Interview with Bonnie MacBird

La Gazette du 221 B : Hello Bonnie, I want to first ask how you are doing. How have you been through this strange period?

Bonnie MacBird : Thank you. It has been a challenge, but I remind myself daily to count my blessings. So many people have struggled without income, homeschooling, or difficult family situations. And there have been real tragedies, losses by so many people.  Marriages have gone asunder, mourning undertaken alone. I have been blessed with safety, a good-tempered husband, enough to eat, and the ability to keep working through the long lockdown.  I remain aware of this and thankful for this every day. Deeply grateful

G221B : How did this long lockdown affect your creativity?

BMB : It didn’t. Although I had planned to return to Cambridge for a second research trip but could not.  However, I was able to write extremely well during lockdown. I’m out of my head and onto the page, while writing, and as long as there is coffee and relative quiet, I can work. Like Holmes, I’m happiest when applying myself to a real challenge; and antsy or depressed when not. Writing for me was an escape from the fearful reality of the pandemic and I was motivated to stay in that mode throughout the entire year.

G221B : Now, let’s talk about The Three Locks.  While your previous novels were set in chronological order (1888 for Art In The Blood to 1889 for Unquiet Spirits and 1890 for The Devil’s Due), your last one goes back in time to 1887. Why did you make this choice??

BMB : I was asked to make this choice by the publisher. This meant, however, that I could not bring back two reader favourities: Jean Vidocq  (the rival French detective with his phony name and outrageous antics) or Heffie (the street urchin Hephzibah O’Malley) because Watson remarks that he meets them for the first time in Art in the Blood and The Devil’s Due respectively. In addition to not contradicting anything in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Canon, I also don’t want to contradict any in my own work, either. So no Vidocq or Heffie in this book. They will be back in future, however.

G221B : Even if, just like the other ones, it can be read as a stand-alone, do you consider it a sort of prequel

BMB : No. When they asked for a “prequel” I said that in A Study in Scarlet, Conan Doyle had already related the meeting of Holmes and Watson, and how they began to room together at 221B, so my new book could not really be a “prequel”. But HarperCollins wanted readers to know that my books are standalone and can be read in any order. As indeed they can. So they added that label although it’s not exactly right.

G221B : Without spoiling the plots of the book, one involves magicians, and another one a science lab of Cambridge. Did you intend to draw a parallel between these two worlds?

Le Laboratoire Cavendish, à Cambridge.

BMB : Mais oui! Science is magic until it is explained to you. In ancient times everything seemed like magic, until science slowly unlocked the secrets of how the world actually works. The late nineteenth century was a thrilling time for invention and discovery. Of course, there is plenty more to unlock, and we are all still searching for the keys. And also for understanding. It is amazing that science can tell us so much about communicable diseases and the mathematics of epidemiology…But people will not allow the explanation to penetrate. Sorry, had to slip that in.

G221B : I usually ask you how you do your research… This time I will innovate and ask you what is your inspiration for the minor characters you create. They’re unforgettable, singulars but never overdone.

BMB : Thank you. I love creating them. Usually I have a picture in my mind what they are supposed to do, how they are to block or aid the heroes. But sometimes they have other ideas. They just walk onto the page, fully formed as people and begin speaking. I don’t really know them until I meet them there. People have responded dramatically to the Norwegian locksmith Låse Opp, and he surprised the heck out of me when he showed up in such vivid detail. I could see him and hear him clearly.  I knew that he had to be a little bit dangerous, and creepy, and that it would need Holmes to get him to work his lock magic… Watson could never have gotten anywhere with this man alone. And I knew that getting him to unlock Watson’s box would need to really cost our boys –cost Holmes — something. I had fun with him. Holmes of course does not disappoint, but the Norwegian is a worthy opponent. There’s the shadow of an unnamed villain in that subplot as well.

I also had a great deal of fun with Dillie’s three young suitors in Cambridge. Freddie Eden-Summers is based on half the frat boys I met at Stanford– gorgeous, athletic, dripping with privilege and self-confidence, Freddie is a louche young man who treats girls like commodities. In my freshman year at Stanford I was assigned to live in an all-freshman, all-female dorm. One night, a frat group came by with long stemmed red roses and left them at each door for some but not all of the girls –only those they thought were “pretty”.  Idiots! Those of us who received roses, and those of us who didn’t were all of a single mind. Furious! The roses were returned. Of course not all frat boys are like this, and Freddie is not a one-size-fits-all representation, either. People are nuanced and therein lies the fun.

And I loved creating the young, slightly Asperger’s physics student, Leo Vitaly. I wanted Holmes to see himself a bit in this young man, what he might have been as a science student. I hang a lot with scientists in real life, as you know, and this type is one I know quite well. But do we really know Leo Vitaly?

G221B : Just like in The Devil’s Due, your novel is making forays in societal and even political issues of the Victorian era. Is it intentional?

BMB : The Three Locks allowed me to say some rather interesting things about women at the time, which was a hot topic in Cambridge at the end of the nineteenth century. But it’s not my reason for the choice of location. Holmes novels should never be any kind of polemic. They are not meant to be vehicles for me to parade my views. They are aimed at pure entertainment… but as a reader I want a little more substance along with the thrills to feel nourished, even in a mystery/adventure/thriller – which these books are. And so I seek to enrich the experience by grounding the events in what was really happening then. The late nineteenth century, like the times we are living in now, were years of great upheaval and change in the sciences, in technology, and in the social order.

One of the themes this time around is the cost of a locked secret. Dillie and The Great Borelli both suffer from the effects of locking their real feelings away from those who love them…. and Watson, well, you have to read it to find out about his lock. Then, playing with the word “lock” I read about The Jesus Lock and the name just drew me. I visited it in Cambridge and immediately saw danger (indeed the body of a young woman had been found in it the week before my arrival!) An action scene began to form in my mind.

It is interesting that you note that The Devil’s Due made real comments on the political issues of the time. Perhaps that was nearer the surface as that book was written in a white heat of rage about the then-current POTUS. I created an utterly evil bully in Titus Billings, a man who truly believed in that heinous (and real) tract Might is Right and who represented the thing I hate most – the ignorant, sadistic bully. While the reader nails Billing’s villainy instantly, there’s another aspect to the murders, which I think comes as a surprise.

By contrast, The Three Locks was written during… lockdown… and the reflection of that is, I think, a main theme which may be more internal to the characters – the price we pay for locking away a secret. We were all forced more inside our heads than usual by the isolation.

These are adventures and cry out for action – there is more action than we may think in the original Conan Doyle. In those original stories, those moments pass quickly, and sometimes happen “offstage,” such as when Holmes gets into a fight and says combatant, Mr. Woodley “went home in a cart”. I perhaps show a bit more, but do not linger on the heroes in a debilitated state. I love to challenge these two men and see them leap back into the fray.

G221B : I seem to notice an evolution in your writing style. It’s both concise and intricate, fast-paced but never messy. No word is wasted and you manage to be evocative without being ponderous. Do you pay special attention to it or is it just the evolution of your writing?

WHolmes and Watson – Watercolor by Bonnie MacBird

BMB : Ha ha, concise and intricate. I’m going to ponder that one. Evolving? I suppose it is inevitable; one can only hope to improve with practice! I have some very clear craft goals and aim to achieve them in each novel. Conan Doyle was a genius at narrative drive, that underlying pulse, that energy that makes you want to turn the page. I think of his writing as muscular. I try to emulate that “get on with it” quality, while still providing the subtlety of Holmes’s thought processes, Watson’s clear and generous assessment of the people and events around him, and the humor that makes the originals so deeply appealing. And, of course there have to be the deductions. I’m particularly proud of the Holmes deductions onstage at Wilton’s Music Hall in this book. How Lestrade parrots Holmes’s methods and still gets it wrong. Also Holmes’s work solving the second murder as well.

But perhaps above all of this is the friendship. In this pandemic time of incredible isolation and loneliness for all of us…. The Holmes/Watson friendship just came to the foreground.  So I guess, yes, a writer cannot help but be influenced by the zeitgeist.

G221B : In this novel, you focus more on Watson’s personality, and you even dip into the waters of his backstory. Was this something you wanted to do for a long time?

BMB : It seemed to be the right time. Watson as created by Doyle is not a neurotic character; he is not a deeply troubled man, and while Conan Doyle tells us he came to Baker Street describing himself as suffering from what we might call PTSD from his war experiences, this does not really show up in his narrative voice. By contrast, we clearly understand that Holmes is more complicated, he is presented as both heroic but at the same time he is damaged goods, and that is one aspect of the mystery of the man that has fascinated readers for 130 years.

In the first three of my novels, we learn more of Holmes’s early history (but never too much – he must remain somewhat of a mystery) but this time around I focused a little more on Watson. One of the mysteries revolves around a bit of his deep past. And also, he is injured in this story. I’ve had readers comment on the physical dangers I plunge Holmes and Watson into – most appreciate the thrills and the resilience this highlights in their characters – but some worry I’m putting the boys through too much. I love the Phoenix rising from the ashes moment, so I do like to challenge them. I think Watson, felled briefly as the “patient” in this book makes for an interesting moment… as does his short-lived experience with cocaine.

So how could I create something that would add to the Watson story, just a little, and yet not in any way contradict the decent, intelligent, eminently sane man whose narrative voice we so happily follow? And it came to me, and inspired the ending to this book which has been a real reader favorite.

G221B : Is it a path you intend to follow in your next novels?

BMB : I think it is important when writing Holmes in novel length to consider the characters a little more deeply than one might in a short story. I have a number of things to think about for the two of them. So, probably, yes.

G221B : The name of this next book is already known: The Serpent Under…Have you already started writing it? Would you make our mouth water with a teaser?

BMB : I have started research for it. The Serpent Under will explore the nature and reasons for treachery by those closest to us. Deceit lying just under the surface of things. I intend to get the boys in a load of hot water, of course. But we know already who will win; it’s how and at what cost that hopefully will make it fun.