"another thread which I have extricated out of the tangled skein" [HOUN]
There are good pastiche writers, there are great ones, and then there is David Marcum who ranks among the very best. His short story collections, The Papers of Sherlock Holmes are some of the top selling Sherlock Holmes books, with good reason. His mysteries are complex, and his Holmes and Watson come straight out of the canon. Doyle would be proud to see his characters continuing on in Mr. Marcum's writing. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to interview Mr. Marcum on his latest Holmes short story collection entitled Sherlock Holmes: Tangled Skeins. I contacted him via e-mail and asked about the book, his upcoming projects, and his view on nontraditional versions of Sherlock Holmes.
Tangled Skeins is an unusual title for a Sherlock Holmes book. Where did it come from and what does it mean?
David Marcum: The title for the new book, Sherlock Holmes – Tangled Skeins, is taken from the original title of A Study in Scarlet, which was first called A Tangled Skein. It also comes from a couple of quotes in that book, where Holmes states: “There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it . . . ” and also “I have now in my hands . . . all the threads which have formed such a tangle.”
The phrase “tangled skein” is never used in A Study in Scarlet, but it has come to be somewhat associated with Holmes, much like the more well-known but never-actually-uttered-in-The-Canon phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson.” There have been a couple of other Sherlockian books with this phrase in their title, including The Tangled Skein, David Stuart Davies’ Holmes-versus-Dracula pastiche.
My use of the phrase in the title comes from my long-held belief that Holmes was much busier than it has always appeared, and that many of his cases overlapped one another. For many years, I’ve kept a chronology of Holmes and Watson’s lives, based on both the Canon and the thousands of pastiches I’ve collected and read since I was a kid in the mid-1970’s. (For an extensive explanation of this chronology, see one of my previous interviews by Derrick here.)
By breaking down all of these thousands of pastiches into a day-by-day chronology, one can see that Holmes’s cases often overlapped each other. In this new book, Watson explains that when he assembled different stories for publication over the years, he had to pull out individual threads from the tangled skein of these intertwined cases, so that each story would appear to stand alone, rather than confuse the issue by referring to so many other simultaneous adventures.
In my first book, The Papers of Sherlock Holmes, there is a story called “The Haunting of Sutton House,” which tells of two nearly-simultaneous but unconnected cases. As I was “editing” Watson’s notes for this new volume, it occurred to me that every one of these tales was in some way related to another adventure, either because they were happening at the same time, or they were related to a past case. My initial title for the book was the prosaic Sherlock Holmes: The Gower Street Murder and Other Stories. Almost at the last minute, just before time to submit the whole thing to the publisher, I was walking in a local park, and the current title popped into my head. It seemed to encompass the idea of all of these interrelated cases. When I got back home, I ran it by my wife and son, and they liked it much better, and so it became Sherlock Holmes: Tangled Skeins.
IHOSE: Your book has a great three part introduction about your time in England before writing, or perhaps I should say editing, this book. My favorite part of the introduction was about your persuasion towards wearing deerstalker hats. What made you decide to write a personal and witty introduction about yourself? Why didn't you just dive in with your stories?
DM: The introduction worked backwards from the introductions to the three Sherlock Holmes in Montague Street books, published in 2014. In those books, I explained how I was approached in London by someone who saw me wearing a deerstalker, during my Holmes Pilgrimage in September 2013, and given the Watsonian manuscripts that eventually led to those books. I’ve always loved reading those introductions in different pastiches that relate how Watson’s various “lost” stories have been discovered, right back to when I first read Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and The West End Horror in the 1970’s.
By elaborating on the introduction from the Montague Street books, and explaining in greater depth how I came across this additional batch of Watson’s notebooks, I was able to work in more details about my trip to England, where I traveled in order to walk in Holmes and Watson’s footsteps. It was a nearly religious experience for me. One important aspect of that trip was that my only companion was my deerstalker, as my wife and son stayed at home in Tennessee. As I explain in the book, I’ve been wearing deerstalkers as my only hat, from fall to spring every year, since I was nineteen years old.
When I went to England and Scotland in 2013, I wore it literally everywhere to every one of the countless Holmes sites that I was able to track down, based on hundreds of hours of research using over a dozen Holmes travel books in my collection. (As I relate in the book’s introduction, if it wasn’t Holmes-related, I pretty-much didn’t do it. For example, I didn’t go on the London Eye, as it has nothing to do with Holmes, but I did visit The Tower – not because of its historic or tourist importance, but because it’s been so important in a great number of really good pastiches.) I wouldn’t have considered a trip to the Holmesland without taking and wearing my deerstalker to every single place.
I’d considered writing an essay about wearing the deerstalker for a long time, and also composing one about my Holmes journey. This introduction seemed like a good way to lead from my long-standing deerstalker use to my trip, and from that to how I obtained the stories.
IHOSE: One of your stories, "The Matter of Boz's Last Letter," is a complex mystery involving the possible ending to Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Was this story inspired by Dickens who is known for his intricate plots?
DM: Actually, I’m a casual fan of Dickens, although it would seem as if I have a greater-than-casual interest in his works, based on the fact that my novel Sherlock Holmes and A Quantity of Debt (2013) has such a Dickensian influence, and now he’s mentioned in this story too. When I sit down, I write very organically, without a solid plot in mind. I just listen to Holmes and Watson and transcribe what happens – it allows for things to occur that I couldn’t plan. All I knew when this story started was that Holmes and Watson were visited by an auctioneer who needed help recovering a stolen item. I found out as Holmes and Watson did what the item was. Later, when Holmes was facing the tedious business of interviewing numerous auction house employees, he and I were both very relieved when a note arrived from Mycroft, short-circuiting the process, and necessitating a visit to the Diogenes Club, where the whole matter turned out to be something of a Victorian wiki-leak. In the end, the Dickens letter was simply a MacGuffin.
IHOSE: Two of your stories involve the extended family of Holmes characters. We meet the sister of Mrs. Hudson and the mother of Wiggins, the Baker Street Irregular. How did you come about creating these new Holmes characters?
DM: Again, this all came about from simply dictating the conversations that I overhear when I let the characters talk. In the case of meeting Mrs. Hudson’s sister, Holmes and Watson encounter her on a train, and Holmes deduces that she is on her way to visit him, and not her sister, in Baker Street. I was as surprised as Watson when Holmes pointed out all of the clues that indicated that she was our favorite landlady’s sister. In the tale about Wiggins’s mother, I knew that I wanted to tell a story about why there are so many different Wiggins boys (and sometimes girls) in all the different pastiches that occur over several decades, and these children/teens never seem to age. I knew why I thought this was the case – there was obviously a whole family of them who had sworn service to Holmes for some reason. What could make them do that? When the story begins, Watson meets a grown Wiggins while both are sheltering in a doorway from a sudden rainstorm. (Coincidentally, it is the very same door where I hid from the rain one day during some of my London explorations.) As the story progresses, we learn what happened to Mrs. Wiggins over twenty years before, how a much-younger Holmes saved her, and why the family is so grateful.
IHOSE: You have stated repeatedly that you prefer traditional Sherlock Holmes stories and don't like modernizations or Holmes in alternative histories. Are there any non-traditional Sherlock Holmes stories that you enjoy, or do you feel Holmes stories only work when they are traditional?
DM: My preference for traditional Classic Holmes goes back to the fact that he is the person that I encountered when I first started reading the Canon in 1975, when I was ten years old. Not long after, my parents gave me Baring-Gould’s Holmes biography, Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. I don’t agree with everything in that book, but it’s a great jumping-off place. One aspect of the book was that it taught me about "playing The Game," where Holmes and Watson are treated as actual people who historically lived during the Victorian and Edwardian ages. It was Dorothy L. Sayers who rightly said that The Game “must be played as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord's.”
When I read a few years ago that BBC Wales was going to produce a new series of Holmes stories for television, with the actors younger and more age-appropriate than what has sometimes been portrayed in films, I was very excited. But then I was saddened to hear that the stories were going to be updated to the modern world. At that point, to me, they were no longer about Holmes and Watson, the historical figures. Rather they were stories about similar-behaving – but very different nonetheless – characters who just happened to have the same names.
There have been other modernized Holmes tales, where the character has the same name and skills and actions, but he isn’t Holmes in those cases either. There were a couple of television films in the 1980’s where a cryogenically frozen Holmes was thawed out in modern times with a modern-day Watson. Then there was the cartoon series Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. A series of Star Trek fan-fictions, published as Holmes of the Federation, relates investigations by Holmes and Watson clones in the days of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Even Daffy Duck makes a pretty good Holmes in “Deduce, You Say,” facing The Shropshire Slasher. All of them try to accurately portray a Holmes-like character, but none of them is Holmes.
To me, removing Holmes and Watson from the Victorian and Edwardian eras means that they’re not Holmes and Watson anymore. As I’ve said to a few folks, it’s like if Star Wars were reimagined and set in the Old West. Consider: Luke Skywalker, living in a dusty desert town, meets a crazy old prospector/ex-soldier named Ben Kenobi. They find out about a girl that needs to be rescued, and they hire a roguish wagon driver, Hans, and his big hairy unintelligible tobacco-chewing side-kick (named Chew ‘Bac’er) to take them somewhere. Then there is some big-shot with a pun-like name similar to Darth Vader who has built a Death Wagon, and so on. The character names are the same or similar, and there are all sorts of winks and nods to the original fans, showing that the creators are very familiar with the original material, but it’s just not Star Wars anymore.
Some might remind me that Basil Rathbone portrayed Holmes in a modern setting in twelve of his fourteen films – all of the ones that he made for Universal. It’s my belief that the first three Universal films are actually Solar Pons cases. (As I’ve said elsewhere, if you don’t know who Solar Pons is, find him and read about him. I expounded on this idea in a Baker Street Journal essay, “Basil Rathbone’s Solar Pons Films.”) The other nine universal stories, also set in contemporary 1940s times, could have all been cases taken from Watson’s notes, originally set around the time of World War I, and simply updated by filmmakers during World War II.
Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent to watch as someone portraying Sherlockian traits. (So was Hugh Laurie as Dr. House, for that matter.) Cumberbatch was excellent when he portrayed the true Victorian Holmes in a series of four audio readings on CD, The Rediscovered Railway Mysteries. (This set is about to be reissued.) I’ve always wished to see him play the true Holmes on film, and it looks like – if all reports are accurate – that we’ll finally have a chance later this year when a stand-alone episode will show Cumberbatch and Freeman’s Holmes and Watson in the correct time period, where it’s always 1895, or at least a decade or so on either side of that.
Don’t get me wrong – I do enjoy watching the Cumberbatch Sherlock episodes that have come out so far. In fact, I’ve watched them multiple times. My 23-year-old son really enjoys them. They are extremely well done, and I’m glad that they’ve helped to open up and fuel the fires of the latest Holmes Golden Age. But to me, they’re just not about the true Holmes. Luckily, new pastiches and films about the Great Detective that was born in 1854 are always appearing for Holmes addicts like me.
IHOSE: What are your current projects?
DM: The big thing on my plate right now is assembling and editing a massive anthology of new traditional Holmes stories, to be published in the fall of 2015 by MX Publishing. It’s going to be a two-volume hardcover set, containing approximately 60 new full-length adventures. All royalties will go to benefit the Undershaw Preservation Trust, which, as many people know, was set up to protect one of Doyle’s homes, where he was living when he wrote The Hound and The Return.
In late January, I literally woke up early one morning dreaming about this book. If I’d rolled over and gone back to bed, I would have forgotten about it. But I went ahead and got up, started making a wish list of authors that I wanted to participate, and emailed Steve Emecz to see what he thought. He was very positive, so I started sending invitations to authors. Initially it was going to be a paperback book, with one or two dozen stories. As it escalated, and the scope of the project grew, so did the book’s size. When it became too big, and seemed as if it were getting so fat that it might split in half, Steve upgraded it to two volumes. About 25% of the authors are from MX, and the others are a mixture who are with other publishers, along with a few first-timers as well. We currently have authors, many well-known, from the U.S., Canada, all over Great Britain, New Zealand, and India.
I think that this will possibly be the biggest collection of new Holmes stories that has been published as part of one collection. I’m so fortunate to be able to work on this. I’ve become acquainted with some really great people along the way, and the stories that I’ve received so far are all outstanding additions to the overall Holmes Tapestry.
IHOSE: Any last thoughts?
DM: I want to thank Derrick for arranging this interview. I always appreciate the opportunity to ramble on about Mr. Holmes. As I mentioned, we’re living in the latest Holmes Golden Age, and this means that there are so many ways to appreciate The Master, whether it’s the traditional way that I favor, or approaching it from a more modern direction. I can’t wait to see what happens next!
David welcomes comments or questions, and can be reached at: