I first met the vivacious Carla Valentine at a crime event at the British Library. The ever-lovely Laura Wilson (A Capital Crime, Stratton’s War) aside, she was by far the brightest thing on a stage of mostly dressed-down middle-aged men (me, Mark Billingham, Barry Forshaw) and also managed to captivate the audience with statements such as: ‘I’ve always been interested in death’.
This utterance was in response to a question from Barry, asking how she had come to advise on TV shows such as Silent Witness and films like Resident Evil.
Fascinating though that is, her day job is equally intriguing. She is the Technical Assistant Curator at St Bartholomew’s Pathology Museum. Her domain is a stunningly dramatic Victorian room, an open space with three galleries or mezzanine levels, topped off with a vaulted glass roof. On the shelves that line this hall are endless jars of specimens, dating back to the 18th century, of everything from a ravaged scrotum (a cancer known as chimney sweep’s disease) to various foreign bodies pulled out of people (you’ll have to find out where the artillery shell was found and what it was doing there for yourself). The museum’s original purpose was as a teaching aid for training doctors in the various pathologies of the human body; Carla’s role is to conserve and re-catalogue the collection, which had been sorely neglected over the years.
Her crowded office was believed to be where Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote and as any Sherlock Holes fan knows, St Bart’s is where Watson and Holmes first meet (in the disused Path building next door to the museum) in A Study in Scarlet. When I visited, Dr Lucy Worsley, she of the cardigans and hairclips and troublesome Rs (which she winningly talks about on her blog – http://www.lucyworsley.com/blog/) was filming a BBC documentary in the main room, so Carla took me up to her work space, which some might think a Little Workshop of Horrors, full of glass and plastic jars housing organs in various stages of repair and conservation.
Personally, I loved it –I used to be a biologist back when DNA was still an exciting new discovery – but there was one item that fascinated me more even than that Sherlock Holmes link. In one cylindrical jar stood a homunculus, just shy of a foot high, which appeared to be Not Of This Earth. In fact, it looked like the sort of model WETA Studios might make for an orc-like being in Lord of the Rings – imagine the Creature from the Black Lagoon shrunk to a seventh of its size. Carla has no idea who ‘he’ is or where he came from or how he was created, as the label has long gone (and yes, it has crossed my mind that it was a hoax to humiliate gullible people like me). He has a nickname, “Troll Boy”, and, although I would love to show you a picture, the Human Tissue Authority (yes, really) might take a dim view if it is a humanoid less than 100 years old.
Sadly, Troll Boy isn’t on display in the main gallery, but even if he was, the museum isn’t open to the public. However, Carla curates a variety of events, including taxidermy courses, lectures on surgery, pathology and medicine and ‘skull art’ workshops a la Damien Hirst – see http://www.facebook.com/bartspathologymuseum. She is also running a blog with more information on the collection, its past, present and future: http://potts-pots.blogspot.co.uk/. So if you want to see the soaring inside of the building and those endlessly fascinating specimens, book in to one of the events – there is one featuring Dr Watson (and me) coming up in November, details follow – but plenty before that, too.
A few years back I bought a hugely entertaining collection of stories ‘Inspired by the Holmes Canon’ called A Study in Sherlock. It contained tales by Lee Child, Charles Todd and Neil Gaiman and was edited by Laurie R King and Leslie S. Klinger (the man behind the indispensable New Annotated Sherlock Holmes). What I didn’t know at the time was that the Conan Doyle Estate had threatened to block the book unless a fee was paid, which it duly was. Now, in the USA some of the stories in the final collection, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, are still in copyright, thanks to an extension to copyright law there some years back (in the UK the entire canon is in the public domain), but Leslie Klinger – who is also a lawyer – was certain this did not mean the characters were protected. The ACD Estate begged to differ.
When Laurie R King and Leslie Klinger decided to produce a sequel to A Study in Sherlock (In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, with Val McDermid, Sara Paretsky, Jeffery Deaver, Michael Connelly and others contributing), their publishers received a letter from the ACD estate, threatening to block distribution to certain outlets unless, again, a fee was paid. This time Leslie Klinger decided to draw a line in the sand – last week he filed a civil action in Illinois against the Conan Doyle Estate to establish once and for all whether the characters are protected, and payment due, or if Holmes and Watson are in the public domain. Klinger says: “This isn’t the first time the Estate has put pressure on creators. It is the first time anyone has stood up to them. In the past, many simply couldn’t afford to fight or to wait for approval, and have given in and paid off the Estate for ‘permission.’ I’m asking the Court to put a permanent stop to this kind of bullying. Holmes and Watson belong to the world, not to some distant relatives of Arthur Conan Doyle.”
If nothing else, legal clarification to those of us paying royalties to one or other of the various claimants to Holmes & Watson would be most welcome and Klinger deserves our support. You can read more on http://www.free-sherlock.com.
This is from Sue Light’s excellent blog which gave me lots of background to the medical situation in WW1. See http://greatwarnurses.blogspot.co.uk/.
“I’m a great reader of crime fiction, often to the exclusion of doing other, more important things. On the whole I stick to British authors, like complex plots, skip over too much gratuitous violence, and prefer to arrive at the end actually understanding what’s gone on in the middle. So about eighteen months ago I was intrigued and rather flattered to be asked by Robert Ryan if we could meet up to discuss a new book he was working on (these days a bit of flattery is so very welcome). He intended to include ‘some plucky VADs’ and wanted to make sure that they would be appearing all present and correct.
Over the next months I was kept up to date with the progress of the book and then asked to check the first draft to see how the VADs were doing. Anyone who has read this blog on a regular basis will know that of all the bees that float around my bonnet, the indiscriminate placement of VADs in Casualty Clearing Stations on the Western Front is the one that stings hardest, and in this book their inclusion in very forward areas was going to be essential to the plot. If I have learned one lesson from the exercise, it’s this. If you’re a writer of fiction and make fundamental errors because of inadequate research and blissful ignorance, the wrath of pedants will be unleashed upon you. On the other hand, if you include factual inaccuracies and weave them in an intelligent way, in full knowledge of your sins, you will always be forgiven (fingers crossed).
Dead Man’s Land was published at the beginning of this month with the full approval of the Conan Doyle estate. It follows Dr. John Watson’s travels around the Western Front during the Great War, and where Dr. Watson goes, death and intrigue are right on his heels. By most estimations he must be getting on a bit in age, but his physical limitations are highlighted, not glossed over, and his place as an elderly medical practitioner in wartime never seems extraordinary. The military setting is sound, and the depiction of hospitals and casualty clearing stations in wartime is thorough. The VADs are skilfully introduced into a place where they would never actually have been, with the difficulties and regulations surrounding their employment made clear. Even I was heard to clap. The story is unusual and absorbing, it has complexity, but with enough clarity to prevent it becoming confusing, especially for those who don’t usually dabble in ‘war,’ and it should appeal to everyone who enjoys crime fiction of any era, but perhaps especially to devotees of Sherlock Holmes. Yes, of course he’s there as well.
And my thanks to Rob for his kind words in the acknowledgements where he accepts all errors as his own. May I take this opportunity to clear my conscience and admit that there might just be one that’s mine!”