Category Archives: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur and a senator: books

THE BEEKEPER’S APPRENTICE or, On the Segregation of the Queen is the first in Laurie R. King’s long-running Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series. The premise is that when the retired Holmes meets 15-year-old Mary (and their first encounter is quite delightful) he recognizes her as his intellectual match and makes her his protegé (in a later book his wife). After Mary proves herself solving cases with Holmes, then without him, someone with a grudge against Holmes targets her, Watson, and everyone else close to Holmes. Can they figure out Who before Who leaves them dead?

This was a very mixed bag for me. I enjoy the Holmes/Mary relationship (I could have done without making it romantic — matching minds or not, a fifty year old and a teenager?) and the main plot, particularly how the villain plans to destroy Holmes even beyond the murders. However I hate the way King writes Watson as a good-natured duffer; he’s a good deal more than that, and it feels like she’s trying to prove nobody could ever be as good a partner for Holmes as Mary. And the early mysteries aren’t terribly interesting, serving no purpose other to establish Mary has the right stuff. But that may be just the awkwardness of an origin story, so I’ll try this series at least once more.

ARTHURIAN ROMANCES, TALES AND LYRIC POETRY: The Complete Works of Hartmann von Aue collects the works of a medieval German poet I’d never heard of before, though that’s certainly not a reflection on him: his versions of Chretien’s Erec and Iwein are good, and show a deadpan sense of humor at times, like the line from Poor Heinrich, “You would have to have a virgin of marriageable age willing to suffer death for your sake. Now it’s not the usual behavior of people to do this eagerly.” I imagine him delivering that to the audience and everyone laughing.

THE CANING OF CHARLES SUMNER: Honor, Idealism and the Origins of the Civil War by William James Hull Hoffer looks at the once legendary assault by South Carolina politician Preston Brooks on Massachusetts Senator Sumner after the latter’s “Case for Kansas” speech mocked some of South Carolina’s legislators (including one man’s speech impediment) and suggested if South Carolina had never existed that wouldn’t be any great loss. Hoffer does a good job looking at how Sumner’s moral principles and Brooks’ code of honor steered them towards each other (what for Sumner was a moral denunciation of slavery was to Brooks a smear on his beloved motherland) and thereby captured the conflict between North and South in miniature. However the ending chapter chronicling the rest of the incidents that led up to the Civil War wasn’t necessary or relevant; the ending conclusion that by the time of the book (end of the last century) North/South conflict was a thing of the past (we even have military bases named after Confederate generals!) hasn’t aged well.

As I didn’t really care for any of those covers, accept this Gervasio Gallardo cover for illustration:

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Sherlock Holmes: I Never Make Exceptions

Once again I’m getting inspiration for a blog post from the quotes on my Sherlock Holmes mug (available via the Philosopher’s Guild).

Holmes states in The Sign of Four that “I never make exceptions. An exception disproves the rule.” Once again, I think there’s useful advice for writers in that (but also some bad advice).

Most obviously, whatever rules you set up for your fantasy world, you need to follow them. If cold iron cancels magic or kills fae, it has to do so consistently. If your hero lives by an oath of nonviolence or non-killing, he has to stick to it (Superman writers in the Silver Age keep forgetting he doesn’t kill and having him blow up enemy spaceships or the like). If you do make an exception you’d better explain it logically. And you have to make readers care: I have a hard time worrying that someone’s violating rules the writer made up, no matter how impossible the characters say it is.

The same principle applies to mainstream fiction. I read a thriller back in the 1990s which went to great lengths to provide realistic detail on bombs,, their effects and how to disarm them. So at the climax having the protagonist caught when the bomb blows off but turn out to be standing just far enough away it simply lifts her off the grounds and drops her unharmed with tousled hair … it didn’t fit.

Similarly, He’s Just Not That Into You annoyed me by setting up a rule — guy doesn’t chase a girl relentlessly, he’s not interested — but then it breaks its own premise in the various romances.

In marketing, I take the quote two ways, one valid for writing and one not. As countless how-to articles have observed, never assume that your manuscript is so awesome that an editor will ignore that it’s the wrong length/genre/style. Even though some people do break the rules, it’s wise not to assume we can get away with the same.

The not-valid is the insistence I also see in how-to articles that whatever genre you’re writing for, you should mimick what everyone else is writing. As I discuss at the link, that’s not always the best idea and sometimes a bad one.

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They are the Napoleon of the Public Domain, Watson!

All but the last 10 or so Sherlock Holmes stories are now out of copyright, so everything up to that point is public domain .. but not in the eyes of the Conan Doyle Estate. Several years ago they fought public domain on the grounds that the characters weren’t completely fleshed out and developed until the very end of the canon. Ergo, all post-Doyle portrayals of Holmes depend on every single story, so if some of them are still in copyright, all of them are. Even one as early as The Final Problem, illustrated below by Sidney Paget.

They lost on appeal. Judge Richard Posner argued that if the early and later Holmes and Watson are distinct from each other (due to the way the final stories fleshed out the characters) then there’s no issue with riffing on the Holmes of the earlier stories. If they’re not distinct, the later stories don’t add anything. QED.

But copyright holders are often a determined bunch. The estate is now suing Netflix for Enola Holmes and also author Nancy Springer for the books the film was based on. The argument is that Holmes in the film is in touch with his emotions in a way he wasn’t in the earlier tales, and also “he began to respect women.”

I strongly disagree about women. Holmes was always respectful towards them: he might not want one in his life besides Mrs. Hudson (fan canon about Irene Adler aside), but when his clients come to him, he’s courteous, respectful and protective of their interests. I don’t recall him ever condescending to them or not taking their concerns seriously. British writer Kit Whitfield once described him as an older brother for hire, taking care of things a young woman’s brother or father would normally handle for her.

That said, I have no idea how this will play out; I’m guessing Netflix wins, but I wouldn’t put money on it. Time will tell (I just came up with that phrase. I anticipate it going viral). And check out the Passive Voice copyright blog for some technical legal points such as the choice of venue (“PG doesn’t know how busy these New Mexico judges are, but expects none of them wished for a complex copyright lawsuit involving parties from all over the place to land on her/his docket.”)


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Sherlock Holmes’ sister and other women of destiny

Stranger Things’ Millie Bobbie Brown is ENOLA HOLMES (2020), the teenage sister we never knew Sherlock Holmes (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft had. When mom Helena Bonham Carter disappears and Enola’s brothers seem disinterested in investigating, Enola sets out, counting on the training she’s received from Mom — everything from deduction to combat — to get her past any obstacles. She succeeds, of course, and in the process saves a young nobleman who’s been targeted for death. Based on a series of kids’ books by Nancy Springer, this is fun, and Brown is delightful but Cavill is too bland and too laid-back as Sherlock (not to mention he doesn’t smoke!). Mycroft is simply the requisite stuffy relative determined to make Enola conform to gender standards and eventually marry well (I’ve spent more than a few minutes thinking how I’d rewrite the brothers so they’d be more canonical without stealing the spotlight). So a mixed bag for me, but I’m in a minority. “Look for what’s there, not for what you want to be there.”

WHAT’S UP DOC? (1972) is one of those favorite films I’ve rewatched countless times, enjoying Barbra Streisand getting Ryan O’Neal to buy her a radio, Madolyn Kahn counting to five, Kenneth Mars cheating, Sorrell Booke using his charm and Jonathan Hillerman recommending O’Neal not hang out in the hotel lobby. This time I bought the DVD rather than rewatch my old off-air version, so I got to enjoy Peter Bogdanovich’s discussion of the film on the commentary track: Warner Brothers had offered him the chance to do a drama with Streisand but he’d pushed for a screwball comedy instead, though keeping the idea of Streisand as a brainy polymath. After he and two writers developed the initial script, they turned it over to Get Smart co-creator Buck Henry, who considerably complicated the script (instead of three identical travel bags they had four) but for the better. Always a pleasure. “This man is in unauthorized possession of secret government … underwear.”

THE STRANGER WITHIN (1974) is an excellent SF horror film with a Richard Matheson script that wouldn’t have been out of place on the Twilight Zone (except too much talk of sex, I guess). Barbara Eden is thrilled to discover she’s pregnant, but she and husband George Grizzard are less thrilled when it turns out that no, his vasectomy of three years ago did not fail. Eden insists she hasn’t been with another man, and everyone wants to believe her but … And why is she over-salting all her food, drinking literally gallons of coffee and reading everything she can get her hands on? Could it be that the baby is Not What It Seems?

Yep, it’s another alien pregnancy film, with artificial insemination, like Village of the Damned, taking place through an alien ray beam. While the script gets a little repetitious (Eden keeps going to the hospital for an abortion, the fetus keeps stopping her), Eden’s bizarre behavior creates a sense of something truly alien inside her. However once again the rape aspects get hand-waved. David Doyle (playing a hypnotherapist) declares at one point that there’s no reason to assume the aliens aren’t doing something good, as if Eden being impregnated without her consent and then mind-controlled isn’t the teensiest bit objectionable (you’d think her husband, at least, would have made that point). Overall, though, a good film. “I know what you’re thinking — but there is no other man.”

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Sherlock Holmes: You see, but you do not observe

So Holmes informed Watson in A Scandal in Bohemia (“Don’t just see: observe” on my Holmes mug makes the same point). Holmes doesn’t just see people, he notices them. The placement of their callouses, the stains on their clothes, whether they’ve dressed carefully or rapidly, the wear and tear on their possessions. From all of which he can learn much.

It’s a good rule for writers too, I think. Observe our characters. Don’t just see them, observe specific, telling, or at least colorful details. Is the calendar on their computer blocked up with non-stop meetings instead of productive work? Does the female lead dress loud and flamboyant or with crisp understated elegance? Does the handsome dude swagger over to the woman he wants to ask out or politely try to strike up a casual conversation first?

A lot of details don’t tell us anything and aren’t colorful. Countless actor profiles I’ve read over the years make a point to mention the brand of cigarette they cigarette they smoke, which tells us nothing about them. Nor is it a vivid, colorful detail — I assume the reason for the reference is just product placement. Designer labels may tell us something — a character really dresses in the best fashion, or they contrast character A from the character wearing off the rack or shopping at thrift stores — or nothing. As Georgia O’Keefe says, it’s only by selecting details carefully we get at the meaning of things.

Reading my latest chapter of Impossible Takes a Little Longer to my writing group reminded me of the flip side: don’t offer so many observations that you drown  the reader’s awareness. The third chapter has KC coping with the second angel to show up that day, talking about it with her cop buddy Skeeter, then waiting at home to see if the angel returns, while talking on the phone with first her BFF Sarah and then her potential friends-with-benefits Matt. The consensus was that I just hit the reader with more stuff that they could take in.

Some of that is because it’s been a while since the first two chapters so they didn’t remember things that had already been established (not their fault, I have the same problem when other people read chapters of their novels stretched out over a few months). Part of it is the perennial problem of first drafts (and this is my first using KC as first-person narrator) squeezing in lots of info up front instead of spacing it out. I’m not info-dumping but I probably am I overdoing it, as I’m not sure yet what’s essential to know or when I’ll be able to work it in.

And part of it is that I just overdo detail. I’ve had this complaint before: I throw in so much detail about the world or the setting that the readers aren’t sure what’s important or who’s important. I have a very hard time writing a crowd scene as just a crowd; I want to throw in a few distinctive individuals even if they don’t play a role in the story. Which I think is good in moderation but it appears I do it to the point readers get overwhelmed.

I shall keep this in mind as I go forward with KC’s story.

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Thoughts provoked by recent reading

First off, my recent reading of From Beer to Eternity put me in mind of this 2019 post discussing how two nonfiction books on the 1970s could see totally different perspectives. I’m using the same part of the country Sherry is for my Impossible Takes a Little Longer (mostly to the west of her fictional Emerald Cove, though) and it’s nothing like hers. Not because either of us is wrong but we’re both looking at different aspects of the same setting.

Sherry’s cozy mystery, as the cover suggests, is centered in the more upscale touristy part of the Fort Walton Beach/Destin/South Walton area. It has lots of scenes on the beach, in the Sea Glass Saloon, in the waterfront pine forests, on the local docks. All of which feels like home, but is also quite different from mine. My location is mostly over in FWB, which is much more middle-class/working-class, and much more rundown. Chloe stumbles into crime; as the local superhero, my protagonist KC goes looking for it (with the help of the Sheriff’s Office — she had no luck patrolling on her own). As a female superhero, she deals with a lot of the conservative, sometimes misogynistic politics. She enjoys the beach but she probably won’t be getting to it much (I may change that as this draft evolves).

So quite aside from being different genres, they make the same setting into two different settings. And someone could easily make a third setting out of it. Because the real world is that big.

Second, the Heroic Fantasy anthology I read earlier this month (review at the same link as the mystery). The essays in this are really good. Two of them cover arms and armor; the third covers heroism, which makes it more generally useful for writers. Hank Reinhardt argues that lots of stories give us heroes without thinking deeply about what motivates them; he then looks at examples of heroism in the real world and ponders what the driving force was, and when heroism, however brave, is actually stupid (the Charge of the Light Brigade was brave, but it got a lot of men killed for nothing). He and co-editor Gerald W. Page make a version of this point in the opening: what makes Conan memorable is that he’s mentally tough, not just strong. Crucified in the desert, he bites the neck of a vulture and drinks its blood to stay alive (physically doable, but not mentally easy); In The Phoenix on the Sword he refuses to give up even though it’s obvious he can’t survive (and yes, he does win).

The introduction also has a great line about how sword-and-sorcery appeals to us not because it’s adventurous alone but because it’s full of “more colorful places and people than are normally encountered in hum-drum daily existence.” That pretty much nails the appeal of fantasy and comic-books for me.

Third, AN IMPROBABLE TRUTH: The Paranormal Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by A.C. Thompson. I couldn’t get into most of the stories in this collection, and there are way too many with Holmes and Watson on a first-name basis, anachronisms like “Ms.” and way too much emphasis on Holmes’ drug use. But it did get me to go back and read my first published short story, The Adventure of the Red Leech, which came out in Eldritch Tales in the early 1980s.

The story, based on one of Watson’s unpublished tales (about the Red Leech “and the death of Crosby the banker”) opens with Watson sending the story to Arthur Conan Doyle (in Holmesian fan-canon, Doyle served as Watson’s literary agent) as an explanation for why he holds back certain stories from publication. In the story itself, a woman rushes in, terribly concerned about her husband, who subsequently turns up murdered, drained of blood and smiling.

I think I really nail the tone of a Holmes story in a lot of ways (Holmes snarking at Lestrade, and making instant deductions about the client) but rereading, it’s  very talky. Not that Holmes didn’t often recount what he’d been up to, but if I were writing it today, I think I’d take Watson along and have him see more with his own eyes. A bigger problem is that the major clue to what’s going on requires some serious stupidity by the murderer. I’d have to rationalize it somehow or drop it entirely.

A minor point is that Holmes moves too swiftly to accept the supernatural. It’s not a huge problem — he’s a man of logic, not science and if logic leads him to the supernatural, he’ll accept it. But maybe not this easily. I think emphasizing the threat as something alien but scientific might help.

So I guess I can’t sit back and assure myself of my vast superiority to the writers in that collection. Oh, well, it was still fun to reread that story.

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LSD, spectres and Diana Prince: books read.

ACID DREAMS: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA the Sixties and Beyond by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain starts with Albert Hoffman’s creation of LSD, then jumps to the CIA’s experiments dosing civilians and soldiers to see if this new drug could be used for either brainwashing, interrogations or a weapon of war. After some CIA-tied enthusiasts brought LSD into the wider world it was variously seen as a tool for cosmic understanding, a revolutionary therapy method, a weapon of revolution (some radicals believed if enough people turned on, society would change), a recreational drug and the terrifying, mind-destroying drug in the popular press (the book points out that for many people even bad trips can be therapeutic rather than the living hell described in the media).

The book is informative but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected to. Part of that is that it often feels less like a history of LSD and more like a history of various famous people who dropped acid; it’s more anecdotal than analytic. I also wish they’d gone more into how and why non-users perceived and warned against acid as a deadly threat (that was how it was presented when I was a kid). Worth reading overall, but unsatisfying.

THE SPOOK LIGHTS AFFAIR: A Carpenter and Quincannon Mystery by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini lost me early on by launching with five pages of exposition about 1890s San Francisco and the case the two protagonists are investigating (bodyguarding a debutante who’s formed an attachment for an unsuitable male). Although the mystery that follows is better (the young woman throws herself off a cliff surrounded by sparkly lights, but there’s no body at the bottom), it never really grabs me — the best bit is an annoying kibitzer who claims to be Sherlock Holmes (but as everyone knows Holmes died at Reichenbach Falls, that’s obviously impossible, right?). And then the ending, in which the female half of the duo meets a possible love interest is almost as expository as the opening. Overall, bland and unremarkable enough I skimmed a lot of it.

WONDER WOMAN: Diana Prince: Celebrating the ‘60s Omnibus by Mike Sekowsky, Denny O’Neil and several others is a massive hardback collection the Amazing Amazon’s years as a mortal woman (which I started blogging about in detail a couple of weeks back), from the transitional opening issue through Robert Kanigher’s return to the title. As Kelly Sue DeConnick says in the intro, it’s a mixed bag: great art from Sekowsky until he left the book, some good stories, but also a depowered superwoman who in multiple issues relies on men (I Ching, most notably) to save her butt. While I’m glad I bought this hardback, the paperbacks they released some years back would have worked just as well and been a lot cheaper, though not quite as nice-looking (the omnibuses put a lot of effort into making the stories as good for the eyes as possible).

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Sherlock Holmes: Incidental vs. Vital

Looking over my Sherlock Holmes mug this week, I came upon a phrase that’s relevant to my rewriting of Oh the Places You’ll Go!: “It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which are vital.” (I don’t know which story it’s from, sorry).

As a “pantser” my initial draft of any story is usually far off the final version. When I revise the first drafts into something usable that requires figuring out which arethe vital elements I want to keep and which are incidental. In One Hand Washes the Other I started with a teenage protagonist, then aged him about 15 years. In Peace With Honor I flipped from Vietnamese male and American female protagonists to the other way around. In both cases I knew the basic plot concept was sound, but my initial concept of the protagonist wasn’t vital.

With Oh the Places You’ll Go! — which involves people who can use old maps to travel to the past — I want to keep the protagonists pretty much as they are and restructure the plot around them. My core cast are best friends Charlotte and Michelle and their respective kids, Nora and Kurt. Both kids, as sometimes happens, think the other’s mom is so much cooler, why couldn’t she be my mom instead? By the end of the story, kids and parents have managed to more or less bridge the generation gap.

While one of my writing group loved the story as it was, most felt it needed a lot more, both in exploring the setting and adding some tension. Much as I’d like to agree with the dissenter, I think they were right: the conflict is so low-key it almost fades into the paper. It needs more. But I also think the family dynamic and some elements of the plot — Kurt and Charlotte in the past, Michelle and Nora in the present — are essential, so I have to find some way to keep them.

For this draft, I tried adding some action involving a McGuffin everyone is after, but that didn’t work — it’s definitely not an action story. So I’m looking at it as a character story, primarily. That fits with my original concept but it requires more of a character arc for my quartet. I haven’t figured out what that is yet, but I suspect it may be vital.

Up to this point I’ve set the “present” of the story as now, but I think that’s incidental. There’s a plot element I consider vital, involving a map from the future, but my writing group said it wasn’t that interesting a vision of the future. If, say, the present of the story is 1972, I could use a map from 2020 or 2025 (the thought of someone traveling through time and arriving in the Trump presidency is so depressing it makes me favor the latter). It’ll be an amazing future to my characters (Montenegro is a country again, Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe, no U.S.S.R. and East and West Germany one country) and it’ll be a lot easier for me.

We’ll see if any of this helps with the actual writing, but I’m optimistic.

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Sherlock Holmes: “Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

The Holmes quote on my mug says that it’s a mistake to theorize in advance of the facts (though Holmes did that quite a bit), but I think his reason why is much more applicable to writers. In fiction it’s perfectly fine to theorize about your story (plot, character, twists) before you write it. The trouble comes when what we have in mind doesn’t work for the story on the page, but we don’t admit it.

Case in point, my original concept for No One Can Slay Her was set in the 1930s. Jenny was hardboiled instead of aristocratic; her wife was a Nisei instead of a beatnik; the opening of the story involved a foreign agent putting her under a sleeping beauty-type spell.

Trouble was, as I fleshed out the main concept it didn’t hold up. The rationale for the spy enchanting Kate didn’t make sense, neither did Jenny’s response. Even after I changed the characters to their current, 1950s versions, the villain’s scheme still seemed pointlessly convoluted. So I rewrote pretty much the entire plot until it worked.

The alternative is to twist your story or your characters to suit your concept. One of the things I hated about Lost was that maintaining the mystery required massive amounts of idiot plot: Locke makes a cryptic comment about what the island wants, everyone looks thoughtful but nobody ever grills him about what, exactly he knows or intuits. In the mystery novel Have His Carcass the murderer’s plot is absurdly complicated because that’s the only way Sayers’ can justify her opening, in which Harriet Vane finds a fresh-bleeding corpse on a beach at low tide with nary a footprint around it.

Avoiding twisting can require changing the original concept, but it may be your characters or your story has to change. Every cozy mystery is built around the concept of an amateur detective investigating a mystery; as mystery novelist Barbara Ross says, that requires giving your protagonist a very good reason for investigating instead of leaving it to the cops. If you don’t have a good reason (and some novels don’t) you can’t drop the murder investigation so you have to change your character or your plot to provide one.

I had the same problem, as I’ve mentioned before, with Southern Discomfort. My protagonist Maria really didn’t have a good reason to help Olwen McAlister avenge her husband’s death, and I kept trying to find one that would make her stick around Pharisee and fight. Turns out there wasn’t, so I had her do what most normal people would do when threatened by a supernatural killer: run. Only it turns out this isn’t an option … This makes Maria considerably less heroic than I wanted, but there’s no way around it.

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Sherlock Holmes: “The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.”

Once again it’s time for seeing how a Sherlock Holmes quote applies to writing. With this line from Sign of Four I think Holmes is letting his ego get in the way.

The quote was his review of Watson’s first published account of Holmes’ exploits, A Study in Scarlet. Holmes grumbles the story should have been little more than a true-crime monograph, showcasing Holmes’ deductive genius. Instead Watson drags in all those dramatic, emotional details to make an entertaining yarn, thereby muddying the sublimity of Holmes’ intellect.

Though supremely egotistical, Holmes was, of course, as brilliant as he thinks he is. But he’s dead wrong. It’s the emotional stuff in Watson’s stories that makes them stand out: his banter with Holmes, Holmes’ own arrogance, quirkiness and intense emotional drive, the plight of the clients at finding themselves inexplicably imperiled. The logical stuff is secondary. Jacques Futrelle’s Augustus Van Dusen, AKA “The Thinking Machine” was a titan of logic, but that’s all he is; he’s devoid of any of Holmes’ passion or personality. Futrelle’s mysteries are fun to read, but they don’t stick with me the way Doyles’ do. Neither do the excellent Dr. Thorndyke mysteries of R. Austin Freeman or the mediocre Martin Hewitt mysteries by Arthur Morrison (Hewitt and his sidekick are exceptionally bland).

That’s not to say that clear reasoning isn’t important. To write the best stories we can, we have to apply reasoning to the plot, the characters and the editing. Even if people’s reactions are irrational, they have to make sense. The ordinary character who confronts supernatural horror or tries to solve a mystery needs a very good reason for sticking their neck out. Nobody should do something stupid just because the plot needs it; I’ve seen more than one story where a careful, calculating villain becomes inept and ineffective when they have to kill the hero. Or the romance has no motivation beyond “they’re the protagonists, they should get together.”

But the emotional quality of the story probably hooks readers more than story logic. If we care about the characters, that’s a plus. Or if we don’t but the story makes us feel strongly anyway: Lovecraft’s protagonists aren’t particularly engaging, but his best work conveys a definite feeling of horror.

As for Holmes, it’s possible that underneath his indignant dismissal, he was happier with Watson’s work than he admits. Holmes usually let the detective on the case take credit in the papers; Watson’s stories must have been excellent publicity for Holmes’ business in the early years. Holmes periodically recommended one story or another as suitable for Watson to adapt. The stories undoubtedly grew Holmes’ legend (they had to be at least as popular in-story as in reality) and his ego could hardly have objected to that.

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