Nicholas Meyer on Sherlock Holmes Tackling Real-Life Hoaxes in The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols

If you’re a Star Trek fan, there’s more than a passing chance you’re also a Sherlock Holmes fan, too. And though many would point to 1988’s “Elementary, My Dear Data” as the moment when these two famous fandoms merged, arguably, the synthesis of Trek fandom and Holmes fandoms was promoted by one man several years before: Nicholas Meyer. Perhaps best known as the director of 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Meyer’s writing career exploded in 1976 with the publication of his novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche in which the famous detective meets and is treated by Sigmund Freud.

“My Holmes books proceed from a kind of alternate chronology,” Meyer told me in a recent phone interview. “In my version, Professor Moriarty isn’t the Napoleon of crime.” In fact, Moriarty’s role is vastly different; a twist that hasn’t appeared in any other Holmes-related media (as yet). Sherlock’s canonical cocaine addiction is eradicated by Meyer too, after Holmes is treated by Freud in the same book.

“I’m sort of trying to have it both ways,” Meyer explains. “If you want to stick with Arthur Conan Doyle’s version it still makes sense, and if you want to stick with me, it makes a kind of alternative sense.” So, from a certain point of view, the Sherlock Holmes in Meyer’s newest book, The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols is a more psychologically realistic version than the one from the old-school canon. And this version of the Sherlock canon has led Holmes to tackle “fake news,” albeit fake news that existed in 1905.

In this newest adventure of Sherlock Holmes, the Baker Street badass is out to debunk one of the biggest—and most dangerous—hoaxes of his time: “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

“We live in an era of fake news,” Meyer explains. “Fake everything. And I’ve had a life-long interest in forgery, seeing I’m a kind of forger myself. And when you are interested in forgery, it isn’t long before you stumble upon ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ When I was looking at the dates and looking at some of Sherlock’s dates, I thought that it could work. I thought it would be interesting and apropos to have Sherlock tackle the Protocols.”

The basic premise of the novel, much like Meyer’s three previous Holmes books—The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The West End Horror, and The Canary Trainer—puts Sherlock in the center of historical events, which allows the book to become a kind of literary crossover event. In The Canary Trainer, Holmes battled the “real” Phantom of the Opera, while this time out, Holmes, Watson, and Mycroft are up against real-world conspiracy theories that promote anti-semitism and that have the ability to influence even the smartest of people.

Toward the beginning of The Peculiar Protocols, the unfailingly good and noble John Watson briefly considers the notion that the documents are genuine and that Jewish people are, in fact plotting to take over the world. Meyer says that it was “crucial” in this novel to show Watson—a good person—entertaining the idea that racist propaganda might be legit.

“Not all the people who are taken in by hoaxes are bad people, or villains, or whatever. People can be fooled. Well-meaning people can be fooled. Usually, but not always, ignorance plays a large role in all of this. Watson is just smart enough to resist this. At the point when people are ill-informed, then they become prey to flat-earthers or… like in the book… ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ I think the question Holmes asks at the beginning: ‘Do you think it would be better if they were real or if they were fake?’ is one of the key questions of the book.”

Sherlock Holmes is fictional, though a lengthy tongue-in-cheek introduction in The Peculiar Protocols, written by Meyer, unaccompanied with equally meta-fictional “footnotes” might convince an uninformed reader that Sherlock Holmes and Watson were, in fact, historical people, too. (Dear reader, when I first read Seven Per-Cent-Solution as a teenager, I was briefly confused as to why Meyer was presenting himself as the “editor” the book, rather than the author. And, at that time, Google was not there to explain this gentle “hoax” to me.) The Protocols themselves are historical documents, but also fake. Sherlock Holmes himself is fictional, a fake, and yet here he is, uncovering the truth behind a real-life hoax. Meyer’s ability to “have it both ways” is part of the charm of all of his Holmes books, and that charming duplicity is on full display in The Peculiar Protocols.

“I thought it might take a forger like me to expose a forgery,” Meyer explains. “All the debunking of this hoax has been non-fiction. There have been actual attempts to expose this kind of thing. So I thought, what if tried this from a kind of oblique angle and made it a story; instead of a diatribe or an exposé? I wanted to get people into the machinery of it, instead of making laundry lists. And maybe, a way of dealing with misinformation in the present day is something analogous. Somebody said that ‘fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.’ [Ed: It was Albert Camus.] I’m not sure that’s correct, but I thought perhaps it was worth exploring for a little while.”

Elsewhere in the novel, Meyer has a little bit of fun with references to other literary figures. Watson encounters the early formation of the famous Bloomsbury literary group when he seeks out Constance Garnett (a real-life book translator) for help decoding the titular peculiar documents. And, in discussing different logical fallacies and puzzles, both Sherlock and Mycroft reference Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

But wait! We’ve got another real-world geek mystery on our hands now: Wasn’t Nicholas Meyer also a consulting producer on the first season of Star Trek: Discovery? Could he have been responsible for thrusting that copy of Alice and Wonderland into the hands of Michael Burnham? (After all, Meyer does make a reference to Star Trek: Discovery in his foreword, which could be a bit of a Freudian slip.) So, is he the guy who suggested that Amanda Grayson had read this book to both Spock and Burnham in Discovery?

In ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ we learned that Spock and Michael both read ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as children. Was this Nick Meyer’s idea? (Screenshot credit: CBS)

“I’m tempted to quote Rick Blaine in Casablanca: ‘That was so long ago! I don’t remember!'” Meyer answers with a laugh. “So, I’m trying to remember if I brought up Alice in Wonderland that first year [of Star Trek: Discovery]. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that I did. And it wouldn’t astonish me—well maybe it would astonish me—to learn that I didn’t. Because that just seems so inherent with what we were doing in that season. And I’m nothing if not a free associator.”

Meyer’s free association with the things he loves part of what makes his latest Sherlock Holmes book so fantastic. But, it’s really half the reason this novel succeeds. These days, there are more than enough Sherlock Holmes adventures for a reader to try. But not all the pastiches are stellar. Part of what Meyer does so well is that his Holmes novels read as though they could have really been written by Doyle. But, then, because the books themselves are so risky and so unique, they offer something a Conan Doyle/Waston story could never do: A modern and politically relevant perspective.

The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols, by Nicholas Meyer (with respect to John Watson, M.D.) is out now from Minotaur Books.

Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com and the author of the book Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths (Plume 2015.) His other writing and criticism have been published in Inverse, SyFy Wire, Vulture, Den of Geek!, the New York Times, and StarTrek.com. He is an editor at Fatherly. Ryan lives with his wife and daughter in Portland, Maine.

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