by Derek Gunn
People still write letters to Sherlock Holmes every day. What if you had to answer them?
This one was easy. I contacted the author about this piece and within a day a beautifully hardbound edition arrived in the post. Presentation is everything and, as you will see above, the cover is striking. It tells so much about the story in one picture; a man alone, Baker Street and the small note enticing you with the words ‘A Mystery’. This is the second book in this series and, while there are references and updates on what happened in the first book, it is not necessary to have read it, advisable – but not strictly necessary.
Reggie Heath is a barrister. He is unlike his fellows in many ways and the most important of these, at least for the premise of this book, is that he has his chambers on Baker Street and not in the normal area surrounding the courts. People still write letters to Sherlock Holmes to this day and part of Reggie’s lease agreement is that he has to answer them. The letters are seen as a hassle to Reggie, something to avoid. In the first book they were responsible for setting in motion a series of events that have had a lasting impact on him and his brother. However they have a way of demanding his attention.
This allows for a very clever plot line. This is not a book about Sherlock Holmes, nor is it meant to be. This is a story where the letters written to Sherlock Holmes have a habit of starting or impacting on the cases that Reggie is involved in. As you will see in the interview below Michael Robertson is very clear on that and I would agree wholeheartedly with him. At no time do you feel that he is trying to emulate the great detective. This is a story about people put in exceptional circumstances. It is about a man struggling to rebuild his life and regain the love of his life. And it is about a mystery. However, there are some delightful nuances in the novel that bring the reader back to the Holmes’ stories with a gleeful nostalgia.
I will not give too much away as Reggie’s current mindset is very much influenced by the events in the first book but his chambers are not exactly brimming with business. When an attractive solicitor asks him to represent a Black Cab driver accused of murder, Reggie is reluctant. He gave up handling criminal cases some time ago and, as the book progresses we discover why. He takes the case though and soon his life is spiralling even further downward. Into this mix he receives a letter addressed to Sherlock Holmes from Moriarty. Again I will not reveal how this occurs here but it is not a supernatural explanation merely a clever way of harkening back to the stories of old. Moriarty swears vengeance on Holmes who modern day presence is embodied by Heath.
It is difficult to explain some of this without giving too much away and that would be a shame as it is far better to pick up this book and enjoy it yourself but this plotline is not straight out of a Hammer House of Horror film, there is a perfectly reasonable and clever explanation for these claims. The characters in the novel are well drawn and I have no doubt that, if you read the first chapter, you will continue reading as if running downhill. I finished the book in a day, happily ensconced in a coffee shop and oblivious to the world. I mean you can’t ask for more in a book. The first chapter is available to read on the author’s website. So go on I dare you, read it and see if you can stop.
Michael Robertson kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his book and anything else I could think of while I had him in my clutches.
There are a lot of ‘Holmes’ references in the novel, the fact that everyone travels by cab and the chase at the end – are you a Sherlock Holmes fan or is this just a clever plot line?
I’m certainly a fan. I started reading the Holmes stories when I was eight and I read through the entire canon a few times. And then at some point in the 1970s I started seeing the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies on television, and I loved those as well.
Of course, I’m not writing about Sherlock Holmes–I’m writing about the phenomenon of people writing letters to him. And I’m not imitating Conan Doyle. (I personally wouldn’t dare.) But I’m conscious of the tradition and the legacy of the Holmes stories, and there are some choices that I make in my novels–and some bits of dialogue here and there–that do very specifically relate to things that were important to me when I first began reading Sherlock Holmes.
The novels are well structured. Are these your first works of fiction or have you written short stories before?
Most of my training comes from screenwriting (and one-act plays before that). My very first attempt at a feature-length screenplay was in fact also my first take on the Sherlock Holmes letters; quite different from my current novels. I wrote that early script in 1982 and I got into a few Hollywood pitch meetings on the strength of it. But I didn’t quite break in; I eventually had to get a real job, and when I came back to focus on writing again a few years ago, my sense of the stories I want to tell, and how I want to tell them, had changed.
It is quite dramatic how many things have changed in so short a timeframe. Mobile phones, GPS etc – things we are used to as standard now but were not so prevalent then. Was it intentional to set it in 1997 or is there a more sinister plotline coming up that required that you set it in the nineties?
The time frame was driven by the plot line of my first novel in the series, The Baker Street Letters. That novel is centered on a fire that took place during construction of the Los Angeles subway–the Red Line–in the 1990s. I was living near the area at the time of the actual event, and I took notes and photos and began plotting that novel while the subway was still under construction. When I published that novel in 2009, the subway was long since completed, but I still wanted to keep the novel in the time frame and location that had inspired it, and that dictated the time frame for the second novel as well.
Of course, as you suggest, there have been dramatic changes in the years since, and many events to work with from a fictional perspective. Hindsight has its advantages.
How do you write? Do you have a ritual, do you plan out every detail or do you see where the story leads?
I have one ritual, which is that I pretty much have to have a cup of coffee in hand when I sit down to write. I don’t necessarily drink it, but it has to be there.
My tendency is to write a few key scenes first, to see how they feel–and then I begin the detailed structuring that links them. When I’m doing that, I discover better choices in my plot line, and then I rewrite.
What are your views on the eBook phenomena – is it a help or a hindrance?
I don’t see how it can hurt. I write with the assumption that readers still value the same things, regardless of the delivery mechanism. This might turn out to be not an entirely correct assumption–but I think it would be a mistake to try to tailor a novel according to whether it is being delivered digitally or on the printed page.
I see the film rights have been picked up – can you tell us anything about that?
The television division of Warner Brothers took an option for a series based on The Baker Street Letters before the book was even on the shelves in 2009, which is a credit to my hard-working agents. But although a pilot script was developed, it was not picked up by the targeted network, and the option has just recently expired. We’ll see what happens with The Brothers of Baker Street, which I regard as the more cinematic novel.
If you were given one paragraph to convince people to buy your novel what would it say?
I hope people will pick up the novel because it has a great cover and a clever premise–and then buy it because they read the first chapter and love the writing.
In between work and writing do you have any time to read? Who do you enjoy most?
I know it is something akin to heresy to admit that I don’t find time to read much by other authors, but it is unfortunately true right at the moment.
I think I said earlier that I don’t try to imitate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and I don’t. But there was a time when I wanted very much to write just like Dashiell Hammett in The Thin Man.
On the other hand, I still find that if I pick up my old volume of Tales of Sherlock Holmes and start to read on any particular page, I get hooked–and this annoys me. I don’t want to get hooked; I need my time for the next novel.
The third novel in the series is under way, but I can’t give a specific pub date for it yet. Reggie and Laura still have some things to work out, and they will both be back. As will Buxton. So will some other characters from the first two books, but not necessarily all of them right away.
Do you have a website or blog where people can keep up to date with news etc?
I don’t blog, but I do have a website, at www.thebakerstreetletters.com, where folks can read excerpts, check the dates for upcoming appearances, and see a jpeg of the nice view from my back porch.
Of course if you do look at his website and see the view he talks about you will be so jealous that it will ruin your day. So my advice is not to look at the view but do buy the book, you won’t be disappointed. I mean how can you write a book with that view? I’d just gaze out all day and get nothing done!