8 June 1881
A new patient today, a troubling case. One Sherlock H., a resident of B____ Street in London. Referred to me by G. Lestrade, with more than a few dark and vague warnings. “A troubled fellow,” he told me, gripping me by the wrist. “Very troubled. Sad story, his.”
All stories are sad if you let them go on long enough, I told him, but I took the case just the same. He had applied and been rejected from the Force more than a dozen times between 1878 and 1880.
“And now he hangs around the corridors sniffing loudly and declaring himself the greatest detective in the world,” Lestrade said.
That excerpt is from a series of diary entries written by a Dr. Watson about an addled cocaine addict, published earlier this month at a website called The-Toast.net.
Book publishers have long been distrustful of fan fiction. It features characters owned by others, yet their inventions are so beloved that regular folk spend hours creating stories in homage (and some of them are even quite good).
Many authors and corporations consider fan fiction to be theft; in turn, those who indulge point out that it’s a non-profit endeavour, a gift, that drives people to buy into more and more of the official product, leading to more money and notoriety for the owners.
That argument aside – and it’s a controversial one — modern copyright law, it should be noted, is riddled with oddness. It is perfectly legal to write tales which feature Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, who died in 1930. Until three months ago, however, following a complex court case, it was essentially impossible in the United States to write a commercial story which mentioned the fictional Sherlock Holmes (unless permission was formally granted and lots of cash changed hands).
There’s a time limit on copyright, of course, but the ever-litigious Doyle estate argued that the character of Holmes was created by the entirety of its author’s output, so that no modern story could be legally published without a licence until copyright had expired on the very last Holmes tale, rather than on the first.
It takes money and lawyers to argue against such obstinacy. But in December, a judge finally ruled that position to be ridiculous, and that the early Holmes works are in the public domain in the United States. About 10 stories are still under copyright, and so whichever Holmesian eccentricities were introduced in those tales are still verboten for fans to mention in commercial works.
Best-selling American crime writers Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child avoided all this legal messiness by paying up; their 2013 novel White Fire (filed in the Lennoxville Library’s adult fiction section) notes that it has been licensed by the Doyle estate. The book is, quite simply, professional fan fiction.
It’s one in a very successful series of 13 suspense novels featuring the eccentric genius, FBI Special Agent A.X.L. Pendergast, who weaves in and out of this story as his protegé, the energetic and impetuous forensics student, Corrie Swan, gets herself into trouble.
Swan takes up temporary residence in a swanky Colorado ski town, where a lift ticket is the equivalent of a year’s rent. An 1860s-era cemetery dig meets a nutjob of a modern-day arsonist to make for a murderous mix of mayhem.
And sprinkled throughout, the ghost of Sherlock Homes, with a dash of Oscar Wilde tossed in and a teaspoon of iconic mystery anthologist Ellery Queen. (The authors apologize for the liberties taken with Queen in an afterword.)
Need some background? You can find Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s collected Sherlock Holmes on the fiction shelves (and some of it, online), plus in the Easy Reads section (for those who want to find out who did it more quickly). Try The Hound Of The Baskervilles.
There’s also a series featuring a 13-year-old Holmes, which begins with Eye of The Crow, by Shane Peacock. And author Michael Coren’s Conan Doyle is filed in the biography section.
Over to you, Dr. Watson.
– Eleanor Brown, February 28, 2014