The Big Idea: Andrew Lane

Everyone knows what Sherlock Holmes does – he’s a detective, he detects things, thanks to his amazing powers of observation and his near-encyclopedic level of knowledge about even the most trivial of things (which become more than trivial when he applies them). But then there’s another question about Sherlock Holmes — one that author Andrew Lane finds more interesting, and endeavors to explore in Death Cloud, which follows a teenage Sherlock on his very first adventure. That question, and what it means to the character — and to our author? Lane is here to tell you what it is.

ANDREW LANE:

I can still remember the first Sherlock Holmes book that I ever bought. It was actually one of the first two books that I ever bought, full stop, which is why I can remember it so clearly. The year was 1973, I was ten years old, and I had a handful of coins jingling in my pocket, just waiting to be spent (when you are ten years old you have a mortal fear that money, if not spent quickly, will somehow decay into fluff while you’re not looking). I was at a jumble sale in a church in East London, England, I was rummaging through the second-hand (and third-hand, and more) books, looking for something interesting, and I found A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle. I cannot, to this day, explain why I bought it – it had no cover, and it was a cheap, tatty edition with nothing to recommend it, but I knew that I had to have it.

The other book I bought, by the way, was Three to Conquer by Eric Frank Russell – still, to my mind, one of the greatest and most unsung alien invasion novels of all time.

Flash forward thirty eight years, and I can see now how the choice of those two books pushed me along the twin paths that were to define my life – a love of Sherlock Holmes stories and a near-obsession with cheap science fiction.

I think that every writer starts off trying to answer the “what if?” questions. What if… aliens invaded the Earth? What if… scientists could clone dinosaurs? What if… vampires were real? Answering those questions is fun, and leads to some pretty good books, but there’s a level past that which some writers move on to, and that’s trying to answer the more interesting question “why?” Why would aliens invade the Earth – what’s in it for them? Why would scientists bother to clone dinosaurs, apart from the sheer fun of it? Why would creatures exist that could drink blood and die when stakes are put through their hearts?

Since the death of Arthur Conan Doyle in 1930, many hundreds, if not thousands, of other authors have written Sherlock Holmes stories. Most of them fit neatly into the “what if?” category. What if… Sherlock Holmes investigated the Jack the Ripper murders? What if… Sherlock Holmes got caught up in the Martian invasion of Earth as reported in H.G.Wells’s The War of the Worlds? What if… Sherlock Holmes was a time traveller from the future? For a long time I wanted to be one of those writers, but my attitude gradually changed. I realised, as I got older, that I wanted to answer the big “why?” question – why did Sherlock Holmes act the way that he did?

If you look at Arthur Conan Doyle’s descriptions of Sherlock Holmes, spread over 56 short stories and 4 novels, it’s clear that he’s a damaged man. For a start, he’s obviously manic depressive – staying up for days on end to feverishly investigate a crime and then, once it’s solved, staying in his room in a black mood for more days on end. He’s also obviously obsessive-compulsive – he has a fantastic knowledge of trivial subjects such as tattoos, cigar ashes and the shapes of people’s ears, and he once solved a crime by noticing the depth to which the parsley sank in the butter on the dining table on a hot day. The genius of Conan Doyle was that Sherlock Holmes didn’t know he was damaged! He made a success of his life in one of the only two fields in which he could use his manic episodes and his obsessive-compulsive behaviour – detection (the other, of course, would be crime).

My “big idea”, if that’s what it is, is to investigate why Sherlock Holmes grew up to be the character we all know about. It would have been easy enough to extrapolate backwards and describe a precocious fourteen year old who looks and acts like the grown-up, but that wouldn’t have satisfied me. What I want to do is to take a relatively ordinary fourteen year old and progressively put him through a set of experiences that will turn him into a manic-depressive, obsessive-compulsive recluse with only one true friend in the entire world (I know, by the way, that manic-depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder are likely to be genetic or biochemical in nature rather than caused by environmental factors, but bear with me – these things can be dormant, but can be triggered by life’s events. That’s my story, anyway). And along the way, Sherlock will have to learn all the things that Conan Doyle shows him doing as an expert – boxing, sword-fighting, chemistry, theatrical disguise, violin playing, and more. And, of course, learning all those things he knows about tattoos, cigar ash, ears and the way that parsley sinks into butter on a hot day.

Doing all of that in a series of books that are (a) as historically accurate as I can make them, and (b) exciting adventures with lots of action and bizarre villains, is going to be a challenge, but it’s one I’m looking forward to. I’ve written three books so far – Death Cloud, Rebel Fire and Black Ice, and I have every intention of keeping on writing until someone apprehends me. I’m having the time of my life here.

And you’ve probably already worked out that it’s not going to end well for young Sherlock. Bad things are going to have to happen. But at least we know that he’ll end up famous, and he will have one true friend who stays with him through thick and thin. Let’s face it, that’s more than some of us get…

Death Cloud: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. View the book trailer.

26 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Andrew Lane

  1. Sounds great, Andrew! Did you by any chance ever watch The Adventures of Young Sherlock Holmes? It was a surprisingly great movie, which featured a surreal series of poison induced hallucinations, one of which was Watson being smothered by sentient cupcakes and another being a priest attacked by an ambulatory stained glass window.

    However, as you say, Sherlock in this tale is but a younger version of himself: precocious, brilliant, given to detection, in all ways himself. Your attempt to find the why behind the man seems like a fascinating endeavor–I’ll be checking out your book!

  2. I have to agree with Joel at #3…. the Justin Bieber hair totally puts me off of this project, even though I’m a confirmed Holmes fan.

    I’m not a big fan of the recent trend for Fabio-like Romance covers trending over into SF and Fantasy… makes me think twice about picking up a book if I see something that screams “Presented by Harlequin Books” on the cover. I’d rather the jobs go to professional artists and illustrators than models.

    BUT…

    As a free market capitalist, if they think that they’re going to sell more copies to 13 year old girls because of the Bieber look-alike on the cover, than all power to them. If they can sell more than one copy because of the cover they’ve made up for my not purchasing the book.

  3. I remember most the first two books I bought with money I earned myself. My very first paycheck I bought Joy Chant’s _Red Moon Black Mountain_ and Poul Anderson’s _The Broken Sword_. The job was library page, being PAID to spend afternoons at the library!

  4. I have to second the comment on Three to Conquer by Eric Frank Russell. Just a fantastic book to read and re-read. Google tells me it was first out in 1956. I first read it in the mid-80′s. It never seemed dated to me then or in any of my re-readings. In fact I need to dig it out and read again now that I am thinking about it.

    The young Sherlock background development is a interesting approach. I’ll be going to check these out.

  5. Yeah, agree with the Bieber comparison.

    Lubert Das, how do you think we women feel when we see fantasy covers with scantily clad women? There’s even a book out there entitled “How to Draw Fantasy Females: Sexy cyberpunks, seductive supergirls, and raunchy action heroines.” On the cover is a large breasted woman wearing bikini armor. Yeah, when I see a book with that kind of art, I just want to rush out and buy a copy.

  6. Who is … oh, never mind, I probably don’t want to know.

    Anyhoo, I’ll probably try at least the first one of these.

    For anyone who might be interested in the other end of Holmes’ life, I recommend Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series, starting with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.

  7. I had to double check the official website to see if “Andrew” was the writer I knew as “Andy”. Looks like they are one and the same. I will have to check this out. Hard to think that its been almost twenty years since I was shipping Andy Babylon 5 tapes for his Babylon Files books….

  8. “Death Cloud” is on order.

    I first read Sherlock Holmes stories when I was 8 and have been fascinated since. I loved Jeremy Brett’s version of Holmes and have read the Laurie R. King Holmes/Russell books multiple times. If any of you Holmes fans have not seen the BBC series “Sherlock”, consider doing so. It is very good.

    Lame Joke: To those who propose that Gregory House is based on Sherlock Holmes I respond.
    “A House is not a Holmes”.

  9. Sorry I take that back! It has a different cover on Kindle, so I missed it. Looking forward to reading it!

  10. Hey, I read this as an ARC. It’s really good! I think what I found fascinating was Sherlock’s relationship to his brother Mycroft…at least in this story.

    And folks, you KNOW authors have almost no control over cover art!

  11. @Shannon, but Amazon says the Kindle version will only be available next year (Dec 31, 2012)!! And it has the same cover art. Maybe you’re seeing a different link? Or not on Amazon US??

  12. Oh, for cryin’ out loud! Those of you who say you like Holmes but are so against reading this book because of the cover art are just the oddest (I’d use a ruder word but don’t want to offend our host – and only our host) people.

  13. Argh! @Shannon, I wish I’d had that link sooner. I was so interested in the book I ordered the HC from Amazon anyway and it’s already being shipped. Dang! Oh well, so much for attempts at reducing the physical presence of books (I’m trying to lighten the load on my bookshelves).

  14. Sorry, I take that back @Shannon! I went to your link and over on the side where you can place the order, it states very clearly for me that this ebook version is NOT available to customers in the United States. Odd. And harsh!

  15. @yumenoko That’s a pain! I have the same problem with Wil Wheaton’s books… none of them seem to be in Canada except Just A Geek. It’s a sad thing.

  16. Love the book concept! Also, I’m not bugged by the cover art at all. I actually rather like it; the monochromatic background makes the figure pop, and I’m not actually reminded of Bieber (though I seem to be the only one in that camp).

    I do have a few specific gripes which may or may not be unfounded.

    Maybe it’s because I’m in school to be a psychiatric nurse, but the description the author gives of obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder sound not quite accurate. Bear with me, this is about to get long.

    Obsessive-compulsive disorder is not actually characterized by attention to detail. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder that’s characterized by obsessions (which are intrusive thoughts that cause fear, such as the immortal “did I turn off my stove today? Oh no, what if I didn’t?”) and compulsions, or almost irresistible behaviors aimed at reducing the obsessive thoughts. Obsessions and compulsions often don’t make sense to anyone but the sufferer. They can be as innocuous as the turning off the stove example, or as irrational as something like, “If I don’t bark like a dog twenty times before walking out the door this morning, my daughter Suzie will get sick and die.” Compulsions are often repetitive because obsessive thoughts are often repetitive. In the case of something like wondering if the stove is off, it may not seem like repetition is really possible (you only need to check once, right?), but remember that this is a disorder. “Is it off? What if there’s a gas leak? Or if somebody turned it on and then forgot to turn it off? Did I check thoroughly enough?” etc. etc. Attention to detail doesn’t factor into an equation like that.

    In addition, I wouldn’t call Holmes’s state of mind during and after a case manic depression. Manic depression is not mitigated by outside events, meaning that outside events don’t cause it to switch on or off. It’s an entirely biological process that is not under the sufferer’s control. To put it mildly, it would stretch any professional’s suspension of disbelief to see that the mood swings lined up exactly with the case’s duration.

    That being said, you can still save the manic depressive bit if you show him putting other cases on hold during depressive episodes. It would be tricky to pull of, though; it’s still unlikely that depression would hit after a case was done or that he’s manic for every case. Mood swings are random and unpredictable. Also, it appears now that as manic depression goes untreated, mood destabilization occurs, which means that mood swings cycle back and forth more frequently and increase in intensity. While you won’t have to account for that in this book, it does have to be taken into consideration–if he is exactly as he is as an adult from environmental factors without time elapsing, then it doesn’t leave much room for mood destabilization. Unless, of course, he enters treatment, which is entirely possible given that the first case of treating manic depression with lithium was in 1871.

    What I would call Holmes’s behavior would be closer to addiction. I know that probably seems like it doesn’t make sense, but bear with me. The biological mechanics of addiction involve dopamine, which is sort of like the pleasure chemical in the brain. When an addict is about to engage in the behavior he is addicted to, he gets a rush of dopamine, but during the process of the actual addictive behavior, he becomes more stressed out than ever. The anticipation of the act causes greater pleasure than the act itself. The reason why this is would be because the addict is comparing similar experiences and seeing if they match up. And the reason why that is is complicated, but it involves tolerance. The brain doesn’t like big upsets to balance–even happy ones–and so it adjusts to mitigate the effects. Food becomes less tasty, drugs don’t cause as much disorientation, and exercise is less exhausting. If you aren’t depending on the effects of the addictive substance being disabling or distracting, this is a good process. If you are, however, it takes one of two things to get you where you need to go: the most common is “more of the activity or substance,” but another similar one is “more novelty in experience.” That’s why some people, when addicted to drugs, increase the intake of one drug to crazy levels, while others indulge in many drugs at the same time (but some do both). My guess is that Holmes’s brand of poison would be an addiction to solving cases, with his high coming from novel case experiences.

    Thus the reason why he lays around in a dark depression after a big case; the high isn’t as big as he had hoped, and he can’t get ahold of his “substance” without another interesting client. This also conveniently explains why he’s a habitual cocaine user: cocaine triggers an increase in dopamine levels and causes dopamine to remain active in the user in higher concentrations for longer periods of time.

    The causes for addiction, like many other biopsychological processes, are not precisely known. However, recently research has seemed to indicate that addictive behavior is a way of avoiding stress–that is, it’s a way to not have to deal with stress at all. http://www.healthjockey.com/2010/06/26/avoiding-stress-seems-to-increase-cravings-among-recovering-addicts/ That’s why many people with bad experiences in the past use drugs; it can be a way of avoiding having to deal with disturbing feelings.

    . . . Of course, if you are really careful, you can avoid framing this in terms of mental illness and not bring up these problems at all, at least in most readers. There are probably professionals who will scratch their heads and wonder if you’re trying to portray Holmes as having mental illnesses, but that number will be small if you play your cards right. It’s also possible that I’ve just completely misinterpreted the information you’ve given here or that you were trying to avoid what I just did (a text dump) by oversimplifying, which would be understandable if a little embarrassing for me. :) If you’re still drafting the novel, I’d strongly suggest going to the nearest university that has a biopsychology or brain anatomy professor and asking him/her some questions or getting him/her to read the book, just so that there aren’t any really jarring errors.

    All of this is just a suggestion/idea throwing though. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if these are actually problems or not. I’m such a huge Holmes fan that I’ll probably be purchasing the book, and anything that deals with mental illnesses in my favorite characters gets an enthusiastic thumbs up. Sorry for making a huge text wall on your blog, John! And also, happy writing, Andrew–for this book, and for others to come. :)

  17. Hi all,
    Years ago, I read a book about Sherlock Holmes who was a time traveller from the future and all I can remember of it is that it revealed that Moriarty was a clone of Holmes, which was why they were both so similar… problem is, I can’t remember the title or author of that book.. and I can’t seem to figure out which one it is via Google or Wiki… can anyone help?

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