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.
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…