Thinking Like Holmes

Three things.

Number one:

I am going to make an earnest attempt at changing my blogging schedule up a little bit and go from two updates a week to three, on MWF Australian time (which will likely put them Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings back in the states). Now that I’m committed to including a book recommendation in each post, I am much less concerned that I won’t have something interesting to talk about each day and if all else fails I can ramble about native wildlife or progress on my writing for a few paragraphs and dive right into a review. I’ll probably tone down the length of my entries a little bit and aim for closer to 1k than 2k so I’m not taking too much time away from my actual books and short stories, I live in dread of falling into the everpresent writers’ trap where you spent more time writing about writing than actually doing the writing. We shall have to see if this actually works or not, but my optimism springs eternal.

Number two:

Sherlock Holmes. I’m a sucker for a good Sherlock Holmes story. I love living in an age where we’ve started to see a serious revival of interest in Holmes, with two ongoing contemporary television shows and a third movie that hopefully won’t be in limbo for too much longer, and books about Holmes that are beginning to grow increasingly metafictional. The other week I finished Paul Cornell’s brilliant Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? novel, the latest addition to his shadow police series. It deals quite heavily with Sherlock as a tulpa of sorts, the manifestation of the ideal of the world’s greatest detective and a ghost constantly shapeshifting back and forth between different popular representations of the character. And there are a ton of Holmes out there to pick from depending on your interests. You can get him in every flavor from roguish scamp to high-functioning sociopath, and that’s before getting into all of the books utilizing him as a plot device. You can see Holmes vs Cthulhu, Holmes vs Hellraiser, and if you go back into the neon-soaked depths of the 90s you can see him pop up in every popular cartoon series from Batman to Ghostbusters.

Sherlock_Holmes_Portrait_PagetI have a long-lasting affection for Holmes. I read the original books fairly young, after being exposed to the incredibly bizarre Sherlock Hound cartoon series (which, I have to say, holds up remarkably well as an adult having rewatched a few episodes last year) and feeling an odd kinship with Holmes. I’ve always felt very close to quiet observer characters because, well, I tend to be a weird softspoken watcher who is generally more interested in gathering information than engaging in conversation. Probably why I always liked Spock, too, but that’s a character study for another time. My wife has told me I’m much more of a RDJ Holmes than a Cumberbatch, something which I’m going to assume is a compliment and not an attack on my habits or mannerisms. Something I particularly like about Holmes is his observational skill and the way that he utilizes it in day to day life. He’s a character who always has the switch turned to On, even for the tiniest details with no obvious relevance to the case at hand, because who knows when those details may come in handy further down the line?

It’s summed up very well in that oft-quoted scene from A Scandal in Bohemia where Holmes engages Watson in conversation about the difference between merely seeing it and observing it in whole:

“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”

“Frequently.”

“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed, and yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen an observed.”

That is a scene I’ve held close to my heart ever since I first read it, and it’s a mindset that I have tried to incorporate into my writing. Characters can get away with just seeing things and describing them in such a manner, because that’s how most people tend to go through life and not every one of your characters is going to be Sherlock Holmes. As the narrator though, as the writer, you need to have observed the scene. You need to know how many steps there are when you picture it in your head, even if your characters haven’t counted, because their actions will be influenced not just by what they see but by what has escaped their observation. When you go out looking for creative fuel to dump on the raging dumpster fire of your mind, you need to observe events and ask yourself how and why they are before you begin incorporating them into your story. This isn’t extra work, and if you hone it and practice at it, it becomes as simple and natural as breathing.

Number three:

Speaking of Sherlock Holmes, here’s a really good Chinese fantasy novel.

Wait, no, come back, this is a good one!

chrolicles-of-master-li-and-number-ten-oxThe Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox is a masterwork of a trilogy. I avoided it for years thinking it would be some orientalist flop trying to cash in on the alt-fantasy trends of the 70s and 80s, but I could not be more wrong and I regret not picking it up earlier than I did. Most of my recommendation is for the first book in the omnibus, Bridge of Birds, because I feel it is the strongest of the bunch, but the two followups are both head and shoulders above most of the competition even if they aren’t on par with Bridge. They take place in a sweeping, mythical China where gods and spirits regularly interact with the waking world and a village is devastated by a bizarre childrens’ plague. This leads Number Ten Ox, a strapping young laborer from the village to seek aid in the imperial capital, and unable to afford any of the real detectives he is left hiring Master Li, a geriatric old drunkard who is possibly the best detective I’ve ever read in fiction. I can’t even begin to describe how great a character Master Li is. He’s got elements of Holmes, Yoda, Charlie Chan and Egg Shen all mixed together in a wiry, cantankerous old frame. If you’re a Discworld fan like I am, you may recognize him as the spiritual ancestor to characters like Granny Weatherwax and Lu-Tze. The narrative style has a distinct warmness to it that I usually associate with Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and it is a trilogy that puts emphasis on very human characters and their struggles, loves and hates even when surrounded by the most bizarre magical events. Hughart has put a tremendous amount of heart and soul into researching his novel and casually references elements of Chinese culture and mythology in a way that it organically adds to the weight of the story. The only downside to the series is that it ends, and from interviews with Hughart over the years that seems more the fault of his publishers than anything else; they didn’t know how to market a lighthearted, sweeping Chinese romance-fantasy at a time when the market was glutted with not-vikings and not-celts fighting not-Sauron, and their refusal to publish any of his future novels in hardcover made it impossible for him to support himself. More recently he has said that his feelings toward those publishers has mellowed and he doesn’t know that he’d have more Master Li stories in him now or if he’d just be retreading stories from twenty years ago, but my reading of that is still that they killed his momentum at the end of the trilogy.

Still, they are three books that work as self-contained standalones or read back to back and I cannot recommend them enough.

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