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7 February 2011
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Cult Presents: Sherlock Holmes

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New Sherlock Holmes Stories The Lady Downstairs
by Christopher Fowler

What annoys me most is that he doesn't notice.

There are so few females in his life, and the ones that he does meet are usually in distress or hiding something. They're titled, or troubled, or � well, one wouldn't use the word in polite company, but it also begins with a T, and may be preceded by the word "Bakewell'. I see them all, because I see all of his clients. I open the door to them, I send them away or ask them to wait, or show them up the seventeen stairs to his room. You don't let a stranger into your house without noticing something about them, and there's usually something to notice. The ladies may have red-rimmed eyes and damp handkerchiefs, or may adopt a disdainful air to make me think they are the mistresses of their situations. The gentlemen are more obvious still, their rage barely concealed as they hop from one foot to the other, their eagerness to see my lodger brushing aside the most common courtesies. Sometimes our visitors are fearful, and search the street to make sure they have not been followed. These ones rush inside as if they have been scalded, and once my door is safely closed behind them, apologise for their behaviour, wringing their caps and glancing to the top of the stairs, half-expecting him to pop out of his rooms and solve their problems right in the hallway, as if I would allow such a thing.

I shouldn't complain, for a landlady's life is rarely interesting, and the comings and goings are a small price to pay for housing such a famous London figure. There are annoyances, of course; the infernal scratching of that violin, the muffled explosions from unstable compounds in the laboratory he has rigged up in my back room (without my permission), the immovable stains that appear on the carpets, the ghastly burning-cat smells that waft down from the landing, invariably at tea-time when I am about to tuck into a kipper, the unsocial hours kept by a man who finds sleep a stranger. Yet I am fond of him because his enthusiasm leaves him so unprotected. He knows the doctor is concerned for his well-being. But he never notices me.

Of course, he is the Great Detective, and I am only the landlady. To hear him pronounce judgement you would think no-one else was born with a pair of eyes. We don't all have to shout about it from the rooftops. But my job is to notice everything, though I get little thanks.

Allow me to present you with an example. Only last week, on a drizzling Tuesday night at half past ten, as I was readying myself for bed, there came a knock at the door. The girl had gone up to bed, and I was left to greet the caller, a frantic lady of some forty summers, in a dripping fur hat, clutching a wet fox-collar about her throat.

"Is this the house of Mr. Sherlock Holmes?" she asked, without so much as a good evening.

"Why yes," I replied, "and I am his landlady, Mrs Hudson, but Mr Holmes has left strict instructions not to be disturbed."

"I must see him," said the lady. "It is a matter of the utmost urgency." I say lady, for I assumed her to be one though she was not wearing gloves, and the wetness of her clothes suggested that she had not alighted from her own carriage, or even a Hackney. She had a bearing, though, and a way of looking that I have seen too often when ladies look at landladies.

"If you'd care to wait in the front room I'll see what can be done," I told her, and trotted off upstairs. I am nervous of no-one in my own house, but sometimes Mr Holmes can be alarming. On this night he spoke to me rudely through the door, and finally opened it a crack to see what was amiss.

As I explained that a lady waited downstairs, I could my lodger hastily rolling down the sleeve of his shirt, tidying something away and complaining that it really was too bad he should be disturbed in such a manner. Knowing him, I took this to be an agreement that he would see her.

"Is she in need of medical attention?" he asked briskly. "Dr Watson is still away."

"No," I replied, "but she is quite distraught, for she has run here in the rain without stopping to dress for visiting." And I showed her up. As she passed me, I smelled essence of violets on her clothes, and something else I recognised but could not place, a nursery smell.

I stood on the landing, listening. She introduced herself as Lady Cecily Templeford, but then the door closed and I heard no more. Still, it was enough. I read the women's weeklies, so I knew that Lady Templeford's son recently married beneath him. It was quite the scandal among the leisured classes, which I am not part of, but I make it my business to read about their small sufferings, who is engaged to whom, and why they should not be.

Author's Notes
Christopher Fowler is a novelist and scriptwriter whose first thriller was the bestselling Roofworld, now optioned as a New Line film. His subsequent books include the outrageous Spanky, Psychoville, Calabash and the graphic novel Menz Insana.

Full Dark House, Christopher's first book featuring elderly detectives Bryant and May, won the August Derleth Award for Year's Best Novel. It was followed this year by a sequel, The Water Room.

Christopher is co-founder of Creative Partnership, a company that creates movie posters, trailers and documentaries. He's also written comedy for BBC radio and once released a truly disastrous Christmas single. He currently reviews for the Independent On Sunday, as well as many other publications. He was born in London, where he still lives with a laptop and a cat, both temperamental.

"Sherlock Holmes stories are tougher to write than you'd think," says Christopher, "because so many authors have tackled them. You don't want to repeat old ideas, but it's equally important not to break the rules. I hope I've come up with an unexpected angle that still plays fair with Conan Doyle's characters."

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