A Study in Crimson by Robert J Harris

Q&A from Publishers Weekly (March 2001)

How long have you had this interesting concept?

It must have come to me early in 2019. At that point I was writing my Artie Conan Doyle Mysteries, a MG series of novels concerning the (fictional) adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle during his early teens in Victorian Edinburgh. One of the features of the series is that the mysteries young Artie has to solve are worthy of his future creation Sherlock Holmes. The notion of writing a Holmes novel naturally crossed my mind, but what held me back was the fact that there are already so many Holmes pastiches out there. Has anybody counted them? It's quite staggering. It seemed to me, therefore, that if I wrote one, no matter how good it was, it would pass unnoticed.

Then one day my eye glanced upon my boxed DVD set of the Rathbone movies and the idea struck me. Here was a version of Sherlock Holmes updated to the 1940s portrayed by the actor most identified with the character. To turn that concept into a novel seemed such a wonderful and fruitful idea, it was surprising that no one had thought of it before.

I was at this point writing my follow up to The Thirty-One Kings but I put together a one page proposal for Sherlock Holmes 1942 which I showed to my editor who was immediately enthused. Her exact words were, "Do this next and do three of them."

Was that developed independently of the creators of the BBC's Sherlock stating that the Universal films inspired their update?

The BBC's update was not in my mind at all at that point, though I think it demonstrates how influential the Rathbone films are that they inspired both that series and my novel

At what point did the central mystery revolving around a Ripper copycat come to you?

After making my initial Sherlock Holmes 1942 proposal, I was flicking through a Sherlockian biography, one of those books that plays the game of pretending Holmes was a real person and sets him in the context of actual history. I came to a chapter concerning Jack the Ripper and how Holmes would have been involved in that case. The notion of a Ripper copycat in the blacked out London of 1942 flashed straight into my mind. There is a sort of gravity that has drawn Holmes and the Ripper together in a number of films and novels, but this new setting presented the opportunity to tackle that afresh. In the course of pursuing the murderous Crimson Jack in 1942, Holmes also presents his solution to those infamous killings of 1888.

What about the Universal Holmes films most appealed to you?

I have many happy memories of settling down with my wife and our three sons on a Winter's evening to enjoy these films with a big pot of tea and a heap of chocolate biscuits. The lights would, of course, be turned down low to suit the mysterious atmosphere. These are fast-paced thrillers and, very importantly, brand new Holmes adventures, even though they often made clever use of elements from the Conan Doyle stories ('The Dancing Men' and 'The Six Napoleons' for example). The transition from Rathbone and Bruce's performances in the two Victorian set movies that preceded Universal's 1940s series into this new setting feels absolutely seamless. This is a tribute to the actors and to the quality of the scripts in which they always sound exactly like Holmes and Watson should.

What about them was the hardest to translate into a novel?

There were a number of decisions to be made before actually writing the novel. The most important was that a new timeline had to be established for the characters now that they were not from the Victorian era. The movies could just skip over that, but in a novel that background had to be provided. I started by making Holmes and Watson the same age as the actors so that, like Rathbone and Bruce, they both served bravely in WWI. This had to be crafted in such a way, that these different life experiences would still lead to them being the characters as described by Conan Doyle and beloved by fans of the books and films.

Was writing this harder or easier than The Thirty-One Kings? Please explain.

In The Thirty-One Kings the two main elements were being true to the characters of Richard Hannay and his friends as they appear in John Buchan's novels, and researching and presenting the actual WWII background. In A Study in Crimson the same loyalty to the literary sources and the history is still there, but there is the additional element of the films. For example, the big bluff Inspector Lestrade played by Dennis Hoey in the films is very different (and a lot more fun) than the ratty little man of Conan Doyle's stories. On the other hand, the films themselves do not attempt to create any continuity between them, so I knew it would be a mistake to try to make my novel fit exactly into the series. Instead I am creating a parallel continuity which contains many nods to the film series (including the London Bulletin newspaper and the Intelligence Inner Council). I think I have managed to walk that line successfully.

Can you discuss your choice to have Watson not be Nigel Bruce's Boobus Brittanicus?

Poor old Nigel Bruce comes in for a lot of stick. Having comic relief in the midst of an otherwise tense adventure was very common at the time and he's the one who had to carry that load. What people neglect, however, is the fact that he was hugely popular in the role and it was he who in fact established Dr Watson as an actual character indispensible in a Holmes story. Before this there had been Sherlock Holmes films that didn't feature Watson at all. I have retained the warm humanity, loyalty and decency of Bruce's Watson while taking the opportunity to deepen the character. For example we get some experience of his grief over the death of his wife some years before. I should also add that Watson in this timeline was shot in both legs by German machine gun fire in the Great War, just as Nigel Bruce was.

What aspects of Holmes did Rathbone nail?

For me Rathbone brings an intellectual and physical vigor to the part. There's an energy to his every movement and a strength in his voice worthy of the world's greatest detective.

Holmes has been featured in the 1940s, the 21st century, and the 22nd century-are there limits to the settings he can be plausibly placed in?

I think those who seek to carry Holmes onward in new ways in books, film and television have a responsibility always to respect Conan Doyle's original work. Our attachment to it is like a strong piece of elastic that we can stretch but we should be careful not to let it snap.

How has your work on fantasy board games influenced your novel-writing?

There is the common denominator in that I like to take elements of our culture and storytelling and find fresh twists to put on them, as I did in my board game Talisman and in my novels. In fact a friend has made me a variant on a Sherlock Holmes card game which replaces the Holmes characters and villains with those from my Artie Conan Doyle Mysteries, so the intermingling continues.

Fan question-will you write more?

I am in fact just finishing work on my second Holmes novel, 'The Devil's Blaze: Sherlock Holmes 1943.' This has Holmes investigating cases of spontaneous human combustion, which brings him face to face with Professor Moriarty, a version of the iconic villain as re-imagined for 1943. I hope that after 'A Study in Crimson' readers will be keen to get their hands on this second adventure also.