Finish-up Febrero Q&A
Friendsâ€”for the purposes of Big Announcements and Hazoos we shall consider that the blogaversary (thanks, Corgimom) of this site will be next week.
That gives you all weekend to shop for champagne or cocoa, depending on your taste, and will permit us to finish the monthâ€™s Q&As first.
Q: Kathleen asks, This question is actually for the Old Testament historian (if you don’t mind changing hats), and was actually sparked by “A Letter of Mary”–what was the extent of literacy among the Jewish people at the time of Christ? Christ read from the scriptures, several of the apostles (and Mary Magdalene, according to your book) could read and write. This seems to indicate a higher level of literacy among the lower classes than we usually associate with ancient societies; certainly higher than among the same classes during Europe’s Middle Ages. Was it particular to Israel, or did their neighbors have comparable rates?
One reason I love your books is you do bring such interesting questions to mind–but then I need the answers!
A: Uh, I dunno.
However, Judaism is based on written documents, to the extent that the community regards itself as a People of the Book. As such, a high percentage of first-century Jews would have been literate. The bar mitzva rituals of reading in the Temple are far more recent (for that matter, a multiplicity of temples is far more recent than the first century) but even two thousand years ago, Jews and education went hand in hand.
Women, inevitably, were the exception to the rule, but even they were often educated. Archaeological evidence exists of women who were â€œarchesynagogesâ€, heads of the synagogue, who kept things running and made travelers welcome. And of course we must not forget Beruria, the first century woman rabbi.
One of my long-term projects involves Beruria, but as the song goesâ€”
The doorâ€™s not shut
On my genius, but
I just donâ€™t have the time.
Q: from Maria: Glad to hear the BSI meetings went well. On that note, I love your Russell series and was wondering who you base your Holmes on? Doyle, Brett, Rathbone? Your own concept of what the detective would be like. Just curious.
A: If youâ€™re talking physically, somewhere between Brett and Rathbone. Brett caught the tense mannerism a lot better than Rathbone, but having seen him on stage, I have to say he was too short.
Q: Ellen C (I think) brings up an interesting topic: Lately, I’ve been thinking about the convention (and I’m not sure whether it’s purely literary or not) of proving that the perpetrator of a crime is indisputably guilty and then, if that person is of a certain rank or dignity, leaving them alone in a room with a pistol, where they typically oblige their accusers by shooting themselves.
Lord Peter used this strategy in _The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club_ and applied a variant in _Murder Must Advertise_. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t read enough of the original Holmes stories to know if he ever resorted to it.
While I can see that encouraging a criminal to commit suicide is appealing on several, not-entirely-civilized levels, it seems inadequate as a solution to the problem of determining and dispensing justice. I’m wondering what Russell thinks of it.
A: The business of a writer using the solution not of an arrest, but of permitting the villain to do The Gentlemanly Thing is tied to just that: the concept of Gentleman.
Gentleman may be villains, but they must never Let Down the Side. Dragging a gentleman to gaol with the rest of the hoodlums drags down the entire class, and the assumption here is that even a gentleman villain is still a gentleman, and cares for his position in the world. It is no doubt related, psychologically if not legally, with the ancient belief that royal blood is sacred and not to be spilt by commoners.
However, remember that Lord Peter is the younger son of a Duke, and the belief in The Gentlemanly Way is in his bones. Holmes (despite much speculation about his origins) and Russell are not of the aristocracy, and would only buy into the whole suicide-as-punishment scenario in unusual circumstances. My friend Les Klinger, expert in All Things Sherlock, answers that no, Holmes never permits anyone to kill himself to avoid prosecution:
â€œI fact, in â€˜Veiled Lodger,â€™ he stops a suicide. The closest to the spirit of Wimsey is probably a case like “Boscombe Valley Mystery,” where it’s clear that the villain’s diabetes will kill him soon anyway. Of course, it’s frequent that Holmes doesn’t arrest the bad guy: E.g., in â€˜The Devil’s Foot,â€™ he lets him go back to Africa, in â€˜The Blue Carbuncle,â€™ he decides that the bad’un will never sin again; in â€˜Abbey Grange,â€™ he decides on his own that the murder was self-defense.â€
So Holmes is ready enough to be judge and jury, but doesnâ€™t see suicide as a happy alternative to keep a gentleman out of the papers. And Iâ€™d say Russell has even less belief in the special treatment of aristocrats as a class.
Q: I think the Holmes/Russell energy really lends itself to the short story medium. Have you thought about publishing an anthology based on some of their adventures?
A: I find that a short story takes nearly as much energy to write as an entire novel. Which means I could write twelve or fifteen novels in the time it took to write a book of short stories. So the answer is no, I hadnâ€™t thought much of it.
Q: Nikki asks, Is Holmes still out there, or should Mary’s marital status be widow? 😉
A: Nikki is referring to Mary Russellâ€™s listing on Myspace, where she states she is married. I suppose that is fact, as I canâ€™t imagine Russell either delusional or lying. And as has been pointed out, Holmesâ€™ obituary has never appeared in The Times of London, so clearly he is not yet dead.
That royal jelly is great stuff.
Q: Dave Lamson asks, DO YOU FEEL (DOWN DEEP INSIDE)THAT WRITING ABOUT AND USING A GAY DETECTIVE HAS HURT YOUR SALES AND SHORTENED YOUR LIFESPAN AS A WRITER?
A: Dave isnâ€™t asking here about gay rights, heâ€™s asking a business question, which is fair enough. And itâ€™s probably true, writing the Martinelli stories has probably lost me a few readers, who are offended by homosexuality. Certainly itâ€™s lost me some Hollywood nibbles over the years, although itâ€™s possible that Hâ€™wood is beginning to decide that Middle America isnâ€™t completely in the grip of Queer Fear, and that every lesbian character isnâ€™t by definition an ice-pick murderer.
Having said that, I need to point out that the Martinellis have been the series that has won prizes and nominations. And that beginning my career with an Edgar award for Best First Novel has meant that people take me more seriously as a writer (not, I trust, as a person) than if I had started my writing career with The Beekeeperâ€™s Apprentice, which would have forever stamped me as That Woman Who Writes the Books About Sherlock Holmes and the Girl.
But down deep inside? Deep down inside I need to write the characters as they have appeared to me. I canâ€™t know what I would have done if my first editor (Ruth Cavin of St Martinâ€™s, blessed be she) had told me, â€œIâ€™ll buy this book if you rewrite it with Kate heterosexual.â€ I like to think I would have said no because it would have done violence to the character. Iâ€™m pretty sure I would have said no because that extensive a revamp would have given me a nervous breakdown.
But down deep inside? Kateâ€™s orientation has enriched my life in too many ways for me to regret whatever choices the back of my mind made in putting her together. And that is worth a percentage of sales any day.