03 November 2013

Old Characters, New Novels

by Leigh Lundin

Criminal Brief readers might remember pastiches have to be damn good to win me over. That doesn't mean I dismiss or entirely dislike old heroes brought back to life by other than their original authors, but they must attain a high standard. One of our own, Dale Andrews with his thorough research, sets a high bar with his Ellery Queen stories.

Pastiche authors also have to capture the flavor of the original stories, the era, the settings, and especially the characters. More often than not, one of these will fall flat. Then the question becomes whether readers (and movie viewers) accept the character.

The Saint
The Saint
Saintly Motives

Often acceptance hinges upon what a reader or viewer is first exposed to. I recall an English friend complaining bitterly about the Roger Moore version of The Saint. At first blush, what wasn't to like? The cast and crew were British and whilst the series wasn't as good as anything the Patricks  appeared in (McGoohan and MacNee (not to mention Diana Rigg's Emma Peel)), it was a good diversion.

And then I started reading The Saint novels and became properly hooked. I understood ITC failed to capture the period and much of the ambiance of Leslie Charteris' characters.

Shelfish Motives

One other reason I'm slow to embrace pastiches is the abundance of fresh and perhaps unique stories that might never see the light of day (at least a bookstore day) thanks to being elbowed aside by better known heroes and authors. It's bad enough movie makers recycle characters and plots, but it seems a shame when book publishers do it.

Yes, I can understand hankering and hungering for more of characters one's grown to love. Perhaps for this reason and because it's not my chosen genre, I'm less critical of classic romance characters resurfacing than I am of mystery reprises. Recycle the Janes (Austen and Eyre) but don't touch Marple!

(Romance fans might be interested to learn new Jane Austen novels are in the pipeline including updates of Emma and Pride and Prejudice. And for the particular attention of our friend Travis Erwin, not all fans are pleased one of those authors is male, Alexander McCall Smith.)

If anything, romance fans are even more engaged and critical. You might remember the harsh criticism of Scarlett, the sequel to Gone with the Wind. The music field witnessed bitter, even vicious comments about Hayley Westenra covering Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights. While I rarely prefer remakes to the originals, I compliment Bush's creative genius but I find her little-girl performance a bit shrill for my ears, although I seem to be an exception.

Solar Powered

Okay, I confess a bit of tongue in cheek (cheeky lad, that!). There is another way: I very much like the Solar Pons stories. August Derleth was such an admirer of Sherlock Holmes, he wrote Conan Doyle for permission to pick up pen and continue the series. Doyle declined, but not to be entirely put off, Derleth invented the great detective, Solar Pons.

The character became so popular, that when an edition came out that edited some of the Americanisms and timelines, the fan base reacted harshly, and an omnibus correcting the corrections soon followed.

But here it gets curious: A few years after August Derleth died, British author Basil Copper began writing further Solar Pons stories. In other words, Copper wrote pastiches of Derleth's pastiches! (And to be perfectly clear, Basil Copper was the editor who'd corrected Derleth's occasional Americanisms.)

Bonding with Fans

Only recently, we learned Jeffrey Deaver was engaged by the Fleming estate to write an 'official' new James Bond novel. Deaver, an American as you know, received not unpleasant mixed reviews for his effort, some positive, some not so much but they were better received than his immediate predecessor, Sebastian Faulks (who rather sounds like a Bond bad guy). As some have pointed out, Deaver is a better writer than Ian Fleming was, but critics are tough when it comes to capturing the essence of a character.

Deaver wasn't the first American appointed to write official 007 tales– that was novelist Raymond Benson– but I was surprised to learn we're about to see another new pastiche, this one by British writer William Boyd.

Wait, I'd be remiss if I failed to mention Samantha Weinberg's chicklit trilogy, The Moneypenny Diaries. And I should mention internationalism works both ways: Irish author John Banville, writing under the name Benjamin Black, is channeling Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.

James Bond is hardly the only character brought back to life. I do my best to ignore the Batman-like parody of Sherlock Holmes that Robert Downey, Jr came up with. But other works have either arrived or are on the way.

British children's novelist Anthony Horowitz was licensed to write a new 'official' Sherlock Holmes with an Edith Wharton sounding title, The House of Silk.

Bourne Again

Apparently Robert Ludlum's estate didn't feel the Bourne Trilogy satisfactorily wrapped up the series. They've authorized yet another retake called The Bourne Dominion by Eric Van Lustbader.

And finally, we return to Agatha Christie, not Jane Marple but Hercule Poirot. You may remember Christie hoped to prevent pastiches following on her novels, but her estate had other ideas. They've contracted with writer Sophie Hannah to produce a new novel featuring the egg-headed Belgian detective.

While I may criticize errant pastiches, one parting thought occurs to me: Wouldn't we authors like to reach that pinnacle, one where readers love our works so much, they can't get enough even after we're gone?

13 comments:

Jan Grape said...

I'm someone who agrees with you on pastiches. Even if they capture time, and setting, etc. they rarely get the character totally correct. And forget the movies. I rather like what John D. MacDonald is supposed to have told someone who had questioned his take on a movie ruining his book. He said, they didn't ruin my book. My book is still right there on the shelf. Not sure how I'd feel if I became beloved enough that fans wanted my characters continued. But if it benefited my estate, my kids and grand kids, I wouldn't complain. Well, I wouldn't be here so would be difficult to complain. (ha)

Janice Law said...

As both a writer and a reader I share your dislike for pastiches. Our nice librarian recently offered to get a Wodehouse pastiche for me that she says got wonderful reviews. I confess I reacted with horror. Ian Fleming is one thing, P.G, Wodehouse is quite something else.

Dale Andrews said...

Well, weighing in I can hardly say that I dislike pastiches since they comprise my entire published works. :-) But what I DO dislike is pastiches that just get it wrong. As I have said before, the credo I offer for pastiches is that of the medical profession -- "first, do no harm." I think that if you can't render an identifiable character and leave them the same at the end of the story you should not be in this genre. I read a Sherlock Holmes book once where Holmes turns out to be Jack the Ripper and is murdered by Watson. Disgusting. And I will admit here that I am no fan of Laurie King's Holmes series -- if you want to have a woman detective who totally emasculates her husband that is okay with me, but the husband cannot be Sherlock Holmes. (There, Leigh -- after all these years I have openly said what we have groused about in private!)

Vicki Kennedy said...

I’m not a big fan of pastiches either. The few I’ve had any interest in reading have been a disappointment. It’s a rare writer who can do justice to the work of another. I love the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries but cringe at the follow up imitations-including the movies. Having been a fan of the late Tony Hillerman, my interest was piqued by his daughter Anne’s announcement that she’s going to continue her father’s work. I plan to give her the benefit of the doubt-something I rarely do anymore. Like you said, Leigh, there are too many fresh stories to read and enjoy-stories written by authors seeking to acquire their own followers. .

Leigh Lundin said...

This is one of those days when readers say what I was thinking so much better than I did!

Jan, as I was writing my final paragraph, I was thinking I wouldn't be around to complain!

Janice, I think my parents would have been horrified, too. I caught mention of Wooster and Jeeves being revived, but didn't include it in my article.

Vicki, you're on the mark. Susan Slater, who wrote a couple of early articles for SleuthSayers and was a friend of the Hillerman's, wondered if the contest and workshop Tony started would continue. Oddly enough, I like the television series Elementary, but mainly because it's so very different from the original as to be an entity of its own.

Dale, I should have asked you to write the article because you perfectly summed up my feelings across the board. I wish I'd remembered to mention "First do no harm." Is it possible Moriarty and Moran were after the wrong Holmes?

Robert Lopresti said...

Oh boy. I hope I don't offend anyone but here goes... I don't consider it a true pastiche when you just write another story about someone else's character. To me a pastiche means you have to do a reboot: rethink the characters in some way. SHERLOCK (which I love) and ELEMENTARY (which I gave up on halfway through the first episode) are both pastiches. So is James Lincoln Warren's brilliant novella "Shikari" in which Dr Watson turns out to be one of Mycroft's spies (this is the concept, I'm not giving anything away.) Here's an old piece I wrote (or ranted) about this. http://criminalbrief.com/?p=8047

Anonymous said...

Laurie King created a Sherlock Holmes for the rest of us. Its not about mystery, its about romance. She gave women a new holmes we can care about and young girls a feminist role model.

Anonymous said...

I confess I am not au fait with pastiches but I recognize those that aim for perfection.

Leigh Lundin said...

Rob, I recall that column and I'm glad you mentioned JLW.

Anon #1, thank you for sharing that.

Anon #2, yes, attention to detail and getting the flavor right makes all the difference.

Toe Hallock said...

Hey Leigh: Seems to me I remember some Sherlock Holmes pastiches by one Robert L. Fish that tickled me back when I was in college. Only, since I recall his stories being amusing, they probably belong in a different category. Check with Rob on that. As far as Roger Moore goes, as the Saint he was third rate to the others you mentioned. Plus, in my opinion, he was the worst of the James Bonds. Yes, that includes George Lazenby. As you can probably tell, I am starting to feel better after my serious encounter with inflammation of the lungs. One of those incidences where the cure (prednisone) was almost worse than the cause. Yours truly, Toe.

Leigh Lundin said...

Toe, I'm glad to see you're doing better! We're glad to have you back

I gather bad blood developed between George Lazenby and the rest of the crew… seemingly angering the entire movie industry if rumors are to be believed.

And yes, I found him a more believable Bond than Roger Moore. While Bond always had a modicum of tongue-in-cheek, Moore seemed to treat the story as a joke.

Dixon Hill said...

I think I enjoy "inspired versions" of classic stories -- such as "Holmes on the Range" -- to most pastiches.
Though, when well-crafted, they can be quite nice.

I don't think I'd be successful with either, though, and respect any writer who can pull it off with elan.

--Dix

Dale Andrews said...

An anonymous post on my Monday article alerted me to a recent article discussing pastiches in the context of my own efforts. Self-aggrandizement aside, I thought I would offer the address of the article here for anyone interested.

http://moonlight-detective.blogspot.com/