Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Robert J. Harris Interview - A Study in Crimson: Sherlock Holmes 1942

Photo Content from Robert J. Harris 

Robert J. Harris was born in Scotland and studied at the University of St Andrews where he graduated with first class honors. He is the designer of the bestselling fantasy board game Talisman. His first novel, The Thirty-One Kings—inspired by the classic John Buchan thriller The Thirty-One Steps—was acclaimed by critics and readers alike. Robert lives in St Andrews, Scotland.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
Having written six children’s novels I have made author visits to many schools. I’ve had a wonderful time sharing stories with the children and putting on plays with them to encourage their love of storytelling.

What inspired you to pen your first novel?
After writing eight novels for teens with my friend and mentor Jane Yolen, I decided that my first solo novel would have a historical background, like our four Scottish novels, combined with the fast-paced excitement of our Young Heroes series. I thought the teenaged Leonardo da Vinci would make a good subject for an adventure filled with intrigue, sword fights and daring escapes. So was born Leonardo and the Death Machine, a thriller set in Florence in 1466. I am especially delighted that it proved to be an enormous success in Italy.

Tell us your latest news.
I recently completed my second Sherlock Holmes novel (The Devil’s Blaze) and plotted the third (The World’s Last Night). I am about to start writing Redfalcon, the third of my Richard Hannay Returns series of novels. Set in World War II, it centres on the battle for Malta which proved to be a linchpin of the entire war.. On a family note, we’ve just spent the weekend at the wedding of our youngest son Jamie to his fabulous girlfriend Gem.

Can you tell us when you started A STUDY IN CRIMSON, how that came about?
While I was writing my MG series The Artie Conan Doyle Mysteries, which concerns the teenage adventures of the future creator of Sherlock Holmes, the thought did cross my mind of writing a Holmes novel. However, there are so many Holmes pastiches out there already, there didn’t seem much point adding another one unless it brought something new to the table. Then one day my eye lighted on my DVD boxed set of Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone. In 1942 Universal Pictures began a series of twelve films that updated Sherlock Holmes tot he 1940s to combat spies and saboteurs in wartime London. It occurred to me that this classic series of movies could provide the inspiration for a Sherlock Holmes novel that would be different from any that have come before.

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
I hope they will be enormously entertained and find Holmes and Watson to be the much loved characters created by Conan Doyle even while they are engaged in a refreshingly different adventure.

What part of your characters did you enjoy writing the most?
I really enjoy the interplay between Holmes and Watson. Conan Doyle put a lot of humour and affection into their relationship and it’s marvelous to be able to work with that from the inside. Since the Holmes and Watson in my novel are at their peak in 1942, they have clearly had different life experiences from the Victorian originals. This allows me to view them from a fresh angle and explore their personalities in some depth, including how they were affected by serving in WWI, as Rathbone and Bruce did.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
In A Study in Crimson I had great fun writing for intpector Lestrade, my version being based on the character as played by Dennis Hoey in the films. I would introduce him to Chief Inspector Japp from the Hercule Poirot novels so they could compare notes on what it’s like to be made to look slow and dense by these brilliant, egotistical detectives.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
Sunny days that lured me out into the garden or down to the beach to walk our dog.

What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
Visit Paris.

Best date you've ever had?
The Christmas party where Debby (my future wife) and I came out as a couple for the very first time. It was a fantastic party.

If you could go back in time to one point in your life, where would you go?
I would go back to when I was eighteen and tell myself to cheer up because everything is going to turn out great.

Which incident in your life that totally changed the way you think today?
When I read the famous psychiatrist CG Jung’s book Memories, Dreams, Reflections, it gave me a whole new perspective on psychology, history and many other things.

What are 4 things you never leave home without?
Wallet, keys, Swiss army knife, matches.

Where is the best place in the world you’ve been?
Paris (see above) which is the most beautiful city in the world. I would also be very happy to go back to Florence, which Debby and I visited on a hitch-hiking trip across Europe during our courting days. That was part of the inspiration for setting my Leonardo da Vinci novel there (see above again).

First Heartbreak?
When I was five or six my favourite playmate Kathleen told me that when she grew up she was going to marry Davie, a boy who lived across the road. I was crushed because in my mind she was supposed to marry me. We moved house shortly after that so I’ve no idea what became of her.

What was a time in your life when you were really scared?
Once I was working as a film extra on a BBC production of Ivanhoe and Christopher Lee, the actor who defined the role of Dracula in a series of horror films, sat down beside me. He made a disgruntled remark about the weather. Overawed, I merely nodded without saying a word, not wishing to say anything that might annoy the Prince of Darkness.

  • 1. The title is a play on the title of Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet, though thoughts of a title were not on my mind when I named the killer Crimson Jack. As readers reach the later part of my novel they will discover there is an even deeper connection to the Conan Doyle tale.
  • 2. The novel contains within it two unrelated locked room mysteries to be solved by Holmes. (At the end of Chapter 2 readers have all the clues they need to solve the first one before reading the solution in the next chapter.) This is in part an homage to my fevourite mystery writer John Dickson Carr who was known as the master of the impossible crime.
  • 3. I have made Holmes and Watson the same age as the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, the actors who played them in the film series (50 and 47 respectively). I have also woven certain incidents from the lives of the actors into the biographies of Holmes and Watson. For example, Watson was shot in both legs by German machine gun fire in the Great War, as was Nigel Bruce. My Holmes is an expert fencer, as was Basil Rathbone. My second Holmes novel features an exciting fencing match between Holmes and Colonel Sebastian Moran..
  • 4. While the main characters in my novels tend to be male, I love the feisty female characters I have introduced into the stories. In the case of this novel, American reporter Gail Preston is the sort of woman who would never have been encountered by the Victorian Holmes and Watson. When she breezes into Baker Street she certainly shakes things up, especially for Dr Watson. She was inspired in part by the real life journalist Helen Hiett who reported on the war from Europe on behalf of the NBC radio network.
  • 5. I made a point of giving some depth to the background of the characters in these 1940s incarnations. Watson reflects very movingly on the death of his wife Mary some years before, and this sets up one of the themes of the novel: the possiblity of overcoming tragedy both personal and global. In the later part of the book Holmes reveals to Watson for the first time the harrowing events that befell him while operating as an undercover agent in WWI. These events had much to do with launching him on his career as an independent investigator.
  • 6. The filmic origins of the novel were definitely in my mind while writing. As well as visualising Holmes and Watson as Rathbone and Bruce, I have made my Inspector Lestrade not the ratty little man of Conan Doyle’s stories but the version played by Dennis Hoey, a big, bluff, broad-shouldered chap in a bowler hat. Mycroft Holmes does not appear in the Universal series, but he is in my novel, presented as he was played by the great actor Robert Morley in the Holmes v Ripper movie A Study in Terror.I have in fact worked out a cast of actors from the period for every character in the book. I aim to have the full cast list on my website.
  • 7. I have not attempted to make my novel part of a continuity with the films, for they do not make up any sort of continuity themselves beyond the core group of characters. The novel stands by itself as a reimagining of Sherlock Holmes in 1942. There are, however, plently of references to the films, including the London Bulletin newspaper and the Intelligence Inner Council, both of which feature in the first of the films Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror.
  • 8. Stories and speculations pitting Holmes against Jack the Ripper almost form their own sub-genre, such is the mythic attraction of the two characters. My favourite of these is the film Murder by Decree which stars Christopher Plummer and James Mason as Holmes and Watson. I see my novel in some ways as Holmes v The Ripper. Round 2.
  • 9. My plot concerns a killer in August/September 1942 imitating the notorious Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. Only after plotting the novel did I discover that there had been a real life series of brutal, Ripper-like killings earlier in 1942. In that true life case the murderer was caught quite quickly then tried and hanged.
  • 10. Since moving Sherlock Holmes to 1942 involved creating a new timeline for him, I decided not to make reference to any of the Victorian tales like The Hound of the Baskervilles. I have instead imitated Conan Doyle by dropping in intriguing references to earlier adventures, these all being invented by me. These include the Affair of the Unstable Stable Boy and the Mystery of the Indigent Cavalier. Perhaps one day someone (not necessarily me) will actually write stories based on these hints.
Writing Behind the Scenes
My writing begins with an idea that inspires my imagination. Where do these ideas come from? I don’t know. I can only guess that all the stories we’ve read, heard and watched are swirling around deep in the unconscious forming strange and interesting combinations that sometimes pop up into our conscious mind, often when we least expect it. This idea then has to be expanded into a basic plot. I write down a summary of the plot no more than one paragraph long. This is my initial pitch to my publishers and often ends up as the blurb on the back of the book.

Now it is time to work out a proper outline with the characters, events and twists that make up the story. I find my best ideas come when I’m not trying too hard, like when I’m out walking our dog or taking a long shower. As I write up the detailed outline, scenes amd pieces of dialog from all over the book pop into my head. I type all these up in a file labeled ‘Text’ to be fitted into the novel at the right time. This means that when I start writing chapter one, I already have later parts of the novel done. Even as I write the chapters in sequence, I’m still writing down passages for later to be dropped in when I come to that part.

An important aspect of my outline is that I know how the story is going to end. This will be a climactic scene which draws together all the drama and character elements of the story. This gives structure and direction to the novel. You need to see the other side of the river before you can start building your bridge. I also can’t settle into my writing until I have come up with a really good title that expresses the ‘feel’ of the book. My first few novels had the titles changed by editors, but with the last seven my own title has proved to be perfect. I think I’m getting good at that.

I try to keep up the energy and momentum of the story and not get bogged down trying to make a chapter perfect before moving on to the next one. As I go I make notes of improvents I will make in the second draft, which will often involve further research. In fact my wife Debby does quite a bit of research for me, as does my good friend and official researcher Kirsty Nicol, who is able to dig up facts in less than an hour that would have taken me days.

I work in an upstairs room on an old laptop that has no internet access to lure me away. Writing is actually hard work and it’s easy to find excuses to stop. How important is it to check your email? It can wait until you’ve done a proper amount of work.. For similar reasons I don’t use a mobile phone. I don’t want to be bothered with something which is going to interrupt the flow of my thoughts. While writing I keep myself perked up by playing film music and nibbling on chocolate raisins.

When I have completed the final chapter with a triumphant whoop, it’s time to go back to the beginning and make the whole thing better, to add additional touches that will add to the texture of the novel as well as catching any inconsistencis. I then hand this second draft over to Debby, who edits it with a ruthlessness that borders on cruelty, pointingout weak spots in the writing and telling me how to make it better (or even perfect). Researcher Kirsty also reads this version, mainly for fact checking, which is very important when writing about wartime London. Once I have their notes, I knuckle down to the third draft.

I should also say that I am somewhat obsessive about chapter titles. Some authors are happy to simply number their chapters, but I need every chapter to have an evocative title which adds to the atmosphere of the story. I will sometimes spend a lot of time coming up with a replacement for a chapter title that doesn’t please me. Two of my favourite chapter titles in this novel are A Legacy of Blood and A Nightmare in Ink.

The novel now goes to my publisher for a couple of rounds of editing. Since I had already worked hard on the structure before even beginning to write, and because Debby has already done a thorough job on it, the book generally doesn’t put too much strain on the editors at the publishing house. These additional edits are always a help and allow me to make further improvements of my own.

So that’s how I write. Everybody has their own way of going about it, but I would offer two pieces of advice to any aspiring author. 1. Don’t be afraid to write badly. Just keep on going, because you can always go back and fix it later. 2. Be sure to keep going right to the finish. You’ll learn more from finishing one story that you will from starting twenty. 

Bringing Sherlock Holmes from the Victorian Era into the dark days of World War II, this imaginative new thriller confronts the world’s greatest detective with a killer emulating the murders of Jack the Ripper.

London, 1942.

A killer going by the name of “Crimson Jack” is stalking the wartime streets of London, murdering women on the exact dates of the infamous Jack the Ripper killings of 1888. Has the Ripper somehow returned from the grave? Is the self-styled Crimson Jack a descendant of the original Jack—or merely a madman obsessed with those notorious killings?

In desperation Scotland Yard turn to Sherlock Holmes, the world's greatest detective. Surely he is the one man who can sift fact from legend to track down Crimson Jack before he completes his tally of death. As Holmes and the faithful Watson tread the blacked out streets of London, death waits just around the corner.

Inspired by the classic film series from Universal Pictures starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, which took Sherlock Holmes to the 1940s, this is a brand-new adventure from a talented author who brilliantly evokes one of mystery fiction’s most popular characters.

You can purchase A Study in Crimson: Sherlock Holmes 1942 at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you ROBERT J. HARRIS for making this giveaway possible.
Winner will receive a Copy of A Study in Crimson: Sherlock Holmes 1942 by Robert J. Harris.


  1. "If you could live anywhere in the world for a year, where would it be?" Central Paris.

  2. I would live in Aruba! Thank you

  3. I think I'd move to Nova Scotia for a year. I've got a bunch of family there and I don't see them often enough.

  4. I would live in Bahama ;)