Q&A with Lyndsay Faye, Author of The Whole Art of Detection

Lyndsay Faye is the author of five critically acclaimed books: Dust and Shadow, about Sherlock Holmes’s attempt to hunt down Jack the Ripper; The Gods of Gotham, which was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel; Seven for a Secret; The Fatal Flame; and Jane Steele. Her latest work is a collection of short stories called The Whole Art of Detection: Lost Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, out this month.

Your published work so far is all historical. What draws you to this particular genre? 

Well, in historical works featuring my original characters—like Timothy Wilde and Jane Steele—I can use historical contexts to talk about social justice issues that are unfortunately still highly relevant today without people tuning out because I'm standing on a soapbox with a megaphone. There are a lot of biases, misconceptions, fallacies, etc., that we still practice pretty vigorously. Historical fiction is a medium in which I can create these really colorful people that take readers out of their own world, but when they return to the present and turn on the news, they say, “Huh, I seem to have just been reading about this.”

Additionally, in all seriousness, I don't know anything about tech, forensics, DNA, or cell signals apart from what I read about in fiction, but I'm very good at studying historical settings. I can't tell a transistor from a motherboard, but I can tell you the difference between a four-wheeler and a dogcart, so I guess I'm playing to my strengths!

What first brought you to the Sherlock Holmes stories?

My dad suggested that I check them out when I was around 10. I was a voracious reader and had used up all the Nancy Drews, etc. And I loved the classics—adventure stories like The Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island—so he thought I would be into the Great Detective and the Good Doctor. Boy and how, was I! I quite simply never stopped reading them. Been returning to them continually ever since.

After that, I discovered that people other than Doyle had written Sherlock Holmes stories—pastiche or fan-fiction or what have you—and then I gobbled those up as well. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer taught me that you don't have to be Sir Arthur to write a genuine and loving tribute to his characters, so I'm grateful for that and other works that really get it.

What kind of research or other tricks can you share with us about how you've managed to channel Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's voice so well in The Whole Art of Detection?

Obsessively reading the originals is really the key element here, but having a degree in acting doesn't hurt. I was trained as a mimic, not a writer. So I can do accents, take note of syntax, rhythm, pacing, cadence, and the like, because as an actor, I'm supposed to notice how people talk.  

As for the tricks of observation and deduction, I read a lot of Victorian literature and cull plenty of Holmes's clues from Doyle's contemporaries, as well as nonfiction social reform works like Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, for example. They take forever, but I'm very invested in their sounding logical. If you're BBC Sherlock, you can shoot a “Mind Palace” sequence and have Sherlock go full feral Minority Report, swiping white-lettered words around. Reproducing period deductions is a whole different kind of challenge.

What is your favorite Sherlock Holmes case?

I have about a dozen, of course, but I really love “The Bruce-Partington Plans.” The brilliant body on the roof of the train scenario, appearances by top guest stars Mycroft Holmes and Inspector G. Lestrade, Holmes and Watson happily housebreaking in the name of justice—it's pretty much got it all!

Who is your favorite character to write: Holmes or Watson?

That's a fascinating and rather circular question, actually, because no matter which one you're inhabiting (two of the stories in the collection are from Holmes's journals), you're automatically writing about the other one. They're in this completely symbiotic relationship, and I think a lot of people are drawn to that friendship more than they're even drawn to the mysteries themselves, so it's this continual study of a pair of flawed individuals negotiating their snits and doldrums and loyalty and mutual admiration.

If I want to spend some time exploring Holmes's psyche, I'm in Watson's perspective. If I want a closer look at Watson, I set it in Holmes's head. It's a great question, but one I can't really answer other than to say every one of these adventures is about both of them equally.

Beyond Sherlock, who are your other favorite detectives in literature?

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark! And I'm in total awe of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe; he's amazing.

Tell our readers more about your involvement in The Baker Street Babes podcast!

The Baker Street Babes are a Shorty Award-nominated, all-female Sherlock Holmes podcast! We've interviewed everyone from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Lara Pulver from BBC Sherlock. It's a phenomenal group of kickass women just sharing our love of every incarnation of these characters. All Holmes is good Holmes, that's our motto.

What's next for you?

I'm nearly finished with the manuscript of my sixth novel (whew!), which is set in the world of the Mafia, Prohibition, and the rise of the KKK. It'll be some nice, light reading!

Read Ardi Alspach's review of The Whole Art of Detection!


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Lyndsay Faye is the author of five critically acclaimed books: Dust and ShadowThe Gods of Gotham, which was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel, Seven for a SecretThe Fatal Flame, and Jane Steele. Faye, a true New Yorker in the sense that she was born elsewhere, lives in New York City with her husband, Gabriel.

Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.