I have mentioned numerous times that I was asked last year–early last year? I don’t recall precisely, but that’s a pandemic year for you–to write a Sherlock Holmes story. I was enormously flattered–and let’s face it, if anyone offers to pay me to write, I will–as I inevitably am whenever someone wants me to write for them; as I have mentioned before (a lot), it’s rare for me to get validation for my writing, and so being included (which is a whole other neurosis I will inevitably write about someday) is so enormously flattering that I feel like I can’t say no; being asked to write something also is such a rare thing for me that I am always afraid to say no because I fear I won’t ever be asked again.
Ah, the joys of being a writer. I probably could stand to be a little more egocentric when it comes to my writing, and build up more confidence…I seriously aspire to the confidence of a mediocre straight white male writer.
In those first few years during which I shared the upper floors at 821 B Royal Street with Mr Sherlock Holmes, it was my custom to rise early in the mornings and take a walk on the earthen levee containing the mighty river. Holmes was by habit a late riser, rarely springing out of bed before the noon-time whistle rang along the waterfront, but taking such exercise was good for the damage to my leg caused by the wound – a souvenir of the Spanish War.
I enjoyed those quiet, early mornings, watching the ships sailing up the river to the docks from foreign ports, and the barges floating down the currents from points as far north as Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis, all while I strolled with my walking stick along the levee. Seeing the large bales of cotton being unloaded as the morning mists arose from the dark muddy water, the unloading of crates of coffee and bananas from the central American republics, I marveled each morning at the hubbub of activity that created and maintained this most curious of American cities, rising from the swamps like something from a forgotten myth.
After, I would adjourn to my favorite café, the Aquitaine, mere blocks from my home, where I would read the morning papers while enjoying coffee and Italian pastries.
This particular morning in early December, I cut my morning walk short. The temperature had dropped most precipitously overnight, and I had not chosen a heavy enough jacket. My leg ached terribly from the damp and the cold, and I limped along the banquettes to the café. My usual table was in the back, away from the hustle and bustle and smells of Royal Street. In those days, the French Quarter stank to high heaven, malignant odors hanging in the thick wet air from breweries and sugar refineries and, of course, seafood. Holmes often burned heavily scented candles in the various rooms of our apartments, particularly the parlor whose windows opened out onto our third-floor balcony facing Royal Street.
But on this morning, there were no tables to be had. The cold and damp had driven others inside, seeking the solace of warm air, fragrant Italian pastries, and piping hot café au lait. So, disgruntled, I paid for my papers.
I noticed a headline in the lower right corner of the front page of the Daily Picayune: FAMED ITALIAN OPERA SINGER ADDS DATES FOR NEW ORLEANS ENGAGEMENT.
I have mentioned before that I’ve never been much of a Sherlock fan, as written by Doyle. I read The Hound of the Baskervilles when I was a child, and didn’t really like it near as much as I felt I should, and never went back to read the rest of the Holmes canon (yet another reason I say my education in the classics–in general and in my chosen genre–was sorely neglected). I read the Nicholas Meyer pastiches in the 1970’s, and have since read other Holmes-fiction by modern writers; there was a story in particular by Lyndsay Faye in one of The Best American Mystery Stories collections I particularly enjoyed, and of course I am completely smitten by Laurie R. King’s take on the character in her marvelous Mary Russell novels. I’ve watched a lot of Holmes film and television adaptations (not caring particularly for the Robert Downey Jr version, alas), and of course like so many others was completely smitten by Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation in the modern series (I also liked Elementary, but we never finished watching its run). I had bought the Baring-Gould compendiums a few years back from eBay; lovely, enormous and richly bound editions that I treasure. In preparation for writing my own story I went into the Baring-Gould to read some of the short stories, to get a feel for Doyle’s style and his characterizations.
(It is interesting, though, that my favorite fictions about Holmes are written by women…and King’s stories center a woman.)
I had come up with this title, “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy,” years ago. Little known fact: I originally envisioned the Chanse series to have titles all derived from Poe: Murder in the Rue Dauphine of course was paying homage to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue; and I thought the next would be The Purloined Stripper and go from there. Alyson Books said not to the Poe conceits, although they liked Murder in the Rue Dauphine as a title (another little known fact: the book was originally called Tricks; when I first met Felice Picano and picked him up at the airport here for the Williams Festival we chatted on the drive into the city and he nixed Tricks, and the Poe homages were HIS idea, which I don’t even think he himself remembers) and wanted me to brand the book with “Murder in the” titles. But I always liked The Purloined Stripper and kept that title in my back pocket, as it were, and when editor Narrelle Harris reached out to me for a Holmes story, to be set in New Orleans during any time period I chose, that title sprang into my mind and, having only recent read some New Orleans history (and been fascinated, at long last, by Storyville and the tales of the old Quarter) I thought to myself, yes, I can write about the pre-Great War period and include Storyville in it…and instead of a stripper I’ll use a rentboy. There had been allusions to rentboys and gay bars in the Quarter in the New Orleans histories I’d been reading–often times, when a client’s tastes ran that way, a madam would send one of her bouncers to the gay bars to find someone who fit what the client was looking for, appearance wise; I thought that was interesting. Only a few bordellos houses actual rentboys permanently; even in the bawdy houses of Storyville men who were interested in other men were reticent about putting voice to their desires….and isn’t “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy” a lovely title?
And yes, it’s one of my favorite titles, and one of my favorite stories of my own.
As I said, it was a challenge for me to write it–the original submission required a significant revision; but as someone who appreciates editorial input I didn’t mind in the least–and as previously mentioned, it also inspired an appreciation for Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle in me. I keep thinking it would be fun to do more “Sherlock in New Orleans” stories; I may do just that very thing. I have some ideas that have been bouncing around in my head for him since finishing this story; I also liked the new universe of New Orleans I created for him–which inevitably will be tied in some way to my other New Orleans universe as well– I really cannot help myself when it comes to linking all of my work together.
Here is a short interview I did about my story: https://www.clandestinepress.net/blogs/clan_destine_press_blog/the-only-one-in-the-world-greg-herren-interview?fbclid=IwAR10KeDfVRv9Tcp9xioQ4aE7Fj4CUNdibVdVwdsjONN7ozvxKVFfF6gUTxw
And here is the editor talking about my story: https://narrellemharris.com/short-stories/narrelle-m-harris-on-greg-herren/?fbclid=IwAR0ei8LLFJjZaB0ATV3IKwg1s8NBcgapvQOFYe0PaGVNdV2LFMBOf5bw_8A