Liese Sherwood-Fabre has a fresh angle on Sherlock Holmes, featuring Holmes as a wily adolescent saving his family from disaster, acclaimed by critics for its deep understanding of Holmes’ life and times.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and today on Binge Reading we hear about what happened before Sherlock Holmes became the world’s greatest consulting detective, when scandal rocked the Holmes family.
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All the links to books and topics discussed in this episode can be found in the show notes on The Joys of Binge Reading website, www.thejoysofbingereading.com.
Links In This Episode:
Early Sherlock Holmes movies with Basil Rathbone: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherlock_Holmes_(1939_film_series)
Arthur Conan-Doyle, The Captain of the Polestar: https://www.amazon.com/Captain-Polestar-other-stories/dp/B09B1TYK9X
Sherlock’s brother Mycroft Holmes: https://arthurconandoyle.co.uk/character/mycroft-holmes#
Murder She Wrote TV show: https://arthurconandoyle.co.uk/character/mycroft-holmes#
Saving Hope, Liese Sherwood-Fabre: https://www.amazon.com/Saving-Hope-Liese-Anne-Sherwood-Fabre/dp/0998411213
The Bombay Prince, Perveen Mistry series: https://www.allenandunwin.com/browse/books/fiction/popular-fiction/The-Bombay-Prince-Sujata-Massey-9781761065248
Where to find Liese Sherwood-Fabre:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to the show notes in The Joys of Binge Reading.com for important mentions.
But now, here’s Liese.
Introducing Liese Sherwood-Fabre
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there Liese, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Liese Sherwood: Thank you so much. I’m so honored to be on your podcast. I don’t know what time people will be watching this, but for me it’s late afternoon and for you it’s early morning, so I’m very pleased that we were able to get together.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right, and we’re on almost opposite sides of the globe. You’re in Virginia, are you?
Liese Sherwood: No, I’m in Dallas, Texas.
Jenny Wheeler: I’m in Auckland, New Zealand, so it’s the miracle of modern technology.
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: Isn’t it? I do hope someday to make it there. I understand it’s an incredible place to visit.
Jenny Wheeler: People say so. We love it. Liese, you’ve delved into Sherlock Holmes’ world in a great deal of detail with three highly praised non-fiction books about his life and times and now four mysteries about Sherlock when he’s a young man, before he gets into his stride as a detective, before fame struck. Where did this fascination with Victorian life and Sherlock Holmes begin?
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: That’s a good question. People ask me and the first thing I would say is that I recall Sherlock Holmes and knowing about Sherlock Holmes since I was little. When I was growing up there was a show on in the afternoons after school that was called Dialing for Dollars. They would show old movies. They would also make random phone calls to people, and if you could give the count and the amount – they never asked me, although I always knew it – you could win money.
Hooked on Sherlock watching old movies
I would watch the show and they had on a lot of the old Basil Rathbone movies. That is my earliest recollection of Sherlock Holmes, but I also remember cartoon characters who would wear the deerstalker and carry a magnifying glass. I knew he was a detective. I really didn’t get into Sherlock Holmes until I was much older. I do recall reading The Captain of the Polestar, an Arthur Conan Doyle story which is not a Sherlock Holmes, when I was in high school, but I don’t remember reading that much Sherlock Holmes until I was older.
Of course, later on came the movies and other television shows, but what really got me into it was one day I was on the treadmill, and when you’re on the treadmill you can let your mind wander around. I started thinking about Sherlock Holmes for some reason, and I thought, how did he become Sherlock Holmes?
A little bit of research told me that there wasn’t much in the original books about Sherlock’s childhood or how he grew up. There are just a few clues. We know that his ancestors were country squires, that his grandmother was the sister of Vernay, who is a French portraitist. He had a brother named Mycroft and a few other little details, and nothing else. I thought, this is a really blank slate that I could play with.
My first thought was how did Sherlock Holmes become Sherlock Holmes? What if it was his mother? The pat answer would be his father and I thought, no. What if it was his mother, because his mother was this brilliant woman, but she’s frustrated and confined in the Victorian world.
What was Sherlock’s mother like?
Women weren’t expected to do much more than raise children and keep house. But the women were also in charge of their children’s education to a certain age until the boys were sent off to school, and so she could easily be the one who groomed her children and helped them with their intellectual abilities. That’s where the whole thing started.
The non-fiction books came because as I was writing these books and I was researching, I discovered that I needed to learn a lot. The first thing I had to learn was what is a country squire? That was how I started doing the research. Then I started sharing that research through essays. There is a network of Sherlock Holmes societies across the world. There was one in New Zealand I used to share my articles with, for their newsletter. Unfortunately, the person who had been in charge of that passed away, but I still share with about fifteen different societies across the world.
Then because not everybody is in a Sherlock Holmes society, I thought other people and writers, who might not be writing Sherlock Holmes but might be writing about Victorian England, might be interested in this information as well. That’s why I published it. Those just came out before the books did.
Jenny Wheeler: That raises the question – going one step further back. Why did you start thinking in terms of writing mysteries before you even got to the Sherlock Holmes stage? Were you already having ambitions to be a fiction author?
An early talent for story telling
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: Oh, yes. I always tell people – and this is in my bio – that I knew I must have a little bit of talent. I’m not sure how much, but I thought I had a little bit of talent in the second grade because I got an A+ for my little story about Dick, Jane and Sally’s ruined picnic. I thought I must have a bit of talent for storytelling.
I didn’t do much with it. I did some things in high school, but I didn’t start writing seriously until I was living in Mexico and I started reading Isaac Asimov’s science fiction books. I bet, if there’s anybody else out there who’s ever been a writer or is thinking about being a writer, they have probably read something and said, I could do this better, or I can do this, and probably did.
That’s what I did. I said, I can write a science fiction story. I had an idea and I stayed up late at night and wrote it after I put my children to bed. I sent it off to Isaac Asimov Science Fiction magazine, and it came back almost immediately, being rejected. I wasn’t really discouraged. I was rather encouraged to know that I could finish a project like this, and also I needed more work. I needed to learn more about creative writing.
Sherlock as an adolescent schoolboy
I would encourage anybody who is interested in doing that to check it out. I don’t know what the educational system is like in New Zealand, but here there are what’s known as community colleges which offer classes to the public. I took Creative Writing classes. I took them so much that they told me I couldn’t take them anymore.
Jenny Wheeler: Getting back to your series – Sherlock is 13 or 14. He’s verging into teenage hood, although perhaps in Victorian times they did have a different way of looking at childhood, so quite possibly at 13 or 14 they were already regarded as young men.
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: Well, there was never an expectation that you should act like a child, I don’t think. Not as much as here. His father as a country squire was a magistrate and he would have expected his son to behave as a young gentleman. Being out in the country, he didn’t have as many experiences with other people until he went to school.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s clear even by the way he relates to the young girl, the maid, that he is extremely courteous and very aware of the social distances between them. He has to act in a very proper way, not even putting his hand on her arm, that kind of thing. He’s very aware of the rules of society in those days, isn’t he?
What Conan Doyle told us – and what he didn’t
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: Yes, and his father is constantly reminding him of it. And his mother sometimes too.
Jenny Wheeler: You said in your story that his mother was brilliant. Do we know anything about Sherlock Holmes’ mother in real life?
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: Conan Doyle never mentioned the mother’s name. I came up with that. But he said that Sherlock’s grandmother was the sister of Vernay. If it had been the father that was somehow related to Vernay, you would expect to see Vernay somewhere in the name, and so looking genealogically, I decided it had to be the mother’s side. His mother had to have a French background.
You have to go back to Vernay’s grandfather. They were all artists and his grandfather married an English woman, last name of Parker. There is a belief that one reason Vernay was so popular in England is when the British would do their grand tour they would go to the Vernay galleries or they would visit Vernay because they had somebody they could speak English with. His wife was there.
Jenny Wheeler: In the first book, the one you open with, and it is sometimes available for free to people – I don’t know if it’s always, but occasionally you can get it as a free book – his mother is accused of a crime. We won’t do too much of a spoiler, but that’s how Sherlock first gets called home from Eaton. There is this big family drama going on and his mother is in trouble.
The Holmes family gets into scandals
Each one of the books involves some family member getting into trouble with the law in one way or another. The book we are looking at now is called The Adventure of the Purloined Portrait and it takes the Holmes family to Paris and to that link with the French family and the art world. Tell us a bit about the premise for this book.
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: Sure. For one thing, I was worried about having too many murders in the village where they live. I don’t know if it ever got exported to New Zealand, but there was a TV show called Murder She Wrote.
They lived in a small town called Cabot Cove, and every time somebody came to town you knew they were either the murderer or they were going to be accused of murdering somebody, or the victim. They had a murder rate that was way out of whack for their population.
I thought, I’ve got to get them to other places besides this village. Paris is a good place. We know that there’s some reason they’re going to Paris. Sherlock’s mother makes it clear. She has been uneasy since book three and he knows something’s going on but he doesn’t know what.
A ‘Bohemian’ lifestyle with arty roots
The first night they find out there’s this sketch that was done of her as a teenager that’s compromising, and she is there to try to resolve this issue. She gets a cop, gets the sketch and it’s immediately stolen. The person who made the sketch originally was one of her former suitors, and he is killed right in front of their eyes. He’s run over by a carriage. That’s the beginning of the book.
Jenny Wheeler: They pay for that sketch, don’t they, so they are basically held to ransom to get it back. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Mrs. Holmes has had a slightly scandalous past which she’s carefully buried so that nobody, I don’t think even her husband, knows the full story about it. Tell us about that, without giving away too many spoilers.
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: As you can imagine, her family was in the artistic world and so you have a more bohemian lifestyle than you might imagine for a staid Victorian British family. She had a different upbringing than what she would have found in the States, and she was a little bit of a rebel.
There was a time in another book where she smokes a cigarette and she appears quite skilled at it. She tells her son, don’t tell your father that I smoked this cigarette. It’s a nasty habit. It’s something you shouldn’t take up. Of course, we all know he does later.
Looking at Sherlock’s Victorian world
Jenny Wheeler: We’ve mentioned your nonfiction books about the life and times of Victorian England. What do you think might be the most difficult thing for people to grasp about the world that Sherlock lived in? When they’re looking at the stories or the films or reading the books, is there something that’s particularly difficult for contemporary audiences to grasp or understand?
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: I think when reading the stories there is usage of words that people aren’t familiar with anymore. My favorite one is slopshops, because it might sound like something pigs would be involved in or something. It’s actually ready-made clothing. It’s a store that sold ready-made clothing.
One of my essays was on clothing and where one got clothing. Clothing in the slopshops was primarily for sailors. They sold a lot of it in the US. They exported a lot of their ready-made clothing to the United States at that time.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s interesting because it very much resonates. I do historical mysteries set in 1860-70s California, and the most recent one I did was slightly more focused on San Francisco. I was doing a little bit of research about San Francisco and that’s exactly what they said about San Francisco – that they had these stores with very poorly made clothing, which were mainly for sailors.
Researching the domestic life of the times
There was one guy who bought a pair of shoes and the shoes fell apart the first time he wore them. He went back and tried to demand his money back, and that ended in a rather violent act. It’s funny that we should both be talking about it. I don’t think they called them slopshops – I’ll have to check – but exactly that. They did export to California, obviously.
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: Wow. That’s a long way to go also. That’s interesting. Sometimes you have to watch yourself because you start to write something when you’re doing historical fiction – I think it’s true also for contemporary fiction – and you’ll say, where is this place or what does it look like, or what’s the word there, and you can easily spend an hour or two just reading and running through the internet.
Jenny Wheeler: Going down those rabbit holes. That’s right. Turning away a moment from Sherlock because you have published a thriller which is quite a departure from the historical fiction. It’s called Saving Hope. It’s set in Siberia and it deals with a microbiologist who is drawn into a fight with a deadly virus, and the Russian underworld becomes part of the story.
That was published well before the pandemic we’ve experienced in the last couple of years. Tell us about that. You haven’t followed through with any more thrillers? Have you got any more thrillers you’d like to do? Tell us a bit about that aspect of your work.
A Russian adventure – and writing
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: I lived in Russia for five years, from 1994-99, and I set this at the end of my time there, in 2000. At that time, Russia was still feeling its way toward a democracy and toward a market economy. I was working for the Agency for International Development and I was aware of the bio weapons programs in Russia.
There was an effort to try to shut down some of those bio weapons programs, but at the same time you had scientists who were losing their jobs because of that. The Iranians were there trying to recruit Russian scientists to come over and develop their own bio weapons and nuclear facilities and programs at that time. This was written up in, I want to say Vanity Fair, so it’s not something I’m sharing any state secrets about.
I started thinking, what would cause a scientist to want to do that, beyond just continuing the work they had been doing? So I made the scientist a woman who had lost her job and had a child who was sick with a heart condition. Her concern, her purpose or her view of the world is, how do I save my daughter? That’s where the title Saving Hope comes from. Her daughter’s name is Nadezhda, which means hope. Along the way, she simply falls into this plot to export one of the viruses to Iran, to jumpstart the whole process.
Jenny Wheeler: You wrote one thriller but you didn’t continue with the thriller genre.
A book a little before its time
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: No. I had a hard time selling this book. I finally found a publisher for it but every time I would pitch it someplace they’d say, it’s all Russians. Don’t you have an American in it? Finally, one publisher did sign a contract for it and publish it but then they went under, so I published it on my own.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s funny how publishing can be so influenced by those sorts of factors. You can imagine trying to sell that book today would be even harder, wouldn’t it?
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: Yes. Somebody asked me recently, do you think there’s more interest in it today? I said, I haven’t even tried to suggest it. There was something I tried to sell at one point and the agent said, I wouldn’t be interested because this is the wrong time for that kind of book. I can say that the Russia I lived in was very different from the Russia there is today.
Jenny Wheeler: Moving away from the books to looking at your wider life, you had a decade of international living, didn’t you? I wondered if during that time you had a chance to see something of France, because getting back to The Adventure of the Purloined Portrait, Paris comes very much alive in it. It feels as if you know that city quite well.
An international career
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: I’m glad you enjoyed that part. I worked at that, I really did.
I did a couple of different things. Yes, I have visited Paris. In fact, the first time I traveled internationally, other than going to Mexico, which I had done, was for one of my first jobs.
I was working for the international area of the Census Bureau. My first assignment overseas was Burkina Faso which is in Francophone Africa. We flew in and out of Paris on to Africa, so I got to go to Paris, which was my first trip overseas, the first trip to Europe. I walked around Paris. I arrived in the morning and my flight didn’t leave until the evening, so I had a day in Paris.
Then on the way back I took a day or two in Paris. I walked around the entire time with this big smile on my face, going, I’m in Paris, I’m in Paris. Since then I’ve been back a few times, but I cheated. I don’t know if you’d call it cheating, but I have a reader who enjoys my books. She’s a fan and she lives in Paris, and so after I finished the book I sent it to her and said, please check this out for authenticity and make sure I’m getting things right.
Liese as reader – What she’s enjoying now
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. We are starting to come to the end of our time together so turning to Liese as reader. This is The Joys of Binge Reading, and we like to make recommendations for people’s next great read, particularly in the area of popular fiction. What have you been reading lately that you might like to recommend, and have you ever been a so-called binge reader?
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: When I was in junior high, one year I took study hall instead of a course. You had the option of going to the library, and I would go to the library, I would pick out a book, I would start it in study hall, I would take it home and I’d finish it. I’d turn it back in and the next day I’d get another one. That was probably the biggest binge reading portion of my life.
I recently finished a book called The Daughters of Yalta. It’s a non-fiction, but it’s about Franklin Roosevelt’s daughter, Winston Churchill’s daughter, and the daughter of the American Ambassador in Britain during World War II. It’s set during and after the meeting in Yalta between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. They played something of a role in those negotiations that’s not well known, and that was fascinating to me.
Looking back down the tunnel of time…
I also recently read a book called The Bombay Prince. That takes place in the 1920s in Bombay. That’s a mystery, and in fact the name of the main character, her last name, is Mistry. It’s no coincidence that she’s given that name. I would recommend both of those.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s fantastic. Thank you. Looking back down the tunnel of time, if you were going to do this writing career over again, is there one thing you’d change and if so, what would that be?
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: That’s a hard one. I would probably not be so afraid of sending things out and just doing it. I didn’t tell anybody I was doing it at the beginning and I think I wouldn’t be so afraid. I heard something once and I thought this is a really good way of looking at things – it’s just words.
Jenny Wheeler: Do you think it was a fear of failure that you didn’t want to put your hand up and then feel as if you hadn’t carried through?
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: That probably played a role.
What’s next for Liese as author
Jenny Wheeler: What is next for Liese the author? What do you have on your desk, looking ahead over the next 12 months?
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: As much as I love this series, and this may be my own background and everything, I’d like to get into traditional publishing as well. I do have a series, a book that I started. Speaking of San Francisco, it takes place just before the earthquake in San Francisco. It’s another mystery. I don’t want to say too much until I know what’s happening. I’ve started it and I’m excited about it, so we’ll see how that goes.
Jenny Wheeler: Have you planned for that to be a series as well?
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: It could be.
Jenny Wheeler: At the moment you are self-publishing. Is it a little bit too much to take on everything?
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: It is a lot of work. The marketing portion and the promotion portion is probably the part that is more time-consuming than I thought it would be, but all you have to do is see how many books are on Amazon to know that if you don’t do something, nobody’s going to hear of you.
Where to find Liese Sherwood-Fabre online
Jenny Wheeler: That’s quite right. I had a newsletter this week which had some very discouraging statistics in it about how many books there are out there that you’re competing against. It is a very overcrowded market these days, so you have to have something to stand out. I can understand the desire to have a traditional publisher because it does give you a start in terms of visibility in the market, doesn’t it?
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: Yes. Unless you have a celebrity name. There are only a few of us out there that have that.
Jenny Wheeler: Do you enjoy interacting with your readers and where can they find you online?
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: Sure. The easiest way to find me is on my website, www.liesesherwoodfabre.com. You can sign up for my newsletter. That comes out once a month. I’m also on Facebook. I’m on Twitter. I have a Pinterest account, but not many things go on there. I’m working on that one. The best one to find out what’s going on is to get my newsletter. You will get a free short story when you do that.
Jenny Wheeler: Lovely. Just a little aside – Fabre sounds French. Have you got some French background in the family?
Drawing on personal experience to write
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: My husband’s grandfather was French. His grandfather was from a little town up in the Alps between France and Italy. We were there just before COVID hit.
Jenny Wheeler: One other thing that struck me as you were talking, you mentioned that you’ve raised a family, and I wondered if having your own children made you more aware of what Sherlock’s mother would have been like, for the genesis of the stories.
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: The thing I draw on is, I have two boys, and some of the things I observed in my boys I’ve put into Sherlock at that age. I have an inkling of an idea of what a boy goes through at that age.
Jenny Wheeler: There is quite an interesting relationship between Sherlock and his brother Mycroft too. They are different personalities. They do appreciate and respect one another, but there is also a little bit of tension between them at times. That’s normal family life as well.
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: Yes.
Jenny Wheeler: Liese, it’s been wonderful talking with you today. Thank you so much for your time.
Liese Sherwood-Fabre: I’ve enjoyed it.
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