Monday, August 08, 2005

Loren D Estleman: Dr Jekyll and Mr Holmes

The most interesting part of this novel is the author's Afterword; but more of that in a moment.

Loren D Estleman writes in both the mystery (crime) and historical-western genres. He first published a novel in 1976, since when he has produced 53 books and hundreds of short stories and articles; he has been a full-time writer since 1980 and has won lots of awards. In short, he is a professional.

As you would expect, therefore, Dr Jekyll and Mr Holmes is a professional piece of work. That said, the title more or less gives away the plot, at least for those who are tolerably well read. Mr Holmes is, of course, the famous Sherlock. And Mr Hyde is one half of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Most people will know how that story goes, even if they haven't read it; there have been several movie versions. The mystery element in Estleman's book is therefore minimal; the interest lies in how he handles the thing.

(The doctor's name, by the way, should be pronounced Gee-kill; the same goes for Gertrude of that ilk, if you're a gardener. And the Stevenson original was, please note, short. World-famous, and short. A moral there, you might think?)

I can't say that I overwhelmingly recommend Dr Jekyll and Mr Holmes, which first came out in 1979. It's a passably entertaining story, and (for an American) Estleman gets most of the period detail right. He does, however, refer to the 'trash basket' in several places, and there ain't no such animal in England. He also has a pretty vague idea about the value of money. But otherwise OK.

No, I write about the book here mainly for the Afterword, which seems to have been written for the 2001 reprint. Here the author talks about some of the editing and marketing problems that he experienced the first time around.

It is particularly interesting to note that his editor was thoughtful enough to suggest that his original ending wasn't really satisfactory; and she recommended a different one, which he accepted. What chance of getting such hands-on editing today, I wonder?

But now to the main point. On several occasions in the past -- most recently on 8 July -- I have written about the problems which can arise when a writer has the brilliant idea of writing a new novel featuring characters created by another writer, preferably one long since dead. In Estleman's case he was using, principally, Holmes.

'There is a popular misconception,' says Estleman, 'that the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle passed into public domain some time ago. They are still very much in the control of those who administer his estate.'

Estleman says that he has no problem with this situation 'except for migraines caused by some of the people I have had to placate.' Estleman's agent from the 1970s told him that he had come close to quitting Alcoholics Anonymous during and after his conferences with those who controlled the Conan Doyle copyright.

Worse, Dr Jekyll and Mr Holmes was Estleman's second round with those people. He had earlier written Sherlock Holmes Vs Dracula. Estleman's editor at Doubleday therefore knew what was involved, and she told him that when the second book landed on her desk she had to go out for along walk before she could bring herself to read it.

Well, I think I said in an earlier post somewhere that my own experiences of trying to negotiate with copyright holders -- even if they are co-operative and helpful -- was sufficient to convince me that the rewards of using famous characters in your wonderful new novel are simply not worth the effort. So don't say you weren't warned.

If you must use famous characters from the past, make sure that they are out of copyright. And that may not be so easy to establish as you might think.


Sarah N said...

So, this is just highly popular fan fiction, then? It certainly touches on that whole debate. I should start tracing these posts and collect them together, but I don't have time right now, dammit. (p.s. crazybooks has moved to )

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