The Whole Art of Detection: An Interview with Lyndsay Faye

Susan McDuffie

After all, despite my legendary prickliness, I am flesh and blood in addition to smoke and mirrors.  –Sherlock Holmes, The Whole Art of Detection

Lyndsay Faye’s latest book springs from her lifelong fascination with Sherlock Holmes. Faye started reading Holmes at age ten and never stopped; her own decision to write Holmes came after a bad day at work and reading an uninspiring Holmes pastiche. Her theatrical training and talent for mimicry encouraged her to try writing her own Sherlock Holmes story. The happy results are brought together in this newly-released collection of sixteen cases, spanning the detective’s career.

Two of her tales are told in Holmes’s voice. Although Sherlock is often perceived as aloof, these stories reveal his human side. Faye commented, “He’s reserved because he feels too much, not because he feels nothing. He has to keep it in tight control. He laughs uproariously. He wriggles in his armchair like a third grader. He’s good with children and dogs and has an almost hypnotic ability to express empathy to women in distress.”

All of Faye’s published novels are set in the Victorian era, although she let slip that her current work-in-progress takes place in 1921. I asked her about her love of the 19th century and she responded, “I think it is possible to discuss modern dilemmas with more efficacy in an historical setting. When I feel passionate about politics or injustice or cruelty I can talk about it in the Victorian era without sounding like I’m on a soapbox. It’s a bit like Shakespeare setting plays out of town. In addition, the Victorian period was a time of tremendous upheaval. Poverty and illness were thought to be the afflicted person’s fault. I find it terrible and remarkable that we live in a world that’s so similar today.”

Faye’s striking characters such as Jane Steele and Mercy Underhill break the mold, and her Holmes stories also sport strong female characters. Faye feels these feminist themes resonate with Conan Doyle’s original stories; she notes Conan Doyle advocated for divorce reform, and stories such as “A Scandal in Bohemia” sympathetically portrayed women’s situations in the late Victorian era. “Women had to be strong for themselves and for each other, and nevertheless persisted,” Faye states. True today, as well.

Although the Victorian era was replete with scientific advance and rapid change, Conan Doyle’s stories did not always stick to scientific fact. “The Speckled Band” depicted a snake trained to descend a bell pull and drink milk at the sound of a whistle, an unlikely scenario. Faye admits she invented certain facts in her own cases, but adamantly refuses to say which. Conversely, she noted that some seemingly unreal aspects in her stories are actually true. One story features a mendicant who exposed himself repeatedly to frostbite; this practice was documented by social historian Henry Mayhew.

I asked Faye what lies behind Holmes’s continued popularity. She mentioned the sense of adventure, and the strong friendship between Holmes and Watson. Another intriguing aspect, she added, is the “meta” aspect. “Doyle is writing about Holmes and Watson in The Strand, and Watson writes of Holmes being critical that he is published in The Strand. It’s as if Cumberbatch’s Sherlock commented on his BBC1 ratings. People still address letters to 221B Baker St.”

The Whole Art of Detection (Mysterious, 2017) promises readers thrilling new adventures with the Great Detective and his faithful Watson. These treats for Holmes enthusiasts, lovers of Faye’s work, and all readers who enjoy the Victorian era could lead to many more letters arriving at 221B. I might query Holmes myself, after I google the “red Siamese leeches” from Faye’s “The Adventure of the Willow Basket.”

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Susan McDuffie writes medieval mysteries; The Death of a Falcon is scheduled for 2017 release. She frequently reviews books for HNS.

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Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 81, August 2017


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