that’s how he did it!”. And the story has just written itself. All I have to do is filter it through Watson’s eyes, and put it into the computer.

Sometimes ACD leaves you with a wonderful opening, such as “the remarkable worm, said to be unknown to science”, and you just have to take it from there, as I did in my first collection, Tales from the Deed Box of John H. Watson, MD. In that case, the canonical reference is the climax of the adventure. Sometimes he leaves you with a very brief description, which nonetheless intrigues, such as the loss of Holmes’ left canine in the waiting-room at Charing Cross station. This formed the hook for “The Hand of Glory” in The Last Notes from the Dispatch-box, but it was not the climax, but just one of the events in the adventure, albeit one that Holmes would remember for the rest of his life!

I think it’s also important to have a reason why the untold tales remained unpublished. Scandal in high places (my “Giant Rat” or the uncanonical “Enfield Rope”) or embarrassment to Holmes (my “Phillimore” describes a very ambivalent relationship between Holmes and the police), or maybe there is some indelicacy (a sexual aspect, perhaps, which would prevent Watson from revealing all, as in The Darlington Substitution) are good reasons.

IHOSE: The Sherlock Ferret series is your Sherlock Holmes book series for children. What made you decide to turn the great detective and his friends into talking animals?

HA: It was Vinnie, the ferret who shares her life with Andy Boerger, who does the fantastic illustrations for Sherlock Ferret, and has also published several books of his own writing with Inknbeans.

Andy loves his ferret, and puts drawings of her on Facebook. I asked him if he could produce a picture of a ferret as Sherlock Holmes. And he came up with this wonderful picture of a ferret with a violin.

From that, it was a short step to populating the Sherlock Ferret universe. Watson – we settled on a mouse. It suits him, and he has a very distinct personality (as does Sherlock Ferret, of course). He has very fine whiskers, of which he is particularly proud, and he is rather put upon by Sherlock Ferret, who is somewhat selfish and self-centered, but though he grumbles at times to himself and his readers about Sherlock, he is a very loyal and decent little beast with a big heart.

Andy draws lovely rhinoceroses, so we decided that Lestrade should be a rhinoceros (though not a very big one). Colonel Sebastian Moorhen was a no-brainer. Moriarty was originally going to be a crow, but eventually turned into a magpie. The Bakery Irregulars (Sherlock and Watson live under Mrs. Hudson’s bakery) are caterpillars. I had originally wanted Wiggins the Woodlouse, but they’re a bit icky to many people, so we settled on caterpillars.

In the second book, The Multiplying Masterpieces, we had fun with artists’ names. The villain is Pablo Pigasso, and Vincent van Goat, and Frieda Koala are mentioned. Thanks to Jo at Inknbeans for some of these. The Poisoned Pond has more of a message than the others, but it tries not to beat readers over the head with it.

I have no children of my own, but I found it easy to write in a style that seems to have found acceptance with younger readers, while still making the stories interesting enough for their parents. The process of writing was a two-way thing. Andy gave me plot ideas, either directly, or through details in his pictures, and I suggested some ideas for illustrations to him. We developed the stories together – it wasn’t a question of my writing a story and asking him to put pictures to it.

Sherlock Ferret with Inspector Lestrade and Dr. Watson
Sherlock Ferret and Dr. Watson with Inspector Lestrade

IHOSE: You have been residing in Japan for several decades now. How has living in another country influenced your writing?

That’s an excellent question. I am very out of touch with contemporary UK memes and language. I always tell people that when I left the UK, a “mobile” was something you hung in a child’s bedroom, and “text” was a noun, not a verb. That means that I really can’t write contemporary fiction about the UK (or the USA, since I’ve never lived there).

So… it’s back to the past for me, or writing about Japan (we’re talking fiction here). There are two basic genres about Japan. One is the “cherry blossoms and mystic Orient”, and the other is the “ninja thriller”. Both are clich├ęs, to my mind, and have been successfully exploited by better writers than me.

I’ve written a Japan-based thriller, At the Sharpe End, which is now published by Inknbeans Press, and which deals with the bank crash of 2008 (where I had quite a lot of personal experience, at first- and second-hand). No ninjas! But, and this is what introduced me to Inknbeans in the first place, I had also written a few short stories about older Japanese people, Tales of Old Japanese. Inknbeans had told me they wanted to publish these, and the Sherlock Holmes adventures leapfrogged over them. I do recommend these stories, by the way. They are the nearest thing to literature that I have had published so far.

But Japan doesn’t have the interest outside the country that once it did, and though there are people producing excellent work in these genres, really, it’s not for me.

So, back to the past. Inknbeans has just published a Jules Verne-type story, The Untime; I hesitate to call it a pastiche, though it’s written in a contrived style, as if it were a 19th-century translation from the French. Shades of Verne, Wells, Dr. Who, and a little H.P. Lovecraft stirred into the mix. I actually think it’s pretty good stuff.

And Sherlock Holmes, one of my loves from an early age, is a natural. ACD’s style is fun, and (for me at least) fairly easy to imitate. And I love mysteries.

But it is a little odd, maybe, that Sherlockian pastiches are coming from a Brit living in Japan.

IHOSE: You have a story included in the upcoming anthology The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories. Can you tell us a little about the story without giving anything away? Also, how did you ended up becoming involved in this project?

Yes, it’s set in Lichfield, Staffordshire, which is a city with which I have family associations (my father worked there) and I will soon have closer associations with the place (I won’t say more right now). It uses real locations (inn names, street names, geographical features, etc.), which is fun. You will be able to find all the places on Google Maps.

It’s a fairly straightforward locked-room murder. A father retains Holmes to clear his son’s name of the murder, but at the same time, he seems to want his son to be found guilty.

David Marcum contacted me, I asked permission from Inknbeans to contribute, and Jo, my editor, said “yes”, and I wrote the story. Simple.

IHOSE: The question I ask all Sherlockians. If you were stranded on a desert with only one Sherlock Holmes story, which would it be and why?

Probably SIGN. Though I love REDH and EMPT, SIGN has more to it, and the backstory doesn’t distract as much as in VALL or STUD. Why not HOUN? Because I don’t think Holmes is as effective outside London as he is in London, or the suburbs. I do find it hard to conceive of him roughing it in a Neolithic hut. He’s a townie, and the tweeds and deerstalker are those of a city-dweller playing at being a countryman.

IHOSE: What are your current projects?

We’re talking fiction here, of course? A sequel to The Untime, which explores some more Jungian ideas (The Untime is very Jungian in many ways).

There’s a contemporary thriller/adventure/something, Leo’s Luck, which is coming out in July. I am waiting for an endorsement from my friend Jake Adelstein, the author of Tokyo Vice (his book has been optioned as a movie, and will star Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) as Jake). It’s a little weird – rock and roll, money, telepathy, and some sex.

And… another box has been discovered. In a Facebook conversation with Luke Kuhns, I discovered the springboard for another Sherlockian adventure, and I am in the middle of another where Holmes is of assistance to the Scandinavian royal family. It’s a tangled tale of deceit and betrayal. There’ll be another collection of Sherlock Holmes adventures published before the end of the year. That’s a promise.

IHOSE: Anything else you'd like us to know?

I can’t let this opportunity go by without thanking Jo, my editor, and all the staff (and other writers) at Inknbeans Press, who have produced not only my books, but many others from many other authors, on a wide variety of subjects. I’ve received nothing but support and encouragement from these people, and Jo has become one of the pillars of my life. A good editor is so much more than a spelling-checker on legs – and Jo provides the impetus and the constructive criticism that every writer needs, as well as sound advice on matters that have little or nothing to do with writing.

Somehow, we have never met face-to-face, though this is something that I am sure will be remedied before too long.

Working with Inknbeans has taught me that, however much fun self-publishing may be (and it is fun, though very hard work at times), there is no substitute for productive collaboration with a professionally-minded publisher.

For more on Hugh Ashton, see his author web site, his 221 Bean Baker Street site.