I know it’s probably coming a bit late to be of any use to you, but here’s a little trick I’ve picked up: It’s easy to fake your way through a book report. And you don’t even need Cliff’s Notes to do it.
I learned that lesson in 1981, when I presented my seventh-grade English class with my musical-comedy reimagining of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. My “report” wasn’t based on Jules Verne’s classic novel (at least I assume it’s a classic—I still haven’t read it) and not even on the 1954 James Mason/Kirk Douglas film adaptation. Instead, it was drawn from the illustrations in a Reader’s Digest condensed version of the book and snippets of the movie’s big squid fight that I caught one night on The Wonderful World of Disney.
I got an A.
So a year later, when I was assigned a book report on Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, I knew I didn’t have to waste my time actually reading it. I did, though. I already loved Sherlock Holmes.
Growing up I’d noticed that once every other year or so, my father would pull his worn copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes from the shelf and read it cover to cover. This was no Reader’s Digest version, either. It was the entire canon printed in what looked like three-point type and still weighing more than our dog.
Obviously, there had to be something special between those frayed covers to keep drawing my dad back again and again. So eventually I’d picked the book up myself (just barely managing not to herniate myself in the process) and started reading. And kept reading. I never made it cover to cover—but I didn’t forget Holmes or his adventures. How could you?
I remained a Holmes fan over the years, reading the stories from time to time, enjoying both the Basil Rathbone films and the Jeremy Brett TV adaptations, even developing a soft spot for the corny mess that is Young Sherlock Holmes. Yet even after I became a mystery writer, with stories popping up regularly in both Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen magazines, I had no desire to write about Holmes myself. Frankly, the idea scared me. I couldn’t imagine putting words in The Man’s mouth. It would be like writing a first-person novel about the life of Jesus.
And I still feel that way—which might surprise folks who know I have a Sherlockian novel coming out from St. Martin’s Minotaur this year. But my book, Holmes on the Range, isn’t a pastiche. In it, Holmes is a distant, mythic figure who inspires a couple of very down-to-earth guys—cowboy brothers in 1893 Montana—to try their hand at “deducifyin’.” The great detective himself never appears, except as a topic of discussion.
Could I write a Holmes novel in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle? I don’t think so. But can I write a novel that pays homage to the Holmes canon even though its own style couldn’t be more different? I think I have.
You see, all it requires is a sincere respect for Conan Doyle and a deep affection for his greatest creation. And that, unlike a book report, you can’t fake.
Steve Hockensmith writes a monthly column for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Holmes on the Range was published by St. Martin’s Minotaur in February 2006, $22.95.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.