London has something that invites the detective game. The anonymity that characterizes a large city, gets dark early and its famous fog —anecdotal today— brings that gloomy aspect that allows any amateur researcher to feel like a fish in water. As if that were not enough, here, at 221B Baker Street, lives Sherlock Holmes, who has so inspired Arturo Pérez Reverte (Cartagena, 1951) in his new novel, the ultimate problem (Alfaguara), which has just hit bookstores and whose title is reminiscent of the story in which Conan Doyle killed his hero by throwing him off the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland.
The writer has traveled to the city on the Thames, which is in the midst of a heat wave, to follow in the footsteps of the fictional character created by Arthur Conan Doyle. He does not carry a cap, raincoat, or any pipe with him, but that does not prevent him from leaving behind his academic and literary side to reincarnate himself as the most famous detective of all time, who is followed by about twenty journalists, who act as of Watson, his faithful companion in battles.
The bookstores are saturated with black novels and I thought then that the original thing would be to return to the problem novel”
“Before starting to write, I realized that bookstores are saturated with black novels. I then thought that the original thing would be to return to the problem novel, more mathematical. I missed a kind of elegant story, one that moved a little away from that torn, shady and alcoholic man who smells of tobacco smoke and boxer sweat. That is why I also set it in the 60s, when the way of walking and lighting a cigarette was different. In my novels you will never see a mobile phone ”, he says as he takes his device out of his pocket, an absolute antonym of the smartphones.
“It’s not that I want the world to be like this, but narratively speaking, I prefer to be with educated people. And the end of the 60s marks the end of an era. And that made me consider a new challenge: Will I get today’s reader, who has read novels of all kinds, to get hooked on a good story like the ones from before?”, confesses the writer after a tour of Sherlock’s London and Conan Doyle. Talking about both is synonymous with going back to his childhood and his grandparents’ library. “I wanted to write this book. He has taught me much of what I had forgotten. He has given me back the scent of home ”.
The passion with which the author of the dumas club talks about Holmes gives an idea of why he has decided to wink at him in his book by the hand of his protagonist, Hopalong Basil, an actor in decline who once played the investigator on the big screen. The choice of the name is not a coincidence, since it is inspired by Basil Rathbone, the British interpreter who became famous for his interpretations of Sherlock. “Basil is everything to me. He is Sherlock Holmes. Almost all of us associate it with him. All the literary and cinematographic winks of my pages are true, although with him I take some small license”.
Pérez-Reverte locks his protagonist in a hotel on an idyllic Greek island off Corfu along with nine other people who remain isolated due to a storm that does not allow anyone to enter or leave the place. That makes everyone a suspect in the sudden death of one of the guests, English tourist Edith Mander. An approach that bears many similarities with Ten little blacks, one of Agatha Christie’s most widely read novels.
“I have invented many worlds but Sherlock’s already existed. I have not created it. It is true that I have had a lot of fun writing for a year and a half, but in this sense I was not free. For this reason, I have gone to books by greats of the genre such as Christie, Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr, among others, and I have looted them. How much talent there is in this novel is not mine. All reasoned, deductive, inductive, perfective talent is flagrantly stolen from people who were brilliant. I am just Watson, a good compiler, and I have handled and combined those elements with the experience of 31 years as a novelist. But there’s nothing mine except the treatment.”
Despite the fact that the writer found inspiration in other authors, one thing was always clear to him: “to know that the experiment was going well, no one had to know who the murderer was until the end. This is a game between the author and the reader. An accomplice perversion and, above all, a novel for two”. True to his purpose, he sent the manuscript to the publisher without the last chapter. Pilar Reyes, editorial director of Alfaguara, acknowledges that “nobody managed to find out who the murderer was or how he had killed.” Pérez-Reverte breathes with relief. “Otherwise, they would have made me change a lot of things. It is the novel that I have rewritten the most times without a doubt”.
There are several sagas that he has written throughout his career, such as Falcó, but this one “will not have a continuation. I’m four chapters into my next book and I’m on to something else”. The only thing he reveals for now is that it will also happen in Greece.
No one solved the riddle
Pérez-Reverte sent the manuscript to the publisher without the last chapter
What he does recognize is that Alatriste “will not stay as he is. I would like to finish off the series and the idea is that he has two more novels, if my health allows me. If I stopped it at the time, it is because I considered that the market was already too saturated, as is the case now with crime novels, and that it was losing interest. And I know that there are still people who continue to claim it and even insult me for not posting anything new. But I know that sooner rather than later his time will come.”
Of course, he concludes, “I hope that when my head fails me, my readers also tell me so. There is nothing worse than a writer who dies and doesn’t know it. It will be a terrible intellectual tragedy, I know, because writing involves doing a series of activities that keep me in shape. But I trust that I will always have to browse and spend time reading the novels that I love so much and that I don’t have time to enjoy now.