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Q & A #56 – Lyndsay Faye, “The Whole Art of Detection”

Lyndsay Faye is having a very good year.

Her most recent novel, Jane Steele, is a finalist in the Best Novel category for the 2017 Edgar Awards from Mystery Writers of America.

It’s Faye’s second such listing; Faye was up for the same award for Gods of Gotham, published in 2012.

And today is the launch day for The Whole Art of Detection, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche that gathers up 13 of Faye’s previously-published short stories and two fresh imaginings.

Advance praise is glowing, including from Nicholas Meyer (author of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution): “Author Faye has captured the language, locutions and inventiveness of the original tales as well or better than any author I can think of it. It is absolutely essential reading for any—and every—aficionado who cherishes the real thing.”

I happen to agree. My review for the New York Journal of Books is published here.

Lyndsay Faye was kind enough to answer a few questions by email about her work. I think you’ll see that Lyndsay Faye takes this Sherlock business quite seriously–and she also knows how to have a fair amount of fun along the way.

Sherlockians, dig in.

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Question: Okay, we’ve read the official Grove Atlantic “conversation” with you and we’ll try not to repeat any of those great questions, but hope to entice some equally interesting answers. When you craft a “lost mystery” of Sherlock Holmes, do you have to conjure the whole puzzle first? The solution? Or do you just dive in and go?

Lyndsay Faye:  Actually, it depends very much on what I’m trying to accomplish for that particular story.  All my Holmes pastiches operate on two arcs—there’s the crime to be solved, of course, but I’m also exploring some facet of Holmes and Watson’s lives together, illuminating the friendship in a sense.  One or the other of those arcs generally occurs to me first.  For instance, “Hey, I want to write the one Doyle mentioned about James Phillimore going back into his house for his umbrella and then never being heard from again,” that’s one way of being inspired.   But then other cases start with, “I want to explore Watson’s late brother’s alcoholism, so how would I do that,” or “I wonder what Lestrade made of Holmes pretending to be dead for three years,” or “I wonder what Watson initially made of Holmes’s aversion to female company?”

So once I have an idea, then I have to craft the hat trick.  There’s always a twist of some kind, of course—why is this man wearing clothes that don’t belong to him, why has this other one been kidnapped and then released unharmed three times, why does this society wife think her jewelry is poisoning her?  Often it’s the puzzle I think of first, then the solution of course (because I have to know that!), and then I write the middle.  What I really can’t do, sadly, is just dive in and go—the minutia of the clues is too complicated.

Question: Precisely how do you channel the writing rhythms of Arthur Conan Doyle? Have you internalized the narrative approach? In other words, do you hear voices?

Photo by Anna Ty Bergman

Lyndsay Faye – (Photo by Anna Ty Bergman)

Lyndsay Faye:  Oh, absolutely.  I was trained as an actress, not as a writer.  So I really can hear syntax, accents, speech patterns, modes of address, subtle differences in the way Holmes and Watson (both highly educated gentlemen) speak to each other.  My ability as a mimic is pretty solid on the stage, which is why it also works on the page.  I still bank at Actor’s Equity credit union!

As to the real how, well, I’ve been reading these stories since I was ten, so I can even hear the changes between early and late era cases.  If I’m writing a story set in the 1880s, it’s going to be subtly different—Holmes is more frankly puppyish and eager, the way he expresses himself in stories like “The Redheaded League” or The Sign of Four, so I would read one of those stories before starting to write, just to refresh myself.  If the case is set in 1900, then he’s more acidly sarcastic, but he and Watson also know each other so intimately by then, so that also sounds different, and I’d read a story like “The Priory School” or “The Sussex Vampire” before sitting down at my keyboard.

Then of course there’s the question of atmosphere, and so very much of these tales depend on the environment—the horror in the client’s eyes, the fog on the moors, the glint of carriage lights and so forth.  You can’t skip all that as window dressing—it’s essential.

Question: And a follow-up, if I may. And I fully realize I might be leading the witness. Do you think Conan Doyle gets enough credit as a wordsmith? As a poet at times?

Lyndsay Faye:  He’s a brilliant poet!  Well, on the one hand, sure he gets enough credit—he broke the mold, remade the genre, and Sherlock Holmes is read all over the world.  On the other hand, he’s just this amazing writer, absolutely incredible imagery, and when people think of the stories only as popular genre mysteries, they might not grasp at just how high a level he’s using words.  I think of the passage from “The Blue Carbuncle,” where Watson describes, “Outside, the stars were shining coldly in a cloudless sky, and the breath of the passers-by blew out into smoke like so many pistol shots.”  That’s just…masterful.

Question: Sherlock Holmes is the focus of literary and fan societies; what made you first think you could wriggle into this world and stake a claim? You ventured where many others have tread, including Stephen King, A.A. Milne and Neil Gaiman and others. When did you think you had something, I don’t know, worthy?

Lyndsay Faye:  Well, I strongly believe that Sherlock Holmes is for everyone.  He’s a completely democratic hero, he’s for us, he’s for the outsiders, he’s for the wronged.  So I’m being completely honest when I say that every Sherlockian effort is worthy, whether you wrote a flash fanfic on a paper napkin and then uploaded it to AO3, or whether you spent the time to write a novel and the blood and sweat to try to get it in the right hands.

But the truth is that I’m incredibly, unbelievably picky about my pastiches.  I’ve read hundreds of them, more likely thousands.  Thousands seems right.  And I can tell within about three paragraphs whether it’s going to work for me or not.  What happened to make me start Dust and Shadow was skimming a new Sherlockian paperback on a work break from waitressing (I always spent the time between my doubles at Borders), and I thought, “That bit there, that’s wrong.  No.  That’s not how they sound.”  So then I thought hell, no one’s stopping me—why not give this a go?  I never imagined it would be published in hardcover, and I really never imagined it would lead to a career as a novelist!  I just love them so much.  I couldn’t not write them.  That’s how many of us feel.

Question: Okay, The Adventure of the Memento Mori. Without giving too much away, what was the spark of inspiration for the backstory—the bad guy, Henry—in that one?

Lyndsay Faye:  Oh, that’s a truly rotten fellow.  It’s a perfect example of the case having a crime plot arc and then this separate emotional arc for Holmes and Watson.  Henry Staunton is mentioned in the Doyle stories as being a murderer Holmes “helped to hang.”  But what I actually wanted to write at the time was Holmes fresh back from the Hiatus, Watson is overjoyed but he also just lost his wife, and here’s Holmes returned from the dead and riddled with guilt but also in his own way oblivious to people’s feelings, and it’s about how Watson lost everyone he loved but then miraculously got one back.  Memento mori are Victorian death remembrances—locks of hair and such.  So crafting a case around a memento mori Holmes gets in the mail along with a cry for help made perfect sense, because both men have all this stuff they’re not saying, there’s death and loss and hurt in the air despite Watson being an incredibly good egg about it, so the inspiration for that killer was, “What sort of clue would break these two reticent idiots open enough to talk about what happened at Reichenbach Falls?”

Question: For non-Sherlockians looking for an entry point into this vast world of stories and movies, care to list a few of your favorite short stories from the original works? And best Sherlock film? Least favorite?

Lyndsay Faye:  Start with “The Speckled Band.”  If you don’t like it, you probably won’t like the Holmes canon!  But seriously, begin with the short stories, preferably The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes collection, because those are just universally smashing.  Then read The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and next maybe The Hound of the Baskervilles.  You’ll be hooked by that time.

I’m quite the omnivore when it some to Sherlock Holmes, so I love a wide range—the amazing Jeremy Brett Granada series, for instance, the first season of Benedict Cumberbatch’s BBC Sherlock, Robert Downey Jr. kicking ass in the Warner Brothers films.  I can absolutely tell you my least favorite, though, and it’s Rupert Everett’s The Case of the Silk Stocking.  It’s wretched.  He’s such a fine actor and he spends the entire film brooding in this wallowing funk and sulking with his eyebrows at unlikely angles.  I want to throw things at the screen whenever I see it.

Question: Okay, saving a tough question here for the end. What was it like to get nominated for an Edgar Award for Gods of Gotham?

Lyndsay Faye:  Shocking, utterly shocking.  But I did put an enormous amount of research work into that novel, and I knew that telling the story of the very first NYPD copper stars, with their original slang dialect, was unique in some ways.   It was a ridiculous honor, especially considering who actually won that year—Dennis Lehane!  I got to stand next to Dennis Lehane.  It was bananas.

Question: What’s next?

Writer:  I’m almost through with a novel about the rise of the KKK during Prohibtion.  It’s shockingly timely, which terrifies me, and I’d prefer it weren’t timely at all.  But there you are.  The wheel turns, etc.

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Lyndsay Faye’s website.

 

 

 

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