17 November 2021

John Lennon's Sherlock Holmes Pastiche


featuring William Burton McCormick

Sherlock Holmes pastiches are a cottage industry. New adventures or parodies of the world’s most famous literary detective by authors other than his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have existed since the nineteenth century and include such well-known scribes as Mark Twain, Stephen King, John Dickson Carr, Jeffrey Deaver, Loren D. Estlemen, Anne Perry, Michael Kurland, Nicholas Meyer, Edward D. Hoch, Dorothy L. Sayers, Michael Moorcock, Neil Gaiman, Conan Doyle’s son Adrian and several SleuthSayers members among the thousands of other writers worldwide. One name that may not immediately come to mind is John Lennon.

Yes, that John Lennon.

A little background. From his boyhood to his time at the Liverpool College of Art to the early days of the Beatles, Lennon kept a scrapbook where he’d scribble poetry, cartoons, and nonsensical stories in the Lewis Carroll “Jabberwocky” tradition. The best of these were collected for the book In His Own Write, published in March,1964.

With the advent of Beatlemania, In His Own Write was assured commercial success selling 300,000 copies in England alone. More surprising, given the hostility towards the Beatles as a “teenage fad” at the time, was the effusive praise it received from establishment critics. Many compared the best passages to Carroll and James Joyce. 

In the wake of its critical and commercial success, other musical artists began to write and publish their own poetry, most notably rival Bob Dylan. (Inspired by In His Own Write, Dylan began working on poems in 1965 that would be collected in Tarantula (1971).) But Lennon did not have the option to wait as long as Dylan. A follow up was demanded to In His Own Write. One to be published the next year.

This was no easy task for Lennon. The Beatles were in the midst of a world tour, required to record two albums and numerous singles in ‘64, film A Hard Day’s Night and heavily promote everything. What’s more, Lennon had used up his backlog of poems and stories for In His Own Write. Everything for the next volume would have to be from scratch.

He carved out time do some (non-song) writing, when vacationing in Tahiti with his wife Cynthia, bandmate George Harrison, and Harrison’s then girlfriend Pattie Boyd in May,1964. Their private boat was stocked with a few English-language books including a Sherlock Holmes omnibus.  After reading the collection, Lennon reasoned that all Holmes stories were essentially the same and decided to include a parody in his next book. That book was A Spaniard in the Works (June,1965) and the parody was "The Singularge Experience of Miss Anne Duffield” written by Lennon with the aid of Cynthia, George and Pattie over several bottles of Johnnie Walker while at sea.

As can be guessed from the title "The Singularge Experience of Miss Anne Duffield” is a nonsense-language story. At just under two thousand words, it is the longest piece of prose Lennon ever published. (He jokingly called it his novel). If you’re looking for the vivid imagery found in such Lennon songs as “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or “Across the Universe” you won’t find it here. Instead, this is a tongue-in-cheek Liverpudiian pun-fest that owes more to The Goon Show and the gobbledygook language “Unwinese” created by British comic Stanley Unwin than any nineteenth century Lewis Carroll “Jabberwocky."

The opening lines are:

I find it recornered in my nosebook that it was a dokey and winnie cave towart the end of Marge in the ear of our Loaf 1892 in Much Bladder, a city off the North Wold. Shamrock Womlbs had receeded a telephart whilst we sat at our lunch eating.

This can be loosely translated in a more Arthur Conan Doyle way as:

I find it recorded in my notebook it was a dark and winter day towards the end of March in the year of our Lord 1892 in Manchester, a city of the north world. Sherlock Holmes had received a telegram while we sat at our lunch eating.

The fun is in deciphering the heaps of puns piled atop each other and the way Lennon apes Holmes story conventions. If you enjoy word play, 1960’s British in-jokes and groan-inducing puns, then this may be the Holmes pastiche for you. If not, or you find it “all a bit silly” (as Harrison’s friend Eric Idle might say) you may prefer to encounter Lennon’s wit on Abbey Road rather than Baker Street.

The plot (as much as there is one) sets Shamrock Womlb and his friend Doctored Whopper against a Jack the Ripper doppelganger Jack the Nipple who is “a sex meany of the lowest orgy.” (Did he invade Pepperland later?) When challenged Jack admits “‘I'm demented’ he said checking his dictionary, ‘I should bean at home on a knife like these.’”

Groan you might, but Lennon is the one writer to reveal the true source of the great detective’s amazing deductive powers in a dash of metafiction. Wolmbs, it turns out, knows all because he’s “seen the film” while Doctored Whopper remains at a disadvantage having “only read the comic.” So now we know.

There are titular jokes afoot too. While the story is filled with many characters including a prostitute Mary Atkins, her pimp boyfriend Sydnees, an escaped prisoner Oxo Whitney (who terrifies Whopper’s imagination) and the Lestrade stand in Inspectre Basil, there is no appearance or mention of a character named Miss Anne Duffield despite being in the title. This mirthful twist is the penultimate red herring (Yes, penultimate… wait and see). You thought this was about Anne Duffield? Well, think again.

A recurring gag throughout the piece is Lennon’s lampooning of the famous refrain “Elementary my dear Watson.”  (Holmes aficionados well know that this phrase is not found in any of Conan Doyle’s stories but appears to have been first recorded by P.G. Wodehouse in 1909 and became familiar with the greater public as a result of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films of the 1930’s and 1940’s).

In Lennon’s work, the phrase becomes:

“Ellifitzgerrald my dear Whopper,”

and “Eliphantitus my deaf Whopper,”

and “Alibabba my dead Whopper,” 

and “Alecguiness my deep Whopper,” etc., etc.

“Elementary, my dear Watson” never appears in canonical Conan Doyle. It never appears in noncanonical Lennon either. Some purity in that.

I must now talk about the ending. The vast majority of the original Holmes stories are told from the point-of-view of Dr. John Watson, supposedly recalling cases from years earlier with startling detail. Every clue, every movement and emotion are remembered by Watson’s vault of a mind in his chronicling of Holmes’s adventures for posterity. Some have commented on Watson’s amazing clarity.

Additionally, in many stories, Holmes leaves Watson’s presence, only to return with new information and miraculously solve the case. Well, in Lennon’s pastiche these tropes appear as well.  Shamrock Womlb leaves without explanation, causing Doctored Whopper to curse his friend: “‘Blast the wicker basket yer grannie sleeps in.’ I thought ‘Only kidding Shamrock’ I said remembering his habit of hiding in the cupboard.” When Shamrock returns [SPOILERS] he apparently reveals the solution to Whopper but then Whopper says… “I poked the fire and warmed his kippers, when he had minicoopered he told me a story which to this day I can't remember.”

Yes, whole story is a red herring. The good Doctored didn’t record the ending…

The joke is on us. The solution is lost to Whopper’s fading memory.

Or Johnnie Walker.

On a boat off Tahiti.

Maybe that’s where Miss Anne Duffield went.


William Burton McCormick is a Shamus, Derringer and Claymore awards finalist. His two latest releases are the historical thriller novella A STRANGER FROM THE STORM and the modern espionage thriller KGB BANKER (the latter co-written with whistleblower John Christmas).

17 comments:

  1. My gosh! I'd never heard of this! I'd heard of Lennon's book, but didn't know that he'd written a Sherlock Goon, I mean, Holmes story! Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Jeff. "Sherlock Goon" is appropriate as this pastiche definitely owes a stylistic debt to the Goon Show.

      Delete
  2. Interesting how many musicians (The Doors' Jim Morrison comes to mind) consider themselves not songwriters, but poets. Clever tale, clever article.

    Another writer of a Holmes pastiche was Doyle's friend J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, who wrote The Adventure of the Two Collaborators.

    Great article. Many thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Really interesting about Barrie and Doye and their collaboration. Great article Leigh! As for Lennon, well, he's best appreciated I think as an artist. He uses various medium to make art. Music being the most famous, but also the poetry, stories, films and the avant garde and performance art he did with Yoko which threw the world for a loop back in the late '60s and early '70s.

      Delete
  3. Only last week, I stumbled across Lennon's story. You can read it on this website: https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php?title=The_Singularge_Experience_of_Miss_Anne_Duffield

    Many more pastiches and parodies can be found there too: https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php?title=Pastiches_%26_Parodies

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for posting the links Anne to both "The Singularge Experience" and parodies by other writers! Cheers!!

      Delete
  4. Thanks for what is certainly a different look at both Lennon and Sherlock!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed, Janice. Certainly not the sort of work that comes to mind immediately for Lennon nor the sort of prose for Sherlock!

      Delete
  5. Americans unfamiliar with British English may not realize that the title of the book in which "The Singularge Experience of Miss Anne Duffield” appears is itself a pun.

    In American English, we have the expression "to throw a monkey wrench in the works," meaning "to damage or change something in a way that ruins it or prevents it from working properly."

    Well, in the same way that a British truck is a lorry and a British elevator is a lift, a British monkey wrench is a spanner. So A Spaniard in the Works is yet another of Lennon's wordplays....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Absolutely true, Josh. Well-spotted.

      Delete
    2. I didn't know that (about the spanner) until a few years ago! Love that kind of title!

      Delete
  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  7. The great song-writers are poets, aren't they? Jim Morrison, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, Rickie Lee Jones, Bob Dylan, Alanis Morissette, Steve Winwood, Ian Anderson, Paul Simon, and on and on and on.
    I think one of the things that makes Lennon special is that he always had a sense of humor about and in his work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed Eve. A songwriter with a gift for lyrics is really a poet. Lennon had a fine (if acidic) sense of humor. Elton John who knew both Lennon and Groucho Marx well said they had the same sense of humor.

      Delete
    2. Oh, I agree! Especially on the sense of humor!

      Delete
  8. Great piece, Bill. By the way, on a recent flight I finally caught the movie YESTERDAY. In passing, it has some interesting thoughts on Lennon's life. Fun flick.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Rob for hosting my blog and assembling everything. I'd need to watch YESTERDAY sometime soon.

      Delete

Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>