Today’s guest blog is by author James Lovegrove. He is the author of over 40 novels and books for children. He also reviews for the Financial Times specialising in the children’s, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and graphic novel genres
It always tickled me that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes choose for his retirement retreat “a small farm upon the Downs, five miles from Eastbourne”, as Watson tells us in “His Final Bow”. I was born and raised in Lewes, ten miles west of Eastbourne, and currently live in Eastbourne itself. I know the area well, and as a boy I was obscurely delighted that one of my great fictional heroes had looked with favour on my own neck of the woods and elected to spend his twilight years here, tending to his smallholding and keeping bees.
Speculation is rife among Sherlockians as to the exact location of Holmes’s “little Sussex home” (as he describes it in “The Lion’s Mane”), but it is generally believed to be near the coast, between the village of East Dean and the section of low chalk cliff known as Birling Gap, not far from the beauty-spot-cum-suicide-hotspot called Beachy Head. There is, indeed, a cottage in East Dean, which sports a blue ceramic plaque attesting to the fact, that this is the very house referred to by Doyle.
That plaque inspired me to set the second of my Sherlock Holmes novels, Gods Of War, in Eastbourne and the surrounding countryside. Having been a resident of the town for almost eight years now, I felt it would be interesting to use the locality to tell a good, solid Holmes yarn. I would explore not just the landscape but the history and folklore of the area in order to add something new and fresh to the mix, making Edwardian Eastbourne as intrinsic to the mood and atmosphere of my story as Victorian London is to the majority of Doyle’s classic tales.
I was also keen to show Holmes in old age, not as physically capable as he used to be, less prone to resort to fisticuffs, his mind still sharp and agile but showing tiny hints of decline. In other words, this would be a more human Holmes, still the great deducing machine but starting to succumb to the frailties of senescence. Much the same applies to Watson, whose injured shoulder is increasingly causing him trouble, and who is beginning to prefer the comforts of home and hearth to the prospect of heading out on wild adventures with his friend. My first Holmes novel, The Stuff Of Nightmares, was set in 1890, when both characters were still in the prime of life. I thought it would be fun to go to the opposite extreme with the next book and give them a growing sense of their own fallibility and mortality.
There have been other Holmes pastiches, which depict the detective in retirement. One is Michael Chabon’s excellent novella The Final Solution, which takes place in 1944 and features a very elderly man (clearly Holmes though not identified as such) who is confronted with a mystery connected with a young Jewish-German refugee. Laurie R. King’s entertaining Mary Russell series covers the inter-war period and has Holmes training a bookish female apprentice to replace him.
Sussex and Eastbourne, however, aren’t a crucial, integral part of those books. I wanted to put my first-hand knowledge of the area to good use. Hence, Holmes and Watson walk along cliff top pathways I myself have walked along. They visit parts of the town I am very familiar with. One of the most striking local features, the Long Man of Wilmington – a giant chalk figure cut into the Downs – plays a major role in the plot.
Date is significant in the novel as well. The year is 1913, and the First World War is looming on the horizon like an inescapable storm cloud. I thought it appropriate to have this as a theme in the story, as we are presently approaching the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of hostilities.
Gods Of War is a whodunit, of course, and there is plenty of detection, action and suspense in it – even a literal cliff-hanger moment – but I hope readers will find that there’s a deep and abiding sense of place in it too. The grassy slopes, pebble beaches and sea mists of the Sussex coast are as full of mystery and intrigue as the streets, alleys and pea-souper fogs of London.