He Would Certainly Have Killed Me (Sherlock Holmes and Sookie Stackhouse Edition)

May 13, 2013, 5:38 pm

9781937007881HCharlaine Harris is the author of a massively successful series of novels with a southern heroine, Sookie Stackhouse. There have been 13 books, and a (ahem, so NSFW) HBO series. But now Harris is looking to be done with Stackhouse and the current novel is intended to be the last one:

But after more than a decade, Ms. Harris, a cheerful 61-year-old grandmother, grew tired of the characters, even as her hyper-dedicated followers lusted for more. She ran out of fresh story lines about her bubbly blond protagonist, Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress who tangles with an ever-expanding supernatural cast of vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, demons, goblins, elves, witches and fairies. She struggled to keep track of the convoluted mythology she’d invented. Things that used to excite her, like unveiling new supernatural creatures, started to feel stale.

So Ms. Harris decided to shut down the lucrative franchise she created. When the 13th book, “Dead Ever After,” hits bookstores next week, it will mark the end of the Sookie Stackhouse series.

Harris is not sad about the end:

[As] I publish the final novel about my heroine, I suppose I should say I’m filled with nostalgia. In truth, I’m not. I’m looking forward to future projects and to more world building and more characters. To me, the last book is not the end of anything, but another mark of passage. I hope my readers will go with me into new adventures; I’m excited about the future.

As Harris is discovering however, that while it is easy to tire of one’s fictional creations, it is (especially if they are popular) sometimes hard to get the public to accept their end. Harris has already received critical emails, and one fan has threatened suicide. Stackhouse, it appears, is not going to go gently into the good night, vampire or not.

Paget holmesPerhaps the most famous historical example of this was Arthur Conan Doyle and his fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle, a doctor, wrote the early Sherlock Holmes novels as a sideline to his medical practice. But he wrote at a key moment in publishing history, when waves of newspapers were appearing, courtesy of newly cheap mechanized printing presses and a reasonably literate public. The same public that made Charles Dickens’ serialized novels a hit snapped up the Holmes’ short stories hungrily. Conan Doyle soon wrapped up his medical practice to concentrate on writing full time, but he was ambivalent. He found plotting the Holmes’ stories to be time-consuming and, worse, looked down on the stories as low-brow entertainment. He was much more enamored of his historical fiction.

The result, in 1893, was his decision of murder his own creation, which he did in the short story “The Final Problem” There was immediate and overwhelming public grief over the death, but Conan Doyle, like Harris now, was unrepentant, saying:

I have been much blamed for doing that gentleman to death, but I hold that it was not murder, but justifiable homicide in self-defense, since, if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me.

Despite the risk of death, Conan Doyle did not long resist the public pressure to bring back Holmes, which included facetious suggestions at public dinners, as one 1901 letter to the New York Times laid out:

Mr. Holmes was not the sort of man to allow a little thing like falling down an Alpine precipice to give him his quietus…At a dinner to Dr. Doyle at the Lotos Club I ventured to give voice to this skepticism by asking these questions: may it not be that knowing just where he was going to be hurled from, Sherlock Holmes took the precaution to place a big bouncing feather bed where it would gently receive his falling body? Or may it not be that, coincidental with his downward plunge, a providential balloon – which had been telegraphed for – came along and received him safe and sound into its basket? [1]

In what must have been a great shock, the letter writer related, Conan Doyle did not “take any stock” in the suggestion of a “providential balloon.” But the good doctor found it impossible to resist the public pressure much longer, and Holmes returned just after the turn of the century, first in The Hound of the Baskervilles (held by Conan Doyle to have happened pre-death) and then, for good, in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” [2]

Here, he was disguised as an old bookseller. When the disguise was revealed, it was, of course, to Dr. Watson:

When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and the last time in my life. Certainly a gray mist swirled before my eyes, and when it cleared I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling after-taste of brandy upon my lips. Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand.

“My dear Watson,” said the well-remembered voice, “I owe you a thousand apologies. I had no idea that you would be so affected.”

I gripped him by the arms.

“Holmes!” I cried. “Is it really you? Can it indeed be that you are alive? Is it possible that you succeeded in climbing out of that awful abyss?”

Well, yes. Public demands, and all that. Conan Doyle was somewhat resigned to the situation, but still complained “If I had never touched Holmes, who has tended to obscure my higher work, my position in literature would at the present moment be a more commanding one.” At that moment, perhaps, but no one would have remembered him for much longer.[2]

Sookie Stackhouse’s fate may not be quite so drastic, or quite so erratic, but if Charlaine Harris thinks she’s done with the character, there are many millions eager to dissuade her.

[Update: Also a problem for TV series]—–
[1] 9 February 1901.
[2] Conan Doyle really couldn’t win. Upon the publication of the new Sherlock Holmes adventure, the Times reviewer sniffily note that “the present commentator, for one, thinks that the distinctive literary quality of Dr. Doyle’s first book…’Micah Clarke,’ is finer than anything he has done since.” 4 March 1905.

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