The Doyle/Shirley Universe: A Talk With John Shirley

The shaded cobblestone streets of Garden Rest are lined with shops, cottages, a pub, a boarding house near the town square, and of course, something nefarious lurking in dark hinterlands. John Shirley’s Doyle After Death reads like a classic Sherlock Holmes whodunit, with a couple of major differences.

First, it takes place in the afterlife, or as the people of Garden Rest prefer to call it, the Afterworld. A private detective named Nicholas “Nick” Fogg wakes up in the Afterworld after dying in a hotel room in Las Vegas. Also, flashbacks to the detective’s last case among the living give the story a touch of gritty noir realism.

The plot advances at a breezy clip that is somehow both relaxing and exhilarating, and Shirley has a knack for cinematic descriptions. In one nighttime scene, four men look down at the town from a steep hill and see a view like a rich chiaroscuro painting. Shirley’s biographical knowledge of Arthur Conan Doyle informs the novel and confirms Shirley as a fan and a history scholar. He even includes an appendix, which expounds upon Doyle’s theories about the spirit world and incorporates those theories into the novel. Comic book collectors speak of the “Marvel universe” and the “DC universe.” This is the Doyle/Shirley universe.

“If some of us unconsciously chose places like Garden Rest, perhaps others, darkly obsessed, chose an underworld where they might act out the suffering they felt they deserved”, muses Nick Fogg in Doyle After Death. In terms of how negative karma might affect people who exist on alternate planes of reality, this book reminds me of the writings of Charles Williams, whose work was arguably the darkest and weirdest of all the Inklings, that Oxford literary group that also included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. There is an aspect of what Professor Thomas Howard called “purgatorial” when describing William’s themes.

But there is a solid basis for science in the Doyle/Shirley universe. Doyle theorizes that the spirit plane is invisible because it vibrates at a level undetectable to the mortal eye, like fan blades spinning so fast we can’t see them. In an Author’s Note, Shirley’s adds, “Any conceivable afterlife would have consistent physics and biological principles, all its own.”
Even if you don’t catch every reference to Conan Doyle’s personal life, this is a fun book to read. I hope there will be a sequel, and perhaps Mr. Doyle will yet be reunited with his one true love.

John Shirley is an award-winning writer of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and noir fiction. He has written novels, short stories, TV scripts, and screenplays. His novels include the seminal cyberpunk trilogy known collectively as A Song Called Youth (Eclipse, Eclipse Penumbra, and Eclipse Corona), Wetbones, and Everything is Broken. He wrote the screenplay for The Crow. As a musician, Shirley has fronted his own bands and written lyrics for Blue Oyster Cult and others. I asked him about all of this and more in a recent interview.

Bill Ectric: I was glad to see some sleuthing in Doyle After Death.

John Shirley: Of course Doyle does sleuthing in this tale, that’s the whole point! And he did some in real life. He investigated a real life crime, which I mention in the novel. But he doesn’t do it alone. He has a kind of “Dr. Watson” in the improbable person of a dead detective from Las Vegas, one Nicholas Fogg.

Remember that this all happens in an afterlife world, called the afterworld in the novel, and it’s operating purely on the rules and physical laws of the afterlife. There are some flashback scenes in Las Vegas, relevant to character development, but 90% of the novel happens in the afterlife world. The tale does not follow ghost sleuthing in our world. That’s been done.

Bill: Would Houdini, with his cynicism about the paranormal, make it into the afterlife?

John: Everyone makes it in to the afterlife, but some make it as a mere spark, and others are more substantial. Houdini is not in my story. Perhaps he’ll be in a sequel if there is one. Houdini was a substantial human being, a person of will and presence, and I would expect that he would arrive more or less intact in an afterlife.

Bill: Is there a particular film, film series, or television show based on any of Doyle’s work (Holmes, Lost World, etc.) that stands out as your favorite?

John: Yes, I like the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes stories done by Granada TV. They were the most authentic adaptations, and he seemed the most like the Holmes of the stories. Brett was a fine actor, and he made Holmes come alive. I also like the Sherlock series–a kind of modern Holmes–with Benedict Cumberbatch. They’re clever, not that much like Doyle, but they’re good and Cumberbatch is very good.

Bill: This question is off the subject, but how did you come to write lyrics for Blue Oyster Cult?

John: I wrote a novel called Transmaniacon, to some extent inspired by the song of the same name by the Blue Oyster Cult. And by the tone of that first BOC album. The Blue Oyster Cult were aware of it. I had mutual friends who knew they were looking for a lyricist. The friends hooked me up with Donald Roeser [Buck Dharma] long distance. He liked a number of my lyrics and recorded them. Of course, I sent them many more that went unrecorded.

Bill: How do you write such great gun battle sequences? I’m thinking especially of Eclipse (the first book of the Song Called Youth trilogy) and Everything is Broken.

John: I read about these things. I research. I also have a vivid imagination. I have fired guns, of course, but mostly I just try very hard to envision it and then to evoke it in the fewest, crispest, most evocative words possible.

Bill: In your novel Wetbones, I really enjoy the way you combine Hollywood historical fiction with references to real movie stars of “old Hollywood.” It would seem you are taking it to another level in Doyle After Death. Would you classify this as historical fiction?

John: Wetbones drew on Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon a bit, and on biographies of early movie stars, but most of the novel is pure fiction. (Although there is a producer in it who is somewhat based on a really famous producer, whom I will not name) …

Bill: Are you are a fan of biography and history?

John: Yes, I read more biographical and historical material at this time in my life than novels. I am reading a biography of Lawrence of Arabia at present. I’m a fan of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, which were certainly informed by his reading into history–and Aubrey was based on a certain captain in the Royal Navy. The Sharpe books by Bernard Cornwell use Wellington as a major character. Doyle After Death includes a good deal of material about Arthur Conan Doyle gleaned from biographies and from his letters and essays. His first wife is a character in the novel, too, and that’s based on biographical reading.

But Doyle was a pretty colorful guy and is almost a fictional character now anyway. I think I evoke him respectfully and with reasonable authenticity, but since it’s about his adventures as a kind of detective in the afterlife, most the tale is fantasy. I have no problem with setting historical fiction against a fantasy backdrop.

Oh, and Susannah Clarke, whom I admire, created a kind of alternate world version of historical characters to work with her fictional characters in her admirable novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Bill: Why do you think historical fiction is so popular?

John: I look to Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, and to biographies, to teach me about the large and small patterns of history; to give me a feel for real people’s lives. Then I might use that “feel” in fiction. And I think people like that feeling of authenticity. Also with respect to historical characters, it’s almost as if they’re already characters in a novel, in the narratives we make about them in our minds.

Bill: Do you think the literary device of historical fiction can go too far? That perhaps young people might be confused over what really happened and what didn’t? Or did Parson Weems already cross that line with his George Washington cherry tree story?

John: People have been crossing that line since the line was imagined to exist. Gore Vidal wrote a novel about Lincoln and certainly not everything in it was real. Many Civil War tales used Grant and Lee as characters. People make up stories about Alexander the Great and Elizabeth I. As for people becoming confused — they have an obligation to sort out real history from alternate histories or fantasies using historical persons. It’s called getting an education.

I don’t know if it can be taken too far with other people–with my own writing it can. I try to use some of real life in an effort like Doyle After Death but not so much it becomes enslaved to the limitations of history. I will just say that I feel that most fans of Arthur Conan Doyle (and, in fact, of Sherlock Holmes) will like the treatment I give Doyle in Doyle After Death.

Bill: Do you think Arthur Conan Doyle was responsible for the Piltdown Man hoax?

John: No, Doyle wasn’t responsible for the Piltdown Man Hoax. It’s well established that the responsible man was Charles Dawson.

* * * * *

Doyle After Death by John Shirley is an e-book that sells for $2.99. Other John Shirley books include BioShock: Rapture, Gurdjieff and Kizuna: Fiction for Japan (a charity anthology). Photograph of John Shirley by Michael Robles. Photo of wave by Barry Shrum.

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