I doubt I’m the only Unboxer who has accepted an offer to write something while having no idea whatsoever how I was going to get the job done. The process of feeling my way from that conceptual blank page to something worth reading provides what is quaintly referred to these days as “a teachable moment.”
Allow me to explain.
Last fall, I was asked by Leslie S. Klinger and Laurie R. King if I would like to contribute something to their periodic anthology of stories based on Sherlock Holmes.
This is a plum assignment. Les Klinger is an internationally recognized Holmes authority (editor of both the three-volume The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes and the scholarly ten-volume Sherlock Holmes Reference Library), and Laurie King is the author of the bestselling and critically acclaimed series featuring Mary Russell, protégé and eventual wife of Sherlock Holmes. They know their onions. And they do not suffer fools.
The anthology (there have been five editions so far) features writers of the first rank—this edition is no exception, as the list at the end of this post bears out—it routinely gets widespread notice, it has earned a loyal and growing readership, and it typically earns stellar reviews. There are no constraints on the author’s imagination—there have been futuristic Sherlocks, medieval Sherlocks, women Sherlocks, feline Sherlocks—you get the idea. Not even outer space is out of bounds. Who wouldn’t say yes to such an intriguing offer?
One problem. At the time I accepted this assignment, I had the somewhat unique distinction among writers in my genre of knowing next to nothing about Sherlock Holmes.
That, of course, didn’t stop me from saying yes, adding boldly that I intended to write my story from the perspective of Holmes’s arch-nemesis, Professor James Moriarty.
Second problem. I knew even less about Moriarty than I did about Holmes.
Fortunately, my lovely bride is an avid fan of the entire Holmesian oeuvre, and in particular has the entire set of BBC Radio’s full-cast dramatizations of The Complete Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes.
This proved a godsend, since I doubt I’ve read a Sherlock Holmes story since high school, and I’m fully aware that recent film and TV adaptations have been, shall we say, less than canonical. And what I intended to write was a classic bit of Holmesian fiction, just from a point of view that, to the best of my knowledge, had never been attempted: that of his most famous adversary.
Third problem. Moriarty, for all his Machiavellian notoriety as “the Napoleon of crime,” appears in scant few of Conan Doyle’s stories, and the information concerning him is not just spotty, it’s at times contradictory.
Good news—this meant I could let my imagination run wild.
Bad news—no, I really couldn’t. It’s like turning Moses into a surfer. There are limits, even when they tell you there aren’t.
So who is this criminal genius?
Curiously, he was created principally as a device to kill off Holmes; Conan Doyle wanted to move on to other projects. This “death” occurred in “The Final Problem,” set in 1891, in which both Holmes and Moriarty fall to their death from Reichenbach Falls in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland.
Conan Doyle’s murder of his most famous creation proved short-lived, of course, as the public outcry was deafening. Both his fans and his publisher demanded the corpse be brought back to life.
Beyond that, Moriarty is mentioned offhandedly in only a handful of other stories—though a mastermind, he typically has others carry out his diabolical schemes. One story, however, “The Adventure of the Empty House,” takes place in 1894, three years after the supposedly fatal episode at Reichenbach Falls, indicating Moriarty as well as Holmes survived. This freed me up temporally, meaning I could set my story at virtually any time I wanted (within, ahem, reason).
The most instructive of the stories mentioning Moriarty was The Valley of Fear, which was based loosely on the Molly Maguires of Pennsylvania coal country and the undercover Pinkerton agent, James McParland, who infiltrated them, leading to the arrest and execution of their leaders. (The Molly Maguires are seen by many—though notably not Conan Doyle—as heroic forebears of the union movement.)
This information provided several themes that I decided to explore:
- Moriarty, an Irishman, has connections to Irish republican rebels in both America and Europe.
- Moriarty uses Holmes’s obsession with finding the truth to get revenge on a man Holmes hoped to save but ended up exposing through his relentless investigation.
- Moriarty is a mathematics professor at a small British college, famous for “a treatise on the binomial theorem.”
With all that in mind, I developed three key ideas I intended to use in my story:
- The Irish angle would play a major role.
- Moriarty’s scheme would involve turning Holmes’s obsession with the truth against him.
- In advancing his scheme, Moriarty would employ a mathematical puzzle both as a kind of signature and to incite Holmes’s curiosity. (Thus the title of my story, “The Murderer’s Paradox,” which is a variation on a famous paradox first presented by Bertrand Russell around the same time as the events of my story, i.e., the first few years of the Twentieth Century.)
As I continued researching, however, I also discovered a few other tantalizing avenues worth exploring:
- In 1902, Conan Doyle wrote a famous and full-throated defense of the British cause in the Second Boer War titled The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct. This was meant to counter arguments being made that the war was nothing but imperial aggression meant to wrest control of key mining concerns in the region, and that British troops were guilty of atrocities.
- Emily Hobhouse, a delegate of the South African Women and Children’s Distress Fund, visited the British internment camps in South Africa—the first to be called “concentration camps”—in which women and children, both Boer and African, suffered under cruel conditions, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands. Her report on what she discovered in the camps became the basis of a government effort to improve conditions there.
- Conan Doyle, who for a brief time served as a surgeon in one of the camps, considered Emily Hobhouse an ill-informed alarmist and dismissed her findings out of hand.
- Subsequent investigations revealed the British officers in particular were not only involved in the sexual exploitation of young women in the camps but black market trafficking of medical supplies meant for internees.
- Some of the British troops were Irish, and they suffered disproportionately high casualties due to their deployment at the forefront of assaults against heavy enemy fire.
- There were Irish irregulars fighting on the Boer side, led by a dashing Irish-American cavalry officer who fought under General Crook and helped chase Geronimo into Mexico.
This gave me perhaps the most unique idea I decided to use: I would place Conan Doyle himself in the story. Moriarty would use two protestors against Conan Doyle’s defense of the war—a former nurse in the concentration camps and an Irish ex-soldier—as his pawns in a scheme against decommissioned officers who were now making use of their previous deployment to get rich, seeking out investors for a Transvaal diamond-mining concern rivaling DeBeers.
As you can imagine, there were times I found myself drowning in research rather than writing, all for a short story, not a novel. And devising a plot worthy of the Holmes canon while juggling so many balls at once took some fancy footwork.
Basically, the process I followed, from having no clue what to write to drowning in research to producing something I hope is worth reading, was the same as what the author James M. Frey describes as his Ten Rules of Writing:
- Don’t use too many exclamation points.
If you would like to know more about In League with Sherlock Holmes, you can go to this link. It really does collect contributions from a wonderful array of writers:
Maria Alexander, RobinBurcell, Martin Edwards, Tess Gerritsen, Derek Haas, Joe Hill, Naomi Hirahara,
Joe R. Lansdale, Kasey Lansdale, Lisa Morton, Brad Parks, Kwei Quartey,
Martin Simmons, James Lincoln Warren, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, James W. Ziskin
Have you ever accepted a writing assignment with no idea how you were going to accomplish it? How did you find your way to a finished product? How did it turn out? Was it an ungodly mess? Did it instread end up being one of the best things you’ve ever written? Somewhere in between?