Art in the Blood: A Sherlock Holmes Adventure follows Holmes and Watson in December of 1888 as they investigate a kidnapping, murder, and art theft. The author, Hollywood screenwriter Bonnie MacBird, recently met with Blogcritics and explained the influence of her screenwriting experience on the development of the novel. In this final part of the interview, MacBird discusses the research process and what’s next in her Sherlock Holmes series.
At your panel, you spoke about how great it is to find “research gold” in your preparation for a book. Can you mention a couple of other examples of historical facts you included?
Yes, there were several besides the finding of Dr. [Henri] Bourges, who is the Watson to [artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec]. Lautrec threw a lot of parties. There’s a picture in the annotations of them and obviously they had a lot of fun.
Another one is that Lautrec actually invented a cocktail called the Earthquake or Tremblement de Terre. That is in there and it’s a real, powerful drink: half absinthe and half cognac. We serve that at a lot of book parties by the way. You can’t serve much of it because the earth moves if you drink this! (Laughs)
There’s a scene in a silk mill up in Lancashire where the Jacquard Loom was used. The Jacquard Loom was basically the first computer because it was run by punch cards that were connected together by threads. Those directed the machine as to where to change the warp and woofs to make the beautiful patterns…
Charles Babbage was the one who recognized the power of computing by steam prior to this time. He showed it to Ada Lovelace, who was the Countess of Lovelace and Byron’s daughter. This beautiful young woman became the first computer programmer basically.
I liked the idea that Holmes, in looking at the Jacquard Loom, could possibly imagine a kind of problem with so many iterations. Steam would help in sifting through all the iterations. He might actually have that thought in a passing moment and it just tickled me. He’s in the mill finding child labor infringements and he’s trying to find out what happened to missing kids. He’s there with a purpose. It was a little moment that was just really fun.
I enjoyed reading about the real Vidocq, who lived 60 or 70 years prior to this and he’s sort of a national hero in France. [Eugène Vidocq] was a mysterious guy because he was a criminal and then a very famous lawman. He solved a lot of crimes and pushed forensic science forward by miles. Then he returned to crime and ended up in jail! He was a really complicated guy. I enjoyed creating a character trading on the name and professing to be a distant descendant of Vidocq.
Holmes is on the trail of a missing Greek statue. A laurel wreath symbolizes “victory” in Ancient Greek and Roman art. Is there an intentional reference to that in your book, when you had Watson posing as a Dr. Laurel?
You know, I wasn’t! (Laughs) But sometimes these things come subliminally. I wasn’t consciously doing that, no.
What can you tell me about your next Sherlock Holmes novel, Unquiet Spirits?
These things take a while to write because not only do you have to construct a clockwork mystery, but it takes a lot of historical research. I went to a lot of these locations and I’m doing that again here. I’ve been to the Highlands to whiskey distilleries that still have their Victorian equipment intact. Unquiet Spirits has to do with the whiskey business and ghosts up in Scotland.
It also takes [Holmes and Watson] to the South of France, Montpellier, which was the center of science at the time. Montpellier was mentioned by Conan Doyle as one of the places Holmes spends time during the Great Hiatus – it’s that period after Reichenbach Falls when he is missing. It makes sense because he is a scientist, which is the flip side of him.
There [are] several layers of process here. It’s embedding the research so it doesn’t feel like a “research dump.” Watson, who was a contemporary at that time, wouldn’t present it to you like a historical interest because it was live to him as it is now. He’s a man of science himself. By the way, inhabiting that character was great fun!
Then I do another couple of steps. Watson is a Victorian gentleman and I am a contemporary female. Even though I can hear and emulate the voice, there have to be errors. I ran [Art in the Blood] through some deep Sherlockians. I’m pretty deep Sherlockian myself, but there are those who are more so. Then I hired a former Oxford University Press editor and she took the last three to five percent of knocking out every Americanism that I might have still left in. It’s the little things like that that you run into.
I’m looking forward to seeing how that turns out. It’s been a pleasure to interview you for Blogcritics.
Oh, I’m very glad. Thank you!