September 1, 2015
It's a mystery to me why anyone would ask, but lately a number of people have been wondering whether I am ready to retire, whether Coming Home was the farewell appearance of Chase and Alex, whether Hutch's career had ended with her prequel Starhawk. Was I, in fact, preparing to move onto our front porch and settle into a rocker. This perspective might have gained some credibility when it came out that I'd taken this year off, and had not, for the first time since 1996, produced a novel. In addition there've been only a couple of short stories. Sounds like a collapse to me. Except that I still feel as if I could play some basketball.
I still have ground to cover. But if anyone is wondering about the nonproductive year, the reality is that there've been books I've been trying to catch up with since my college days. I'm currently enjoying a dazzling ride aboard the Quaker City with Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad. And I've been enjoying his collected essays in the Library of America editions.
I've contributed a couple of stories to anthologies, one to Future Visions, and another to David Brin's Chasing Shadows. And Derrick Belanger asked for a Sherlock Holmes story for his anthology Beyond Watson. It's to be narrated by someone other than the good doctor. That sounded like fun, so I said sure and decided Mark Twain would pop into nineteenth-century London. But then it occurred to me Holmes and Watson might be even more intrigued by a meeting with H. L. Mencken.
Henry Mencken entered my life in 1947 when I was in grade school. He suffered a stroke, and an article reporting the event appeared in Life Magazine, to which we subscribed. They quoted a few lines of his. Unfortunately, I can't recall them now, but I remember falling in love with the guy immediately. My parents, who had no clue who he was, saw that I was interested in him. And they wanted to encourage me to read, so they got me a copy of one of his books, probably The Chrestomathy. I was twelve years old at the time, and I was never the same afterward. My mom and dad never realized what they'd done. Mencken was the ultimate skeptic. He didn't approve of politicians, of literature professors, of clerics, of hardly anyone. For him, the world was full of idiots and hypocrites. Strong stuff for a kid. I've read him off and on ever since. And years later, when I needed a journalist for the Priscilla books, he became the inspiration for Gregory MacAllister. I'll admit that writing has never been more sheer pleasure than when I was trying to replicate his style.
Most people, when they think of Mark Twain, immediately lock onto Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. And maybe A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. But it's the essays and speeches that seriously rock. Mencken was the only other person who, when it comes to writing essays, plays in the same league. Henry never wrote a piece of fiction, as far as I know. And that, I suspect, is the reason he's not as well-known as he deserves to be. In any case, he's the ultimate American skeptic, and was the perfect person to become involved with a Holmes case. I'm looking forward to seeing how he'll react when the great detective observes that he clearly plans to visit Germany when he leaves the U.K.
Anyone who'd like to catch up with Mencken could not do better than to start with The Chrestomathy. It's Mencken's selection of his own best work.
Since I was going to write about him, I had an excuse to do some research on his early years. (He'll be twenty-eight when, in 1908, he encounters Holmes and Watson.) So I've jumped into Carl Bode's The Young Mencken, and Mencken A Life by Fred Hobson.
I'd assumed that putting together a Holmes-style mystery would be fairly easy. I'd been a fan of the Basil Rathbone movies since I was four, and I loved the radio program. Eventually, during the summer of 1955, I caught up with and read the entire canon. I came away seriously annoyed with Conan Doyle, who'd seen his detective as a cheap sideline to his more serious work, like The Mystery of Cloomber, The White Company, The Parasite, The Tragedy of the Korosko, and The Doings of Raffles Haw.
I've never forgiven him.
During the first few days, I was surprised to discover that I couldn't come up with a plotline. I wanted a murder mystery, but I had nothing that aroused my passions, so it would do nothing for the reader. Eventually I found myself in a phone conversation with David Paquette, formerly one of my students at Mt. St. Charles Academy in Woonsocket, R.I. When he asked how I was doing, I told him.
"You need to get out of the box," he said. "Why are you trying to write a Holmes mystery? Go with Alex."
Of course. How could I have been so dumb?