Interview with Nicholas Meyer

La Gazette du 221 B : Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your Sherlockian journey?

Nicholas Meyer : I was born in New York City shortly after the war.  My father was a psychoanalyst and my mother a concert pianist. When I was 11, my father gave me the complete Sherlock Holmes stories to read and I was hooked for life.    Like everyone who reads the 60 stories and then runs out, I wanted them to continue.  So I started writing my own.  Also, kids at my school teased me about my father being a shrink.  Was he a Freudian? I didn’t know so I asked.  My dad said, it was a silly question, because to suppose that nothing has happened since Freud was like imagining that nothing had happened since Europeans discovered America!  “When a patient comes to see me,” he said, “I listen to what they say. I listen to how they say it. I am very interested in what they do not say.  Are they on time? How are they dressed? Etc.  I am looking for clues as to why they are not happy.”  Suddenly I knew who my father reminded me of – Sherlock Holmes.  So how much did Arthur Conan Doyle know of the life and writing of Sigmund Freud?  They were both doctors.  They died in the same city – London.  Nine years apart.  Holmes was addicted to Cocaine and so for a time, was Freud.  My wheels started turning.  I am a slow thinker so it was many years before I worked out, sat down and wrote The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.

The book became such a hit that it became a movie and my publisher asked for a second Holmes novel, The West End Horror, which I wrote shortly after. As it takes place in England, it is probably the “purest” Sherlock Holmes tale of the five I’ve written.

I don’t write Holmes stories unless I get a really cool idea and it was years later that I happened to read the introduction to Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera, where the writer wondered why Holmes had never encountered the Phantom?  Right away I knew I had to write that book (1993).

G.221B : It took you 26 years to dive back into into the Sherlock Homes universe.  Why such a long time? What made you want to get back in ?

N.M. : As I say, I don’t write Holmes books unless an idea grips me and won’t let go.  I realize I am a kind of forger and so I became interested in forgery.  And if you study forgery, it isn’t long before you stumble on the most destructive and vicious forgery of all time, The Protocols of the Learned Elders or Zion. No matter how often this Anti-Semitic shit is exposed as the work of the Tsar’s secret police, The Okhrana, it survives.  Putin quotes them!  So I wondered what might happen if Sherlock investigated them.  Might that be a different way to expose them?  I did several years of research and The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols was the result.

After that, my agent came up with what I thought was another brilliant suggestion: Holmes in Egypt. Which is why The Return of the Pharaoh is dedicated to him.

G.221B :During this hiatus, did you a read Sherlockian pastiche? If yes, which ones did you like ?

N.M. : I don’t read many Holmes “pastiches” – firstly because there are so many I can’t keep up with my other reading and secondly because I’m so insecure I’m afraid I’ll like some better than my own.  And thirdly, I worry that if that happens, I’ll wind up imitating someone else’s imitation instead of my own version of Doyle.  Incidentally, the word “pastiche” has come to signify something pejorative and that bothers me so I just refer to my books as novels.

G.221B : Some of your works shows concern, if not anxiety, for the world we live in. Is writing Sherlock Holmes a way to get back some degree of reassurance in life? Is the detective a comforting figure to you?

N.M. : All works of art I believe are products of the times and circumstances in which they are created. I think reading (or writing!) Holmes is comforting for all of us.  We romanticize the past, imagining that the Victorian world is/was somehow better than our own.  Maybe it was, but I’m not sure.  I think detective novels deliver the opposite of what they promise.  They promise murder most foul, bloody bodies, etc., but people like to “curl up” with a good mystery!  Why?? Because, unlike real life where people die for no reason – you slip on a banana peel and break your neck! – in detective stories, LIFE MAKES SENSE!  It is comforting to go into a world where, as the detective says, “it all adds up”.  Which it never does in real life.  So writing Holmes is as comforting for me as reading it is for others.  I got through Covid quite nicely putting Holmes in Egypt in 1911.  Bad things happen, yes, but it all adds up.

G.221B : There’s a noticeable difference between your first Sherlockian novels and those published since 2019, primarily a strong political background. Is it a natural evolution of your writing or a conscious effort?

N.M. :I find that when I get Holmes out of London, he is forced to “expand” more, at least as I write him.  I like Holmes as a fish out of (Thames) water.  If I remain too faithful to Doyle and Holmes’s English milieu, I worry that my stories will become a kind of taxidermy, having no organic life of their own.  Putting Holmes in Austria, in France, in Russia and now, in Egypt, turns me loose. And once he’s out of London and local crimes, he’s forced to interact with events in the outside world.  Does that make sense?

G.221B : How did The Return of The Pharaoh originate ?

N.M. : A suggestion from my agent, Alan Gasmer, to whom the book is dedicated.

G.221B : Were you knowledgeable about Egyptian history, both ancient and modern ? Did you need to do a lot of research ?

N.M. : I had to do a TON of research about both ancient and turn-of-the-20th century Egypt.  It was a lot of fun.  It also helped that I went to Egypt in 1979 and saw firsthand many of the things and places I wrote about. I even climbed inside the Great Pyramid.  You go in through the tiny robbers’ entrance and it is not for the claustrophobic – you can’t turn around!

G221B : I imagine you already visited Egypt to be able to share so accurately its atmosphere, and the sentiment when one discovers its wonder ? Was it a treat for you to depict such a majestic setting, especially since you wrote the novel during lockdown?

N.M. : It certainly was.  Except the last chapter !!

G.221B : By the way, would the idea of a sanatorium with patients wearing facemasks come to you in another zeitgeist?

N.M. : Certainly wearing masks and “social distancing” were on my mind – a lot while writing the novel.

G.221B : I couldn’t help myself noticing that you use many French words in the novel. Is it how you usually write or it is to emulate Edwardian English? If the latter, what does it take to achieve this goal ?

N.M. : I know I do this and I’m not at all sure it is correct.  I do know that Holmes claims descent from the sister of the French painter, Emile Jean Horace Vernet.  Does that make it okay ??

G.221B : You mix historical characters as well as fictional you didn’t invent. Which are the most difficult to keep plausible ?

N.M. : The best fictional characters always seem at least as real (if not more so!) than any “real” ones.  Falstaff, Hamlet, Robinson Crusoe, and, of course, Holmes and Watson (also Quixote and Sancho), sometimes seem more real than supposedly “real” people, don’t they?  It is the triumph of the writer’s art that we can chat about Holmes and Falstaff as if they were real people.

G.221B : In The Return Of The Pharaoh, you seem to denounce the way Europeans and American people robbed wealth and historic artifacts of Egypt? Is it a topic you’re sensitive about ?

N.M. : Is that surprising?  It’s quite a problem.  On the one hand it could be argued that many museums preserved monuments, art and items that might otherwise be exposed to the elements or otherwise destroyed.  But it is also true that many artifacts were taken illegally.  I love museums and what they offer, but the more I read and the more I learn, the more troubling many of these acquisitions become. To take but one example, The “Elgin” marbles, taken from the Parthenon and on display in the British Museum.  Lord Elgin argued he PAID FOR and “saved” these priceless beauties from desecration in Greece, which didn’t care about them at the time.  (At one point the Germans stored ammunition in the Parthenon and it blew up!) And he might have a point.  But it is also true that these objects are part of Greece’s patrimony. So what’s the answer?  You can see both sides.

G.221B : You add elements to Holmes’s and Watson’s life. Are you an adept of the Great Game, and would you like to leave your mark in it ?

N.M. : As I said before, if you don’t add something than you’re merely repeating, which seems to me like taxidermy.  And of course I want to leave my mark on the Canon.

G.221B : The Return of The Pharaoh is quite picturesque. Would you like it to be adapted into a movie? Would you like to write the script? Direct the movie? Or both ?

N.M. : Of course. I think it would make a wonderful movie!

G.221B : Who would you consider embodying Holmes and Watson ?

N.M. : Of course. I think it would make a Daniel Day Lewis as Holmes. He’s the right age for my Holmes.  David Robb as Watson.  Robb, incidentally, I directed in THE DECEIVERS with Pierce Brosnan.  He also plays the doctor in Downton Abbey and I had him read both my last two Holmes adventures for the audio versions of those novels.

G.221B : Last question… What are you currently working on? Can we expect another Sherlockian novel ?

N.M. : Surprisingly, I do have an idea for another Holmes novel.  The question is whether The Return of the Pharaoh does well enough that my publisher is interested! And there’s a new television series.  Not about Holmes.