Earlier this month, we were pleased to bring you James Swenson's review of The Stuff of Nightmares, James Lovegrove's latest Sherlock Holmes novel. Today, we are excited to feature a conversation between these two Jameses about the famous detective, brotherly rivalry, and what to read next. Enjoy!
James Swenson: You've written a wide range of books, but The Stuff of Nightmares is your first Sherlock Holmes novel. How is the writing experience different when you're working with world-famous characters?
James Lovegrove: I must admit to being slightly intimidated at first. These are characters who have been known and loved by millions of people for over a century. Everyone has their own idea of who Sherlock Holmes is and how he should be written. So many authors have tried their hand at a Conan Doyle story, and many of them have come a cropper. As I got going with the book, however, I realised that because Holmes, Watson and their world are so iconic, so well established, it was actually quite freeing. It was like coming across a city you’ve visited before and realising you already have a map of it in your head so you don’t need directions. I can’t deny I felt a little bit of a squee! thrill every time I typed the name Sherlock Holmes and phrases such as 221B Baker Street and the Baker Street Irregulars. It wasn’t the same as writing a book of my own devising, cut from whole cloth. Instead it was like replicating a master design. I loved every minute of it.
JS: You're not only contributing to the story of Sherlock Holmes, but to a particular series from Titan Books. Did you have the opportunity to read Guy Adams’s The Breath of God and The Army of Dr Moreau, published in the same series, before writing The Stuff of Nightmares? What contemporary authors, if any, have helped to shape your view of Holmes and his world?
JL: I read both of Guy Adams’s books and liked them both very much, especially The Breath Of God. I felt he was bringing something new and interesting to the table. I also read many of the Titan reprints of earlier Holmes pastiches, all of them fantasy-tinged to some extent. Many were great, but a couple promised much and were surprisingly poor. I wouldn’t call any of these authors ‘contemporary’, since some of the novels were originally published in the 70s and 80s, but at least they gave me a sense of possibility, of what could be done with a Holmes tale that was new and unique. One influence I very much tried to avoid was that of the BBC TV series Sherlock and the US TV series Elementary. While I love them both, especially Sherlock, I knew I shouldn’t be tempted to update the characters in any way or make them modern or relevant. I wanted to write a classic Holmes story, with a London pea-souper, gaslight, the stews of the East End, Mycroft Holmes, the works. You can’t beat the Victorian era for that sort of mystery – the long shadows cast on England by the brilliant light of Empire, the almost idolatrous love of queen and country, the seamy underbelly of an age of great scientific and intellectual progress. There’s so much there to explore.
JS: Baron Cauchemar, the mysterious vigilante, seems to have been the initial inspiration around which the rest of the novel grew. What made the Baron, and his tragic history, come to life for you?
JL: I set out wanting him to be a fusion of Iron Man and Batman, with steampunk trappings. I hadn’t read a Sherlock Holmes story where Holmes encounters a superhero figure, and that was the starting point of the novel, the basic germ of an idea. However, every good superhero needs a tragic backstory, a point of identification and sympathy for the reader. I knew that Baron Cauchemar’s story strand needed to be prominent, and I came up with the idea that it would be a mini story-within-a-story, echoing the format of the Holmes novels A Study In Scarlet and The Valley Of Fear, each of which is essentially two novellas stitched together, the first half a Holmes adventure, the second half a supporting feature which explains much of what has gone on before. I had no wish to copy that format completely but I was certainly tipping a cap to it with the three chapters near the end of The Stuff Of Nightmares in which Cauchemar confesses what prompted him to become a vigilante.
JS: We also see Mycroft Holmes at odds with his brother from the first pages of The Stuff of Nightmares. In fact, at a critical juncture, Mycroft disregards Sherlock’s advice, nearly with disastrous results. How do you envision the personal relationship between these two brilliant men?
JL: I have two sons, one three years older than the other, and it wasn’t hard to transfer their relationship to Sherlock and Mycroft: the mutual adoration that is tempered by rivalry, jealousy and fractiousness. Mycroft is seven years Sherlock’s senior, and by general consent the smarter of the two, but he is also lazy and socially anxious, whereas Sherlock is lively and dynamic. Sherlock gets out there and does stuff, engaging with life, while Mycroft likes to hide within the confines of the Diogenes Club and be the power behind the throne, preferring to let life come to him. I had great fun writing the chapters where the two of them confer and clash. Essentially I see them as frozen in time, forever the young siblings they were growing up. They may be fully grown now and more sophisticated, men of the world, but they can never escape who they used to be and what they meant to each other in their youth. They try to outdo each other, get one over on each other, even while collaborating. Watson himself had an older brother who died in penury and disgrace, so I view him as a sympathetic observer as he chronicles the Holmes brothers’ spats and squabbles.
JS: You mention that it had long been a dream of yours to write a Holmes tale. Do you see yourself writing more about Holmes in the future? What other projects are you working on?
JL: I am at this very moment writing a second Holmes tale, Gods Of War. This one is set on the eve of the First World War, with Holmes in retirement in the Sussex countryside, a man nearing sixty with his mental faculties intact but nonetheless beginning to feel the cold hand of old age bearing down on him. He and Watson do not see each other nearly as often as they did during their Victorian heyday. It’s a new century, a new world, and they both sense time passing them by, the older generation giving way to the next. It’s turning out to be quite an elegiac, melancholy tale. There’s still detection to be done, however, and a mystery to be solved that appears to have supernatural underpinnings. I think I can guarantee that this is the first ever godpunk Sherlock Holmes story, and that’s about all I’m going to say about it. I’d like to write at least one more Holmes novel after that. In the meantime, I’ve just finished the sixth volume in my Pantheon series, Age Of Shiva, and after Gods Of War I’m embarking on a new space opera series. The first book of that is called World Of Fire and it’s set out on the fringes of the known universe, at the very limits of human exploration and colonisation, where a new Cold War is being waged against a strange rival species. I’m calling it ‘James Bond in space’.
JS: Among your other published works, what would you suggest for readers of Fantasy Matters? Are there other authors whose fantasy you particularly recommend?
My fantasy series for teenagers, The Clouded World, which I wrote under the pseudonym Jay Amory, is somewhat unjustly neglected, I feel, even though it was published in several different languages and sold reasonably well. It’s a sequence of rip-roaring adventures set in a world where half the population have wings and live in soaring skyborne cities, and the other half don’t and live on the ground beneath a perpetual layer of cloud. One other work of mine which I would call proper fantasy is Worldstorm, about a world where everyone has a super power of some description. That should be appearing next year as part of a pair of omnibus editions from Solaris, each containing three of my early novels. But really, I’d recommend any of my books. Because why not? I wrote them. I like them.
By James Swenson