Michael Robertson is the author of two novels featuring barrister Reggie Heath, whose chambers are located at Sherlock Holmes’s legendary address. Set a century after the demise of Holmes, these novels find Heath becoming an unwilling sleuth, set on his task by letters sent to the famous detective.
The series opener, The Baker Street Letters, from 2009, was dubbed “an engaging debut,” by Publishers Weekly, while Booklist noted of this work: “Judging by this installment, it should be a popular series indeed.” The second series addition, The Brothers of Baker Street, was out earlier this year and earned starred reviews. Publishers Weekly noted: “An extremely clever evil scheme will delight readers.” Further praise came from Booklist, terming it a “delightful romp that offers more tension and suspense than a dozen fat thrillers with bloody knives on the cover.”
I’ll answer this one for both of my novels—The Baker Street Letters, which forces my British protagonist from London to Los Angeles for most of the novel, and The Brothers of Baker Street, which takes place entirely in England.
I lived and worked in Los Angeles from 1986 to 1993. What drew me there initially was the hope of selling my efforts as a screenwriter; eventually I found work there in publishing, and later in high tech.
London was different. My first visit there was in 1998, specifically to research The Baker Street Letters. In the years since, fortunately, my day job has taken me there as well.
My novels are about the fact that for many years, letters to Sherlock Holmes were delivered to a banking institution that happened to incorporate the address 221b Baker Street.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
Once you decide to write a series about letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes, the London location becomes pretty much ingrained as the base. But the letters can take you anwhere. In The Baker Street Letters, I move the action very quickly to Los Angeles and events surrounding the construction of the Red Line subway. But in The Brothers of Baker Street, I wanted to write about London’s black cabs—no ordinary taxis, those—and so I kept that plot in the City.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I like plots and characters that are specific to the location. Neither of my first two novels could have taken place anywhere other than London and Los Angeles.
How does Reggie Heath interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Heath?
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I haven’t spoken to anyone in London regarding how they feel about my books. I admit to not being British, and I can only hope that my friends in England—especially the ones I steal phrases from in teleconferences—do not object to my treading on their literary territory. I did notice though, in a recent Google search, that The Baker Street Letters is carried in at least one London library—and it currently is checked out, both good things (probably).
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
The Brothers of Baker Street is set in London in the autumn of 1997. Early in the first chapter I make a reference to a tabloid headline – “Prince Harry Fathers Love Child with Underage Martian Girl”. The headline is intended to be funny and absurd of course – but the truth is I’ve never followed the royals closely, and I got confused about their ages. Harry would have been only 13 in 1997–which makes the headline just slightly more unlikely than I had intended it to be.
Of the Reggie Heath novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
When I lived in the San Gabriel Valley, the smog was a very palpable thing. But then the Santa Ana winds would rush in. And so in The Baker Street Letters, when Reggie Heath is struggling after arriving in Los Angeles, I wrote this:
“The air had changed from the day before. He could feel it in his sinuses, and in eyes dry as sandpaper.
“The high grey haze had swept away to the ocean, where it was condensing on the horizon in a distinct amber layer, like the top of a custard pudding. Above that layer was a sky so clear and blue that it was startling.
“Palm fronds were blowing hard toward the west, advertising flyers and sheets of newspaper kited along the street and plastered themselves against utility poles, and the air was more hot and dry than at any time since he had touched down.
“As they entered the Valley, Reggie knew before the driver said it that this was a Santa Ana.” — The Baker Street Letters, 2009
I like to write about the weather in London as well. In The Brothers of Baker Street, I wrote this, regarding a character who is under the delusion of being related to Professor Moriarty:
“Well on toward three in the morning, a smallish figure in a hooded gray mac stood at the far end of an isolated dock in the Limehouse district. The wooden base of the dock was dark brown-grey, the Thames beneath and beyond it was slate gray, the hooded mac that cloaked the figure was medium grey, and the fog that had begun to steal in around the pilings was light gray, almost white gray, almost pleasant to look at as it swirled gently up, over the planking of the dock. Standing at the end of the dock and looking out, one could almost see shapes, like small animals, leaping up out of the dark grey river into the light grey fog, darting chaotically about, swirling in cat curves and then vanishing, out of focus, like lost thoughts.” — The Brothers of Baker Street, 2011
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
My novels wouldn’t exist if it were not for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, and I’ve been a fan since childhood. But I know I cannot write about London in the way he did. If I emulate any one specific writer, it would be Dashiell Hammett, for the relationship he established between Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man.
What’s next for your protagonist?
There are still some issues to be resolved between Reggie Heath and Laura Rankin, and I will address that—partly—in the third book.
Michael, thanks again for taking part in Scene of the Crime.