Lyndsay Faye on Sherlock Holmes: “He’s an outsider, a Bohemian, someone who doesn’t fit into a neat and clean box for people to categorize.”
- TSM: What’s your all-time favorite Sherlock Holmes story?
LF: This is always the hardest question, but I inflict it on other people, so I have to also be willing to answer it! Technically, I don’t have one. They’re all too dear to me. But I answer “The Bruce Partington Plans,” because it features Lestrade and Mycroft (double special-guest stars), and it also features Holmes saying to Watson, “I knew you would not shrink at the last,” which is a wonderful and true thing to say about his character. Plus a body that fell from the top of a commuter train without a ticket. I think that one is fairly perfect.
- TSM: How difficult is it to write a pastiche of the story? Are you always asking yourself what would Conan Doyle write?
LF: Yes and no. Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, I am always asking that. But I also ask, what about these people did Doyle skip? Which are the blank spaces? I wouldn’t be writing them if I thought everything had been filled in already. This is like Heart of Darkness and Joseph Conrad: the missing places are always the most important. You want to fill in the map. So while I try to sound like Doyle, I don’t ask myself what he would write because he already wrote it. I ask myself what I want to know that he left out.
- TSM: How long have you been interested in Holmes?
LF:Since I read “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” on my dad’s recommendation when I was ten. Some people the stories and move on to other things. I certainly read other things, plenty of them, but I never stopped reading Sherlock Holmes—I just went back and read them again, and I continue to do that.
- TSM: You’ve brought a sort of youthful vigor to the historical novel. Whom would you describe as a typical one of your readers?
LF: Oh! What a lovely question. My favorite thing about my readers is there are no typical ones. They include a wide variety of people, and ones I’m flattered enjoy my work. If I had to pin them down, I’m proud that they all enjoy history, but they’re very diverse, so I suppose my typical reader is someone who wants to engage with English in its many sounds and permutations, and someone who likes love stories, no matter what kind of love that is: friend love, sibling love, romantic love. My stories tend to involve self-sacrifice and courage. They’re all about love.
- TSM: Who is your favorite screen Sherlock Holmes?
LF: Definitely can’t pin this one down because I truly think all Holmes is good Holmes. But Jeremy Brett was the Holmes I grew up with, and he’s amazing. And then I got to experience the increase in Sherlock Holmes fans when the Robert Downey Jr. films came out, which were wonderful, and Cumberbatch after that, and Miller. The reason there’s no person who completely embodies Sherlock Holmes onscreen for me is because I’ve been imagining him for so long from the Paget drawings. In my head, he looks like he does in the illustrations from “A Case of Identity” and “The Redheaded League.”
- TSM: With all that has been written about Holmes, one would think you don’t have to do much research, but from knowing you, I know that you’re a big research buff. What are some of the things you’ve learned about since you’ve been writing historical mysteries?
LF:I learn something new from every case I write, in all seriousness. Because I have to come up with clues that make sense. So then I go to history texts like Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, and I glean what I can from original transcripts. A good example would be a character from my story “The Beggar’s Feast.” I learned from Mayhew that there were beggars in London who suffered from hand deformities because they got frostbite so often. It was a terrible thing to learn, but a very appropriate clue for Sherlock Holmes to notice.
- TSM: There is always this misconception that Watson is just a device; how do you make him relevant yet at the same time put the spotlight on Holmes?
LF: I love this question! That’s quite easy to answer—everyone who thinks Watson is a device is entirely missing the point, as you mentioned. Watson is the heart and soul of the series. We wouldn’t be able to see Holmes being amazing except through Watson’s eyes, and Watson is not only intelligent, he’s brave and kind. I think he’s a fascinating character. He’s good without being boring, and normal without being dull. So if you think the character is riveting, the way I do, it’s much easier to make him relevant. At the end of the day, it’s all about their friendship.
- TSM: What are you working on now?
LF: I’m nearly finished with another historical, this one set in 1921, and trucking away on it.
- TSM: Who are some of the pastiche writers you enjoy?
LF: Well, I enjoy a very great many of them. But if you had to pin me down on the subject (even though I’ve read so many), I can always recommend Neil Gaiman without hesitation. He loves the original work and makes it obvious. That’s the most important part.
- TSM: Why do you think that the appeal of Holmes is so universal?
LF: The appeal of Holmes is universal because he’s for all of us. He’s an outsider, a Bohemian, someone who doesn’t fit into a neat and clean box for people to categorize. And ultimately what he cares about is not the letter of the law, but justice and fairness and decency. I truly love that about these stories, and Sir Arthur for writing them. They appeal to the human spirit.