More doodling and they rode into town, one of them even on a white horse.

[from the vaults, 2/26/10,
and because I just found out it was available in e]

Here’s my introduction to Powers of Detection, an anthology of short stories I edited about murder in a fantasy setting. It was published by Ace in 2004, and it was a whole lot of fun.

powers-of-detection This anthology is all Laura Anne Gilman’s fault.

A while back Laura Anne forwarded me an email from author Rosemary Edghill, who was putting together a murder-in-a-fantasy-setting anthology. The email came with a message from Laura Anne, which read, “You should do this.”

That’s Laura Anne, always big with the subtle.

I’d never written fantasy. I don’t even read that much of it, because after Middle Earth what is there? I like my speculative fiction hard, nuts-and-bolts, what happens next next door. I want to go back to the moon and on to the asteroid belt and Mars and the moons of Jupiter and from there to Beta Centauri. Sword and sorcery is a little too woo-woo for literal-minded me.

But I confess, I’m afraid of Laura Anne, so I doodled around a bit, so I could say “See? I tried!” and she wouldn’t hurt me.

And then these two characters showed up between the doodles. Both women. One wore a sword and the other carried a staff. They had magical powers, some of which appeared at puberty, some of which were acquired. More doodling and they rode into town, one of them even on a white horse. A young woman was strangled and by various magical means my duo discovered and brought the murderer to justice.

By the time I stopped doodling I had forty-two pages, and to add insult to injury it was a sword-and-sorcery tale. It was also twenty pages too long for the anthology. Rosemary asked me to cut it to fit. I refused. I guess I thought my prose was too deathless to be tampered with. Yeah, right.

So after all that, my story didn’t even make the anthology.


So, I thought, I’ll put together my own magic-and-mayhem anthology. (Can we spell “hubris”?)

I decided to ask for murder in a fantasy or science fiction setting, to broaden the appeal to both writers and readers. I went downstairs and looked at who was on my bookshelves. Hmm. Here we have Sharon Shinn. Writes the sf Angels-on-Samaria series. Also wrote that most elegiac of fantasy novels, The Shape-changer’s Wife. Over here is Charlaine Harris, who writes the Sookie Stackhouse novels, the best vampire series in the bloodsucking genre. And here is Anne Perry, who wrote me a short story for The Mysterious North. Could I go to that well a second time? (hyoo’bris, n. excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance.)

I asked them each to contribute a story, and displaying a touching belief in my ability to get this anthology off the ground, they all did. Sharon has written a lovely little magical boarding school murder, not at all a la Harry Potter, and which she said might evolve into something a bit longer one day. Say a novel? Charlaine has written a story set in that same Sookie universe, and if there was an award for first lines her name would be on the short list. Anne takes us into the courtroom for a trial by magic, where the verdict isn’t what one might expect and neither is anything else.

I remembered talking to Donna Andrews about writing speculative fiction, and she was also a contributor to The Mysterious North, so I asked her for a story, too. She sent me a delightful tale of a mage with a cold, an apprentice with a clue, and a villain with neither.

Then there are the writers who live in Alaska and whom I can personally browbeat into writing for me, Michael Armstrong, John Straley, and Mike Doogan. Michael has written a modern take on an old Aleut legend involving seagulls, and there must be some kind of bird thing going on among the menfolk because John wrote a detective story from the first-person viewpoint of a raven. Mike was the only one of my contributors to weigh in on the science fiction side of murder, although I’m not sure it is murder in the end. You decide. Enjoy his character names while you’re at it.

Laura Anne offered a story of her own, based on characters who inhabit a series she just sold to Harlequin Luna, and recommended I solicit stories from Anne Bishop, Simon R. Green and Jay Caselberg. Laura Anne’s story is a come-hither into a world next to but not quite of our own, seen through the eyes of a cat burglar with, yes, special powers. Anne’s story is set in the world of her Blood novels, where a vigilante wearing a jewel of power exacts deserved if harsh justice upon a serial revenge killer. Simon has written a creepy little horror-ish noir story in which Sam Spade would feel quite at home, if Sam Spade was dead. Jay brings back the ancient Egyptian gods to modern-day Cairo, with a last line that will have you all diving under your beds.

I heard Roger Ebert say once that the true test of a good film was how well it sucked you into its world. Same goes for good writing. In this anthology you can smell the coffee on the streets of Cairo, walk on the ceiling with starspawn, and negotiate with extreme care the social intricacies of the world of the Blood. You can run from the raucous call of an Alaskan seagull, and you’d better. You can belly up to Sookie’s bar and order your blood at an appealing 98.6F. You can meet a gargoyle in a Savile row suit, go mano a mano with piskies, and sneeze striped bats. You can sweat out the verdict at a trial by magic, conjure a reflecting spell at the Norwitch Academy of Magic and Sorcery, and, I hope, hear the song of the Sword in Daean.

Enjoy your visit to these different worlds, but watch your back.

It’s not safe in here.

Channeling Holmes

[My introduction to the 2012 Edgar Awards program guide, which I edited this year. The quotes are from authors, booksellers and librarians from the pieces they wrote on Holmes for the program.]

Aren’t we all?

The Sherlock Holmes canon has long been subject to assiduous mining by laborers in literature and film. Steve Hockensmith says, “Holmes has fought Martians. Holmes has fought zombies. Holmes has fought dinosaurs. Holmes has fought Nazis. Holmes has fought icky Lovecraftian yuck-gods. Holmes has fought the fiendish Fu Manchu. Holmes has fought Dracula…a lot! Like, maybe not as often as he’s fought Jack the Ripper — would those two just get a room already? — but at least half a dozen novels have chronicled the master sleuth’s battles with the count.”

Leslie Klinger says, “I was fascinated to discover that for more than sixty years, people had been studying the Holmes stories, hunting down obscurities, wrestling with problems, and most importantly, playing what I later learned was called “the Game.”” “There’s always a market for Sherlockian scholarship,” says Barbara Peters.

I just read where CBS is bringing Holmes back in a new television series called “Elementary,” only this time they’re setting it in New York City, with — wait for it — Lucy Liu playing Watson.

This guy just won’t die. Why is that?

Kristine Katherine Rusch says it’s because Watson is the narrator. “If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had written his famous stories from Holmes’s point of view, readers wouldn’t have tolerated it, just like most of us wouldn’t have tolerated Holmes in our lives at all,” she says. “No matter how brilliant he is, the man is also insufferable.”

Peter Abrahams agrees: “One of the most important decisions Conan Doyle made – consciously or not – was to write the Holmes stories in the first person. Watson is a character who just keeps growing on you, and the concept – to show the action of the great man through the eyes of a decent and fair-minded haut-bourgeois – works beautifully.”

So, it’s Watson. Agreed. But it’s so much more.

Carole Nelson Douglas says it’s character, as in this of Irene Adler: “The only woman to outwit Holmes had to be his moral equal, a woman with too much integrity to be anyone’s mistress but her own.”

Lyndsay Faye says it’s craft. “More than any other writer I have ever had the privilege of admiring, Conan Doyle knew the value of absent space.” As in that infamous dog who didn’t bark in the nighttime.

Jan Burke says, “I love his client list.” Think about it. Who else works for the King of Bohemia?

Toni L.P. Kelner says it’s family, as in bequeathing Holmes to the next generation. “It was December, and I’d handed the day’s mail to Daddy. One envelope was clearly a card, and after he opened it, he grinned and handed it back to me. It was signed John H. Watson. Then, before I could say anything, he showed me the London postmark on the envelope. All I could think was, “Doctor Watson sent us a Christmas card!”” Donna Andrews, too, inherited Holmes: “One fateful day, [my father] brought home The Return of Sherlock Holmes.”

I’d say it was family, too, but then my favorite character was always and ever will be Mycroft, Holmes’ older, smarter brother. Who has himself been spun off as a character a time or two. I first encountered Mycroft outside the Canon in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Mike is a computer, oh, a sentient one, of course, and a formidable general in the fight against Earth tyranny.

Watson, character, craft, clients, computers. Librarian David Wright says, “[Some] will simply give in to the gravitational pull of a truly mythic character; a cornerstone of cultural literacy.”

I’ll go along with craft. Conan Doyle was a maddening tease. He had Watson name-dropping cases all over the place, as in the beginning of The Adventure of the Speckled Band, when Helen Stone says to Holmes

I have heard of you from Mrs. Farintosh,
whom you helped in the hour of her sore need.

And that’s the last we hear of Mrs. Farintosh. I’ll go along with characterization, too. Doyle was also a master at writing villains, as in Dr. Grimesby Roylott, of Stoke Moran, again in The Speckled Band

When a doctor does go wrong he is the first
of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.

which is fun anyway you look at it. Conan Doyle was himself a doctor. Holmes was modeled on one of Conan Doyle’s university lecturers, surgeon Joseph Bell. Fu Manchu was a doctor, or so he claimed. Hannibel Lecter. House.

Infuriating, insufferable, made human by Watson, deemed infallible by his clients, with a clearance rate that would turn any CSI detective pea green with envy, and a treasure to be handed down from one generation to the next for what looks at this point like perpetuity. Laurie R. King says, “As readers, we may not want to be Holmes—may not even want to be around him, much—but we rest better knowing he is there.”

Which is why crime fiction writers, hard-boiled and cosy alike, are always channelling our inner Holmes. S.J. Rozan says, “Present him with a bizarre and seemingly random set of facts, and he’d make sense of them.

“Every time.”