When Faced with Impossible Options:
a conversation with Lyndsay Faye

Lyndsay Faye. Photo by Gabriel Lehner.
Lyndsay Faye. Photo by Gabriel Lehner.

Lyndsay Faye is the author of three inventive, intriguing, and carefully researched novels that interweave fiction, the historical record, and popular culture. Her debut novel Dust and Shadow: an Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H Watson is a tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s archetypal detective hero, Sherlock Holmes, and follows his attempt to solve the real-life killings of Jack the Ripper. In The Gods of Gotham and its sequel Seven for a Secret, Faye tracks the development of the New York City Police Department in the 1840s through the eyes of bartender-turned-lawman Timothy Wilde.

This interview with KWLS board member Nancy Klingener took place over email during the past few months. In it, Faye and Klingener discuss the parallels between acting and writing, the joys and sufferings of historical research, and the appeal of characters both fictional and real. Along the way they rank love over crime, adventure over mystery, and we learn a few secrets of Faye’s forthcoming novel, the third and—spoiler alert—final installment of the Timothy Wilde series. (Editor)


Nancy Klingener: I guess I’ll start out by asking how you came to writing, generally, and writing crime fiction specifically. You started out as an actress, right? There are obvious similarities in the work—you’re dealing with words and portraying characters, many of them fictional. Do you find them to be similar jobs? How do they differ?

Lyndsay Faye: Interesting question. Well, as is the case universally, I came to reading before anything else. It’s impossible to come to writing without owning a deep admiration for some story or other, and I was bullying my little brother into staged plays I’d written when we were quite young—dressing him in khakis and gluing cotton balls to his chest and declaring him Mr. Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, that sort of thing. My parents were big into reading to us, big into storytelling. I’m very lucky I grew up in that environment. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t around tales of high adventure.
Being trained as an actress was extremely useful to me as a novelist, and on a macroscopic level they’re exceedingly similar while on the microscopic level they’re as different as creatively possible. In the broad scope, skills I learned—mimicry, attention to detail, a feel for dialogue, sense of dramatic tension, importance of mood, the value of making specific and detailed choices, how crucial it is to create the strongest emotional dilemmas possible for your characters, I could go on all day really, all that’s quite similar. Conversely, on a small scale, theater is a collaborative process. It’s all about interaction. When I’m sitting at my laptop, it’s just me and the nutters in my head. Not to de-emphasize the roles of my agent or editor at all, but the manuscript, that’s all on me, baby. It’s extremely solitary, especially by comparison.

NK: How did you move from acting to writing? Had you been writing all along or did you make a decision to focus on writing instead of performance?

What I want to explore are the choices people make when faced with impossible options. Their hearts are going in one direction, their responsibilities in quite another, the odds against them extreme. So now what do they do? How do they mess everything up, how do they take the high road, how do they stand in their own way?

LF: None of this was planned. My career is perennially a surprise when I wake up in the morning. I hadn’t been writing at all—auditioning in New York City is simply very, very difficult. I wasn’t smart enough to create my own work, to do showcases or write cabaret acts for myself. I just kept marching into hallways where there were dozens of me. After a while, I felt as if I lacked autonomy over my career entirely. Of course, I’m still proud of how far I made it, still pay my Actor’s Equity dues every six months. But I didn’t have the drive—I can still be happy without being on stage, telling tales in another way, and some folks can’t.
There wasn’t any conscious decision to focus on writing either, certainly never ever ever as a career. My first novel is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and it was an unabashedly dark rip-roaring fanfiction pitting him against Jack the Ripper with scads of the true-crime elements incorporated. I thought maybe a Sherlockian small press might pick it up, or lacking that avenue I could publish it as an e-book for my own gratification. No one was more shocked than myself when I found a talented agent and was published by Simon and Schuster. And I mean no one.

NK: I want to get back to Sherlock and Dust & Shadow but first I’d like to ask about your own creation, Timothy Wilde, the protagonist in your most recent two books The Gods of Gotham and Seven For A Secret—and I hope many more in the future. Where did Timothy come from, and did you start with him, or the setting, or perhaps with George Washington Matsell, who really was New York’s first police commissioner and who appears as a character in those two novels?

LF: Thank you! Timothy came from an abstract concept, which was day one, cop one of the New York Police Department. It’s such an infamous law enforcement body, known the world over, and I simply wanted to see what this group of ragtag men looked like who were meant to defend the populace, but before they had any notion of what they were doing. I wanted the first day of school, not Civil War-Era or Roosevelt reform. Michael Chabon says we write fiction to fill in the gaps in the map a la Heart of Darkness, and I think that’s entirely true—I’d read fantastic books about the NYPD during other time periods, but never about their mythical beginnings. Beginnings are powerful stuff. So research into the world of 1845 New York all began with my wanting to know the NYPD’s origins. If the force had been founded in 1826 or in 1852, The Gods of Gotham would have had a different plot line, and it would have taken place in 1826 or 1852.
The rest of Tim came out of a combination of research and personal experience, as I think any historical character does. I write fairly unabashed hero stories, so I needed Timothy to be his own moral compass—that meant he wasn’t a Tammany insider, and thus needed an older sibling to get him on the copper-star force, who were entirely complicit with the Democratic Party’s agenda. That also meant he resembled some of the contemporary radical abolitionists I researched. Every investigator is indebted to Sherlock Holmes, so to draw a strong line between them, Tim wears his heart on his sleeve and finds his own police work much less competent than it actually is. He’s sympathetic and self-deprecating. I needed him to be observant, and I worked in restaurants for years, so he’s a former bartender. I borrowed his face from a musical theatre friend. He hates city fountains that don’t work because I hate fountains that don’t work. He’s passionately verbose because he’s a 19th-century diarist and I’ll never be able to get away with this sort of language again, so I’m wallowing in it.
You mention Matsell, whom I adore, and who really was a fascinating human. During his time, he was thought everything from a Tammany bully to a liberal reformer. He was both, of course, but he did the unthinkable—he actually created a competent standing police force. It was unprecedented. Every other effort had failed miserably.

I have a hard-and-fast historical fiction rule: if your protagonist doesn’t care, leave the fact out. I don’t care how nifty the fact is. That comes of being an actor, actually. It’s about character specificity. Tim Wilde does not go on and on about architecture, popular music, advances in the sciences (unless they’re directly relevant), how much silverware is set for a proper tea, who his favorite actors are, what the Astors are up to. A fact needs to make it into your narrator’s consciousness before it makes it onto your page

NK: When you researched that time period, was that when you learned about the stresses that Irish immigration was placing on America in general and New York City in particular? How did that issue come to drive the plot of The Gods of Gotham? Also, how did you conduct the research—was it going to the library and looking at microfilms of old newspapers? Reading books? Digging up other kinds of primary sources? Did you read novels and plays of that period? Or listen to music? And how did you resist going down the research rabbit hole? It can be so seductive, to just follow one more thread, check on one more connection or look for one more account of a person, event, place, or time.

LF: Yes, when I discovered that the Great Irish Famine landed the same year the NYPD was founded, my mind was blown. Here was a cataclysm begging to be novelized, and one I’d not seen approached from the police department’s perspective before. The Gods of Gotham quickly became a book that encompassed Catholic persecution, civil unrest and economic disparity, fighting for religious freedom in the land of the free. Unfortunately, the topic is still quite relevant—most of the truly hostile arguments against Mexican and Muslim Americans are couched in perfectly interchangeable phrases to those lobbed at the Papists. Modern day scrapping and partisan politics lend my books some immediacy, I hope, because we have a lot to learn from past mistakes.
My research period lasts for six months and is altogether omnivorous, though I vastly prefer primary sources once I have a grasp of the general situation. Old police documents, diaries, plays, travel guides, menus, housekeeping tomes, obviously Matsell’s slang dictionary Vocabulum, Or the Rogue’s Lexicon. I read the Herald newspaper on microfilm pretty much back to front for whatever year I’m covering, which gives me current events, editorials, economics, anecdotes, politics, satire, and advertisements all at once. I probably wouldn’t be writing about New York if I didn’t live here, but the richness of resources I have at my disposal between the Bryant Park Research Library, the New York Historical Society, the smaller museums—I’m like Scrooge McDuck in a swimming pool full of gold.
That being said, falling down the research rabbit hole isn’t an issue for me at all. I have plenty of other issues, but after six months in a microfilm department, I’m desperately tired of it and my fingers are itchy to tell stories. Besides that, I have a hard-and-fast historical fiction rule: if your protagonist doesn’t care, leave the fact out. I don’t care how nifty the fact is. That comes of being an actor, actually. It’s about character specificity. Tim Wilde does not go on and on about architecture, popular music, advances in the sciences (unless they’re directly relevant), how much silverware is set for a proper tea, who his favorite actors are, what the Astors are up to. A fact needs to make it into your narrator’s consciousness before it makes it onto your page. He’s interested in the street life of New Yorkers and how they treat each other and manage to survive. So that’s what he sees.

NK: When I read “The Gods of Gotham,” I was so struck by the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter—quotations from various publications of Protestants deploring the Irish Catholic immigration in shockingly blunt language. I suspected they were authentic but they sounded almost too emblematic to be real. How did you decide to start using those and did you collect them along the way or go back and hunt them down when you were writing the novel?

LF: Yes, those are all absolutely word-for-word real. I actually recorded them as I discovered them because I couldn’t believe the contents myself. I don’t want to convey the impression that I write social justice novels, I don’t even really write crime novels exactly, I write novels about love and heroism and revenge and self-sacrifice, but certainly politics and prejudice play major roles, and those quotes under each chapter title seemed essential to me.
See, I can easily do the research and write a semi-fictional character who says, for example, “All the persecutions which the true church has suffered from Pagans, Jews, and all the world beside are nothing compared with what it has endured from that unrelenting murderer of men, the Pope.” And people will read that and say, all right, that’s certainly a narrow view, but the author is surely exaggerating for dramatic effect. But if I quote that passage from a speech made by the Orange Country Reformation Society in 1843, and they actually did say that—which they did—the reader automatically understands that these opinions, while grotesquely extreme, did exist. And what’s nuts is I have buckets of these quotes in reserve. Narrowing down the pithiest is much harder than finding them.

NK: What do you mean you don’t write crime novels? Or social justice novels, since issues of social justice figure so largely in the plots of the Timothy Wilde stories? Do you see yourself as fitting within a tradition/genre, or blending such, or doing your own thing entirely?

I would ask anyone who thinks of crime fiction as a guilty pleasure to identify another genre that cracks open the human condition so thoroughly, read Crime and Punishment, and fly your crime-reader flag high. Fantasy novels get thrown in the same basket, but point at another novel that explores loyalty and self-sacrifice more thoroughly than The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We’re not meant to limit ourselves when it comes to the human imagination.

LF: What I mean is that there are some crime novels—brilliant ones, ones I devour like Thai spiced potato chips—in which the crime is the star of the show. These books, I can’t help but surmise, are written by people who are far cleverer than I am. Take for example Agatha Christie’s tour-de-force The. A. B. C. Murders. Now, when I picked that book up as a teen, it mesmerized me. I could never have written it myself. A serial killer by all appearances is offing people whose first and last names each begin with the same letter as the name of the town they live in, as I recall. Simple enough premise, but my god. The points of view shift enough to keep T. S. Eliot happy, the writing is sublime, the characterization pinpoint-exact. When I reached the solution after practically snapping the book’s spine, I was blown away by the ingenuity of the clues and of the plotting.
Now, my point is that, after the solution is presented, how affected is Hercule Poirot (and I adore him) by all of this? I’d say not very. He walks away and solves more crimes, crimes that I myself could never have invented. Conversely, crimes in my novels are catalysts for character development. How do I tie Tim Wilde or Sherlock Holmes’s hands and then make them bleed and then watch them fight their way out with tooth and claw? What I want to explore are the choices people make when faced with impossible options. Their hearts are going in one direction, their responsibilities in quite another, the odds against them extreme. So now what do they do? How do they mess everything up, how do they take the high road, how do they stand in their own way? The crimes that need solving in the Timothy Wilde series are essentially hammers built to chip pieces away from the shells Timothy and Valentine and many others have created for themselves, so I can get to the reality of the messy passions underneath.
So I don’t really write books about crime, I write books about love. For instance, Dust and Shadow isn’t really a book about the Jack the Ripper murders. It’s about Sherlock Holmes trying to save London, which he loves, and about Dr. Watson making a choice, which is: if it comes to that, I’d die with you, because you’re my friend. The Gods of Gotham isn’t really a book about an anti-Catholic serial killer. It’s about how love can be twisted into savagery if enough misery and rage is visited on a person, and about Timothy making a choice, which is: I will go on with my life despite being ruined, and I will choose to repair what remains of my family.
Now, when I say this, lest I be misunderstood, I believe the distinction between “literary” fiction and “crime” fiction to be an absurd marketing label. The ghettoization of genre fiction is, in my opinion, criminal. I love, love, love Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, for instance, which is not only an incredible exploration of the human spirit but an adventure to boot. Is The Life of Pi objectively a better book than Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, which came along before books with mysteries in them were given shiny covers and all stuck on the same shelf? The question itself is ridiculous. A crime and a quest happen in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, but it isn’t a “crime” novel, so is it an objectively more artistic book than Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep? I want to love all of these aforementioned books equally for different reasons, and I don’t want people to be put in the position anymore of making excuses for their favorite genre because it isn’t “literary.” There are monsters in Beowulf. Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov is a sci-fi novel. I proudly fit in the genre of crime fiction, which I think is every bit as literary as post-modern tomes about people gazing at their navels all afternoon.

NK: I hope I am not beating a horse that should have died many times over already, but I wonder whether we will ever get past the genre distinctions, and if that should be a goal. You capture the dilemma perfectly by calling it an absurd marketing tool—but also saying you are proud to be part of the crime fiction genre. Can we change genre distinctions from a ghettoization to a non-judgmental description or simply a guide for readers to find the kinds of books they like? Or is this just something that writers and librarians obsess about while readers go about their business?

LF: I vacillate between being pretty cynical about this topic to being a wide-eyed optimist. On the one hand, it’s so difficult for publishers to sell books and promote new authors these days that they are bound to use visual cues to draw readers who’ve invested money in previous similar works. That’s what everyone wants, after all—more readers. Books are now a marketable commodity, and I don’t think we can be naive about that; thrillers are going to have block capital letters and historical mysteries like mine are going to have a guy with an old-fashioned hat on the cover. I honestly don’t know how books were promoted in Mary Shelley’s day, but we can’t go back to a time in which Frankenstein would have a literary cover instead of shiny-slick vampire packaging that precludes its submission to every major writing award or literary prize.
On the other hand, a lot of people who are heard when they speak, not least Michael Chabon and Neil Gaiman, are standing up and saying this is all rather a lot of nonsense, intellectually speaking. And I would ask anyone who thinks of crime fiction as a guilty pleasure to identify another genre that cracks open the human condition so thoroughly, read Crime and Punishment, and fly your crime-reader flag high. Fantasy novels get thrown in the same basket, but point at another novel that explores loyalty and self-sacrifice more thoroughly than The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We’re not meant to limit ourselves when it comes to the human imagination. A big part of my writing Tim Wilde was letting go of these stratifications and saying, “Yes, I will write an unabashed hero story about a guy trying to do the right thing.” It was difficult. I doubted myself. I doubted Tim and whether he’d work in this day and age.

NK: Your wondering whether Tim would work in this day and age has me wondering how you, as a writer of historical fiction, approach character. You want contemporary readers to get Tim—and Valentine and the other great characters—but you also want them to be authentic to their time, right? In other words, do you spend much time thinking, how would a guy in 1846 think about this situation? Or it more a case of creating and inhabiting Tim—and then having him go forth and do what he’s going to do? Or something else entirely?

LF: That’s a question extremely close to my heart, thanks for asking. I absolutely want Tim and Val and everyone else to be authentic to their time, and to the very best of my ability they are. Now, occasionally someone comes along and says to me, “Tim should be more racist,” or “Tim should be more sexist toward women,” or “Tim should be antagonistic toward Val’s boyfriend Jim,” because to their minds the fact of Tim being (while grossly politically incorrect) less of a bigot than he “should” be is an outright anachronism. They’re completely mistaken, but I’ll get to that in a second—I’m sure there are accidental anachronisms in my work, but fair-mindedness isn’t one of them.
The first reason this happens is, I believe, due to the fact that our modern world is both savage and sanitized. Planes fly into skyscrapers, men are shot for wearing hoodies, people open fire in schools, a New York Times poll reported that a fifth of all American women are sexually assaulted at some point. But we think we have the market cornered on virtue, because we plastic-wrap everything and put it in Febreezed boxes. Unless you’re unlucky enough to encounter crime, and crime is everywhere, crime is something that happens to other people. We don’t like to think that humans are just as glorious and as rotten as ever. But we are, speaking in the macroscopic, as a species. We think too highly of ourselves.
The second reason this happens is that we like to think of our modern selves as civilized and past crimes as barbaric when really, for most people, I honestly think that if they were transplanted as infants into, say for example, slavery as an institution in rural Georgia, they would not have promptly freed all their grandfather’s human property upon inheriting the plantation and then joined the abolitionist movement. We think too harshly of those who failed to act in the past.
Which brings me to the people who did do better than their peers and back to your question. Yes, I think a great deal about what Tim would do rather than what I would do, because we’re very different people, but putting myself in his shoes isn’t a spacewalk, it’s stepping next door to visit the neighbors. Tim is a decent, courageous, open-minded fellow because I’ve read countless diaries of decent, courageous, open-minded people in the 19th century who stood up and fought tooth and nail for what they believed in. There’s no mathematical equation that turned Frederick Douglass into a man of surpassing liberality and courage, but he was. There’s no formula that turned Mary Wollstonecraft into a feminist in the 18th century, but she was. The minute you write a protagonist like Timothy, however, someone or other who thinks only modern people have virtues will cry foul. If I wrote a novel based on Mary Wollstonecraft and changed all the names, people would call her a Mary Sue and laugh in my face. But these people really lived, and they were inspiring, so you know what, I’m going to write about them, because I need to read hero stories. They make me believe in people. That being said, Tim is the least reliable narrator on the planet, his flaws are myriad, no reader should trust him any further than they could theoretically throw him.

NK: I’m intrigued by your closing comment about Tim being the least reliable narrator on the planet—and also about how inhabiting him is like stepping next door to visit the neighbor. I know you’ve just finished your third book in the series—do you have a notion of how many you would like to write about Tim and his world? Does each novel feel to you like a separate enterprise, or a part of a larger story?

LF: I’m going to go on record here because you’ve been so good to me. The Timothy Wilde series is a trilogy. Or it is at the moment, never say never after all!
There are several reasons for this, however, and one of them I just touched on. You can’t trust a word Tim says in The Gods of Gotham. Frankly, I’m working—or Timothy, rather—is working with an extremely limited forensics palette. The science was not there for him to sweep crime scenes for epithelial cells or even identify a brand of shoe from the footmark. So the way I’m able to mask clues from the reader, while still playing entirely fair, mind, is through Tim’s misinterpretations. Tim is great at reading strangers and has massive blind spots when it comes to his loved ones. This is such a human failing and I love him for it, but it derails him completely in the first novel. Valentine, Mercy, the Reverend Underhill—no one is really who Tim thought they were. And aren’t our loved ones sometimes the people we take most for granted, aren’t they sometimes the least examined players on our stages? Anyone reading Gotham for the second time would hear an entirely different nuance in every word Val Wilde said.
Where I have rapidly diminishing returns with the unreliable narrator trope, however, is that I made Tim very very smart. So now we’re on to the second novel, and he’s still learning Tammany, learning Val, learning Mercy, he’s still learning police work itself: but he’s better at it. And by the third book, set in 1848, he’s very good indeed. Which I think is the completion of an arc, in a way. Another arc that was very important for me was the emotional one between the brothers. In the first book, Tim doesn’t know Val holds himself responsible for the loss of their parents and even at one point thinks Val is trying to kill him. Once he knows the truth, there’s no going back to that, and you really see him studying his brother in Seven for a Secret as if Val’s another case, learning what really makes him tick. And in the third … in the third they know each other extremely well and still have serious problems, but the difference is now they begin to talk about them. And that’s the completion of another journey.
My sincere hope is that each of the books can stand alone if asked, but that the three together are one story: Timothy’s coming-of-age story and Valentine’s search for redemption, intertwined like a single DNA strand.

NK: Wow—that is big news, that this is a trilogy. And while I’m a little sad to hear we won’t be following Tim for the next 20 years, I also admire your reasons for the decision.
And I’m glad to hear that Val is a big part of the conclusion. This is in no way an insult to Tim, whom I love, but Val is a more interesting character in some ways. Clearly he’s got major demons but also heroic qualities. Were he and Tim born together, in your mind, or did Val come about as a way to enter and illustrate the seedier sides of New York at that time?

LF: It’s sweet that you care about Timothy. Like I was saying, I’m not limiting myself to absolutes—that’s a great way to put your foot in your mouth, I figure. If five years or ten years from now I want to write about Tim again, I’d completely allow myself to do so, maybe even switch narrators—it’s just that this group of three makes a complete story, and that’s important to me. I can definitely pledge not to sit down and apply myself to a half-assed Tim book, because I’d not be able to complete the project and would turn at once to whiskey.
Oh, interesting point about how Val entered the picture—I needed to create a protagonist with his own moral compass, so I cast Tim as a barkeep because they’re extremely observant and I’ve been in the hospitality business for years. But since I wanted a Tammany outsider, I was wracking my brains as to how he’d get himself on the copper-star force in the first place, and my husband suggested nepotism. It was a really sound notion, and Valentine initially hatched from the fact I need someone with political clout to wedge Tim into the star police.
After that, Valentine took on these almost operatic proportions in my head—my family has suffered from addiction and mental ailments, and I’ve dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder for years myself, so I’m very comfortable writing about those things, and I started adding one id-driven quality after another to Valentine and couldn’t put the brakes on. Not because that’s the person he’d be if their parents were still alive, though admittedly he was a bit of a hooligan as a child, but because that’s the man he turned into after their deaths. The pleasure principle for Valentine is this desperate drive to erase himself to the point of forgetting his past. Morphine is the most obvious example, as are the fighting, gambling, and extreme promiscuity. It was incredibly freeing, actually, writing a character like that. He’s far and away my favorite human in the series. Here’s this person some would call vicious and vice-ridden who owns one of the strictest moral codes in the whole panorama, and that only becomes clearer in the third book: family first. That’s it, that’s his whole life. He’s a Tammany man because of what they can do for him and for his brother.
Of course, two of Val’s apparently hedonistic interests (for the 19th century, that is) have nothing to do with id, lest I shortchange the man. He’s bisexual simply because he’s bisexual. And the fact he’s a superlative cook and housekeeper are some of the sincerest expressions of affection in the books. If I am going to cook for someone I care about, I am going to throw everything I have into making it the best meal possible, and since there are hefty chunks of me in Valentine, so does he.

NK: Thank you.
I hope this doesn’t come as too abrupt, but I am starting to feel guilty about how much of your time I’ve been taking—and that if I indulge myself, I’ll keep this up until the Seminar. So thank you thank you thank you for sharing so much about Timothy Wilde and his world, and your creative process along the way.
And … I said early on in this conversation that I wanted to return to Sherlock Holmes. Dust and Shadow, your first novel, is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, in which Sherlock solves the crimes of Jack the Ripper. You are deeply versed in the wider world of Sherlock Holmes, both in the traditional societies of aficionados, like the Baker Street Irregulars, and the newer Internet-based fan community. What is it about this character and situation that provides such a rich source for interpretations (including all the movies and TV adaptations in the past and more recently Guy Ritchie’s movies, the BBC show Sherlock, the newer American TV series Elementary and the fan fiction and pastiches like your own)? Are we in a Sherlockian moment right now—or have we been in one since Conan Doyle published “A Scandal in Bohemia”?

LF: I’d say to a certain extent, we’ve been gobbling up Sherlock Holmes content as a culture since “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and you’re spot on to have cited the first short story rather than A Study in Scarlet or The Sign of Four. Holmes is absolutely magical in short-story form, and the Strand magazine knew what they had from day one—Doyle turned in the manuscript and the editors looked at each other with glowing pound signs pulsating in their eyeballs. Subsequent tales were just as rich and nuanced and atmospheric and balls-to-the-wall fun. They’re not all perfect, but they’re all far better than they’d any right to be. The characterizations are masterful, the prose lush, the plots exceedingly clever. Doyle changed the face of popular storytelling, and we’ve been riding his coattails ever since.
Then you of course have other great Sherlockian eras following the publication of the sixty canonical cases—the 1940s, for example, when Rathbone was king, or the surge of films and pastiches in the 1970s, or the present day phenomenon that seems to have started with the 2009 Guy Ritchie film. So I’d say that, while we’ve never lost sight of Sherlock Holmes, he’s much more in our sights now than he was in, say, the 1980s, when some of the best examples I can think of are comedies like Without a Clue or The Great Mouse Detective. Which of course begs the question—what do we love about the guy in the funny hat?—and I’ve given a great deal of thought to this of course, and I have two answers that when taken together satisfy me and when taken separately don’t quite cover all the bases.
First of all, it’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Think about that—not The Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes or The Cases of Sherlock Holmes. They’re pop culture gems, they’re tales of derring-do and heroic antics and vigilante justice winning the day over greed and villainy. That’s extremely important—they’re adventures, not puzzles, which is what sets them apart from Poe’s Dupin, and they’re for everyone. They’re extremely egalitarian and always have been—that’s why Holmes works fighting Nazis in a fedora in the 1940s equally as well as he works sweeping around in a Belstaff coat fighting fey Irish supervillains in 2012.
And secondly, we adore Sherlock Holmes because John Watson does. Honestly—it’s the finest example of an emotionally invested narrator I’ve ever seen. People read the stories the first time to see how the crime is solved, admittedly, but people like me who read them over and over again are invested in a carefully rendered portrait of a beautiful forty-year friendship, and honestly, who doesn’t want to hitch their wagon to a genius and spend the rest of their lives making the world a better place? John Watson is the best parts of all of us—he’s decent, he’s patient, he’s loyal, he’s courageous, and Holmes knows it, and Holmes wants him there, and we feel like a part of that magic when we read the stories or watch our favorite adaptations. In the 1990s, Granada Television did the fantastic Jeremy Brett series, with David Burke as Watson, and I’ll never get tired of his expression of childlike joy whenever Holmes does something amazing—it’s this purely blithe look of admiration, and (always supposing we’re watching an adaptation with a talented Watson) we catch the bug almost instantly. We want to be a part of that electric understanding between them, and the lovely thing is, we have so much content to choose from now. From Jude Law to Lucy Liu to Martin Freeman, we can watch the Good Doctor assisting the Great Detective, which Doyle’s Watson called his “greatest joy and privilege.” Which means my fellow Sherlockians and I are presently pretty damn happy to be alive.

Interviewer Nancy Klingener is secretary of the Key West Literary Seminar and works at the Monroe County Public Library in Key West. She reviews books for the Miami Herald, and contributes the “Letter From Key West” to WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station.

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