AUTHOR ANDREW SALMON TAKES US INSIDE THE WRITING OF FIGHT CARD SHERLOCK HOLMES...
GETTING AN ICON INTO THE RING
I've been a Fight Card fan since Day One. Having read and reviewed many of the titles, it didn't take me long to get a sense of the quality of the books and soon a longing to be a part of the fun kicked in.
I was on the outside looking in, dreaming of one day being able to contribute to this fine series when I received an email out of the blue from Paul Bishop. Would I be interested in contributing to Fight Card? Uh, yeah! Would I be interested in writing Fight Card: Sherlock Holmes? Hell, YEAH! And that was all it took. Suddenly I'd been invited in out of the cold where it was warm and jumping! And, a chance to write Holmes in a new way? This was an opportunity too good to pass up!
Discussing the project with Paul, we hit on the framework of a traditional Sherlock Holmes tale except with bare knuckle boxing in it. Sacrilege you say? Not traditional you cry? Shades of Robert Downey Jr. – abominable.
Well, Doyle himself created Holmes as an accomplished boxer, as well as an accomplished ... just about everything else! So what was the problem? As I had written Holmes and Watson five times before getting the nod from Paul, I felt I had a good handle on the characters and could shoulder the workload though no one other than Doyle can ever truly master this dynamic duo.
As the plot began to take loose shape, I soon found myself faced with the biggest challenges and crucial questions: How does one describe a Victorian boxing match? What was the language of the ring in the 1880s? What boxing techniques existed at the time? And what were the rules? All of these would have to be answered before Holmes could throw a punch. Historical accuracy is something I strive for every time I sit down to bang out an historical action tale. With bare knuckle boxing alive and well all over the world, there is a quiet legion of fans who have taken the time to stitch together the history of the sport for posterity and regularly visit the graves of long-dead champions of old to pay their respects.
There was no way I was going to have Holmes step into the ring without having done my homework. Lots and lots and LOTS of research followed as I stuffed my brain with bare knuckle boxing history via the library and the internet to get a sense of where bare knuckle boxing was at in the 1880s. Michael Blackett, the guy at the helm of the History of Bareknuckle Boxing facebook page, sent me links to his website with articles among which were a few on how boxers toughened their hands back in the day. Holmes follows a version of the tried and true methods.
The most important question of all, however, was how would Dr. Watson describe a Victorian fight? Remember the adventures of Holmes are chronicled by the good Doctor – not only a man of his time, but also, arguably, the greatest fictional narrator of all time – and it was vitally important to hit on the right tone, get into Watson's head as he watched his friend toe the scratch line and start swinging. I had to have a handle on it before putting words at the end of Watson's pen.
The result of all this was the chance to step into a fascinating lost world. Bare knuckle boxing was illegal by the times Holmes and Watson first hopped into a hansom. It still thrived, but underground on a much smaller scale. The heady days of champions, big purses and massive crowds were long over by the 1880s.
And the tale had to take place in the 1880s. Boxing is a young man's sport and as we know Holmes was born in 1854, he would have been 26 in 1880. Sherlock Holmes chronologies abound as over the decades Holmesians have tried to create a timeline for the original adventures and those that have followed. There's no definitive chronology, so I had to pick one that seemed best suited to my tale.
Proceeding from the first meeting between Holmes and Watson in 1881, the year 1884 was easy to settle on. Of course, the biggest reason for setting my tale in 1884 was the canonical reference to Holmes having been in the ring during a benefit for a retiring boxer named McMurdo in A Sign of the Four.
Said benefit, according to Holmes when he meets the retired fighter in 1888 in chapter four of A Sign of the Four, having occurred four years previously – thus 1884, when Holmes would have been 30 years old. My tale opens with this exhibition bout, which is only alluded to in the Doyle novel.
With the history established, it was time to put Watson ringside for the fights. To the challenges above was instantly added the task of making the fight interesting and dramatic. Fight Card books use the first-person perspective so the reader can feel every blow and punch away with the protagonist against his or her opponent.
Watson, for all intents and purposes, was standing on the sidelines watching the fight happen to someone else. The Holmes tales are usually told with some measure of detachment – after all with Watson writing the tale years later, we know nothing fatal is going to happen to him no matter what the situation – so I knew missing out on feeling every punch would be overcome by the subject matter.
Also, it's up to the writer to squeeze as much drama as possible while playing into the conceit the reader knows in the back of their mind that the heroes will win the day. I called on my time in Watson's shoes over the last few years to play the fights out and it's up to readers to tell me if I succeeded.
The last piece of the puzzle was the fighting style Holmes would use. Holmes is described as being a tall man, which would give him the benefit of reach over most opponents. Also his calculating brain coupled with his amateur status would, I reasoned, make him somewhat cautious as he tested his opponent's abilities and style while determining the best approach to counter them.
Thus I made him an accomplished counter-puncher who, after some sparring, could guess what his opponent would do before he did it and prepare the appropriate response. I did borrow from gloved boxing by giving Holmes Ali's uncanny ability to stand toe to toe with his opponent, gloves lowered, and twitch his head this way and that dodging blows. I could see Holmes doing this, using his height, and wanting to get as close to his opponent for the purpose of study.
As any Holmesian knows, Sherlock Holmes was the first fictional mixed martial artist, practiced in the many disciplines of Bartitsu or Baritsu as Doyle calls it in The Adventure of the Empty House when he is describing how Holmes got the better of Professor Moriarty. But this was a boxing tale, so I kept these abilities in check for the most part.
The mystery elements of the plot came about through an organic process. To be honest, I did not know how the first murder took place or the identity of the murderer. I decided, instead, to come at the case as Holmes would: finding a body, examining the scene and putting the pieces together.
This method made for some nervous moments as I moved Holmes and Watson through the story ever closer to the end when Holmes was to begin revealing all while I had no idea how it all tied together. My salvation came in the form of that weird scenario only writers know ... Holmes, himself, explained the case to me one night as I pushed my pen across the paper. I just wrote down what he told me as fast as I could then got on with the tale.
This is not unusual. As Holmes and Watson are the characters I've written the most in my career to date, they often have conversations in my head on a variety of subjects, and I've found I've come to know them quite well. Which is why I'll be writing them again soon. I've got an inkling for a second Holmes boxing tale and a full-fledged idea for a third fight adventure. If readers like this first one, I'll gladly get to work on more. It's up to you, fight fans. If you want more two-fisted action from Holmes then sound the bell and we'll toe the line for another round or two.
Until then I want to thank Paul Bishop and the Fight Card crew for giving me a shot at the title and doing the heavy lifting in getting this book ready to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Writing it was a blast and I hope I'll get a chance to do it again. Keep punching, folks!