Sherlock Holmes and the Queen of Diamonds was released by Robert Hale last month and sees Holmes brought in to help a friend track down a missing person. Authors Steve Hayes and David Whitehead talk about what it’s like to write as a team and what drew them to Sherlock Holmes.
How did your writing partnership come about and what made you want to write as a team?
David: Steve had written a Black Horse Western called Gun for Revenge, which I enjoyed very much. A mutual friend named Tom McNulty, who saw the review I posted to the Yahoo Black Horse Westerns group, mentioned it to Steve. Steve emailed me to say thanks and I guess we both just clicked from there. As our friendship grew we discovered that there were certain subjects or projects we were both drawn to, and the idea to collaborate sprang from that. It’s an amazing thing—here is one half of the team in sunny California, the other in not-so-sunny Suffolk, England. We’ve never met but have spent countless hours on the phone and indeed talk every day. While we are in many ways complete opposites, it’s those very differences that somehow gel to make a very happy and productive whole.
Steve: Exactly. This is a partnership that almost didn’t happen. As David mentioned, but for McNulty I never would have read the review or contacted David. Once I did, and we got to know each other, I realized he was as serious about writing as I was and did not expect me to do all the work, as other collaborators have in the past. I’ve written with many famous writers, some who have won Academy Awards, and so I was well-tutored in the ways of collaboration. I just needed to know that Dave was a true professional. After that, the rest was easy.
What are the ups and downs of writing as a team?
David: I think it can easily become a perilous path if you don’t have the right attitude going into it. Steve and I both park our egos at the door. Neither one of us has any desire to upstage the other. If one of us comes out with a particularly dazzling idea or turn of phrase, that’s great, because it reflects well on the other one. There is of course much discussion and a fair bit of give and take, but overall I believe we have enjoyed a very cordial and productive partnership which has so far resulted in twelve books and a number of related projects.
Steve: As all good writers know: “You have to be willing to kill your babies.” David and I are. We also know that there will always be other stories that a special phrase or line of dialogue can fit into. As a pro—especially in television or screenwriting—the term “Nothing is written in stone” becomes a mantra.
What drew you to writing about Sherlock Holmes?
David: I’ve been a Holmes fan for as long as I can remember. I wrote my first pastiche, The Adventure of the Pentonville Twins, when I was just fifteen. But Sherlock Holmes didn’t really feature in our plans until Steve mentioned one day that he’d had an idea for a Sherlock Holmes story. Actually, at that point, Steve saw the project more as a western in which Holmes appeared. I saw it more as a Holmes story in which there were some western influences. We took it from there.
Steve is absolutely fearless, as anyone who knows him will tell you. But I myself approached the project with considerable trepidation. I certainly didn’t want us to produce a story that would in any way offend the Holmes purists. I wanted it to be as close to the style and spirit of Conan Doyle as possible, but not merely an imitation. If you’re not careful, it’s very easy to make these things seem contrived. I’ve read plenty of pastiches where the authors have tried too hard to capture Watson’s distinctive voice. Some of Holmes’s deductions in these books, which were of course so brilliantly described in the originals by Conan Doyle, often come across as somewhat laboured or deliberately manufactured. We didn’t want to fall into those same traps. We wanted Holmes’s solving of the mystery to seem entirely natural, the result of his great intellect, wide-ranging knowledge and ability to simply observe. As a result, I believe we ended up with a very good, very original story that will hopefully please Holmes fans of every stripe … plus those readers who simply enjoy a good Victorian mystery!
Steve: I’m not the fan of Holmes that David is. By that I mean I didn’t know that much about the character other than what I’d seen in movies. I’m old enough to have been in Hollywood in the Golden Era and I got to meet Basil Rathbone several times. He was Sherlock Holmes in my eyes. And has been ever since. Having David’s knowledge of Doyle’s Holmes and his background turned what I saw as a western for Brad Pitt (my agent got good feedback from his people, who said Brad was interested in playing Jesse James; which he did finally, although that particular movie tanked) eventually became a genuine Holmes’ story. Holmes’ fans can thank David for that.
With all the new stories, film and TV adaptations, how do you think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would react to the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon that his stories created?
David: Well, we don’t really have to speculate, because the phenomenon began in Doyle’s own lifetime. As we know, he always considered Holmes to be a distraction from his true calling as a serious historical novelist, and he came to resent Holmes because of that. I don’t really think he ever fully understood just what the character meant to the public, and indeed, when he killed Holmes off, he did so “even if I buried my bank account with him.” And you can see why. It’s a bit like asking an artist to paint the same still life every day—after a while there’s just no challenge in it. Now, when Steve and I finished writing Sherlock Holmes and the Queen of Diamonds, we went straight into a supernatural adventure called Cast a Deadly Shadow, which was about as far removed from Holmes as you could get.Steve: I think Doyle would be delighted. Variety is the spice of life, isn’t it?
What is your favourite Sherlock Holmes story, and why?
David: Definitely The Hound of the Baskervilles. It is just perfection on every level, though some of the Devonshire geography is a bit questionable! It has a wonderful legend, a cruel and cunning villain, a great location, some wonderful examples of Holmes’s deductive abilities, a fantastic cast of characters, more red herrings than a fishmonger’s stall and, perhaps most importantly, a wholly satisfying denouement. It truly is one of the great stories of all time, in my opinion. The only irony is that Holmes himself is largely absent for most of the book.
Steve: I don’t have one. But The Hound of the Baskervilles is as good as any.
What do you think are the key ingredients to making a great piece of crime fiction?
David: Originality. Pace. Credible characters caught up in relatively incredible events. Something that’s just a bit different.
Steve: I agree. But also the opening “hook” is vitally important. It’s important in any genre, but in mystery or crime fiction is it is vital if you want to keep the reader’s interest. That was hammered into me in every production meeting of every television show or movie I ever wrote. Hook the reader/viewer, give them fascinating characters, and keep up the pace and everyone goes home happy and satisfied. Even the poor lowly writer!
Sherlock Holmes and the Queen of Diamonds is out now in hardback