Greater Minds: Anthony Horowitz on writing Sherlock Holmes

  • Anthony Horowitz was commissioned to write a Sherlock Holmes novel.
  • His afterword described the process of planning a mystery novel.
  • He starts with who murders whom and why, and works outward from there.
  • He developed ten rules to be faithful to the tone of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Photo1

Anthony Horowitz in 2012 (T_Marjorie [CC / Flickr])

Reading the work of an accomplished novelist is like watching a master magician at work. What we see looks so polished that it appears to have sprung into existence with no effort whatsoever. The novelist’s tricks to engage our interest are as thoroughly concealed as the magician’s sleight of hand. Both the master novelist and the master magician spend years learning their craft, but both conjure as deftly as if they were born with the skill.

For an apprentice writer like me, it’s always fascinating when a master craftsman allows a peek behind the curtain. Anthony Horowitz was generous enough to do that in an afterword to his 2011 novel, The House of Silk, with an essay titled Conception, Inspiration and the Ten Rules. The publisher has been generous enough to make it available through Google Books.

Conjuring crime

The crime mystery novel demands perhaps the most accomplished sleight of the novelist’s hand; not only must it keep us as emotionally engaged as any novel, but it must drip feed us with information about the crime at the centre of it. The detective must lead us through a trail of breadcrumbs in which each leads to the next, but it must never head

Photo2

Holmes contemplates a three pipe problem (Scott Monty [CC / Flickr])

directly toward its final destination. If we work out whodunit before the detective, the detective appears to be slow on the uptake and we lose interest. If the detective beats us there using information that was hidden from us, we feel the author wasn’t playing fair.

There rules can be bent, but not if the detective is Sherlock Holmes. In the original Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle pioneered the technique of the story as logic puzzle. To conceal any piece of the puzzle would be to deceive the reader. Holmes is repeated described as a genius in words ostensibly written by Dr Watson, who evidently has a sharp mind of his own. To believe in such a character at all, he must always be a step ahead of the reader.

A master of murder

Horowitz is best known for his television work, having written episodes for Poirot and The Midsomer Murders and gone on to create series including Foyle’s War and New Blood. He’s also written a number of novels, some original creations and some commissioned by the estates that own the Sherlock Holmes and James Bond series. Hence he is able to say:

If there is one small boast I occasionally make, it’s that I have probably written more fictional murders than any other writer.

Photo3

The Midsomer Murders (Jason Hughes Fan Site [CC / Flickr])

So how does he do it?

Perhaps disingenuously, Horowitz suggests that it’s actually rather simple:

For me, all murder stories boil down to a very simple formula: A+B=C. A is one person. B is another person. C is the reason why A wants to murder B.

But that’s only a starting point. Turning that into a 90-100k novel like The House of Silk involves complicating it:

I see a murder story as a series of concentric circles, almost like a dartboard. At the very centre is the equation. It is where I start because it is both the beginning and the end; the springboard and the solution to the crime. But then I have to add the next levels. The other suspects. More stories which, though often irrelevant, nonetheless link up with the bull’s eye…every book has to have a shape. A murder story is circular.

Horowitz goes on to say that this approach is ‘completely irrelevant to Sherlock Holmes because Doyle’s approach was different’. Having read The House of Silk, I’m not so sure about that. Horowitz himself acknowledges that at 90-100k, it’s considerably longer than any of Conan Doyle’s Holmes tales, most of which were short stories with a few short

Photo4

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1914, photographed by Arnold Genthe (Racconish [Wikimedia Commons])

novels. It looks as though Horowitz used his own formula while adopting the register of Conan Doyle’s writing as best he could.

Murder’s fatal attraction

Horowitz’s basic formula begs the question of why murder is so fascinating in the first place. In real life, murder is a rare crime usually committed for mundane reasons or no reason at all. Data from England and Wales in 2013-2014 record only 528 homicides among a population of 58 million, half of which happened because someone lost their temper. Only around half of those homicides were prosecuted as murders, implying intent to kill.

In such a society, most people will live their entire lives without ever encountering murder. Yet in the fictional worlds created by Horowitz, murder abounds, often for complex reasons. Perhaps it’s because murder is at a safely abstract distance for most of us that we can enjoy it as entertainment. Murder is such a staple of the most popular genre of fiction that it’s tempting to believe that we all have an unhealthy obsession with it. Horowitz disagrees:

I’m often asked why readers have such a keen interest in murder. The short answer is that actually I think we don’t – but in fiction, whether it’s television of books – murder is a simple, very immediate way of focusing attention on a character. We may have no particular interest in a man who makes pizzas but the moment his wife is found with her head in the pizza oven, we’re forced to ask questions about him, to look behind their relationship, to search for the truth.

Photo5

(Edward Zulawski [CC / Flickr])

Impersonating Sir Arthur

The House of Silk was commissioned not simply as a crime novel, but specifically as a Sherlock Holmes novel. To write it, Horowitz needed to find the tone of Holmes as written by Conan Doyle. For me, his approach is less interesting than his approach to plotting. I’m unlikely to be commissioned by an estate any time soon. I may one day take it into my head to write a pastiche using characters in the public domain, so it is useful to see how he had to consciously lay out how he avoided being influenced by the many re-imaginings of Holmes that have appeared on page and screen since Conan Doyle’s death.

The Doyle estate, he says, ‘wasn’t interested in a fast-paced action thriller full of explosions and improbable chases. They’d already had plenty of that with Robert Downey Jnr’. He drew up a set of ten rules:

1/ No over-the-top action.

2/ No women [as a love interest for Holmes].

3/ No gay references…between Holmes and Watson.

4/ No walk-on appearances by famous people.

5/ No drugs…to be taken by Sherlock Holmes.

6/ Do the research.

7/ Use the right language.

8/ Not too many murders.

9/ Include all the best known characters.

10/ When publicising the book, never, ever be seen wearing a deerstalker hat orsmoking a pipe. I actually asked my agent to put this into the contract.

Photo6

(Scott Monty [CC / Flickr])

The point of Horowitz’s rules is not that they are universally applicable, but that they came from reading and considering the original stories. The process itself is worth learning from.

My next question to myself is which fictional characters, if any, I’d choose to work with. Do you have any favourites? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

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