The BS column: Murdering your darlings

(First published in the Business Standard, Speaking Volumes, May 24, 2005)

It won’t be long now before a certain student of Hogwarts graduates from the most famous academy of magic and wizardry in the world, leaving his author, J K Rowling, with an unenviable prospect. There’s always the possibility that Harry Potter’s years at university could be written about and still draw a loyal audience, but what happens next— Harry Potter and the Midlife Crisis?

Imagine Potter as an embittered, middle-ranking civil servant trapped in a bad marriage with, say, a woman like Parvati Patel. Imagine Potter as a coach with a trick knee boring a new generation of youngsters with tales of Quidditch matches lost and won. Imagine Potter escaping to the local pub to grouse with Ron and Hagrid about the good old days when they made proper evil megalomaniacs, not like the wussy dictators you get nowadays.

It’s not to be thought of, and Rowling has hinted that she would like to move on from Potter to something different—writing detective stories, perhaps, like her good friend Ian Rankin. The question Rowling faces is whether she can make the switch to a different genre and carry the millions of Potter fans with her, and whether she can resist the pressure to continue churning out Potter adventures.

She’s not the first author to face these questions, and unfortunately, very few of those who faced similar problems found solutions that made them happy. Perhaps the most famous example is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had a relationship with his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, that will keep generations of literary-minded psychoanalysts happy. Conan Doyle intended to make his name as a serious man of letters. He was very proud of his historical novels, though neither Micah Clarke nor Sir Nigel can be read today with ease: the first is written in a style so florid that it reads like a parody, the second is a relatively turgid historical romance. But it meant a great deal to Conan Doyle that Micah Clarke was greatly admired in its time—he particularly cherished Oscar Wilde’s praise.

And he fully intended to return from Holmes’ mysteries to high art, except that his public wouldn’t let him. As every Sherlockian knows, Conan Doyle killed off Holmes in a struggle to the death with Moriarty on the Reichenbach Falls; the relish with which he wrote in one of his letters that he had found the ideal spot to murder his detective lets us see just how much he had come to loathe Holmes. There was such a public outcry, though, that he had to resurrect Holmes eventually. One of my analyst friends speculates that perhaps Conan Doyle harboured an unconscious wish that Holmes would return from the grave. My friend points out that Conan Doyle could have had his detective blown to bits, dismembered, eaten away by acid, in fact killed him in a thousand ways that would have made it impossible to resurrect him—but he chose a way that allowed for some ambiguity over the state, and the fact, of the corpse. Conan Doyle may have wanted to kill Holmes, but his subconscious had other ideas.

Rowling may get away from Potter—she’s often said that she intends to leave the boy wizard behind at some stage—but might face the same problem that highly successful writers have faced when they’ve tried to move on. She mentioned AA Milne, who wrote several novels for adults, but who, she noted, “never got reviewed without the mention of Tigger and Pooh and Piglet”. Milne’s plays were moderately successful; his novels for adults made awkward reading, and no one took the author of the Pooh books particularly seriously.

One of the few genre authors who avoided disappointment in this sphere was L Frank Baum, who dealt with the incessant demand for all things Oz by rising to the needs of his public. The author of The Wizard of Oz wrote several other series for children under pseudonyms, but spent his life writing sequels to Oz. There was an Oz newspaper, an Oz cartoon strip—and an endless series of Oz books, from The Marvelous Land of Oz to Tik-Tok of Oz , The Patchwork Girl of Oz , and The Visitors from Oz . He wrote a few books for adults, too, including an intriguing travelogue called The Last Egyptian , but he insulated himself against failure; every time one of his “serious” books tanked, he would churn out another Oz sequel.

Perhaps the best way to deal with the trauma of failing in one sphere of literary endeavour when you’ve succeeded in another is to get it out of the way at an early stage. Before Rex Stout created Nero Wolfe, he aspired to more mainstream literary success. The first mystery to star the portly, gourmandizing, orchid-lover who was a genius armchair detective was Fer-de-Lance , which appeared in 1934. Stout had spent the years between roughly 1927 and 1933 working hard at different sorts of fiction. He wrote a bizarre adventure called Under the Andes , which is a baroque precursor to the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs and which is sometimes credited with introducing the world to the first Swamp Woman. How Like a God , which came out in 1929, belongs to the thankfully small class of literary novels written in the second person. Golden Remedy , which came out in 1931, was about a failing marriage. Stout’s biographer believed this was autobiographical in part, though even the novelist didn’t know the full story—Stout believed his wife was dead, when the truth was that she had eloped with a Russian commissar.

Stout didn’t give up on his ambitions easily—he wrote a thriller about a vanished President the year after the first Nero Wolfe mystery came out, but Wolfe and his sidekick, Archie, began to demand all of his attention. Unlike Conan Doyle, Rex Stout never grew to resent being shackled to his detective. He took a break from Wolfe now and then, creating other detectives and other series, which seems to be the general way of dealing with over-familiarity with your characters. In more recent times, Alexander McCall Smith has attempted to break away from Precious Ramotswe, the number one ladies’ detective who made him famous, by creating an equally inquisitive counterpart in Edinburgh; but his Edinburgh mysteries sell on the back of the Botswana series that made his name. There’s the rub about creating larger-than-life characters: killing them off is so hard.





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