Before we get started…
A Few Thoughts on The Devil’s Grin:
For those of you not yet familiar with Devil’s Grin, here’s an idea of what you can expect (pulled from Amazon):
“In Victorian London’s cesspool of crime and disease, a series of murders remains undiscovered until a cholera fatality is found floating in the city’s drinking water supply. Dr Anton Kronberg, England’s best bacteriologist, is called upon to investigate and finds evidence of abduction and medical maltreatment. While Scotland Yard has little interest in pursuing the case, Kronberg pushes on and crosses paths with Sherlock Holmes. The detective immediately discovers Kronberg’s secret – a woman masquerading as a man in order to practice medicine – a criminal deed that could land her in prison for years to come. But both must join forces to stop a crime so monstrous, it outshines Jack the Ripper’s deeds in brutality and cold-bloodedness.”
Intrigued? You should be! I (‘S.Sigerson’) just finished reading this book and must say that I enjoyed it greatly! Anna/Anton is a strong, complex, and highly intelligent character with a sharp wit, sharp tongue, and an admirably solid set of morals. Morals she is stubbornly determined to defend to the very end, regardless of the danger and personal cost. She is a vibrant, glowing anomaly in a world of often terrifying darkness. Step-by-step, we follow her through the atmospheric adventure alluded to above as she works her way deeper and deeper into the dismal underworld of Victorian medicine. Along the way, she stumbles into the path of another great Victorian anomaly…our old friend Sherlock Holmes. They both set their sights on resolving the same problem, but choose to go about it in two very different ways, grudgingly ‘agreeing’ to accept each other’s intermittent presence (but not without both getting in their fair share of biting snark).
This is a very different sort of Sherlockian fiction from what I’ve otherwise read thusfar. Rather than being what I’ve understood as a ‘proper pastiche’ (something that attempts to ‘fit into’ the canon by mimicking Doyle’s style and structure), this is the story of an otherwise unrelated character who’s lifeline just happens to cross with that of Holmes. It doesn’t carry (for me at least) an especially ‘canonical’ feel, but then I don’t believe it’s intended to. Throughout the story, the emphasis remains on Anna and her own inner dialog (because yes, it really is more of a ‘dialog’), and not on Holmes. That isn’t to say, however, that we don’t hear from Holmes. Anna interacts with him regularly and I found it deeply refreshing and thought-provoking to explore and examine his character through the smart eyes of an absolute ‘outsider’. Annelie provides us with a very different image of Holmes; hinting at hidden personality facets, while also directly underscoring the fact that every person who interacts with him within his own fictional timeline is going to see something different – just the way every reader of the canon does. She also gives us lots of lovely little colorful details that really bring her scenery to life. My personal favorite is how she draws our attention to the chemical stains decorating the walls and ceiling above Holmes’ desk almost the very instant Anna enters the flat for the first time.
I found myself really getting into this book and I read it rather voraciously. I even made it a point one day to go for a long evening walk around the local reservoir just for the effect. (The structure isn’t ‘period’ in the slightest, but the building is made to look a little as though it were.) It was a gorgeous autumn day and there were a lot of people about, but the space suddenly had a vaguely sinister feel to it. When viewed from behind (the side facing the water), the building always looks mysteriously shut up and dark, making it feel semi-abandoned, which it of course isn’t. Staring at the water, I found myself feeling very grateful that I needn’t be fearful of things like cholera in my morning coffee. Nor did I encounter any bloated bodies.
Another, more unexpected effect of reading this book came in how it managed to make me really think about my own educational career and how I’ve recently taken my social freedom to reach for advanced study as…well…self-evident. I just recently completed an MA after having voluntarily stepped out of a doctoral program. This was a catastrophic event in its own right, but somewhere in all that [di]stress I forgot to think about the fact that I am fortunate to even have the chance to blunder into the wrong program. Or, for that matter, to have been allowed to apply at all. Just as with my fascination with the Middle Ages, I’m perfectly content most of the time to explore Victorian Europe from afar. If, through some bizarre caprice of the cosmos, I were to end up plopped into 1800s London I’d probably try to do what Anna does – switch back and forth between two ‘opposing’ identities for the sake of exploring. (Note – I said ‘try’, because honestly, I’d be scared shitless.)
All in all, I would personally give this book a high rating of about four and a half ‘Orange Pips’. (Since we don’t have a ‘4.5 Orange Pips’ category here, I’ve upgraded it to five in the tags). The story is fast-paced, engaging, enjoyably atmospheric, dark, and I’m really fascinated with Anna’s character. (The German ‘shout-out’ might have helped with that a little. too.) I’m genuinely anxious to see where the whole thing goes in the sequel. That having been said, the ‘voicing’ of Holmes and some of the characterization doesn’t quite ‘hit the mark’ for me all of the time and there are certain plot elements that made me squirm just a little bit (sorry…spoilers), but these are all very strongly subjective things. Everyone has different tastes, and the elements that made me ‘squirm’ are what I would classify as ‘borderline’. It’s a bit of an experimental tease and I’m by and large alright with that, but it’s up to each individual reader to decide for him/herself. It’s a good period adventure with an almost philosophical twist and I can enthusiastically recommend picking it up!
>If you’d like to do that now, you can do so HERE.<
On to the Interview:
This interview was a bit different. Rather than running it through Skype, as we’ve done before, I pulled together a handful of written questions which Annelie filled in answers for. This is how it went:
SP: Could you provide us with a short ‘bio’ for yourself? Let us get to know you a bit! Tell us anything about yourself that you think might be interesting or fun. It doesn’t necessarily have to be relevant to Sherlock Holmes. This could really be anything you’d like it to be. Favorite color…a picture of your cat…
Annelie: I have spent half my life in an East German village knowing nothing about the world. I didn’t learn much at school, mostly because I was scared to fail at basically everything. After eighteen years I thought “screw it”. That I managed to enroll at university is almost a miracle with such a lack of basic education. But I had fun learning and a lot of space in that empty brain of mine. I’m grateful for those years now, because they gave me a different view on life. Now, failure doesn’t scare me the least – it is part of the learning process. I also acquired a healthy lack of respect for authority based on names or labels (e.g. professor or celebrity). I’m mostly unspoiled by pop culture as I threw my TV set out ten years ago. Other than that, I’m pretty annoying. And that was the most useless bio I ever wrote. J
SP: Probably the most obvious question: Moving from scientific articles and papers into fiction is an interesting shift! I can definitely see the ‘scientific’ influence, but what made you decide to turn your writing skills towards Sherlockian fiction?
Annelie: It wasn’t really a conscious decision. After reading the canon for the first time (which was last December, I must admit) the man intrigued me. And he remained on the “scene”, so I had to let him play the counterpart to Anna Kronberg.
SP: Can you comment at all on the little blurb at the front of the book detailing how you uncovered the Kronberg journals in your home? It’s so short and teasingly mysterious. Can you tell us more about how that happened, what your initial thoughts were, and how you made the decision to publish what you found?
Annelie: One has to leave some space for imagination, but I can say as much as that this is my first plunge into novel writing. I also suck at poetry and our old house did indeed make me write this story.
SP: In Chapter One you wrote: “His attire and demeanor spoke of a man who had most likely enjoyed a spoiled upper-class childhood.” – That seems to be a very plausible, even likely, conclusion (drawn from the canon) and I think most people would agree with that, but a lot of folks also debate heavily on the exact nature of Holmes’ childhood. Can you comment on how you decided on these aspects? You also hint at something having ‘made’ Holmes the way he is. Any thoughts on what that ‘something’ might be?
Annelie: Anna said: “No one is born untrusting, only made so.” The logical conclusion to Holmes’s deep mistrust in women is that someone had caused it. What exactly happened I don’t know? But I do hope he’ll tell me in the next book, or maybe the one after that.
SP: Can I be relatively cheeky and ask to what degree the characterization of Anna reflects your own experiences, background and personality? How did you go about capturing her character? I think every author self-inserts to some degree and am curious as to whether or not there was any self-exploration happening when you wrote this book.
Annelie: I think no one can create characters with any depth without exploring the self. One has to open all these small doors into one’s own soul and look at the contents without judgment or fear. And of course there is some Annelie in Anna/Anton and Sherlock. You’ll also find a piece of me in Moriarty in the sequel.
To create characters, a certain degree of understanding of the human psyche is necessary – every social mammal has some insight into the emotional world of its fellow mammals. Humans tilted this view with morals. Observation is suddenly not enough, one needs to categorize the observed into good or bad. But every one of us wants to shine as a normal, nice fellow and usually doesn’t want to admit to our dark side. But what good comes out of that? The truth is that most people have the potential to kill and possibly torture. What people do in times of war is a good example: one’s own values are thrown over board and when peace returns to the country, everyone wants to forget that one was capable of rape, torture, and murder. Most people also want to forget the fact that the vast majority of rapists are known and even related to the victims. It’s not “them evil criminals” far away, it’s percolating in our society.
As for the crimes happening in the novel – I didn’t have to invent so much. Dr Bowden did exist and he did do sexual surgery on insane women. Superintendent Nicholson of Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum was reality, too. And he was no nice fellow, either. The body trafficking business, the suffocating of the poor in the slums at night and the selling of murder victims to anatomists – that is also based on historical facts. Holmes would have said: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
SP: Certain parts of your characterization of Holmes remind me very heavily of Sherlock or even the Guy Ritchie films. Would you say that either of these had an influence on your writing? Do you have a favorite dramatization?
Annelie: I have neither seen the Guy Richie films nor Elementary. I’m more of a book worm. But I’ve seen and adored the BBC Sherlock very much. For my novel I tried real hard not to let the modern Sherlock mess with my brain too much. It was kind of tough though, because the series is brilliant and he would have probably been like this in the 21st century. But in my head, Sherlock and Anna lived in the late 19th century, Sherlock was a gentleman and Anna, well, she was kind of… different.
SP: What made you decide to place Irene Adler’s photograph on the mantelpiece, as opposed to its usual place in Holmes’ desk drawer? That’s an interesting, but very distinctive detail. Was this meant to give us hints as to the age-old question of ‘Holmes and romance’? I personally very much liked Anna’s (i.e your) analysis of why Holmes keeps her picture at all (out of a sort of distanced respect rather than affection) and quite agree with it.
Annelie: Irene could have ended up in the drawer after that scene, couldn’t she? And why would Holmes not be impressed (in a positive way) by that woman who outsmarted him? Not facing a problem didn’t seem right for a character like him, I thought. So I placed her on the mantle piece. For a while, at least.
SP: “You are convinced you are the smartest man alive and being outsmarted by a woman is more than unacceptable for you. This is your greatest preconception and your weakest spot. You should get rid of it.” à BAM. That is all. J Though, would you be willing to comment on this at all? This line really rang home with me and I’d love to hear your comments on how you came up with this lovely ‘left hook’.
Annelie: That’s how I saw him as I read the canon. I think it was really good for the book that (a) I’ve never been a Holmes fan, and (b) he is not a childhood fantasy of mine. I read him as a grown up and that probably lead to a different understanding.
SP: “Some of Watson’s descriptions gave me a weak glimpse of Holmes as I knew him. … But each friend will provide a different angle at our character, and we would be extraordinarily lucky to find one who is able to see the whole picture and still respect all of it.” à This is absolutely gorgeously put and I think it’s really vividly true. Every person sees something a little different in the stories which is why all of *this* is so much fun and also (in my opinion) a really substantial part of the ongoing appeal. I find it very fascinating how you hint at facets of Holmes’ character not addressed in the canon. What made you choose to add this perspective? Furthermore: While Anna reads her way through Watson’s narratives, she finds herself feeling irritated with his descriptions in much the same way Holmes is irritated by them. Namely, for the fact that he ‘sees’, but does not ‘observe’. “I had to pull myself together”, she says, “to not slap the journal against my forehead.” Is that purely Anna’s reaction, or was it also some of your own?
Annelie: Anna has her own perspective; she is very observant and must see Holmes differently. It made no sense to add another Watson perspective. I wanted to learn something new. And yes! While reading the canon I did get annoyed by Watson, sometimes I did want to push his nose into the obvious. J
SP: Care to give us any teasers for the next book? Any thoughts on when it might be appearing?
Annelie: The story unravels while it’s being written, so I can’t really give that much teasing info, I simply don’t have it. But what I can say is that Anna has to spend a lot of time with Moriarty. He is an intriguingly complex and dark character and I enjoy writing him. I hope the sequel can be published next autumn. There are also two short stories in my head that may or may not be published. One is about Anna’s life in hiding, happening between “The Devil’s Grin” and the sequel, and one is set after the sequel. And then comes novel three. But what the heck comes after that? I’ll see…
Many thanks once again to Annelie for taking the time to speak with us and share a few thoughts! It’s been a great pleasure and we’re looking forward to the new adventures!
If you’d like to read a bit more about Annelie and her work, you can do so by taking a look at her BLOG.
(There are amazing things to be had there. – Like podcasts of Devil’s Grin…and updates on the sequel.