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The View from Sherlock Peoria (203)

April 23, 2006

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In Defense of the Peerless Peer

Every city with a Sherlockian heritage has its own Sherlockian founding father. That pioneer of pipe-and-deerstalker is usually the one who first planted the Holmes flag on virgin soil and announced, "The Great Detective shall be celebrated here." In Peoria, Illinois, that founding father is science fiction author Philip Jose Farmer. A fellow feels obliged to stick up for his local Sherlockian founding father, and that is the position I find myself in this week.

In 1974, the same year that Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Per Cent Solution hit bookstores and took the publishing world by storm, a little book called The Adventure of the Peerless Peer was published by a small publisher called Aspen Press. It was written by Philip Jose Farmer, and was obviously not much of a commercial venture. While Phil had already well established himself in the world of science fiction with his popular Riverworld and World of Tiers series, he loved writing about his favorite characters of fiction. He had published biographies of both Tarzan and Doc Savage in the years before, doing for them what Sherlockian scholarship had been doing for Holmes for years. Looking at a bibliography of Phil’s work during those days, it quickly becomes obvious that this was not a guy who was just out to make a buck. He was having fun, and a lot of it.

With the explosion in popularity of The Seven Per Cent Solution, however, publishers were hungry for anything Sherlock, and suddenly Phil’s little Holmes/Tarzan book was the obvious candidate for publication as a mass market paperback. The Adventure of the Peerless Peer was definitely not Conan Doyle . . . it was Philip Jose Farmer all over. Doyle was a restrained Englishman, Farmer an earthy American. Add in Phil’s love of old pulp characters and biplanes and what do you get?

An airsick Sherlock Holmes in an aerial battle in a plane being flown by Richard Wentworth (the Spider), saying things like “Watson, isn’t that asshole shooting a machine gun?” Like I said, Phil was having fun.

This week, a discussion on pastiches on one of the internet lists led to some hard words about Phil’s book, with a Sherlockian or two citing it as the reason they gave up reading Sherlock Holmes stories not written by Doyle. And as often happens when Sherlockians start trashing pastiches, talk of the greedy motivations of such writers always comes up. But have you ever really talked to those who write pastiches? I’d wager that well over ninety percent of them are NOT writing about Holmes for the money. They write about Holmes for the love of Holmes. They’re having fun.

If a publisher winds up publishing their work, good for them, I say. Publishers can be seen as greedy, riding waves of popularity like that of The Seven Per Cent Solution. They’re in the business of making money. And if Dell Paperbacks came to your house asking to publish your grocery list, would you turn them down? Heck no.

But any non-Doyle writings about Sherlock Holmes can provoke anger in Sherlockians. How dare a publisher try to get us to buy a Sherlock Holmes book that’s not as good as Conan Doyle! But if you buy a cubic zirconium instead of a diamond, should you get angry when it won’t cut glass? You knew what you were buying. And while a complete Holmes devotee with amazing talent might be expected to write a Sherlock Holmes story that mimics Doyle to the best of their ability, should we expect that of any established writer?

The Adventure of the Peerless Peer has aspects of parody in it, as much as true pastiche. Taken as comedic adventure, it’s not really all that bad. And if anyone still isn’t happy with it, observed from that point of view, let me give you the real truth about Peerless Peer: We all should be deliriously happy that Phil didn’t REALLY write it Farmer-style.

While Philip Jose Farmer was a great fan of Sherlock Holmes, he was an even bigger fan of Tarzan and Doc Savage. He wrote extensively about those two, both by those names and under the guises of Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban. If you ever read a novel called A Feast Unknown, which features both of those fellows, you might just find that yourself pleased that Phil didn’t like Holmes and Watson more. Why?

Well, have you ever read a pastiche where Holmes has his scrotum and its contents bitten off? Well, that’s because Philip Jose Farmer didn’t like Holmes as much as he liked Tarzan. Consider yourself lucky. That might not even be the worst of it, had Phil truly cut loose on the master detective.

Peorians can be trouble when we start having fun, and Phil is no different. Is his The Adventure of the Peerless Peer a Conan Doyle tribute to set a monument to the Classic Literary Figure for all time? Naw. But is it fodder for some crazy book-burning party to be wiped off the face of the Earth, devoid of entertainment value or interest? No way. We live on a planet where movies like “The Benchwarmers” and “Scary Movie 4” make millions upon millions of dollars, because sometimes people like plain, old stupid fun.

Even when it comes to Sherlock Holmes.

Your humble correspondent,

Brad Keefauver