Bonnie MacBird is the author of the Sherlock Holmes novel Art in the Blood, now available in paperback. She is a screenwriter, actor, director, and artist, and she teaches screenwriting at UCLA Extension. She lives in Los Angeles.
Q: Why did you decide to write a new Sherlock Holmes mystery?
A: I have loved this character since age 10, and when I sat down to write a novel, I knew at once it would be a mystery, and that it would take me over a year to complete.
That’s a lot of time to spend in the company of your characters. I thought… "who do I want to spend time with?"… and the answer came, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson!
Also, from an artistic standpoint, I knew that the study it would take to do a good emulation of Conan Doyle, whom I consider a genius, would be worth my time, that I would be a better writer for having attempted this. I love learning and I love impossible challenges. They inspire my best work.
And for another reason as well….I wrote the book I wanted most to read, right then.
Q: As you were writing the book, what did you see as the right balance between the original Holmes and your own take on him and Watson?
A: My goal was to make these two as close to canon as possible. That being said, we cannot, as writers, avoid putting ourselves in our writing.
In creating a novel-length Holmes story that would play for modern readers and yet would feel authentic and true to the originals, I knew I would have to make some concessions to strict canon adherence.
For one thing, Doyle only used these characters in short stories and novellas. Extending an adventure to novel length would require a different structure and a more extendable and complex mystery, because Holmes is brilliant, and yet he can’t solve the thing right away, or the story is over.
I had to place more impediments to the solution in his path, and do this by layering a multiple mystery that would take longer to unravel as well has have him deal with his own personal vulnerabilities.
But the man is an alpha male and a bit of a superhero, co he could not be too vulnerable. Also, Conan Doyle wrote “adventures,” not “mysteries.”
There is quite a lot of action in the canon, at least in the aggregate. I also consciously chose to include action and danger to both our heroes and the client, which further helped structurally.
In my view, my Holmes and Watson are very like, or as close as I could get, to the originals. I have been accused of writing like BBC Sherlock because I am a screenwriter and an avowed fan of that series. But where Art in the Blood resembles BBC it is primarily because both my work and theirs is inspired by exactly the same source.
There was only one conscious “borrow” from BBC Sherlock, and that is that I like the adversarial and slightly ominous relationship between Holmes and his brother Mycroft. That is not strictly canonical and yet has tremendous “story juice.” So I think my Mycroft is slightly less strictly canonical, and yet he is not a total departure.
But a vulnerable Holmes who rises heroically to challenge, the loyal and brave and very active Watson who helps keep Sherlock from his demons and calls him on is BS, all this is right from canon. And the humor. Doyle was terribly funny and my aim was to exactly reproduce that camaraderie and humor of the originals.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes as you went along?
A: I knew the crime and who did it… but how they got there, and the complications along the way came up as I went along.
Several characters just walked onto the page without my consciously pre-planning them, particularly the rogue detective Jean Vidocq who claims to be related to the famous real-life character of the same last name, and the little boy, Freddie, in the silk mill. I had no idea of them ‘til they just…showed up.
Q: How did you come up with the book's title, and what does it signify for you?
A: The title came first and is extremely meaningful to me. “Art in the Blood is liable to take the strangest forms” is a canonical quote from “The Greek Interpreter” and refers to Sherlock Holmes and Mycroft Holmes’ hereditary powers of observation----inherited from their great grand uncle, the artist Horace Vernet (a real person).
It also obliquely refers to the Janus-faced gift of the artistic temperament, a subject very dear to my heart. Like Conan Doyle, I have one parent who was an artist, and the other an amateur but master storyteller…. and I am very familiar with the artistic temperament.
It gifts those who possess it with the ability to see what others do not, to discern pattern in chaos, and yet often saddles them with a certain lability of emotion that can, when not handled carefully, be a detriment.
Holmes displays all these characteristics throughout canon, and I felt an exploration of this would be a wonderful underpinning to a longer work featuring him.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am writing Unquiet Spirits, which is book two in my Holmes trilogy for HarperCollins. It has to do with ghosts, murder, and the whisky business. It takes place in London, the French Riviera, and the highlands of Scotland.
In it, Sherlock Holmes, the ultimate rational thinker, must come to terms with a ghost from his own past in order to solve a complex series of crimes in the present day. But, of course, he doesn’t believe in ghosts. Or does he?
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I love the research part of writing period mystery, and have traveled to most of the locations in my books, and have created annotations and illustrations to Art in the Blood, both available on my website, www.macbird.com. They are great fun for those interested in the period, and would be great fodder for book club discussions.
I’m also available for Skype appearances as well as library and other talks. I teach writing at UCLA Extension Writer’s Program and enjoy teaching and talking about writing.
Thank you very much for asking!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb