❉ The world’s greatest detective returns in ‘The Counterfeit Detective’. We chat with its author, Stuart Douglas.
An anonymous letter brings strange news to Baker Street; there is an impostor Sherlock Holmes at work in New York City, solving cases and taking society by storm. The real Sherlock Holmes wastes no time in crossing the Atlantic to confront the charlatan. But he and Watson find more than they bargained for: the counterfeit Sherlock is missing, his landlady has been horribly murdered, and his clients are refusing to reveal their secrets…
Hi Stuart, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I’m a Scottish IT geek and occasional author, editor and publisher. Nowadays I run my own publisher, Obverse Books, but before that I was far more a reader than a writer. I hadn’t written a word of fiction since my schooldays when I decided to try and create a book of sci-fi short stories, but that was 8 years ago and now I write every day.
What were your earliest creative influences?
I read a lot of golden age science fiction as a teenager – Asimov, Heinlein and the like – and a lot of detective and mystery books from the same era, so I suppose my main influences would be a mix of the two: primarily plot driven stories, but always with at least one eye on interesting characters and situations.
My favourite author is George MacDonald Fraser, creator of the Flashman series of historical comic novels, but I quickly realised that that sort of apparently effortless genius is pretty rare. He’d have written a brilliant Sherlock Holmes novel, but I try to get as close to his style as I can, when appropriate.
So, what have you written?
So far I’ve written two Sherlock Holmes novels for Titan Books – ‘The Albino’s Treasure’ and ‘The Counterfeit Detective’ – and contributed short stories to collections from Titan, ATB Publishing, and Watching Books, amongst others, as well as writing for and editing short story collections and novellas for my own imprint, Obverse Books.
Where can we buy or see them?
Tell us a little about your book.
In ‘The Counterfeit Detective’, an exhausted Holmes, following a period of undercover work on behalf of his brother, receives a letter from a well-wisher in the United States, informing him that an imposter, using Holmes’ name, is working as a detective in New York. Eager for a change of scenery, Holmes and Watson head across the Atlantic to have it out with the fraudster.
Predictably, the situation turns out to be far more complicated than it first appears…
The book is part of a series, can you tell us a little about it?
The book is part of Titan’s ‘Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’, the best known Holmes line, which mixes new writers with established ones, in a more or less traditional Conan Doyle style.
It seems that Sherlock Holmes is a more popular figure now than ever. What do you think it is that makes him such an ageless character?
I actually think that is down to Watson in large part. Both Holmes and Watson are beautifully characterised, I think – far more than is the case in other similar stories of the time – but without Watson I suspect Holmes would have struggled to maintain his position at the top of the fictional detective tree. Nowadays we’d talk about the audience participation figure, and Watson is perfect in that role – both as a personality of his own, and as someone through whom reader perceptions of Holmes are filtered. Watson obviously adores his friend, but he’s no fool and is as quick to undercut pomposity as he is to praise genius. It’s that – as much as the clever plots, brilliant solutions and dastardly villains – which has ensured that successive generations of readers find something appealing in Holmes, I think.
How old were you when you first encountered Sherlock Holmes? What got you interested and when?
My first memories of Holmes aren’t the books at all, but the Basil Rathbone movies, shown late at night on the BBC, with Holmes combatting the Nazis! From there, it was a short step to looking for the original stories – and being surprised that they weren’t set in the 1940s!
What do you think about Conan Doyle’s Holmes?
I love him. My hope, whenever I write any Holmes story, is to remind readers of the genius of the original tales.
Who is your favourite screen Holmes and why?
Oh, Jeremy Brett, without a doubt. I like them all really, but I’ve also got a soft spot for the Tom Baker version, as seen in the BBC Hound of the Baskervilles, and the Douglas Wilmer incarnation, who always seemed to play the role with a touch of unexpected humour.
There have been so many different Sherlock Holmes adaptations – on stage, on radio, in film and television – all of which depict Watson and Holmes differently. From your readings of the books, how would you describe them?
As great friends who look out for one another at all times, each appreciating what the other brings to their partnership. It’s not always obvious how much Holmes cares for Watson, and that occasionally leads to mis-steps in adaptations, where Holmes is made too cold and calculating, even about Watson, but personally I think their friendship is encapsulated in the scene in ‘The Three Garridebs’ when Holmes thinks Watson has been killed and says, ‘If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive’. Watson’s reflection that ‘All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation’ sums the pair up, for me.
When did you first decide to write a book in this genre and why?
I’d written a short story for George Mann’s first collection of Holmes short stories, and been lucky enough to receive some very flattering reviews, so when I learned that Titan might be open to a novel, I dropped the range editor a line with a pitch – then spent a couple of weeks on tenterhooks!
But Miranda, the editor, was very encouraging and remains so today – she’s edited both my Holmes books – which the slightly daunting prospect a real pleasure.
How do you make a world like Sherlock’s your own, after so many other versions – not to mention Conan Doyle himself?
I don’t think it’s a case of making the world your own, necessarily. I think what any new Holmes author must do, first and foremost, is respect the world Conan Doyle created, and then build on that. For myself, I tend to come up with a central puzzle, then think what interesting or unusual settings I could use – I’ve had Holmes in the cellars of the Old Bailey, fighting on the edge of the lost Fleet River, on the sister ship to the Titanic and trapped in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen so far!
I also like to make more of Holmes’ position as a bit of a celeb than most others do – so, for example, in ‘The Albino’s Treasure’, one character only really agrees to help because he’s a bit of a star-struck Holmes fanboy, who loves Watson’s stories in ‘The Strand’!
What rules and conditions are set by editors of Titan’s Sherlock Holmes novels? Is anything forbidden?
Titan do have a more supernatural Holmes’ range, but for the ‘Further Adventures’ range, in addition to the fact that the solution must be rational, the only real ‘rule’ is that stories are told from Watson’s POV, never that of Holmes. Which suits me fine, since I think Watson is as central as Holmes to the success of the series.
This novel’s about Holmes finding he has an American doppelganger. What inspired that concept?
I always think of Holmes and Watson as ‘real’ people, with lives beyond the mere act of criminal investigation. And as real people have an impact on the world around them, it seemed to me that as Holmes’ fame spread there would be envious sorts who might want to bask in his reflected glory or, for that matter, use that fame to make money.
And in a Victorian world, where neither communication nor travel was anything approaching instantaneous, what better place to do impersonate Holmes than across the Atlantic?
Would you do it again?
In an instant. It’s been an entirely pleasurable experience!
What’s the best musical accompaniment to reading ‘The Counterfeit Detective’?
Well I mainly listened to David Bowie while writing it, but I mainly listen to David Bowie most days, so that’s not really helpful is it?
Something like the Cocteau Twins, perhaps? Beautifully arranged and sung, but with lyrics so hard to decipher there’s no chance of you being distracted from the book while you sing along!
Who is your favourite author and why?
George MacDonald Fraser. Everything he wrote seemed to effortless and in Harry Flashman he created the greatest comedy character of the twentieth century.
What one person has impacted your life the most?
My wife, Julie, who’s been putting up with my enthusiasms (and clutter) for two decades now.
Do you read much?
I read constantly, during any spare moment (including once at 3 in the morning, walking down the centre of the road, reading by the light of alternate streetlamps – until I became too engrossed and wandered off the central reservation and almost in front of a car. I didn’t do that again!)
If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?
‘I Heard The Owl Call My Name’ by Margaret Craven. It’s the story of a dying young priest sent to live in a First Nations parish in British Columbia in Canada. It’s a short, but deeply moving, book, which I must have read twenty times.
For your own reading, do you prefer e-books or traditional paper/hard back books?
Paperbacks, every time!
What are you reading at present?
Just now I’m reading ‘Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz’, the third Oz book, which a kind friend sent me in a lovely edition, and ‘The Martian Girl’ by Paul Magrs, the second in his Martian trilogy. I’ve also got several non-fiction books on the go – a mix of books about Victorian Britain, a couple of biographies and books on British cinema.
What has your journey as a writer and publisher been like?
I’ve been very lucky. I decided I wanted to do a book of short stories, and virtually every author I asked to contribute said ‘yes’. That first book sold well enough to pay for a second and so on, and I’ve now published over 50 different books, with new work from the likes of Michael Moorcock, Mark Hodder and Paul Magrs.
On the back of publishing those books (and doing a little writing in some of them), I was offered the opportunity to write a short story for a Titan Holmes collection and, from there, a novel. I’d love to claim it was all a clever plan, but really it’s been down to luck and the support of my family and good friends like George Mann, who gave me my first break at Titan.
Do you have any upcoming projects? How can readers discover more about you and you work?
I have a story in the upcoming fourth Titan Sherlock Holmes short story collection, and an essay in ATB Publishing’s new book on Star Trek, plus I have pitches in for Holmes and a couple of others, and I’m about half way through writing an original science fiction novel, set in early sixteenth century England.
Through Obverse, I’m in the middle of publishing The Black Archive, a series of individual book length studies of Doctor Who stories, as well as editing the next novel in our Faction Paradox range, ‘Weapons Grade Snake Oil’ by Blair Bidmead. And then there’s various short story collections, a book on the wilderness years of Doctor Who, original novels (most recently ‘Terra Exitus’ by Scott Liddell) and TV guide books.
I do like to keep busy!
Thanks for your time, Stuart.
❉ ‘The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – The Counterfeit Detective’ is out now from Titan Books, RRP £7.99