When I was a boy, one of my mother’s favourite bromides was: “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” a phrase that has stuck with me over the years. Literary imitation is usually called “pastiche,” and for better or worse, I have spent a lot of time this year thinking about and playing with the concept, especially since we decided to do a series of Book Club evenings featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson pastiches. When I actually focused on the technique, I was more than a bit surprised to realize how limited it was in practice. In the first place, one can really only imitate an author who is super well-known. Who beyond Sherlock? The first author I thought of was Agatha Christie. Partly because of the second consideration: the need to find sufficiently well-known literary characteristics to imitate. When I considered this factor, it suddenly became clear to me why Holmes was such a popular target for pastiche and why relatively few others could qualify. Hercule Poirot could certainly be imitated, because of his appearance and because of his distinctive phrases, such as “the little grey cells.” But who else? Miss Marple? Probably. Father Brown? The Saint? Perry Mason? James Bond? Nero Wolfe? Peter Wimsey? Make your own list. It will not be very long, and would probably not include many recent authors. At this point I suddenly began to appreciate durable popularity. The pioneers of crime fiction who have survived the years are mainly those who created larger-than-life characters. Such creations are no longer fashionable. Lisbeth Salander is one of the few contemporaries who comes immediately to mind. Who else? One wonders. A point worth emphasizing is that literary pastiche is not confined to books; film and television rely heavily on literature for their material, and are currently the sources of some of the best pastiche – Holmes has two television series currently going, neither one of which started in print. Both series move Holmes into the 21st century. Recent films have reversed the Holmes/Watson relationship and looked into the early life of Holmes.
What exactly is literary pastiche? Simply put, it is imitation. In practice, however, imitation covers a multitude of sins and a variety of strategies not all of which involve a straight line between original and copy. Why do authors write pastiche? The most obvious answer is lack of originality, although I suspect that this answer explains very few of what is produced. More important is commercial viability. Pastiche enables an author to tie his or her work to a known product with a known record in the bookshops. In a few cases, the success of the imitation generates its own popularity. This was clearly the case with the Mary Russell series. Some authors are attracted by the challenge of successful imitation.
Curiously enough, the easiest strategy of pastiche to adopt is also the hardest to bring off well. It involves an authentic replication of the original style and of the author. If Conan Doyle is the target, this usually means writing in the voice of Dr. Watson, harder to do well than you might think – just try it! Many of those who go this route actually create a complex story about a lost manuscript recently unearthed, and they set their work within the timeframe and space (London) of Holmes’s glory years. The problem is that there are only so many plots, and Conan Doyle has already cherry picked most of the best ones. The result is a product which often seems stale, at least to the reader of the Doyle originals. But we must always remember that not every consumer of pastiche is necessarily familiar with the original.
As my comments about film suggest, there are many ways of doing pastiche, some sticking closer to the original than others. One popular strategy is to hijack one of the Holmes characters and turn him/her/them into the major protagonist(s). As I have noted elsewhere in this newsletter, every continuing character in the Conan Doyle canon – even the urchins of the Baker Street Irregulars now has his or her or their own series. Indeed, one of the most appealing recent series takes nothing from the Holmes canon but the address – 221B Baker Street – at which Holmes and Watson are supposed to have resided. Two attorney brothers rent the premises in modern times; their lease includes a stipulation that they answer any mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes. Since any such mail is bound to involve some kind of crime puzzle, the author has a wonderful lead-in into a fresh story. (Author of this series is Michael Robertson; we have most of the titles in stock)
Complicating the whole business of pastiche is the recent emergence of authorized pastiche, as literary estates seek to squeeze the last bit of revenue out of their literary property. The heirs of Steig Larsson—his family, not the common law companion, who according to Swedish law had no rights of inheritance – authorized a Salander sequel, which appeared in 2015. Fortunately, the new author, David Lagercrantz, had the good sense to do the new volume as a pastiche, essentially filling in details in the original three books. It got reasonably good reviews. (The Girl in the Spider’s Web will be available in tradepaper at the end of April, ($22)) The Christie estate authorized a fairly well-known crime fiction novelist, Sophie Hannah, to continue the adventures of Hercule Poirot. Hannah took a different approach than Lagercrantz, essentially dumping the Belgian detective, full formed, into the middle of one of her own stories. (The Monogram Murders, in stock (tp$18.99. The result little resembled Agatha Christie, and the critics were not at all impressed. Hannah’s effort may not have been sufficiently pastiche-like. In fairness, it is hard to know how to write another author’s sequel.
It seems unlikely to me that much more can be done with Sherlockian pastiche, but then, you never can tell.