Hi folks. Maureen here in my cozy central Maine bungalow, which is worlds away in so many ways from 221B Baker Street, the famous address of Sherlock Holmes.
But while we’re worlds away in every possible way, like most mystery writers, Holmes (and Watson) is always with me. I was reminded of this Sunday, when I attended the fantastic Portland Stage Company production of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” a rousing third-wall breaking, fairly profane comedy that still managed to capture Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic story.
The show was followed by a panel featuring fellow Maine Crime Writers Chris Holm, Gayle Lyndes, Paul Doiron and Kate Flora.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who reads crime fiction that every single one of the panelists went way back to their formative years with Holmes. I’m pretty sure most mystery writers can say the same.
“The Hound of the Baskervilles” was my favorite Holmes story. I was deeply, profoundly influenced by that fog on the moor, the quicksand and the scary-as-hell hound that terrorized the Baskerville family. As the panelists pointed out, some of the scariest things are those that aren’t seen. That fits the bill.
That foggy moor and another one had such a huge impact on me, they heavily influenced the climatic scene in my book, “Cold Hard News.”
The second life-changing bog was the one that Lord Peter Wimsey wanders into during a blinding fog and almost sinks to his death in “Clouds of Witness.” Wimsey is saved by his loyal man, Bunter, who manages to keep him from going under with his walking stick until a couple locals come along and pull him out. (Yeah, spoiler alert, but the book was written in 1928, so I get a pass.)
Wasn’t it great to be a young reader and be so affected by what we read? The moors of “Baskervilles” and that foggy nearly fatal bog in “Clouds of Witness” settled into my brain and it felt like there was never any doubt they’d make their way into a book.
One of the points the crime writers panel made at Sunday’s show in Portland was that aside from all the other things, one thing that makes Sherlock Holmes so popular is that it’s a buddy story. Holmes and Watson, bickering, deducing, hanging out and solving crimes together.
I started reading mysteries as soon as I started reading books. I always loved them. But as much as I loved Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books were the ones that sucked me in like the mud in an English bog and never let go.
They were the first mystery novels I read that I truly focused on character. And they were buddy stories, too. Not just Wimsey and his man Bunter, who was with him in the trenches of World War I and understood like no one else the shell shock that still affected Lord Peter, at least in the early novels, but also Charles Parker, Wimsey’s pal at Scotland Yard.
While Bunter is the solid, always-there, unfailingly loyal pillar for Wimsey, I always found the relationship with Parker much more interesting. Divided by class, but dear friends, the two manage to have an equal relationship, though always with a little bit of tension. “Clouds of Witness” is one of my favorites of the Wimsey books. Besides the sinking-in-the-bog scene, it also has a major conflict between Wimsey and Parker. Parker falls in love with Wimsey’s sister, who’s on the unsavory side of some of the happenings in the book. I won’t spoil it more for you here, in case you actually do read it, but that conflict — two friends who care deeply for each other but are torn apart by a fundamental, visceral disagreement that may rip their friendship to shreds, had enough of an impact on me that it also found its way into “Cold Hard News.”
As much as I always knew I’d have a climatic bog scene in my mystery novel — knew it without ever really thinking about it — I also knew I’d have some deep conflict between two friends that wasn’t really anyone’s fault, but also may not be possible to mend.
I was once asked, when talking about influences from my youthful reading on scenes in my book, whether that wasn’t “cheating.” After all, couldn’t I come up with my own stuff instead of stealing it from other, better writers?
I think I quoted my gradeschool teacher, Sister Catherine, who used to remind us that even Shakespeare “wasn’t one big original.”
But more than that, I feel that all the books we read and love throughout our lives become a part of us. The huge influence that Conan Doyle, and even more so Dorothy Sayers, had on me helped form the writer I am. Those scenes by Conan Doyle and Sayers, and so many others, had become part of the tapestry of my mind long before I ever actually wrote my book. They’d spent decades forming themselves into the story I wanted to tell. I’m humbled when I say that those writers, all the ones who came before me and whose books were such a large part of my young life, are my constant companions as I try to do what they did.
I’m grateful to them for the role they played in my life and still do, and if the scenes in my book that formed out of their influence have half the effect on a reader theirs did on me, I’ll consider that homage to them. It’s the least I can do.
.Speaking of loving books, libraries, book stores, mysteries and writers: If you can make it, please be sure to come by the Sandwich Public Library in Sandwich, Massachusetts, from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, where I will join fellow crime writers Kate Flora and Arlene Kay, and moderator Leslie Wheeler on a Sisters in Crime Speakers’ Bureau panel “It’s a Mystery to Me.” The panel is part of a Sisters in Crime presentation to Titcomb’s Bookshop in Sandwich, winner of SincNE’s “We Love Bookstores!” competition. I love to talk mysteries and writers, and I’d love to see you there. Thanks for reading!
Maureen Milliken is the author of Cold Hard News, the first book in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on twitter, @mmilliken47, like her Facebook page, Maureen Milliken mysteries, and sign up for email updates at her website maureenmilliken.com. Cold Hard News was recently released in digitial audio, and is available on Audible, Amazon and iTunes.
Loved Peter and wanted to be like the character who was his Mother – she is/was a hoot.
So sorry I had to miss the show and panel on Sunday!
It is amazing how our early influences stay with us all of our lives. Reading, it’s powerful stuff, particularly for young minds.
Nice post, Maureen!
I loved the Conan-Doyle books! I think i like the Laurie R King books (Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes) ongoing series even better!
Maureen, you’ve discussed two of my very favorite mystery series–and characters–and nailed why they’re so popular. I’ve read every Holmes and Wimsey story more than once. Thanks for this post.
I have a copy of Clouds of Witness with that same cover!
Dorothy L. Sayers was the author I started reading right after Agatha Christie. They both profoundly shaped the mystery writer I am today.
I recently finished a biography of Ian Fleming and one of the interesting things I learned was how inspired he was by his childhood literary heroes (e.g. Bulldog Drummond). Of course, thinking about it makes perfect sense. James Bond is kind of like the protagonist of an R-rated adventure series for boys, if there were such a thing.
I always loved reading mysteries, especially Sherlock. I recently noticed that I have two different books with the complete Sherlock mysteries, but each one is on a different bookcase in a different room. Yes, I have bookcases in every room in the house. Doesn’t everyone?