As a child in California, Bonnie MacBird fell in love with Sherlock Holmes. Now, after a successful career as a Hollywood producer and writer, she has brought the Victorian detective back to life in a series of novels that echo the prose of Arthur Conan Doyle. The Journal visits her Marylebone apartment to ask some suitably searching questions
Words: Emily Jupp
Portrait: David Myers
Just a stone’s throw away from the Sherlock Holmes statue outside Baker Street tube is a Victorian apartment, furnished with plump blue armchairs and polished teak dressers. A rug, a worn red and blue persian, covers the dark floorboards. A keen-eyed observer with a certain knowledge might recognise this rug as being almost identical to the one found in the flat of the BBC’s BAFTA-winning Sherlock. The walls are decorated with dynamic black and white watercolour scenes of Holmes and Watson and painted with Farrow & Ball’s Rectory Red emulsion—as close as you can get to a genuine Victorian paint colour. This eminently habitable pastiche of Victoriana is perhaps the closest one could come to seeing the dwelling of Sherlock Holmes, who, lest we forget, is a character from fiction, albeit one of our most popular and enduring ones.
“Help yourself to some cake,” says the flat’s owner, nudging towards me a plate from a red and blue patterned tea set. I remark on the design and it is revealed to be Mason’s Ironstone Blue Mandalay, the very same design that featured in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a series made by Granada Television between 1984 and 1994. “Let me explain. I’m a Sherlockian—and we do that,” says my host, Bonnie MacBird, in her Californian accent. “Me and my Sherlockian friends are full of trivia. It’s a bit crazy, but it’s pretty fun.”
Bonnie is not just any Sherlockian: she is the author of a trio of books that continue the adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle’s genre-defining characters. An anglophile and a bibliophile since she was “a tiny kid”, she would raid her parents’ bookshelves and those of the public library in the San Francisco Bay area where they lived, trawling the pages of a large dictionary to find new words she liked the sound of, then learning them by heart. The first time she read Sherlock she fell in love. She began with Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock novel, A Study in Scarlet, and then raced through the entire canon: 56 short stories and four novels.
Writer of Tron
For the past 40 years, she has lived in Los Angeles, where she made her name as the writer of Tron, one of the era-shaping sci-fi films of the 1980s and among the first to use 3D computer graphics alongside real actors. She is now a lecturer in screenwriting at UCLA, so she often returns to her house in the LA suburbs, but for a while now she and her husband have been spending more and more time living in this little Sherlockian flat near Baker Street.
“I started coming here, I guess, about six, seven years ago to do some research for the first book, Art in the Blood. Just on a lark, I booked into the Sherlock Holmes hotel down the street, thinking it would probably be very kitschy and silly, but it turned out to be a very comfortable place to stay. So I got a nice room looking out onto Baker Street. I started extending my stays and discovered that everything I needed was right there.” She points enthusiastically out the window before describing the hallmarks of the average British high street “You know, there’s Rymans for xeroxing and sending things. There’s Boots. There’s the, um, what was it? The hardware store. Everything you need is right there. And I was like, wow.”
I look a bit puzzled by her ardour for quotidian shops and she explains: “I’ve never lived in an urban setting before. In LA, where I live, you go outside at night at nine o’clock and it’s dead silent. There are houses all on the street, you know, but it’s suburban and you have to drive everywhere. It was a complete dream to get a flat here,” she enthuses. Later, we discuss some other fixtures of the Marylebone neighbourhood, like Cadenhead’s, the whisky shop she collaborated with for her book launch, and Tossed on Baker Street, which most savvy Sherlockians believe is the real location of 221B. “Whenever I go into Tossed and put in my order for a salad, I imagine the ghostly 17 steps of 221B winding up into the air next to the soup and the cold drinks case.”
Grey wall of water
In a foreword to the latest book in her series, The Devil’s Due, Bonnie describes the view from her writing desk here: “As torrential downpours skittered down the bow window of my flat on Chiltern Street, I stood looking at the grey wall of water battering the vista below. Off to the right, across Marylebone Road, umbrellas crowded Baker Street tube entrance, collapsing like evening blossoms as their owners, clad in puffy jackets, windbreakers and trainers, dashed into the building.
“I don’t believe in ghosts, but for some reason sitting in this room, I imagine the people living here during the Blitz. These sirens would go off and you were supposed to take refuge in the tube station. There are photographs of them sleeping along the tracks and on the escalators. I imagine sitting in here and hearing this siren go off for the sixth time in a month and it’s raining and I have to scoop up a kid or there’s a spouse sick in the next room with a cold. Do I go down there again? Or do I risk it and stay here? Can you imagine?” Bonnie’s talent for romanticising a rainy day outside a tube station, and imagination for seeing a forgotten bit of history in a salad bar, is part of what enchants her readers.
Bonnie’s writing is pacey and well-structured. She writes thrilling page-turners that make you both want to rip along with the propulsive narrative and linger over her succinct and bright use of language. She sees London both as it is and how it was over a hundred years ago; she makes slums in Shoreditch feel dangerously exciting; she’s fascinated by Booth’s poverty maps; she spends days at Senate House and the British Museum researching Victorian poisons. She is a detective, but in reverse, excavating the layers of the city and uncovering Holmes-worthy riddles.
“Somebody interviewed Mark Gatiss and asked him: ‘What’s the hardest thing about writing Sherlock?’” she says. “And he said: ‘The deductions! Because they are really hard and you have to work backwards from them.’” Bonnie’s deductions are arguably as good as Conan Doyle’s. I ask how she creates conundrums worthy of one of the cleverest men in fiction. “I’m often trawling in the general vicinity of a subject. And then these discoveries come out and they are like glitter on the page. And I think, okay, that’s going to be useful somehow.”
A fast-paced thriller
In her first book, The Art in the Blood, a meditation on what it means to have an artistic temperament as well as a fast-paced thriller, encompassing Paris, London, an art thief and a murderer, Bonnie had to find a way of making Holmes aware that a woman was pregnant before her own husband knew, even though her husband was a doctor. They were in the north of England and it was December. So she looked for morning sickness remedies that existed in the late-1880s. “Oranges were rare and expensive in the winter time there. They’re not just hanging around, like you might get one in your Christmas stocking if you were a really good kid. You know what I mean? They were very special things. So Holmes sees several oranges on the window sill and he”—she snaps her fingers, her eyes filled with delight—“just gets it.”
Victorian medicine is a regular theme. “I also usually put some good doctoring in all the books because I am fascinated by medicine and I almost went to medical school. Even though Conan Doyle was a doctor himself, he didn’t do that. But I like it, so I put it in.”
The idea to write this series of books came to Bonnie in 2011 when she had just recovered from breast cancer, an experience that made her reassess what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. “It was a long, arduous year-and-a-half and I came out at the other end of it completely healed, but changed, of course. It made me think, what do I really want to do? And I don’t have a very long bucket list, cause I generally do what I want to do.”
She had already been an actor, lived in Paris, won two Emmy Awards as a producer, written and directed plays. But she wanted to write a novel—something she’d attempted 10 years earlier, although the manuscript was left unpublished in a drawer. “I thought, I’ll just write a novel and I’ll put it out there, because you can self-publish now. Then I thought, who do I want to live with for two years? Sherlock Holmes and Watson. They are the best examples of Victorian gentlemen. Holmes is also a romantic figure, I think, because he’s sexually a mystery. My personal take is that he is a little bit on the asexual side. There’s a whole subset of fans who really want to see Watson and Holmes having a relationship. And I say, fine, you know, that doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but I’m not gonna write that in, cause that’s not what I think.”
I wonder if she’d rather live with Watson or Holmes in reality and she jokes: “I am kind of married to one of them. My husband is kind of a scientist and he gets very interested in what he’s saying to people, so I’m the Watson in social situations, having to tell him that the person he’s talking to needs to leave or is getting bored, but I’m also a little like Holmes because I’m not happy unless I’m working. I work all the time because I like it and that’s what I am most comfortable doing—and with intense energy, to points of exhaustion.”
But while Sherlock would reach for cocaine after a period of intense investigation, Bonnie’s vice is legal and calorie-laden. “Unfortunately, my bias is sugar,” she says with a glance towards the three types of cake laid out between us.
Clearly aware of the sensitivities involved in bringing back to life such widely loved characters, Bonnie seems to be anticipating criticism about her work before I’ve even broached the subject. The possible homosexuality of Holmes and Watson is a case in point, but also she leaps in with an unprompted defence of her failing the Bechdel test—the test of whether a conversation takes place between two female characters that isn’t about a man. I tell her I found the female characters that do appear in her novels to be really well-rounded. You can’t be all things to all people, and if you want to create a Sherlock novel in the style of Conan Doyle, you can’t simultaneously make it into a written version of Bridesmaids. But Bonnie is already bedding into her argument. “I’m a feminist, but I can’t really insert a female discourse in and be true to Conan Doyle. He wasn’t an anti-feminist, but the book is about two guys.”
Like everything she does, she took this project very seriously and is understandably defensive when someone has found flaws in it, reasonable or not. However, broadly speaking, the books have been a huge success. Serendipitously, the publication of the first book rode the wave of Sherlock revivals on television and film, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock had tapped into a new, young, highly engaged fanbase and the novel was both widely read and critically acclaimed. Bonnie was even invited into the Baker Street Irregulars, an elite invitation-only society whose members “have distinguished themselves in activities related to Sherlock Holmes”.
A second book, Unquiet Spirits, published in 2017, quickly followed the first, but her most recent work in the series, The Devil’s Due, took a little longer to produce. “This book was delayed and very difficult for me to finish for two reasons. One is I had several deaths in my family during the writing, but the other one was that I’ve been so upset, honestly, as many of us have been—sometimes sleepless—over the rather ghastly things that are going on in both of our countries right now. It feels very out of control and very non-democratic.”
LA and other cosmopolitan cities in the States were filled with shock and denial in the aftermath of the Trump election and she describes it as “an upsetting period of time for lots and lots of people”. She says she doesn’t want this to be an interview about politics, but, unavoidably, her views have seeped into the background of her latest work.
The Devil’s Due is set against a backdrop of huge technological shifts in society, a widening poverty gap and a distrust of foreigners—particularly the French anarchists who were living in exile in London.
There are clearly parallels to be drawn with modern London. “There was a worse difference in Victorian times between rich and poor than there is now. I took a walking tour in Marylebone and there were three times the number of street sleepers in 1890. There were also big technological changes. New factories changed people’s lives and not always for the better. I wanted to put relevance in,” she says. “I want to do that always as a writer, but without being polemic. But I mean, I do have a point of view.”