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To Resolve the Unresolvable: Science Fiction Takes on Jack the Ripper Across Time and Space

 

Historically, there is only one Jack the Ripper; rhetorically, there are thousands. In recent years there has been a significant push to use modern forensic techniques to identify the Ripper, including DNA testing. None of these has – or likely ever will – deliver a satisfactory explanation, and this opens the door to more extreme possibilities, ones that extend the myth of the Ripper rather than rewriting his history. Was Jack the Ripper an alien? Was he possessed by an ethereal force? Was he never caught because he escaped into the future? Like D.B. Cooper or the Zodiac Killer, Jack the Ripper is a semi-historical figure both confined by his chronotope and freed by his mystery; his murders are historical fact, his true identity a fiction. In their study “Science Fiction as Mythology,”’ Thomas and Marilyn Sutton observe, “Myth is typically concerned with the study of origins whereas science generally focuses on the study of destiny” (231). Jack the Ripper crosses both these liminalities as a product of popular culture, mythic in origin, particularly as it is explored through the lens of speculative science to find out what became of him. Utilizing Jack the Ripper’s status as a figure of popular culture  allows the character to carry this weight of possibilities in a way that purely historical fiction could not.

Jack the Ripper is arguably the most iconic killer of all time, not simply for the brutality of his crimes, but because he was never brought to justice. Science fiction, a genre that embraces both the factual and fictional, becomes the perfect gedankenexperiment (a “thought experiment”, a theory or hypothesis that is explored in the mind and not in the world) with which to resolve Jack the Ripper: the events are fact but to identify Jack is a fiction. The application of Jack the Ripper as SF trope has become so pervasive, he warrants his own entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Langford, “Jack the Ripper”). Memory of the crime scene details, the state of fear in the London of 1888, the frustrations of Inspector Frederick Abberline, and a century of post-Jack speculations work together to form a metanarrative that in each iteration must be distinctive from those that came before. There is an extensive body of work in literature, film and television, graphic novels, and gaming in which the Ripper murders feature, each one taking the canonical facts and synthesizing them with original narrative. The story of Jack the Ripper is told over and over again, but each time the narrative resolves itself with a different version of Jack: For the television series Sanctuary, it is John Druitt; for Babylon 5, a man called Sebastian; for Kim Newman in Anno Dracula it is Dr. John Stewart and for Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October, Jack was actually the hero, helping to save the world from a Halloween invasion. The Ripper crosses cultures, genres, and media as a tool for both the professional and the amateur to engage with one of the most profound mysteries in the history of crime. What follows is a close examination of Jack the Ripper in science fiction as time traveler, as corporeal other, and as ethereal other three of the prominent forms SF has found to deal with the historical weight of Jack’s memory in popular culture.

Every author, director, and fanfiction writer is forced to address certain key factual elements in taking on Jack the Ripper: 1) at least five women were murdered in the East End of London in 1888; 2) the nature of these deaths are graphically described in public documents; 3) Inspector Frederick Abberline and Scotland Yard’s involvement in the case; 4) authorities failed to bring the murderer to justice. Jack’s very name is “both a necessary fiction and a fact missing its history” (96) according to Clive Bloom, a duality that creates a limited freedom for the sleuth-writer. As long as the existence of these indisputable facts are acknowledged by the creator of the work (and not countered without thorough explanation), a near infinite universe of solutions is available. Jack’s story has so permeated the popular consciousness and collective memory that a thorough explanation of the facts is not even necessary; it is enough to simply name Jack. But each universe in which the solution exists is independent from another solution. There are scores of non-fiction (purportedly) books that claim to reveal the identity of the Ripper; each different in identification and/or reasoning. If they weren’t, there would hardly be a purpose to publishing them. Narratives about Jack the Ripper are like a Venn diagram with only one large circle of data – the historical memory of the case – surrounded by individual spheres of fictions that cannot touch each other because there cannot be two solutions to the same case. In essence, every story of Jack the Ripper is a reboot. We are used to thinking of the reboot in just cinematic and televisual terms, revisiting and reimagining known characters in a known universe, but in this instance plots that invoke Jack the Ripper are pulling Jack from known history into a new universe.

Ripperology

Only those pieces of primary evidence and historical record may exist within the central sphere; every work that purports to be “non-fiction” must contain elements of fiction because there is no solution, only speculation with varying degrees of verisimilitude. Nor can Jack the Ripper be both Sebastian from Babylon 5’s “Comes the Inquisitor” and an alien Ju’wes in Doctor Who: The Ripper. In The Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders argues that “everything we know about Jack the Ripper – his name, his persona, his reasons for killing – is the culmination of a century of murderous entertainment…” (465). This entertainment stemming from grotesque tragedy continues to be a strong element in popular culture memory. To finally identify him – and thus his fate – would allow us to eliminate one of the monsters that might still stalk the shadows.

If one can be a “fan” of Jack the Ripper, one is more likely a fan of the mystery rather than the murder (hopefully); Robin Odell claims that Jack is the “patron saint of serial killers” (255). Everyone wants the chance to be the detective who cracks the case, and the public availability of information about the Ripper murders allows Jack to be perpetually tried in absentia. As Michael Connor says, “Modern Ripperology is a game. Choose a name,…choose your clues and anyone could write a book proving that anyone possibly alive in 1888 was Jack…” (76). Science Fiction, though, allows for the additional removal of Jack the Ripper from the chronotope of 1888 Whitechapel. These are not mystery narratives – the crime and criminal are already known; the only part of the puzzle to uncover is the fate of Jack, and perhaps his birth name. And not just who, but what: is Jack the Ripper even human? Many writers like to think otherwise.

The inclusion of Jack the Ripper in a science fictional tale bestows the element of the factual to the fiction; when Jack is removed to the future on a space station (Babylon 5) or a contemporary American prison (“The Strange Case of Lucas Lauder”), these fictional chronotopes are pulled a little further into our reality by virtue of their recognizable antagonist. To distinguish the fantastic Ripper from the science fictional Ripper, none of the tales are set in 1888 unless time travel is involved; no alternate realities or dreamscapes. History is already written; Jack the Ripper was never a vampire (with apologies to Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula), nor did he flee to a steampunk-inspired Gotham City in America (further apologies to Brian Augustyn’s Gotham by Gaslight). The popular consciousness is more apt to accept a disembodied or alien Jack moved forward in time, or a human traveler to the past, than the inexplicable rewriting of thousands of history books; the myth requires continuity within the science fiction versions of Jack.

Science fiction’s engagement with – and solution to – Jack the Ripper takes a few specific forms: the time traveler, the corporeal other, and the disembodied other. Each of these allows for the seemingly supernatural violence and evasion of Jack: “In chasing the identity of the Ripper… investigators acknowledge the bizarre silence at the heart of the tale, a place where history has closed in upon itself and refused its fact” (Bloom, 97).  Every reimagining of the case engages in its own mimetic dance with history, equally as plausible as the next, because there is not – and never likely will be – a definitive identity and biography of Jack the Ripper; for every non-fiction work that claims to possess the answer, there is another negating the findings. The way in which a particular work of science fiction engages with the Ripper reflects one of the possible resolutions to the crime, without ever entering into discussion with other works, always maintaining a singular solution.

The online catalogue of film and television, Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) lists no fewer than 84 entries for “Jack the Ripper” character appearances (as of July 20, 2016), and this is surely not a complete accounting. In addition, the number of novels and non-fiction books reach into the thousands, as any search on amazon.com reveals. This table breaks down some of the most well known science fiction works to invoke Jack the Ripper by type (and sometimes name) of the killer character.

TIME TRAVELER CORPOREAL OTHER ETHEREAL OTHER
Sebastian, “Comes the Inquisitor,” Babylon 5 [TV] “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,” Weird Tales [short story] Anna, Hands of the Ripper [Film]
“A Toy for Juliette,” Dangerous Visions [short story] John Druitt, Sanctuary [TV] “Ripper,” The Outer Limits [TV]
“The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World,” Dangerous Visions [short story] The Valeyard, Doctor Who: Matrix [novel] Guy Richards/Lucas Lauder, “The Strange Case of Lucas Lauder,” CBS Radio Mystery Theater [Audio]
Sir William Gull/Ian Pascoe, “A Rip in Time,” Timecop [TV] Mac’atyde, Doctor Who: The Ripper’s Curse [Comic] Adam, “With Affection, Jack the Ripper,” The Sixth Sense [TV]
Stevenson, Time After Time [Film and novel] “The Ripper,” Kolchak: The Night Stalker [TV] “Wolf in the Fold,” Star Trek [TV]
Dr. Albert Fell, “,” Fantasy Island [TV] Roger Eddington, Bridge Across Time [Film]

 

Jack as Time Traveler

Either under his own power, or not of his volition, Jack the Ripper has escaped into multiple futures after the murder of his fifth victim. This type of Jack is usually the most human of those presented by SF, because only this Jack needs to violate time and space to make his escape rather than outliving the rest of his contemporaries via superhuman capabilities. Either alien intervention or humans from the future are responsible for this type of Ripper narrative. In no instance, though, is the history of Jack altered. David Wittenberg explores time travel narratives and how they reflect our approach to history:

This sort of plot, in which characters or actions affect the past but do not change it, is a favorite of both physicists and philosophers because it appears to be consistent both with logic and with the theoretical possibility of “closed timelike curves,” solutions of the general theory of relativity that permit time travel to the past (153)

This is the conservation of history and narrative by the composers of Ripper narratives; rewriting history to alter the events of 1888 would create such a vast temporal disruption that the narrative would be overwhelmed by the changes. Jack’s inclusion in the story must maintain the “closed timelike curves” or else it strays into the realm of alternative histories and fantasy, negating even the slightest possibility of a mimetic plot.

The simplest time travelling Ripper narrative is uncovering Jack’s identity. The television show Fantasy Island portrayed an ambitious writer visiting the island so that she can finally uncover the identity of Jack the Ripper in the episode “With Affection, Jack the Ripper” (29 November 1980); this is her fantasy, one shared by many others. The perpetrator in this case is a Dr. Albert Z. Fell, an original solution without any Ripperologist or historical connections. He embodies the stereotypical physician Jack, bitter towards the female of the species because his mother turned to prostitution and blackmailed his father. Don Ingalls’s script is about identifying the psychology of the Ripper, the breaking point for his madness: “For every year of my father’s shame and of my degradation, another harlot shall die…”  Fantasy Island fulfills the fantasy of thousands of Ripperologists, giving Jack a face, a name, a motive, and a resolution to the case, not just with a name, but when Dr. Fell follows the portal into the modern world, this puts an end to his murder spree in 1888. There is little concern for the victims, no attempt to correct past crimes with the power of time travel, only the satisfaction of a case closed 92 years after the fact.

For Harlan Ellison’s 1967 Dangerous Visions collection, prolific Ripper-writer Robert Bloch also sent Jack far into the future in “A Toy for Juliette.” Juliette, a bored sadist whose “Grandfather” procures devices of torture and victims for her pleasure by pulling them from the past, has the misfortune of welcoming Jack the Ripper into her bedroom. “The toy” Juliette is presented with is described as a “blushing Victorian” and “a physician” (138), playing into the hypothesis that Jack was medically trained. The world the Ripper enters is one that could have been of his own making, degenerate and violent; Bloch’s imagined future and Jack’s recent past are one and the same. Ellison was so inspired by “A Toy for Juliette” that he followed with his own continuation of Bloch’s tale, “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World,” sending Jack out to explore this future that seems built upon his own dreams. The violence of Jack’s crimes and unease of 1888 London served as mirrors for the society of a century after.

Time After Time appeared as a novel by Karl Alexander  and a film by Nicholas Meyer in 1979, centering around Jack the Ripper fleeing into contemporary San Francisco, pursued by H.G. Wells. Jack thrives in the moral degradation of modern America, whereas Wells, a utopianist, is horrified to see how far reality has fallen from his vision. This tale, like the two from Dangerous Visions, is not about identifying and capturing Jack the Ripper; instead, Time After Time is about comparing our world to the psychological profile of Jack, then contrasting it with the more hopeful dreams our genre predecessors had for the future of humanity. A New York Times review notes that actor David Warner’s Jack “so effectively makes the film’s point about the timelessness of evil that the screenplay’s further remarks on the subject seem redundant” (Maslin, “Movie Review: Time After Time”). This is what Jack the Ripper means to so many modern SF writers who delve into the subject: Jack’s crimes are not truly unique – he is the embodiment of all those perpetrators of evil. This theme carries through in an episode of the short-lived television series Timecop (based on the film of the same name) used a contemporary, time-travelling serial killer as the explanation for Jack. “A Rip in Time” (aired 22 September 1997) begins with an unidentified Jack the Ripper being killed by a time traveler, who takes on the persona and crimes of Jack; “Once you master the art of murder, you touch the face of God,” the new Ripper claims (Gough, 1997). He wants to become a greater killer than the Ripper ever was historically. The Ripper is not a source of evil in himself, but a goal, an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records for human derangement, because if you can’t beat them, join them.Each of the preceding examples demonstrated a Jack whose presence was meant to expose and interrogate modern society and its bloodlust; these Rippers are hardly distinguishable from the rest of us once removed from their own setting. However, Babylon 5 creator and writer J. Michael Straczynski cast Jack the Ripper as a man kidnapped by aliens in 1888 and used to interrogate (and torture) potential allies of the Vorlons. “Comes the Inquisitor” (aired 25 October 1995) may have been influenced by Harlan Ellison, who was a writer and consultant for the show and, as mentioned, has his own history with the Ripper mythos. The episode narrative in no way revolves around Jack the Ripper, his crimes or history, and only at the end is the truth revealed when the character of Sebastian/Jack laments: “Remembered not as a reformer, not as a prophet, not as a hero, not even as Sebastian. Remembered only… as Jack” (Straczynski, 1995). This brief monologue, and ‘Sebastian’s’ employment as the inquisitor, reveals some of the hypothesized psychology of Jack, that he murdered Whitechapel prostitutes as some sort of misguided crusade against immorality and degeneration. Anyone could have been used to fill the role of inquisitor, but Straczynski’s choice of the Ripper draws together historical mystery/memory and the idea of the unwitting antihero. His task for the Vorlons is to be “Diogenes with his lamp looking for a man willing to die for all the wrong reasons.” The Inquisitor is looking for “the right people, in the right place, at the right time” to lead the forces of light against the Shadows in the coming war. Sebastian/Jack was chosen for this task specifically because he was the antithesis of the right person in the right place at the right time. Rarely do writers visit Jack’s own idea of himself and his crimes, moving a step beyond the external view of pure evil. In this episode, though, the audience is invited to be Jack/Sebastian’s inquisitor, and find him wanting; he is not a heroic soul that can perform the tasks required of those at the other end of his inquiries.

Jack as Corporeal Other

There are two forms of Corporeal Other that science fiction imagines for Jack: the immortal, and the alien. Neither of these Jacks is human in the traditional sense, which sets them apart from the Time Traveling Ripper, which is still traditionally human. Science fiction has long employed the immortal/undead being as a key element of our shared cultural memory, and Jack the Ripper, the great uncaptured villain of his era, often finds himself as immortal as Dracula, the product of another world or another plane of existence.

Robert Bloch’s short story “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” (Weird Tales 1943) portrays the Ripper as an immortal being who needs to sacrifice humans to maintain his immortality. It was a groundbreaking work at the time, moving the Ripper into the purview of speculative fiction. In contemporary (1943) Chicago a series of grisly murders confounds the police, who are assisted by Sir Guy Hollis of London (whose father originally worked the 1888 case), Dr. John Carmody, a psychiatrist, and Jenny Davis, a newspaper woman. This Jack performs ritualistic murders of women in groups of five to maintain his immortality. It is supernatural, and yet the traditional supernatural charms of garlic, crucifix, etc. can’t defend against this evil; they are pithy, childish talismans against a form of evil that transcends the old ways. Jack’s ultimate victory – again – is synonymous with a world that has not yet repented fully of its sins, and therefore must still be subjected to inexplicable evil. The short story was so popular it was adapted for radio, in Stay Tuned for Terror, and television, as an episode of Thriller (1961). Most recently Joe R. Lansdale and John L. Lansdale adapted it into a graphic novel for IDW with the art of Kevin Colden under the same title. Bloch’s work took Jack the Ripper and science fiction into a new direction, one which inspired decades of imitation.

Following a similar setting, the American television show Kolchak: The Night Stalker began its series with an episode called “The Ripper” (first aired 13 September 1974), in which Jack the Ripper himself – and not just an ethereal reincarnation – is haunting the streets of Chicago. What’s more, this Jack possesses superhuman abilities beyond long life, such as speed and strength. The how and why aspects of the narrative are never explored by writer Rudolph Borchert; “the Ripper merely exists without explanation,” as Coville and Lucanio assert in their study of the episode (p. 74). Choosing the Ripper murders to introduce a new show to the public works to orient viewers to a new television character by utilizing a historical character they are familiar with through cultural memory. Though the other traits given to this incarnation of Jack are not consistent with our reality, the mystery of Jack’s identity allows flexibility of interpretation; the viewer’s mind builds the bridges between historical reality and Kolchak’s Ripper.

Combining the immortal and alien forms of the Corporeal Other, we find the American television show Sanctuary using the historical Ripper suspect Montague John Druitt to integrate the Ripper as a central character to the narrative. In this version, Druitt is part of a nineteenth century cabal of spiritualists cum scientists who inject themselves with vampire blood, granting him immortality and the power to teleport, but at a price; he becomes possessed by an evil energy that turns him into the killer known as Jack the Ripper. This is a Jack created by the hubris of scientific achievement, who spends decades trying to ameliorate the damage he caused while possessed. This incarnation of Jack straddles the boundaries of hero and villain, humanizing the Ripper by putting his crimes beyond his control and casting him as contrite in the aftermath.

Another American television show contemporaneous to Sanctuary, Warehouse 13, also adds the supernatural to Jack the Ripper, this time for the series finale (aired 19 May 2014). Traveling back in time, the Ripper is confronted on his own nineteenth century London grounds and deprived of his magic lantern, whose light immobilizes victims. Jack’s appearance is minimal, insignificant to the rest of the episode narrative except for its role as the last case worked by the Warehouse 13 crew. His termination, resolving a century-old mystery, reminds the viewer of the mission the Warehouse agents fulfilled throughout the series, protecting lives and history, and their role in historical events. This Ripper is never given a name, but his ability to murder and mutilate his victims is drawn from the lantern that paralyzes and eventually kills whoever views its light. Jack is not supernatural, but aided by a lantern that is, and is ultimately stopped by a time traveler. Deprived of his power, the Ripper is simply another small problem to be solved by the agents of the Warehouse; viewers are given the dual satisfaction of a resolution to the series and to a pervasive mystery from cultural memory.

Lastly, there is Doctor Who, which addressed the Ripper not once, not twice, but four times (violating the rule against overlapping solutions in the same universe). The novel Matrix (1998) by Robert Perry and Mike Tucker features a Ripper spawned from the Time Lord The Valeyard, who uses the murders to power the Dark Matrix and alter timelines. In a rather self-reflective moment, one of the characters actually asks, “Why is everybody obsessed with Jack the Ripper?” (Perry and Tucker, p 179) Meanwhile, the more recent Doctor Who comic Ripper’s Curse (Lee, 2011) features a Ripper from the alien race “Re’nar”, and Sir Charles Warren of the “Ju’wes” race, directly referencing the 1888 quote associated with Jack the Ripper: “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing.” The Eleventh Doctor and his companions Amy and Rory help Warren and Abberline stop the alien threat. However, in the television episode “A Good Man Goes to War,” (aired 4 June 2011), the Silurian Madam Vastra claims to have just eaten a presumably human Jack the Ripper. And most recently (Richards, April 2014), the Doctor Who related audio adventures of Jago & LitefootWax Princess” saw Jack the Ripper escape from prison and terrorize London once more. In this instance his goal is to resurrect a lost lover with organs and blood implanted in a wax figure meant to take the place of Queen Victoria. Abberline is given the chance to redeem himself by stopping the Ripper – with the help of Jago and Litefoot. Four different forms of Doctor Who media, four different answers to Jack the Ripper. The television show is generally the only form considered to be canonical, and would subvert the solutions espoused in the other three, so in the universe of Doctor Who, Jack the Ripper was eaten by a Silurian. Of course, by being Doctor Who, Jack’s fate can be rewritten; his crimes cannot, but his ultimate end can be.

Jack as Ethereal Other

This category treads the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy, as science fiction’s treatment of myths frequently does; some of the earliest ideas about the Jack the Ripper were that he was an evil spirit or a demon. Robin Odell’s study Ripperology notes, “Occult explanations of the Ripper’s crimes go back to the dark days in the immediate aftermath of the killings. It was not difficult to imagine that the gross mutilation carried out on Mary Kelly’s body was the work of the Devil.” This Ripper as Ethereal Other occupies the liminalities of the human and the demonic, representing both the worst of us and the evil thrust upon us by the universe.

Robert Bloch combined the alien/disembodied spirit identity for Jack in the Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold” (first aired 22 December 1967), in which an alien entity inhabits bodies and uses them to kill. Known as Jack the Ripper on Earth, this entity has moved from world to world for time immemorial with no other purpose than to take life. Ominously, Captain Kirk concludes, “When man moved out into the galaxy that thing must have come with him.” This is still Jack the Warning, reminding viewers that evil will follow us until humanity learns to rise above it.

Several writers have elected to cast a dichotomous perception of the Ripper’s entity by allowing for two possible solutions: either possession by malevolence or madness of the mind. Characters inhabiting the role of Jack may either truly be possessed by an external force of evil or they may suffer from a very real psychological ailment. In attempting to navigate the question of science and spirit, Peter Sasdy’s film Hands of the Ripper (1971, novelized by Guy Adams in 2012) casts the Ripper’s daughter Anna as the successor to her father’s legacy: is she a schizophrenic murderer like her father, or is she possessed by the spirit of her father? The spiritual, rather than the scientific, is Sasdy’s solution, as Anna genuinely is possessed by her father’s evil. Similarly, Don Ingalls wrote The Sixth Sense episode “With Affection, Jack the Ripper” (14 October 1972) for American broadcaster ABC, in which the psyche of the Ripper possesses a psychiatric patient, Adam, in an experiment to use ESP power to receive psychic impressions from the past. Adam begins to recreate Jack’s crimes and imagine himself in 1888 until another psychic stops him. In The CBS Radio Mystery Theater drama “The Strange Case of Lucas Lauder” (28 Februray 1975) the wandering spirit of Jack the Ripper again stalks the world. A death row inmate, Guy Richards, inform the warden – Lucas Lauder – that he is possessed by the spirit of Jack the Ripper. When each host of the spirit dies, a new host body is selected, in this instance, Lauder. Love, however, specifically the love of Lauder’s wife, is enough to overcome the power of the Ripper’s spirit in this version of the tale. In every instance this psychic transferal allows for the Ripper to bring his crimes into the Twentieth century; his Nineteenth century identity is supplanted by the modern vessels.

An episode of The Outer Limits, “Ripper” (aired 7 May 1999), also cast Jack as a disembodied alien spirit entity. In this instance, though, it is in habiting the women who eventually die by this possession, rather than any single male being responsible. This is one of the few SF portrayals of the Ripper actually shown in London 1888. Dr. Jack York, a disgraced physician, discovers that a strange entity is ripping its way out of women, creating the apparent mutilations recorded by the police. Jack becomes a prime suspect in the murders and is caught trying to ‘kill’ the alien while it still inhabited the body of Mary Kelly. Jack fails to stop the alien entity, and the dark final moments of the episode hint at a continuation of these killings in America. This inversion of Jack, from murderer to hero, allows our cultural memory of the Ripper to be turned on its head.

Conclusion

As far-fetched as many of these invocations of Jack the Ripper may seem, they have almost as much validity in the mind of the reader or viewer as those works of non-fiction; there is no Jack, so anyone can be Jack. His (or her) character is open to the public sphere for constant reinterpretation, shaping Jack into one of science fiction’s conventional tropes, a mythical tool that cannot shed its historical context, which keeps it connected to our reality via the shared knowledge of the audience. Jack the Ripper’s narrative history is set, but the endgame is still open to any writer. As long a Jack is given a name, a face, a motive, or simply a death, some explanation is better than the century of silence that has followed in the shadows of our culture since 1888.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alexander, Karl. Time After Time (New York: Forge, 2010).
Time After Time. Directed by Nicholas Meyer. 1979.
Bloch, Robert. “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.” Weird Tales (July 1943), pp. 83-95.
— “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.” Thriller. First broadcast 11 April 1961. Directed by Ray Milland.
— “A Toy for Juliette.” Dangerous Visions (London: Gollancz, 1967). Ed. Harlan Ellison.
— “Wolf in the Fold.” Star Trek. First broadcast 22 December 1967. Directed by Joseph Pevney.
Bloom, Clive. “The Ripper Writing: A Cream of a Nightmare.” Jack the Ripper: Media, Culture, History. Eds. Alexandra Warwick and Martin Willis (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).
Bolchert, Robert. “The Ripper.” Kolchak: The Night Stalker. First broadcast 13 September 1974. Directed by Allen Baron.
Connor, Michael. “The Strange Case of Jack the Ripper.” Quadrant (March 2010).
Coville, Gary and Patrick Lucanio, Jack the Ripper: His Life and Crimes in Popular Entertainment (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1999).
Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime (London: HarperPress, 2011).
Gough, Alfred. “A Rip in Time.” Timecop. First broadcast 22 September 1997. Directed by Allan Arkush.
Ingalls, Don. “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.” Fantasy Island. First broadcast 29 January 1980. Directed by Michael Vejar.
“Jack the Ripper (Character).” Internet Movie Database. <http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0031664/?ref_=fn_ch_ch_1&gt;. Accessed 7/20/16.
Langford, David. “Jack the Ripper.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 3rd ed. Eds. John Clute and David Langford. <http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/jack_the_ripper&gt; Accessed 06/28/14.
Maslin, Janet. “Movie Review: Time After Time.” The New York Times (28 September 1979). <http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9E02E7D8168E732A2575BC2A96F9C94890D6CF&gt; Accessed 10/19/14.
Moffat, Steven. “A Good Man Goes to War.” Doctor Who. First broadcast 4 June 2011. Directed by Peter Hoar.
Nickel, John-Paul. “Endless.” Warehouse 13. First broadcast 19 May 2014. Directed by Jack Kenny.
Odell, Robin. Ripperology: A Study of the World’s First Serial Killer and a Literary Phenomenon (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2006).
Richards, Justin. “The Wax Princess.” Jago & Litefoot. Series 7. Big Finish, 2014.
Sutton, Thomas C and Marilyn Sutton. “Science Fiction as Mythology.” Western Folklore, vol. 28, No. 4 (October  1969), pp 230-237.
Straczynski, J Michael. “Comes the Inquisitor.” Babylon 5. First broadcast 25 October 1995. Directed by Michael Vejar.
Wittenberg, David. Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

 

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The (In)Cedible Sherlock Holmes: Ironic Belief and the Metanarrative of the Modern Pastiche

When Sherlock Holmes made his debut on the stage of late-Victorian London he was a figure distinctly born of his day – and still is, though in an ever-expanding literary universe of his peers. Arthur Conan Doyle kept the world of Sherlock Holmes quite separate from most of the individuals and events of his era; he believed his tales to be ‘distraction from the worries of life’ that existed in ‘the fairy kingdom of romance’ (Doyle, 2004: 249). Sherlock existed in a recognisable fin de siècle London, but he did not rub shoulders with celebrities like Oscar Wilde, or criminals like Jack the Ripper, figures we know to have existed in the same space-time continuum. Copyright prevented Sherlock from hunting Dr. Jekyll or joining Van Helsing. In the last century, though, as Sherlock-inspired literature has flooded the market, the greatest detective in the world has become something else: a literary spirit guide to characters – both factual and fictional – of the Victorian and Edwardian chronotope (Cawthorne, 2011: vii).

Exactly how we approach this fusion of worlds and characters is best described by Michael Saler’s idea of the ‘ironic believer’,1 those ‘who were not so much willingly suspending their disbelief in a fictional character as willingly believing in him with the double-minded awareness that they were engaged in pretence’ (Saler, 2003: 606) – a form of complicit Orwellian doublethink without the sinister implications. In this context, Saler was referring to contemporary readers of the Holmes stories, but this same idea of ‘double-minded awareness’ still applies to the modern readers of Holmesian pastiches. Dr. Freud never mentioned working with a British detective in his notes; Queen Victoria’s secretaries never recorded a visit with a Mr. Sherlock Holmes; and yet, these are perfectly natural figures to appear in new cases because they would surely have met Holmes had he been real. There is little need to stretch the imagination into accepting these meetings, and it was merely an act of discretion that kept Watson from making these cases public sooner. Writers wishing to engage Holmes with his other fictional contemporaries require a slightly different approach. In wanting Holmes to be real – even if we are fully aware that he is not – steps must be taken to submerge our imaginations into a unified world where Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, Doyle and Stoker could be manifested. There must also be a reason for Conan Doyle/Watson to never have related these adventures before now either.

To this end, not all but many2 of the Holmes pastiches published in the last four decades have followed a two-fold reader-immersion process to satisfy the ironic believer: 1) in a preface, the author relegates the self to ‘editor’ of the found manuscript, and 2) Watson must explain the reason for narrative discrepancies (i.e. why did Robert Louis Stevenson never mention Sherlock Holmes in his account of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?), and present the ‘true’ story to the reader, who has now had their reasons to disbelieve assuaged. A new literary world is created in these two types of stories, one in which Holmes is ‘real’, and so are his contemporaries. Umberto Eco describes the need for ‘a completely furnished world’ in order to transformation of a much-loved cultural object into a ‘cult object’ so that ‘fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world.’ This is not enough, though, as fans must also be free ‘to break, dislocate, unhinge’ (Eco, 1986: 197-8) this created world, allowing them to explore it, to expand it, to reshape it according to their own designs and understandings of the world. Thus, we can take almost the whole of fin de siècle writing, then, and fold it into a universe where Sherlock Holmes is both the centre and the gatekeeper. As readers of these new Sherlock productions, we ‘believe’ – with mental tongue in cheek – that the Watson telling the story of Sherlock Holmes’s encounter with Jack the Ripper is the same Watson who told us about Sherlock Holmes’s encounter with the Baskerville hound. Each of these must be unified in the same man for readers intellectually, or else there is no consistency and no reason to believe.

With that caveat, it must be stated that there are several forms of Sherlock Holmes that do not fit under this study, such as the animated show Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century (1999-2001) or the Young Sherlock Holmes series by Andrew Lane, which remove the character from his recognisable fin de siècle temporal situation. Sherlock Holmes does not aid MI6 in the Cold War; he does not wax despairingly on nuclear weapons; he does not eye the moon landing with his traditional indifference toward non-criminal trivialities; and Dr Watson is not a robot. These uses of Holmes break the reader’s faith in the author’s in situ world-building. For all of the flexibility extended to these novels in terms of literary and historical characterisation, there are in place some firm boundaries to the time and space of Holmes and Watson.

 

The First Believers

The reason Sherlock Holmes can be written as a semi-corporeal figure of history is because of the uniqueness of his status as ‘the first character in modern literature to be widely treated as if he were real and his creator fictitious’ (Saler, 2003: 600). Even while Conan Doyle was still alive others were taking up the pen to write their own Holmes mysteries for print and stage. Readers in London wore black armbands to mourn the death of Sherlock Holmes after the publication of ‘The Final Problem’. The character captured the imagination of the country, who viewed him as a man no different from themselves but for his preternatural cleverness. The stage actor William Gillette created the iconic image of a lean man in a deerstalker cap with a calabash pipe (not exactly how Conan Doyle wrote Holmes, but a convenient stage persona). Doyle cared so little for his creation that when Gillette wrote to Doyle asking permission to write his own plays for the character, Doyle responded ‘You may marry or murder or do what you like with him’ (Davies, 2001: 15). However, even Doyle himself acknowledged that it was Gillette who ‘changed a creature of thin air into an absolutely convincing human being’ (Green, 1983: 293). It is this willingness on Doyle’s part to relinquish his creation to the public sphere and give Holmes an avatar in Gillette which contributed to Holmes becoming such a well-known figure. Spreading Holmes beyond the confines of the Strand also gave him a greater presence in society, contributing to the belief that such a man could be real. Scholarly studies, articles and biographies filled in some of the gaps that Doyle left, carefully researched pieces that kept Holmes and Watson within the plausible world.

Many of these extended creations tried to work within the canon established by Conan Doyle; his own son, Adrian, and mystery writer John Dickson Carr, wrote a collection of short stories, The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (1952), based upon the ‘unwritten’ cases. The end of each story is accompanied by a small clue from the canonical piece that inspired the story: ‘Among those unfinished tales is that of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.’ This is a line from the short story ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge’, which led to Conan Doyle the Younger (and Carr) to write ‘The Highgate Miracle’, filling in this piece of back-story, a throw-away line fleshing out Holmes’s life, to be picked up later.

Other ostensibly ‘non-fiction’ pieces tried to accomplish the same world-building, such as William Baring-Gould’s Mr. Holmes of Baker Street (1962), which provided an entire history of Holmes, dating not just his canonical adventures, but the Adrian Conan Doyle/Carr tales and the theoretical family history of Holmes and Watson speculated upon by other writers of Sherlockiana. Many modern writers offer thanks to Baring-Gould and other Sherlockian scholars for their assiduous research, which help to maintain consistency in their own stories.3 Constancy is part of playing The Game of believing in Sherlock Holmes. Starting decades ago, and continued to the present, we find an assiduous cognition on the part of many authors that they are trespassing in an orchard not theirs, but nonetheless one in which they still hope to cultivate their own seedlings that will bear a fruit indistinguishable from the old trees. Consider the subtitle to Ernest B. Zeisler’s Baker Street Chronology: ‘Commentaries on the Sacred Writings of Dr. John H. Watson’ (1953); ‘Sacred’ is a very leading word choice, indicating a sacrosanct status of the canonical works, attributed not to Conan Doyle, but to Watson. These are not writing to be shoddily handled, but brought to life via the ‘love’ Eco stresses. The ‘ironic believer’ loves Holmes enough to play ‘The Game’ of pretending he is real, and stretching their imaginations to encompass both Conan Doyle’s canon and the works of Sherlockain scholars. All of this is enough to generate the ‘naïve believer’ who cannot distinguish between the fact and fiction of Holmes’s world.

The last quarter of the twentieth century, though, saw a change in this Sherlockian literary philosophy of not straying far beyond the canon, not the least of which can be credited to the handing off of the Conan Doyle estate from Adrian to his sister Jean in 1970 (who was far more lenient in allowing others to use her father’s work) and the gradual expiration of copyright on Sherlock Holmes, and, importantly, of other literary works. Holmes was no longer restricted to his own literary history, but was being given the opportunity to interact with history itself. The expansion of Holmes into the larger fin de siècle world was underway.

 

Sherlock + Historical Figures

The significance of this era can be seen in recent collections like Encounters of Sherlock Holmes (2013) edited by George Mann and Professor Moriarty: Hound of the D’Urbervilles (2011) by Kim Newman, which deliberately set out to bring fictional entities into the semi-real world of Holmes, and to fictionalise real individuals in the same setting. This is part of a pattern that has emerged since the 1974 publication of Nicholas Meyer’s international bestseller The Seven-per-cent Solution: the synthesis of the literary Sherlock Holmes with contemporary figures known to us in our own history. In the first of Meyer’s pastiches, Dr Watson and Dr Sigmund Freud conspire to cure Holmes of his cocaine addiction. A dumbfounded ‘What?’ is likely to be the reader’s initial reaction. What does it mean that Sherlock Holmes, a product of fiction for all intents and purposes, knew Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology? Here we have two worlds colliding: Freud is being given a fictional life, and at the same time, Holmes is being pulled closer to our reality. There was even a letter sent to 221b Baker Street, inquiring as to the veracity of The Seven-per-cent Solution, to which the Abbey National Building Society (residents of that address as the time) responded quite simply: ‘Mr. Holmes has asked me to write to you with the information that The Seven-per-cent Solution is based on other stories and thus is authentic in one sense’ (Green, 1985: 231). Meyer’s work is being given authenticity ‘in one sense’ by the read secretaries assigned to answer the real letters sent to a fictional character at a real address. How does a man, a character, wrapped in their own solipsism, ever attain more reality than that? Even Dr John H. Watson has an author page on Amazon.com with over seventy titles accredited to him, giving him a digital existence; this is more than most (real) authors can claim. Despite modern creativity, though, the possibility of this continued existence goes back to the creator.

Conan Doyle cultivated a fertile field in which others could cavort with Holmes and Watson, leaving scattered clue for others to pick up on; ‘the giant rat of Sumatra’ and ‘the singular case of the aluminium crutch’, for example, remained behind after Conan Doyle died, and later writers could solve these cases to the best of their imaginations. This also allowed Watson the opportunity to leave behind ‘unpublished manuscripts’ (most in a tin box at Cox’s Bank) that others might find, edit, and publish themselves. Playing on the idea that Holmes was as real as his creator, and that Conan Doyle was only half of a literary team (Watson being the other half) then those works not passed on by Watson to his literary agent Conan Doyle are free to be ‘discovered’. Where the original stories employed no framing technique and simply launched into Watson’s narrative with a scene-setting paragraph, many of the modern novels must provide us with a frame that includes introductions by our so-called editors explaining how they came into possession of a Watsonian original. Watson himself must also leave us an explanation as to why these cases were not published after he recorded them. All of this is to engage the senses of the ironic believer: we know that it is not true, but we and the author engage in a game of mutual credulity. The author is taking Conan Doyle’s place, not necessarily as author, but as agent.

Meyer begins The Seven-per-cent Solution with a telling subtitle: ‘Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. / as edited by Nicholas Meyer.’ Meyer has disavowed himself of being the author of anything except the Forward and footnotes that permeate the tale and occasionally remove us from the nineteenth century and move us into twentieth century speculation. Meyer’s forward starts by addressing possible reader incredulity: ‘The discovery of an unpublished manuscript by John H. Watson may well engender in the world of letters as much scepticism as surprise. It is easier to conceive of the unearthing of one more Dead Sea Scroll than yet another text from the hand of that indefatigable biographer’ (Meyer, 1974: 9). He gives a history of the discovery of this manuscript, the efforts made to test its veracity, and his work at editing it for publication. The footnotes give either background to Sherlockian history (addressing references to other cases) or are Meyer engaging in speculation on the reader’s behalf: ‘Does this declaration suggest a reason why Watson never mentions his children, not even to state that he fathered any? N.M.’(Meyer, 1974: 121). Watson himself goes on to address readers and his reasons being persuaded that his particular tale ‘should never see the literary light of day’ (Meyer, 1974: 15). It is a two-step approach to fully submerge us into the universe controlled by Sherlock Holmes, one which continues to be emulated by other authors.

Meyer went on to pen two more novels, following his same pattern of two-fold immersion via editorial Forward and Watsonian Introduction: The West End Horror (1976) in which Holmes and Watson team with George Bernard Shaw to solve a series of murders linked to the West End stages, roping in additional cast in the likes of Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Gilbert and Sullivan. There are more ‘real’ characters among the cast than fictional. The Canary Trainer (1993) does something even more interesting: while Holmes is playing dead after ‘The Final Problem’, he becomes a violinist in Paris under the name Sigerson (something alluded to upon his return to London and literature in ‘The Empty House’) charged by Irene Adler with protecting one Christine Daaé from a certain Phantom of the Paris Opera, whore the orchestra is under the conduction of none other than Gaston Leroux. Now we have both the historical figure and his fictional creations coalescing in the Holmes metaverse. There is nothing supernatural to this Phantom, nothing that lies outside the realm of plausible: Meyer must rationalise every act, every trick, even if we know that Gaston Leroux is real, and his characters are not. If Gaston Leroux is real, but Leroux is appearing via the narrative portal of Sherlock Holmes, then there is a sense of reality bestowed upon the latter as the narrator of a portion of Leroux’s life and the inspiration for his most famous work.

A year after The Canary Trainer Sam Siciliano would follow with his own take on Leroux’s characters encountering Holmes, publishing The Angel of the Opera (1994), ‘written’ not by Watson, but Holmes’s cousin Dr Henry Vernier, whose Preface indicates a need to present readers with a Holmes that is ‘much more interesting’ and ‘much deeper’ (Siciliano, 1994: 7) than Watson’s stories ever revealed. This is excusing Siciliano’s deviations from the Watsonian perspective and canonical interpretation of Holmes’s character, while allowing for the fusion of two fictions. It is also set in the period of Holmes’s ‘absence’ following the Reichenbach Falls incident, but as Dr Vernier frames the story, Watson was angry with Holmes and a ‘major row separated them for several years. Watson was so angry that he promptly invented Moriarty and killed off my cousin’ (Siciliano, 1994: 8). Another explanation for Moriarty, Holmes’s apparent death, and how Holmes filled the intervening time. ‘The Final Problem’ is possibly one of the greatest (unintentional) gifts that Conan Doyle gave to fans of Sherlock Holmes and their Game.

Now that Meyer had provided a (highly successful) precedence for this intertwining of the historical and fictional, there was no stopping the not hundreds, but thousands, of pastiches that followed suit. ‘Pastiche’ may not always be the right word, however, as even a century ago, there was an objection raised to Sherlockian enthusiast Vincent Starrett that using the word ‘pastiche’ because it ‘has a derogatory sense, one of caricature’ (Starrett, 1968: 198) – and Sherlock Holmes is not to be reduced to a mere caricature in the eyes of the believer. Calling these neo-Holmesian stories ‘imitations’, though, would be also be a somewhat inaccurate designation: many are extension in an ever-expanding universe that has formed around one character of immense plausibility. In a Publisher’s Weekly cover story on the resurgence of Holmes in the last decade, there is a discussion with Sherlockian enthusiast Otto Penzler, who estimates that ‘more than half of recent published works put Holmes into conflict with vampires, werewolves, supervillains, and in futuristic settings’ (Picker, 2010: 19). These ‘genre bending’ works violate the traditional canon and the self-contained world of realism that attracted early followers, who considered Holmes to be as real as – or more real than – Doyle himself. But with the fictionalisation of so many historical characters to incorporate them into the universe of Holmes, it has become a more common practice to add some weight of reality to fictional characters, even those that occupy the boarders of the fantastic.

There are several other ‘historical’ fictions that feature Sherlock Holmes. The Stalwart Companions (1978) by H. Paul Jeffers revels in nearly twenty pages of authorial framing to set up an adventure between Holmes and future US president Theodore Roosevelt, steeped in so much historical research Jeffers provides footnotes for readers as Meyer did. Daniel Stashower’s The Ectoplasmic Man (1985) is a found-manuscript about Holmes’s case with Harry Houdini, a real-life friend of Conan Doyle, until they had a falling out over the latter’s spiritualist beliefs. In his ‘Editor’s Forward’ Stashower continues to play the ironic believer’s game with his readers, mentioning ‘that contemptible faction that insists Sherlock Holmes existed only in the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. They are a spurious lot, surely’ (Stashower, 1985: 13). Following the two-fold immersion, there is then the ‘Author’s Forward’ in which Watson confesses to not publishing the account because ‘Houdini, always secretive concerning the details of his private life, forbade me to write of the matter within his lifetime’ (Stashower, 1985: 17-8). For the uninitiated ‘naive believer’ in Sherlock Holmes, it is possible to continue naively believing that Holmes may have indeed interacted with these figures of his chronotope; but it takes the ‘ironic believer’ to move with Holmes into the realm of his fictional contemporaries.

 

Sherlock + Fictional Characters

These novels, which combine Holmes with his literary contemporaries, are more likely to fall under that category of ‘pastiche’ as Conan Doyle’s creation must blend with another author’s. In the use of historical figures, the reason for excluding Holmes from their history is usually of one of discretion on the part of the detective and his chronicler toward the client. However, the approach to literary figures of history via the portal of Sherlock Holmes is addressed in two paths: one is a route tempered by the balm of sympathetic understanding on Watson’s part to the real authors’ predicaments of relating tales seemingly too fantastic for belief; the other, on the reverse, is the charge of deliberate falsification of the facts on the part of the ‘original’ author. As an example of the first, Loren D. Estleman’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes (1979) uses Watson’s preface to state that

Holmes’s admonition to ‘be kind to Stevenson’ was unnecessary. Although it is true that Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of the singular circumstances surrounding the murder of Sir Danvers Carew contains numerous omissions, it is just as true that discretion, and not slovenliness, obliged him to withhold certain facts and to publish The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde under the guise of fiction. Victorian society simply would not have accepted it in any other form. (Estleman, 1979: 21)

This is the reverse of the track Estleman uses in Sherlock Holmes versus Dracula: or, The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count (1978). Watson also starts out by addressing the world of fiction which crosses into Sherlock’s world:

Before I begin my narrative, I feel that it is my duty to set the reader straight upon a number of erroneous statements made recently regarding the events therein described. I refer in particular to a surprising monograph which has enjoyed a certain amount of popularity since it first appeared some four months ago, authored by an Irishman by the name of Bram Stoker, and entitled Dracula.

…Although Holmes does not agree, it is my belief that Professor Van Helsing induced Stoker to deliberately falsify the facts where our line of investigation transacted his, in order to build up his own reputation as a supernatural detective, and to invent entire episodes to explain the discrepancies. (Estleman, 1978: 15)

Playing into the reader’s role of the ironic believer, it is not enough to simply filch a well-known literary character: their creator must be incorporated into the story, acknowledging the very fact of their creation. Discrepancy between original narrative and Watsonian interpretation of events must be accounted for in order to engage us in The Game of being ironic believers. We know Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde, and Dracula – we have for over a hundred years – and Sherlock Holmes never met them until now. ‘Irony’ tells us they are meeting now because copyrights have expired and it makes for an exciting story; ‘Believability’ tells us they are meeting because in a nineteenth century world threatened by vampires and mad scientists, only Sherlock Holmes can save us.

The character of Dracula has appeared in dozens of Holmes pastiches since, but there is an interesting study by Daniel Cottom about these two figures – and their creators – about their representative significance in the fin de siècle. In ‘Sherlock Holmes Meets Dracula’ Cottom asserts

It need hardly be said that Stoker’s and Doyle’s protagonists never literally met, but this is not only because they happen to be fictional. The tales in which they live have incompatible premises, which represent two strains of the Gothic tradition. With Dracula we have an exploitation of otherworldy terrors in the tradition of Horace Walpole and Matthew Lewis, whereas Holmes updates the heritage of Ann Radcliffe, whose works dramatize eerie mysteries that are then all submitted to a rational explanation as her narratives draw to a close. (Cottom, 2012: 537)

Cottom is speaking of these two figures never meeting in their contemporary composition as bohemian products, but does not take into account their present connections. The human mind desires patterns and unity, and that includes fictions. Dracula and Holmes were in the same fictional London at the same time and therefore may have met. Many other authors seem to think so in their own pastiches: Séance for a Vampire (1994) by Fred Saberhagen; Sherlock Holmes and the Plague of Dracula (2007) by Stephen Seitz; and Sherlock Holmes and the Whitechapel Vampire (2012) by Dean P. Turnbloom meshes both the Dracula story and Jack the Ripper.

Dracula is not the only creature of questionable metaphysics Holmes encounters; the Martians of H.G. Wells have inspired more than one author. Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds (1975) sees Holmes, Watson, and Doyle-creation Professor Challenger tackling the Martian invasion. Similar to Estleman’s use of criticism for Stoker, the Wellmans finish their account of extraterrestrial invasion with a letter from Watson to H.G. Wells, stating that the author ‘vastly exaggerated [his] own experiences, resorting sometimes to pure faking’ (Wellman, 1975: 224). Our role as ‘ironic believer’ is not to believe that Martians really came to Victorian England – because surely we would remember such a thing – but to believe that in a universe where, all else being equal, if both Sherlock Holmes and Martians existed, then Holmes would have defended Britain against the invaders. If someone (such as H.G. Wells) were to write a narrative about such an event that did not include the heroic actions of Sherlock Holmes, then they must be taken to task for such an omission and the true story told.

As far as can be discerned in the most popular pastiches (there being over 8000 on record as of 2010, far too many to read in a decade [Picker, 2010: 19]) Holmes does not meet any of his historical/fictional contemporaries that would have frequented Bloomsbury and fallen under the category of Modernist: Conrad and Marlow, Ford and Dowell, James and his Americans, et cetera. Instead, Holmes encounters those creations which occupy the liminalities of the Gothic threat to safety and order. What Cottom is saying (and present writers are unconsciously acknowledging) is that Sherlock Holmes has more in common with the fantastic than the Modernist. Dracula and Mr Hyde are dangerous to others; Marlow and Dowell are only threats to themselves. The existential musings of Modernist men and women unhappy about their world and laden with malaise can already be filled by Holmes when he is not on a case; there is no need for character repetition. Perhaps the inventions of Bloomsbury are too rooted in their own realistic world for even the ironic believer to accept their straying into the gothic world of Holmes.

 

Sherlock + Jack

There is certainly one piece of history that modern writers have tied Sherlock Holmes to more than any other: Jack the Ripper. The Last Sherlock Homes Story, Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson, The Whitechapel Horrors…These are just a few of the titles of Sherlock versus Jack. The case of Jack the Ripper occupies a unique space in the historical and fictional spheres of Holmes. The reality of five women murdered in Whitechapel in the autumn 1888 is undisputable; however, to solve the crime, to unmask Jack, must be a fiction. As the most infamous crime of the nineteenth century, it is all too tempting to have England’s most clever detective stop its most infamous criminal. But history tells us that Jack was never brought to justice: now he is not a man but an idea, a series of actions and results, speculations and newspaper articles, but Jack the Ripper can never be real to us in any literary form, or no more real than Sherlock Holmes himself. To pit these two characters against each other requires narrative acrobatics on the part of the author to explain why we have no identity for Jack the Ripper. To bring him to justice (whether Sherlock Holmes was the one to do it, or Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline) would be untrue to history. So how do modern authors navigate this historical and literary synthesis?

Michael Dibdin, in The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978)4 presents us with the traditional frame that has come into use: Watson’s lost manuscript is locked away until decades after his death, a piece never revealed to Arthur Conan Doyle, or ‘ACD’ as Watson refers to him throughout the novel. The ‘Editors’ provide a Forward explaining the discovery of Watson’s narrative, the disagreement about its publication and that some will ‘regret that two of the great mysteries of crime are finally solved, and will seek to discredit the solution’ (Dibdin, 1978: xiii). Dibdin method of uniting these facts and fictions is to cast Sherlock Holmes himself as the schizophrenic killer, as Holmes, Moriarty, and Jack the Ripper, all in one. And who is to say that Holmes was not the Ripper? Jack was never caught. Watson and Holmes – rather than Holmes and Moriarty – fight to the death at the Reichenbach Falls, and only Watson emerges, with a secret he must keep. Conan Doyle, unconcerned with the loss of his literary cash-cow, keeps writing Holmes stories, though there is no more Holmes, and no more input from Watson. Watson quietly goes along with this because he wants his friend to be remembered as ‘the best and wisest man’. Here we have the solution to the Whitechapel murders, an identity in the form of Moriarty generated by the split personality of Holmes, who did indeed die in Switzerland in 1891, the relationship between Watson and Conan Doyle is detailed, and the origin of the stories we know explained. There are no loose ends.

Bernard Schaffer’s Whitechapel (2011) is as much a detailed history of the actual murder investigation as it is a Sherlock Holmes story, using Holmes as a vehicle to explore genuine fact (in all its gory details) in pursuit of an answer. Schaffer sides with those theorists who blame the well-connected Montague Druitt, and it is those connections which keep Watson from publishing his full account with the solution to the murders. Lindsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson (2009) presents a new solution to the crime, that in which it was a police officer assigned to the investigation, but Faye can do this while still remaining within established fact – besides the presence of Sherlock Holmes on the case. All of these tales walk us through one of the most documented crimes in history, using the characters of Holmes and Watson to solve the unsolvable.

Why did Arthur Conan Doyle never discuss Jack with Sherlock and his readers, though? In an essay by Jon Lellenberg that follows Caleb Carr’s Holmesian pastiche The Italian Secretary, Lellenberg hypothesises:

There is a reason why Sherlock Holmes never investigates a series of murders resembling the Jack the Ripper case of 1888, and that Dr Conan Doyle, interested in real-life crime normally, never appears to have studied or discussed it either. Some things are unspeakable except in terms of a psychology that Sherlock Holmes would have shrunk from embracing of his own accord, so repulsive its philosophical implications might have seemed to him. (Lellenberg, 2005: 274)

Theft, fraud, and the occasional homicide inspired by vengeance or inheritance were far more acceptable for Conan Doyle (and Holmes) to contemplate than the unfathomable ruthlessness of a serial killer. In Judith Flanders’s study The Invention of Murder, she notes that while some of Sherlock’s early adventures were quite violent, they turned later to the ‘quirky, even whimsical’ and that this is perhaps why Holmes remained so popular: ‘There was enough blood, enough violence, in Whitechapel’ (Flanders, 2011: 438-9). Holmes can keep away the shadows of danger that haunt the streets (and pages) of late-Victorian London, then and now.

 

Conclusion

Why Sherlock Holmes? Why is he our literary spirit guide to this era? That in itself is an entire PhD thesis, but Cottom makes an interesting insight into the canonical character: ‘In the world as Doyle portrays it, Sherlock Holmes is the only subject who can be supposed to know. No one else can enter into, communicate with, and comprehend all parts of society as he can’ (Cottom, 2012: 559). Pastiche writers of today can move Holmes beyond his self-contained universe and into the realms of history and literature, because if anyone was to know everyone in the fin de siècle (and be able to tell us the truth of them) it would be Sherlock Holmes.

I started out calling Holmes a literary Virgil, guiding us through the contemporary texts and events of Conan Doyle’s time. Type ‘Sherlock Holmes’ into Amazon and you will find scores of Holmes-related texts published every year, feeding this expanding universe. Sometimes we are still permitted to enjoy Holmes for himself – id est, Anthony Horowitz’s recent bestseller The House of Silk (2011) approved by the Conan Doyle estate, and engaging with neither historical or literary characters and remaining contained within the canonical world of Holmes himself. But this is an exception to the published Holmes stories of the last four decades, which have chosen instead to engage not just Holmes, but the whole of the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras as source material to build their narratives. The employment of Holmes in these narratives is not just about telling us a new Sherlock Holmes story: these are about moving Holmes into a wider engagement with history, and at the same time, pulling history into the world of Holmes, building verisimilitude for the potential existence of Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is a figure that has come to permeate so much of our culture (passing the boundaries of pure-fictionality) that it is legitimate to sit back and philosophically consider how real Sherlock Holmes is or may have been. He has become a focal point around which to construct an entirely believable historical universe, walking us through London’s foggy streets and introducing us to both Queen Victoria and Mr Hyde.

 

Notes

  1. As opposed to the ‘naïve believer’, who does not know any better.
  2. There are too many pastiches to be read these days, so for the most part this paper is focused on the Sherlock Holmes novels that come from reputable pens and publishers, rather than tiny presses, ebooks, and print-on-demands. One of the noticeable differences between these types of books is that the more well-known authors and titles engage in The Game of persuading the ‘ironic believer’ via the mentioned techniques.
  3. Lyndsay Faye, Nicholas Meyer, and Laurie R. King are among the best known examples that have used Baring-Gould as inspiration.
  4. For anyone who has not yet read the novel, and wishes to remain safely ignorant of the ending, then consider this your warned: Spoilers Ahead.

Works Cited

Cawthorn, Nigel. A Brief History of Sherlock Holmes (London: Robinson, 2011)

Cottom, Daniel. ‘Sherlock Holmes Meets Dracula’, English Literary History (79, 2012), pp. 537-67

Davies, David Stuart. Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen (London: Titan Books, 2001)

Dibdin, Michael. The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (London: Faber and Faber, 1978)

Doyle, Arthur Conan. His Last Bow and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 2007)

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality (London: Picador, 1986)

Estleman, Loren D. Sherlock Holmes versus Dracula: or, The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count (London: Titan Books, 1978)

—. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes (London: Titan Books, 1979)

Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime (London: Harper Press, 2011)

Green, Richard Lancelyn, ed. The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 1983)

—. Letters to Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 1985)

Lellenberg, John. ‘Dr Kreizler, Mr Sherlock Holmes…’, in Caleb Carr, The Italian Secretary (London: Time Warner Books, 2005), pp. 262-75.

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