Today the Chicks warmly welcome crime fic author Thomas A. Burns to the blog. Many know that Tom writes the Natalie McMasters Mysteries, but he also pens tales featuring the great detective Sherlock Holmes–and he has some fascinating info to share. The post is afoot…
I want to thank Lisa and the other Chicks for graciously giving me the space for this post.
My career as an author took two widely disparate roads. The first was my crime fiction series, the Natalie McMasters Mysteries. The other was the pursuit of my lifelong passion for the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes.
No two fictional characters could be more different than Natalie (aka Nattie) and Holmes. Nattie is a twentysomething, bisexual woman, profane and irreverent, who does not suffer fools gladly, is disrespectful of the common wisdom and quick to spring into action without thinking. She is also courageous and unflinchingly loyal to her family and friends. Holmes, on the other hand, is a Victorian gentleman; a product of his times with seemingly preternatural detective skills. He is surely eccentric but almost always polite, and while he’s been known to take risks and operate outside the law, his actions are nearly always well-considered.
Nattie is my own creation, and it’s been great fun chronicling the course of her chaotic life. She is known for her outrageous decisions, and the Natalie McMasters Mysteries feature complicated plots with many unexpected twists. But the series is not for everyone; Nattie is a flawed character, and her books contain scenes of explicit sex and violence, which I think are appropriate to the character as I have envisioned her.
However, with Holmes, it is different. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has accomplished that which many authors aspire to but only a handful have succeeded in doing―he created a cultural icon. Holmes is still widely popular today; there’s scarcely been a year this decade that a Sherlock Holmes TV show or movie hasn’t been running, and a quick search of Amazon shows 75 pages of books related to Holmes. I believe that anyone creating new stories about a character of such eminence has a duty, if not to ACD, but to the icon itself, and to the millions of people who have enjoyed and been inspired by his creation. Above all, that duty is to remain true to the essence of the character― to portray Holmes (and Watson) as a gentleman with a well-defined moral code, a consummate thinker, and most of all, a romantic, larger-than-life hero; if he breaks the law, it must always be in service to the greater good, even if the personal consequences may be severe. Of late, Holmes has been depicted as flighty, amoral, a libertine holding views that a 19th century gentleman wouldn’t even consider, but I don’t ascribe to that. And in my opinion, the whole cocaine thing has been done to death.
My stories are strictly canonical, meaning that they conform to the character as portrayed in ACD’s 62 stories and novels and in well-accepted chronologies such as William J. Baring-Gould’s and Leslie Klinger’s. I publish my work with publishers who cater to like-minded authors. None of this is to say that I don’t appreciate well-done, respectful, non-canonical takes on Holmes, such as Anna Elliot’s and Charles Veley’s Sherlock Holmes and Lucy James Mysteries, or modern derivative works such as the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mysteries by Vicki Delaney, recently featured on this blog. Indeed, my favorite cinematic Sherlockian duo is Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, whose adventures as Holmes and Watson are set in the 1940s. And August Derleth’s imitation, Solar Pons, has become a star in his own right. I myself have penned a pastiche in which both characters work together.
What is a pastiche? The dictionary says it is a work that imitates the style of a previous work. What does it take for me to put together a Holmes pastiche? The first thing is a mystery for him to solve. I’ve found no place for better inspiration than the London newspapers from Holmes’s era. They were the primary source of news and a major form of entertainment, and there were 52 in London alone in the early 19th century. Many of these can be found online, and the contents never fail to serve as inspiration for new Holmes tales. What if Lestrade brought Holmes in on one of the crimes in the paper? Would it have turned out the same or differently than reported? Articles that do not feature crimes, from the proceedings of Parliament to descriptions of sporting events, can also suggest interesting cases. And then there are Sherlock’s beloved agony columns—personal ads by people seeking anything from love to revenge.
Once I have my crime, my thoughts turn to setting, usually, but not always, London. ACD had an easy time of it—he lived there. I have to work at it, though. Luckily, copies of Baedecker’s London and Environs, Baedeckers Great Britain: England, Wales, and Scotland as far as Loch Maree and the Cromarty Firth: Handbook for Travellers, Bradshaw’s Railway Guides, the aforementioned newspapers, and a plethora of websites dedicated to all things Victorian, provide ample information and atmosphere. An invaluable online resource is Charles Booth’s poverty map of London and contemporary police notebooks. Booth was a social reformer who overlaid the detailed ordinance survey maps of London with colors that defined the relative affluence (or lack thereof) of the residents street-by-street, so the modern author can tell rich from poor neighborhoods at a glance. The police notebooks are invaluable as on-the-scene reports of law enforcement activities. Most of my stories are set in London, but I’ve written one set in the famous Lakes district and another in the Sussex Downs. Another facet of setting is the period in the Great Detective’s career when a case occurs—the canonical Holmes was active from 1881 until World War I. Aspects of London changed greatly over that period. Watson didn’t always live in Baker Street, and Holmes went missing from London between 1891 to 1894 and was presumed dead. All of these things must be considered to depict the setting accurately.
I also like to highlight parts of Victorian culture that my readers may be unfamiliar with. I’ve written stories that feature the courts system, the prisons, club life, and refer to various contemporary artists and performers.
The last requirement for a good Holmes pastiche is an excellent working knowledge of the minutiae of the Canon. Dedicated pastiche readers love new references to the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime or the woman who poisoned her children for their insurance money for example, especially when cast in a light not seen before. And you’d best know where Holmes keeps his tobacco and unanswered correspondence, and who is listed under M in his famous index.
I have now written ten Holmes pastiches. The Camberwell Poisoner appeared in the fall edition of The Strand Magazine, allowing me to check “Something I’ve written being sold in bookstores nationally” off my bucket list.
Most of my other stories are in various volumes of the MX Books of New Sherlock Holmes Stories. This project was the brainchild of David Marcum, its editor, and publisher Steve Emecz in the UK. All stories therein must be written as if they could have been originally published in The Strand magazine, be strictly canonical with no aspects of parody, no actual supernatural encounters, no attempts at “edgy” modernizations, and no anachronisms. Up to 30 volumes and over 700 stories now, it’s a true labor of love, and the authors’ royalties from all of the books are donated to support Undershaw, a school for special needs kids established at a former residence of ACD. The series has raised nearly $100K for the school since its inception.
Another publisher of my stories is Belanger Books, helmed by Derrick and Brian Belanger. They feature themed volumes that are not always canonical but are always respectful of Holmes and Watson. My story, The Adventure of the Persistent Pugilist, appeared in their Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson—The Early Adventures and my Sherlock Holmes/Solar Pons pastiche, The Adventure of the Duplicate Detective, appeared in The Meeting of the Minds: The Cases of Sherlock Holmes and Solar Pons. My latest endeavor, A Case of Murder, is in their The Nefarious Villains of Sherlock Holmes, which has just been published.
Readers, do you have a favorite pastiche–or a question for Tom about his research process, or Sherlock Holmes in general? Leave a comment below!
About the Author
Thomas A. Burns Jr. writes the Natalie McMasters Mysteries from the small town of Wendell, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife and son, four cats and a Cardigan Welsh Corgi. He was born and grew up in Irvington, New Jersey, attended Xavier High School in Manhattan, earned B.S degrees in Zoology and Microbiology at Michigan State University and a M.S. in Microbiology at North Carolina State University. As a kid, Tom started reading boys’ mystery series with the Hardy Boys, Ken Holt and Rick Brant, then graduated to the classic stories by authors such as A. Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, John Dickson Carr, Erle Stanley Gardner and Rex Stout, to name a few. Tom has written fiction as a hobby all of his life, beginning with Man from U.N.C.L.E. stories in marble-backed copybooks in grade school. He built a career as technical, science and medical writer and editor for nearly thirty years in industry and government. Now that he’s a full-time novelist, he’s excited to publish his own mystery series, as well as to write stories about his second most favorite detective, Sherlock Holmes. The sixth book in the Natalie McMasters Mysteries, Killers!, was released in September 2021, and Tom’s Holmes story, The Camberwell Poisoner, appeared in the March–June issue of The Strand Magazine. Tom has also written a Lovecraftian horror novel, The Legacy of the Unborn, under the pen name of Silas K. Henderson‒a sequel to H.P. Lovecraft’s masterpiece At the Mountains of Madness.