Jon Fasman wrote his first novel, The Geographer's Library, in Moscow, London and New York; it was published in February 2005, was a bestseller in the US and Italy, and has since been translated into more than a dozen languages. After a decade of globetrotting Jon now lives in Brooklyn, where he writes for whomever will pay him (and some who don't). He is at work on a second novel. Here he discusses Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four.
Jon Fasman on The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
When I first met Sherlock Holmes, he was, I suspect, in his mid-thirties, and I was eleven. At that time I had never left the United States; except for regular visits to extended family in Chicago and Florida and a brief vacation to California, I had barely ever ventured outside the safe, ordinary Maryland suburb where I was raised. What's more, my parents, then approaching 40, had also never left the country (save for my dad's short, obligatory college drive into Tijuana). My maternal grandparents were quite well-travelled, thanks to my grandfather's work. As for the other set, my father's mother had visited London, Edinburgh, Brussels and Paris in a single vacation some time before I was born. She went without my grandfather, who served in Europe in the Second World War and exhibited little desire ever to return.
I present this background with neither pride nor shame, but because, having lived most of my adult life outside the United States, I've grown used to hearing people comment with derision or incredulity at how poorly travelled Americans are. I can make no defence; if anything, I tend to join the chorus. But I do think a bit of explanation, background and contextualization might be in order. More immigrants came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than at any other time before now (that is, between 1980 and the present). Most of those immigrants came from Ireland, Italy, southern and eastern Europe, fleeing starvation; many of those latter group (my family included) were Jews fleeing persecution. My grandparents were all American-born, but barely; for their parents, the United States was the end of the line, a place to throw off the old burdens and, cliché though it might sound today, live as free people. Why go back to Europe? We'd just left. Why spend thousands of dollars to fly someplace that didn't want us in the first place, when you could just hop in a car and go to Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas: somewhere sunny and friendly; somewhere with golf, music, maybe some umbrella drinks.
All of this is by way of saying that my first encounter with Sherlock Holmes was also, in a fundamental and imagination-forming way, my first encounter with the wider world. As for why I began with The Sign of Four, I really can't remember; I suspect my father recommended it to me, if only because that's how so much of my early reading began. 'London' on the map became, in my suburban American mind, 'London as Conan Doyle described it: that is, the centre of the world. Watson served in Afghanistan and India; Mary Morstan, Holmes's client in The Sign of Four (and Watson's future wife) was born in India, raised parentless in Edinburgh, resident in London, and intimately connected with a treasure from the Andaman Islands, which was protected by a fraternity of English and Indian officers (the cartoonishness of Conan Doyle's non-English characters didn't strike me until much later; not until I was in my 20s did I realize how ludicrous it was for one of the four to be named 'Mahomet Singh', though I must admit that last year, when I flew over the Andaman Islands, I did look down and imagine them entirely populated with dart-spitting midgets). More than the fact of having travelled, it was the matter-of-factness of it that impressed me: a society in which people did business around the world as a matter of course, returning home - and it remains one of the great paradoxes of modern urban life that London still feels both cosmopolitan and parochial - to the centre of everything. If there was a polar opposite of the nine-to-five, two cars in the garage, golf on Saturdays sort of childhood I had - in which the principal lesson was that all of this safety and comfort represented the best of life, didn't come easily, and could all disappear at any time - it was Holmes's London, and I was hooked.
Then, of course, there's the story - or stories, really, since each Holmes narrative, however delightful in particulars, however memorable the details, follows a reliable formula. Holmes and Watson are enjoying a peaceful moment in their rooms at Baker Street when a distraught client enters, presents Holmes with an apparently insoluble problem, which he then proceeds to solve. Detractors will say the stories are formulaic, but they miss the point (as well, I suspect, as some crucial part of their soul). The Goldberg Variations, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Pathetique: all of these are no less profound for adhering to a form. Genius is in the details, not the structure.
And just as I've listened to the Goldbergs more or less weekly since I was 16, so I have faithfully read every story in the Holmes series yearly (at least) since I was 11. After a couple of failed attempts at writing what I thought were the 'right' kind of novels - small-scale, introspective, family-centred, hinging on minute modulations of perception and feeling: all perfectly honourable novelistic components in their own right but not something that I was able to do – I returned to what I loved first and most, to Holmes, and through him to Eco, Borges, Sebald, Pavic; and to Chandler, Hammett, Mosley, Pelecanos, for Conan Doyle bridges both groups, however much some bean-counter manqué might want to divide these writers into 'high' and 'low' literature. I am mercifully hard-pressed to say what, if anything, the Holmes stories taught me - I have a low tolerance for message art - other than the only lesson that matters: that a good story honourably told can beguile, entertain, haunt and inspire. And always check the shoes for mud.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]