I’ve just finished the second draft for Chapter 2 of Major Holmes and Captain Watson, and if you’re reading this, I hope you loved Chapter 1. I wanted to give readers some insight on some of the characters and events of this series, and while I can’t give too much away, I hope you enjoy this peek inside the process of writing this series.
I can tell you that the adventures of Sheffield Holmes, nephew to the famous detective, have been many, many years in the making. There are a few formative events in my life that made me love stories and storytelling, and the discovery of the Baker Street Detective is certainly a strong one. My Grandmother was a lover of books, and when I was a child, it was her habit to give me old books as Christmas gifts. In one year alone I received The collected works of Alexandre Dumas, a hardcover copy of The Adventures of Robin Hood (which I didn’t even know was considered “literature”) and The Complete Sherlock Holmes. These stories were part of the beginning of my fascination with hero stories. They formed an important piece of who I am (my dog is named Athos), and of the kinds of stories I like to write.
When Sherlock and his adventures became a part of the public domain last year, the revisionists were already well on their way to establishing the Detective in the Modern era. There’s little I could say on Benedict Cummerbatch or Johnny Lee Miller’s portrayal’s of Sherlock that hasn’t been said before, except to say that I admire them both, and particularly enjoy the rumor that the actors are friends and go to great lengths to make each portrayal distinct. That’s a cuppa I’d like to sit in on, I tell ya.
That said, most modern incarnations of Holmes carry a unifying characteristic, and I’m certain I’m not the only person who has a problem with it. Sherlock is portrayed in modern derivations as, well … as a dick. It’s hard to use a different word, really (and thankfully, my sainted Grandmother is no longer around to hear me use it.) I’ve chalked this up for years to a general anti-intellectualism, the sad idea that genius is the exclusive purview of jackweeds. Despite the rise of the digital era leading to a more interconnected world and an economy driven by all things tech, we still seem to think that genius must be accompanied by irascibility at best, if not sheer rudeness and emotionally stunted asshole-ery. Yet real life proves this to be untrue. I know a metric ton of really smart people, all of them are much much brighter than myself, and they are all lovely folks. Indeed, most rude butt-wipes tend to also be stupid, in my experience. Yet Sherlock is inevitably portrayed as an emotionally distant and broken man, a genius who is incapable of forming more than one serious human connection, that to his dearest friend and chronicler Dr. John Watson.
And yet, in the original tales, Sherlock is anything but unsociable. He interacts with London and European society with aplomb, and is widely well regarded by people of every class. This difference may lend itself to a change in the nature of storytelling itself. When Doyle was writing about Sherlock in the late 19th century, the third person narrator in novels and short fiction was still rare. Readers expected there to be a reason that someone wrote all this stuff down, and stories were often told from the point of a view of a specific character. In the beginning, Watson was little more than an expository character and quite a hero worshiper at that, and it was only later in the canon that Doyle seemed to develop him into a character in his own right, and deepen the friendship between the two men. Modern interpretations tend to portray John and Sherlock’s relationship as condescending and difficult, with the two men only finding true connection through much turmoil. Since that relationship is the defining one for Holmes, it’s tough to see him as anything other than an intellectual snob in a modern context. Also, Holmes is only remotely connected to anyone of the opposite sex in canon, with the famous Irene Adler having been much glorified by modern Sherlock writers. As has been often pointed out, she appears in only one short story by Conan Doyle, and is mentioned only briefly in others. Yet Sherlock’s respect for her isn’t truly the only example of a woman he has affection for. He is explicitly stated to hold all women in high regard, and allusions to his sexual preferences are largely a moot point in my opinion.
I’ve never held with most modern ideas about Sherlock. Again, I admire and respect the work of most modern Sherlock revisionists, and I’m a fan of a good story no matter how much I might not love the representation of certain characters. But I never felt comfortable with being such a revisionist myself.
This is all a long way of saying that I didn’t want to write a detective who was a jackass.
With Maj. Sheffield Holmes, I wanted a man who was both brilliant and emotionally available. I wanted a man of passion and a man of action, a unique character who fell somewhere between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, the other great British hero of my youth. Sheffield was born of my desire to write detective tales blended with espionage fiction, and to write these kinds of stories with as much true emotion and representative diversity as possible. But I didn’t just want to tweak a character that already existed. I didn’t want to re-imagine Sherlock, I wanted to think about his legacy, his family and their specific gifts.
That idea, that Sherlock’s abilities are a natural gift, and one that happens to be shared by his relations, formed an important part of Sheffield’s character. Sherlock’s brother Mycroft is also not nearly as prevalent in his original adventures as modern writers would have us believe, but he and his parallel brilliance represent an important piece of Sherlock’s mysterious origins. Sherlock himself speaks little of his family, only once using the term “county squires” to describe them. This reference leads Doyle historians to believe the family had certain station within Victorian society. They would have had a name, a hereditary title, and perhaps even some small family fortune. Yet the two brothers are permitted to make their way in the world with little more than their storied mental faculties and talents for deduction to carry them forward. This laid the seeds of Sheffield in my head, and it led me in some really fun directions that we’re going to explore in MH&CW.
The first is the idea that if the family had a title of some type, someone must be the heir to that title, and it’s clearly not Mycroft or Sherlock. Neither was raised or trained to understand that responsibilities that an heir to such a name would bear. Modern viewers of upstairs/downstairs dramas like Downton Abbey will have seen some of this, and it means something pretty simple. Sherlock and Mycroft must have an older brother. And that older brother would have sons.
This says a lot about Sherlock and Mycroft, when you look at how we understand siblings in modern times. Sherlock is the youngest, the baby, and thus allowed greater freedoms to pursue his whims. “You want to be a detective son? How nice…” Mycroft meanwhile, is the somewhat lost middle child, not particularly driven to succeed, etc. His lounging in the Diogenes Club and his understated government job make a certain sense. In canon, Mycroft is depicted as positively lazy. Yet I rather like the idea that Mycroft had a more secretive profession, as has been explored by other writers before, and I admit I had to be very careful not to crib that representations here. We’ll see a great deal of Mycroft very soon, I assure you, and his motivations will become a driving factor in Sheffield and Imogen’s story.
I also really latched onto my own rather unexplored idea in Holmes related fiction. Sherlock’s gift is often portrayed as just that, especially in modern interpretations: a gift. It’s not something that was the product of years of study and training, but more savant-like, bordering on supernatural. But the odds that both brothers would inherit such a gift seem ridiculous. Indeed, as a young reader, I often wondered what Sherlock and Mycroft’s father must have been like. That both men could be stupendously intelligent isn’t that rare, but to have such specifically focused brilliance seemed like something else, something that was more the product of training than accident. I always imagined, even as a young kid, that they must have been taught to think this way, to focus their incredible intellect to these uses. Later, thinking about them as the sons who would not inherit, this makes even more sense to me. Their older brother (Doyle’s own notes contain the name “Sherrinford”, though that name’s purpose is unclear) would have learned the responsibilities of title, but the younger boys would need to find a way to make their way in the world on their own, and not well-to-do family would have sons forging a living with their hands. The competitive nature of brothers would drive them, and seems to do so even as adults. This concept of their emotional distance from others made a little more sense in this context. Think about it: two young boys with unclear futures, competing for their fathers respect, even his love, with the only tools at their disposal: their minds. That they would become competitive and emotionally distant men isn’t so far out of the realm of imagination anymore.
So what of the mysterious older brother and his eventual children? While they might have carried the family intelligence, would their training in logical and deductive thinking have been the same? Most likely not. I imagined a man who watched his overbearing father (their father became more and more demonized in my thinking over time) tormenting his younger sons, berating them and setting them one against the other in endless battles of deduction, competitions they continue as adults in both canon and modern imaginings. Their elder brother Sherrinford, busy at his studies and knowing much of his future responsibilities, would not have been a stranger to his father’s ideas. But he might not have dealt with such heavy-handed expectation. He might have learned this honing of the mind in a way that didn’t emotionally harm him. He might then pass such teachings to his own sons, without stunting them in the way we’re often told Sherlock and Mycroft have been. What kind of detective, then, would we see in the next generation of the Holmes family?
That’s a good deal about Sheffield’s origins, the specifics of which Carlos and I are hoping to reveal more of over time. I wanted to find a way to create him realistically, and I realized I wanted very much to stay true to the Holmes canon. These stories are meant to fit into both the specifics of history and the pages of Doyle’s original work, hopefully with both accuracy and respect. As a writer, I will take license from time to time, and you may take or leave my twists of the tale as you will.
Sheffield is a complex man, and he is a man capable of deep emotions. His bonds to his partner and friend, the mysterious and capable Captain Imogen Watson, are becoming a formative part of who he is, just as a partner and friend once defined his famous Uncle. Yet we want to make this relationship unique, and wanted to steer away from the obvious or easy. While this was one of the reasons that I developed Sheffield as a gay man, it’s a small one. I did want him to have a positive relationship with Watson without the possibility of romance. But his sexual identity is a much larger part of the story. His “secret” isn’t a secret to the Holmes family at all, as we’ll learn, but his family’s reaction to who he is informs much of Sheffield’s character. Family, and their acceptance of one another, is a big theme in these stories. Furthermore, as one of the very first spies in Britain’s brand new intelligence machine, Sheffield’s homosexuality makes his very nature a risk to him. I wanted to explore characters whose secrets are integral to their identities, for certain. I also wanted to find a way to include as much diversity as possible in a story that’s essentially about European White People. The ethnic tensions and nationalist issues of the time are a part of the historical context, as are their society’s treatment of women and homosexuals. Women made great strides towards equality during this time, while homosexuals did not. These will be adventure stories, but stories without real human context are never as entertaining, I believe.
I hope this sheds some light on how Sheffield Holmes came to be. As the series continues, I want to write about each of these characters, how they came to life and began to “walk and talk” in my mind, and we’ll discuss the mysterious Captain Watson next. I care very much about Sheffield and Imogen, about my version of Mycroft and about our policeman, the gruff but lovable Agamemnon J. Brick (and so does Carlos! He just LOVES to draw Brick!) They’ll be joined by other new characters, and opposed by a cabal of evildoers that will hopefully put a chill in your spine by the time this is all said and done. They’ll face some of the most important moments in history, and they’ll shine their own light on the beginnings of the 20th century. We hope the ideas will be grand in scope, the characters relatable and admirable, and the stories a thrill-a-minute ride through history.
Hopefully I haven’t set my own bar too high. Thanks for reading, and enjoy. Also, please encourage friends, family, and fellow comic book lovers to support us on Patreon! We can’t make this story without your help, and we have LOTS more to tell!