Forget old bands reforming. If they have some of their original members, good luck to them. Nobody has to pay to see them play. But what about much loved fictional heroes? I don’t know which meant the most to me in my childhood, Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Who. My Mum suggested I check out the first episode of the latter, An Unearthly Child. I didn’t see it on its first showing. Evidently a lot of people missed the show, because JFK was assasinated that day, so the BBC repeated it the following Saturday. And, from then on, I was hooked. I skipped ‘Coronation Street’ when I was away at university, but I always watched Dr Who, then at its inspired, Tom Baker era, peak. I was envious when a former uni chum was invited to write for it, as this had long been an ambition of mine, but when I saw the pitiful spectacle it had become in that late period (generally referred to as the Bonnie Langford era, the crapness of the assistant being all you need to know) my envy melted away.
And now it’s back. Or will be, in a week’s time. The show’s return is inevitable, as the BBC is mostly driven by money these days, and Dr Who is a very profitable franchise. One YA writer of my acquaintance made a handy living writing Dr Who novels for several years. But, come on, surely the thing died a natural death, strangled by bad writing, bad acting, bad budgets and bad scheduling? Why mess with my memories?
I’d complain more earnestly if the writer behind the new series were not Russell T. Davies, author of Queer As Folk, Bob and Rose and The Second Coming, amongst others. He’s a fan, and even wrote a Dr Who novel back in ’96. I like the idea of Billie Piper as the assistant, too. Not quite so sure about Chris Ecclestone as the Doctor, but I’ll be happy if I’m wrong. If I were casting the doctor, I’d probably go for Ian McDiarmid, currently in the fantastic version of Bond’s ‘Lear’ at the Crucible in Sheffield. It runs until April 2 and if I weren’t going to be in Cuba, I’d go see it again (if you want convincing, read the review here). McDiarmid might be too big for the part (he’s in the new Star Wars movies, as well as being one of our best stage actors) but I could see him making a terrific Doctor, with elements of both Hartnell (the first) and Baker (the best).
Anyway, TV’s a collaborative effort, and, if they can bring back Star Wars after all those years, surely they can bring back the doctor – I just hope they make a better job of it. The ground is a lot shakier when it comes to authors taking over the creations of other authors, as Geraldine McCaughrean is about to do with Peter Pan. There’s an important charitable need behind hert task, but, mostly, writers do this kind of thing for the money. When my favourite novelist, Brian Moore died, he left an unfinished novel about Rimbaud. “Someone’ll probably finish it,” he said. “The way those buggers do.” But only a fool would try. And many fools have ‘finished’ novels or written sequels to Austen, the Brontes, Du Maurier and so on. But I can only think of one fictional hero where the novels by imitators far exceed those by the original. And that’s Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
I discovered the collected Holmes short stories in the attic where my brother and I would sleep in Darnall, Sheffield, above my grandparents’ fish and chip shop. There was a tea chest full of ancient annuals from my mum’s childhood and beyond, and I worked my way through those. But by the age of ten or so I was hungering for more substantial stuff than children’s series (these were the days before Young Adult Fiction) and seized upon the short stories. They were harder than my nanan’s Agatha Christies, but more satisfying too. I’ve lost count of the number of times I read them. The pages were wafer thin even then and the book, which still sits on a shelf directly behind where I write, was in a sorry, sorry state, spineless with numerous loose pages. The Christmas after I discovered the stories I got a new copy of the accompanying volume, containing the collected novels.
Since then, I’ve also read a fictional biography of Holmes, numerous Holmes pastiche/tribute stories by the likes of John Dickson Carr (few of these were much good) and Nicholas Meyer’s enjoyable ‘The Seven Per Cent Solution’ (plays up Holmes’ coke habit) along with, later, Rohase Piercy’s endearing ‘My Dearest Holmes’ (in which Watson turns out to be gay). These remain on my shelves, along with an odds and sods collection of Conan Doyle called ‘The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes’, which I don’t recommend, unless you enjoy the smell of barrels being scraped.
You’ll understand, then, why I had to read Michael Chabon’s new novella, ‘The Final Solution’ (not a great title, for more than one reason, but never mind). I’m a big fan of Chabon, whose novels ‘The Wonder Boys’ and ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay’ are works of great wit and imagination. I’m two thirds of the way through this short book, and it’s enjoyable, pitching Holmes in his late 80’s into a second world war mystery involving a parrot and secret codes. But it’s not quite right, and it’s taken me a while to work out why. I think the answer is this: Chabon is a better stylist than Conan Doyle. Maybe it’s sacrilege to say this, but Conan Doyle didn’t think too highly of, or put a remarkable amount of effort into the style of the Holmes stories (sometimes, many writers find, the stuff that comes easiest is best, but don’t expect us to be proud of it). The writing is precise, loving, but the content never rises above knowing pastiche. Lots of writers (I think of Ernest Hemingway, parodying Sherwood Anderson) start out pastiching others. But it’s an odd thing for Chabon to do at this stage of his career.
Still, good luck to him. I’m off to finish the book now post script – a disappointingly slight story, but at least Dr Who has more than lived up to expectations. And good luck to Geraldine McCaughrean – if she wants to visit Nottingham and the back streets where J.M. Barrie is supposed to have come up with the story of Peter Pan, I’ll be happy to give her the tour.