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No Ghosts Need Apply

 

The latest Holmes & Watson

The latest Holmes & Watson

In honour of the return of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ brilliant Sherlock, I’ll be reprinting a cheeky short story from my back catalogue, a pastiche called THE ADVENTURE OF THE EXSANGUINATED SLEUTH. The story will be posted Monday, but first a discussion of that most rational of detectives and his attitude to my favourite genre, the supernatural…

The question I always get asked at signings and school events: what did you read when you were a kid? I then bore the audience to death (sometimes literally) with a huge list of favourite books and stories. Always at the very core of that list is the ‘canon’ of 56 short stories and 4 novellas that make up the adventures of Mr Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes was my first real literary passion, and I use the word ‘passion’seriously. Whenever I sat down with one of those stories, I found my young heart racing as I followed the Great Detective and his faithful companion and chronicler, Dr John H Watson (formerly of the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers) into the dingy alleys of Limehouse, over the hound-haunted moors of Devonshire and across the cantons of Switzerland, all the way to that fatal encounter at the Reichenbach Falls… (SPOILER ALERT)… and beyond!

From the age of 5 to 14, the cosy sitting room of 221b Baker Street was as familiar to me as my own bedroom. All I had to do was close my eyes to see Holmes’ Stradivarius violin propped up on his chair, his correspondence pinned to the mantelpiece with a jack knife, the tobacco-stuffed Persian slipper, that patriotic ‘VR’ done in bullet holes in the wall, Watson’s bull pup lounging on the hearthrug (probably poisoned by Holmes in one of his unethical experiments), a chalkboard covered in strange ‘dancing men’, and on the side table: a dark lantern, Watson’s service revolver and Holmes’ burglar kit all ready and waiting for the next thrilling adventure.

A lovely chill raced down my spine whenever those famous words – ‘The game’s afoot!’ – were uttered or when I read some wonderful line like: ‘Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound…’

Of course, in the end (SPOILER ALERT!) there was no demonic hound haunting the Baskerville clan, just a big dopey dog covered in luminous paint. You see, unlike his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes was an arch rationalist who did not believe in the supernatural.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes shrugs off the legend of the ghost dog as interesting only to ‘a collector of fairy tales’ while in The Sussex Vampire, another story that at the beginning seems to be dipping its toe into the world of mythical monsters, Holmes makes it clear that his work as a detective ‘must stand flat-footed upon the ground… No ghosts need apply’.

But despite Holmes’ scepticism, Watson’s accounts of their adventures together often contain a frisson of what might be called supernatural or uncanny terror, and despite this terror always being rationalised and made sense of at the end of the case, a hint of eerie impossibility seems to linger in the mind of the reader. Maybe this is because, very often, Holmes’ cases teeter on the edge of gothic literature, a sub-genre that was the first to treat the supernatural as a real threat and which did much to birth the detective story.

All of this, as I say, is by way of an introduction to my very short Sherlock Holmes story that will be appearing on the blog Monday. It’s a parody really, my way of poking a bit of fun at the Great Detective’s insistence that ‘no ghosts need apply’…

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