Ghost Writing by Larry Lefkowitz
Ghost Writing the Canon
I am a ghost writer.
My attempts at writing my own novels came a cropper (read: were rejected by publishers) and so I became a ghost writer out of economic necessity. My failures to get my novels published and my having to write the drivel of others sent me early on to the opium dens fortunately ubiquitous in our Victoria era. So ensconced, I spend half the time in a delightful stupor and half the time ghost writing which came to me easier when "freed" from restraint due to the Wonderful O.
I believe I would have become an almost permanent denizen of the opium dens were it not for a gentleman named Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle was busy writing his serious historical epic "The White Company" set during the Hundred Years War and wanted me to write for him a series of stories and novels about a detective named Sherlock Holmes and his partner in crime detection, Dr. Watson. Conan Doyle had sent a story about the duo which a publisher accepted and published who wanted more stories when the public liked the story.
"I don't have time for such popular 'literature' (the single quote marks his). I am a serious writer. You can write the stuff for me – I will pay you well."
This last persuaded me to give it a go. A steady source of income and an end to listening to elderly men and women wishing their pedestrian life stories told in novel form. Also, the advantage of being able to use the same protagonists placed in different plots was a bonus. Of course, after each story was finished, I rewarded myself with an extended visit to a den; in addition to visits during which I wrote many of the stories.
Conan Doyle, a bit of a stick in the mud, rejected my idea of having Holmes smoke an opium pipe instead of a pipe. "The Victorian age will not permit it," he admonished me. "In private, yes -- in print, no."
Although many of the stories I considered second rate, I do pride myself on the longer work, "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Conan Doyle also thought "it was a cut above your usual work." He had wanted to call it, "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie," but I convinced him the title under which it was published was superior.
Not every Sherlock Holmes adventure I penned was accepted by Conan Doyle. Anything smacking of humor was anathema to him. Holmes, like himself, had to be above "foolishness." Thus the readers of "the canon" -- as the total corpus of Sherlock Holmes stories became due to the popularity of the stories – were denied, in my opinion, some rather amusing stories.
Here is an example.
The Most Revealing Affair
For a long time, Watson has been at me to write up some of my cases. Perhaps I have rather invited this persecution, since I have often had occasion to point out to him how superficial are his own accounts and to accuse him of pandering to popular taste instead of confining himself rigidly to facts and figures. “Try it yourself, Holmes,” he declared somewhat testily on the last occasion I reproached him, and so I have.
The case, to which I have given the name The Most Revealing Affair, began on a crisp morning with a ring at our Baker Street door. I nodded to Watson with my “Would you be so good, Watson” nod, and he was indeed good enough to open the door.
To Watson’s surprise, there was no one there. He looked down and spotted a white envelope, which he picked up and handed to me. It lacked an addressee or addressor.
“A nice valentine,” I said, “anonymous in the spirit of some of that genre. And yet it is not February.” I opened the envelope and read the note inside. “Ah, Watson, inside something more revealing,” I said, tossing it over to Watson. It read:
Mr. Sherlock Holmes
You are cordially invited to our guest day “open house”
which will take place on the 16th of May. Dr. Watson may
accompany you, if you wish. You will not be disappointed,
Mr. Holmes, and your failure to appear could lead to
Serendipity Nudist Colony
N.B. Other than a hat, no clothing is permitted on the
premises. A changing booth is provided just outside the gate.
“I wouldn’t go if I were you, Holmes.”
“I rather fancy it. Things have been a bit dull lately. Moreover this appears to be a case which promises those unusual and outré features which are as dear to you, Watson, as they are to me. I hope you will come down with me.”
“Well, the situs of the case is certainly unique,” said Watson. “I hope our presence can be accomplished with discretion.”
“Nudist colonies pride themselves on being operated discretely, despite which the epitome of discretion, our Queen, is not in favor of them.
“I should think not.”
“What’s the harm, Watson? There are Freemasons, there are the clubs of the aristocracy. Each to his religion, so long as it is not harmful. And you will admit that there are few things more democratic than a nudist colony.”
“I have never been one to champion democracy, save in the broad sense.”
“Perhaps our visit will change that."
The Serendipity Nudist Colony was located in a secluded area of Kent. We arrived without incident and were welcomed by the message inscribed above the gate “In naked beauty more adorned,” which earned a scornful glance from Watson. In the changing booth provided for the purpose, we declothed, except for the permitted hats –my deerstalker and Watson’s pith helmet. Watson said that he felt more completely exposed than he ever had been in his life, even more than under the Jazail spears in India. When he covered his private parts and urged me to do so, I replied, “Watson, I am known by my face, so I would be better off covering it, yet there is no need in a nudist colony, where total exposure is a virtue.
Watson’s embarrassment at his denuded state soon passed. The resident nudists were not in the least ill at ease and I adjusted to the situation, as was my wont when faced with anything unusual. I was aware that Watson thought that I would not enjoy being at the nudist colony since appreciation of Nature found no place among my many gifts. He was incorrect in this assumption. I not only fancied the changed surroundings, I also felt such freedom such as I had not known outside the confines of Nevill’s Turkish Baths.
It was the custom in this particular nudist colony to wear hats. One could observe men in shiny top-hats or canvas caps or tam-o-shanters. To my satisfaction no one else wore a deerstalker or a pith helmet. The women wore more varied headdresses, which I enjoyed commenting on to Watson on the way to our lodge – “emancipation” by name – inscribed over the entrance, which earned from Watson the opinion that “nudity seemed to stimulate denomination,” to which I replied that the conclusion was far from being proved, that it might as well be claimed that nudity seemed to stimulate inscription. As for my commenting on the women’s hats, Watson deigned not to notice them and kept his eyes downcast, content with replying, “I take your word for it, Holmes.”
At our lodge, we sent in our cards and were shown into an elegantly-appointed, if rustic, residence. Following a meal which was vegetarian in tribute to the salubrious culinary tastes of a majority of the colony’s residents, I suggested to Watson that we take a turn around the premises. I prefer to establish a mental map of the scene of a case, whenever possible. Yes, a case, despite the bucolic surroundings, the “failure to appear could lead to serious consequences” ever in mind. The nude inhabitants of the colony paid us no heed, save for a brotherly - or sisterly – nod here and there.
“Holmes” Watson turned to me, “can you deduce anything from the appearance of a naked man as you do so well from that of a clothed one?”
“An excellent challenge, Watson.”
“What about this chap approaching now?”
I winked at Watson and waited until the man came abreast of us. Then I addressed him. “From South Africa, sir, I perceive.”
“Yes, sir,” he answered with some surprise.
“Imperial Yeomanry, I fancy.”
“Middlesex Corps, no doubt.”
“Sir, whoever you are, you are a wizard,” he said, doffing his hat, a simple straw hat against the sun; a hat less military in appearance it would be hard to find, which provided no help whatsoever to Holmes’ feat of deduction.
“How did you ever know, Holmes?” Watson looked at me with that amazed yet admiring look characteristic of his reaction to such performances of mine.
“When a gentleman of virile appearance bears such a tan upon his face as an English sun would never give, with his handkerchief behind his ear instead of in his sleeve, if he had worn a sleeve, it is not difficult to place him. He sports a short beard, which shows that he was not a regular. He has the cast of a riding man. As to Middlesex, everything in his bearing testifies to this regiment."
“You disprove of the adage, Holmes, that clothes make the man,” said my companion.’
“Here the opposite is true, Watson.”
A man passed us. “How about him?” Watson challenged me.
“Beyond the obvious fact that he has at some time done manual labor, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.”
When Watson, apparently believing I was pulling his leg expressed doubt as to the accuracy of my analysis, I called after the fellow, and recited one of the Freemason secret codes – in Mandarin. He stopped, turned around to face me, and hailed me, “a brother Freemason,” also in Chinese. Watson was dumbfounded at my powers of deduction, not for the first time.
“How do you do it?” he gasped.
“It is my business to know things. Perhaps I have trained myself to see what others overlook. It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the more important.”
“I never would be capable of such meticulous observation.”
“You see, Watson, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”
As we continued to stroll on the path that wound through the grounds, another man passed us, then stopped and cried, “Watson!?”
We stopped in turn, and I said to Watson, “It seems you are more recognizable in these parts than I am.”
But Watson was concentrating upon the features of the man who had called to him. “I’m afraid that I cannot place you.”
“I remember that wound very well, Watson,” the man said. “A Jezail bullet, if I recall rightly.”
“Murray! Is that you!?”
“Yes, I may forget a face, but I never forget a wound.”
He was indeed Watson’s orderly, the same who had rescued Watson after he received a Jezail in India by throwing him over a packhorse and bringing him back to the British lines.
I let the two old campaigners sit, however gingerly, on a wooden bench and renew old ties as I ambled about until they had finished their conversation. My usually reliable six sense told me that I was being watched by someone, but was unable to see anyone, which told me that my watcher was a skillful player of the game.
After we took leave of Murray, Watson shook his head. “I wouldn’t have thought it of Murray. Here, of all places – in a nudist colony.”
“He probably thought the same of you.”
“But I was invited here.”
“Murray is a member here. Says he believes going about nude fends off illness and prolongs life.”
“Well, Adam was living fine until he covered himself.”
Yet for Watson, it seemed a personal betrayal that Murray would be found in such a place. As if it, somehow threatened the foundations of the Empire itself. Thereafter, he studiously refrained from mentioning the previously faithful Murray.
I informed him that I had the distinct feeling that I had been watched as I walked about.
“Probably a voyeur,” snapped Watson, still peevish at seeing Murray in this place.
“I don’t think so. I suspect, Watson, that Moriarity may be behind this business of our being here, though it is unlike him to expose himself. If so, the stake must be high, indeed.!”
“Well, Holmes, you have been crowding him of late.”
“True, Watson, True.” I suddenly stopped and grabbed Watson’s arm. “Look, there, Watson,” I said, nodding in the direction of a man who stood fifty meters away. He was extremely tall and thin, so much so that his whole form seemed dominated by his head, itself dominated by his forehead which domed out in a white curve of almost mathematical exactness. In contrast, his two eyes were deeply sunken in his head. The professorial features were completed by an academic mortar-board pushed back on his head.
“He looks like a professor who has chosen his sabbatical at a nudist colony,” said Watson.
“Not just a professor – the professor,” I said.
“Yes, Watson. The Napoleon of Crime in the flesh.”
Moriarity walked toward us, his face slowly oscillating from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion. He stopped facing me.
“You have less frontal development than I should have expected,” he addressed me.
“The result of pursuing you,” I replied.
The professor uttered a cunning little half-laugh. “Ah, I see that you evidently know me.”
‘I would recognize you anywhere, Moriarity.”
“And I, you, Holmes. And that creature must be Dr. Watson.”
“I thought you might be behind our appearance here, Moriarity.”
“Yes, I thought you might so think. Yet I knew it would not deter you from coming.”
“I must be getting close if you deem a meeting necessary.”
“Close, indeed. I implore you to back off. There is no reason we cannot, ah, live and let live – literally as well as figuratively.”
“I make no compromises with evil in general and crime in particular,” I replied.
“A pity,” exclaimed Moriarity, suddenly running behind a rose bush and picking up a large stick. It was a fine, thick piece of wood, bulbous-headed, of the sort which is known as a ‘wooden lawyer.’ “I have brought along my personal lawyer to assist me in this case,” he cried, running towards me brandishing his ‘lawyer.’ In all our adventures I do not now that I have ever seen a stranger sight than this usually punctilious figure running towards me in that curious fashion of his, the club in his hand at odds with the mortar-board on his head, as if Man himself caught between progress and atavism.
When Moriarity was within striking distance, I called out to him, “I, too, have brought along a counselor,” quickly removing my deerstalker cap. Taped to the inside was an ivory-handled knife with a sharp blade marked ‘Weiss & co., London’ which I whipped out.
Moriarity stopped in his tracks. He bowed. “We will call it a draw for now. We can’t have it our here. No need to taint the colony with scandal.”
“On that we can agree,” I said.
“This is my last warning. Stop crowding me or you are headed for a fall.”
“We shall see which of us falls and which does not,” I shot back.
Here, Conan Doyle stopped my reading. “No humor,” he said and on the spot vetoed the story, which I rather fancied.
I got my revenge on him by finishing off Sherlock Holmes in a later story. But not for long. Conan Doyle's supreme opus, "The White Company" was only lukewarmly received. Sighing, he asked me to revive the late Holmes. He decided to bask in the success of his (my) consulting detective. And reap the rewards.
Small wonder I sit silent – if economically well situated – in opium dens more and more. There I sometimes come to believe that I am Sherlock Holmes. When I sober up, I identify more with Dr. Watson.
Larry Lefkowitz's story collection "Enigmatic Tales" is published by Fomite Press. Fomite will soon publish his novella and story book "Lefkowitz Unbound."