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Friday, February 20, 2015

Invisible ink no 263: The strange case of solar pons

The nation went into mourning when it heard that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not planning to write any more Holmes adventures, so the young American August Derleth wrote to Conan Doyle and rather cheekily asked if he could take over the series. Holmes’s creator declined the offer, but the undeterred Derleth set about writing his own version, and assonantly christened him Solar Pons.

Derleth had built his reputation by being the first publisher of H P Lovecraft, and himself added to Cthulhu Mythos (that writer’s fictional universe), founding the publisher Arkham House, but he was also a fine pasticheur. His Holmes parodies were blatant swipes. Dr Watson was replaced by Dr Parker, Mrs Hudson by Mrs Johnson, Mycroft by Bancroft, and instead of residing at 221b Baker Street, Pons was based at 7B Praed Street. But Derleth cleverly added a detail that prevented his series from being a straight steal of another author’s work; Pons existed in Holmes’ world. Pons knew all about Holmes, and was not his exact contemporary, operating in a later time frame. The Pons stories also crossed over with plot devices from other authors including William Hope Hodgson, Lovecraft, and Sax Rohmer, creating a tangle of literary tropes in the way that authors Alan Moore, Kim Newman, and the TV series Penny Dreadful use now. Derleth tackled Conan Doyle’s mentioned-but-missing cases and went on to add other star sleuths, including Hercule Poirot, The Saint, and W Somerset Maugham’s agent Ashenden. He also wrote many more stories with his detective than Conan Doyle managed.

When Derleth died in 1971, his Pons character was in turn picked up by another author, Basil Copper (who explored Pons’s “missing cases” just as Derleth had done with Holmes, as well as adding his own original tales) so that we have pastiches of pastiches. He also rearranged the stories into correct chronology and removed glaring Americanisms that were the result of Derleth not having visited London. Several societies and magazines, including the Praed Street Irregulars and the Solar Pons Gazette, were dedicated to the memory of the pastiche sleuth, and further Pons tales were written by yet other authors, so that this strange homage continues to infinity.

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