Pitch Night, Holmes Inc. #4

Last night, was another Pitch Night. Each of the writers for the Holmes, Inc. class had to come with three pitches for a story. After we presented the three ideas, Ty would typically eliminate one of the three (but not in all cases) and then the class would vote on which of the remaining two pitches they liked better. As the night progressed, Keiren was also keeping a running tally of which characters were being represented to ensure the book had sufficient balance and coverage of the principal cast.

It was interesting to see the different styles that the creators brought to the table. Some people wanted big, bold stories with giant monsters and/or larger-than-life villains. Others wanted time travel, or alternate dimensions. Some stories were leaping off from stuff in a previous book (Book 3, in particular, ended with a cliff hanger). I can’t think of a single story that was pitched solely as a mystery. Partially, I think, the story-pitching session brought out people’s love of playing with comic book tropes.

Another thing that interested me was the way past classes had such a presence in the room. People in the room were fluent with a rich backstory of the universe that had come out through past iterations of this course: the history of the evil Chaos family, and the significance of the ARTI suits and so forth. I think I’m one of only a couple of people for whom this is the first time taking this class, so I was coming at this a bit new.

I was also the last one to pitch, so by the time I was pitching my stories, we’d already run the gamut of monsters and time travel. I’m sure that my ideas seemed banal in comparison.

Here are my three pitches:

Pitch #1: Mrs. Holmes (or “Number Two meets Emma Peel”)

One of the questions I’ve had about the Holmes, Inc. universe is: who are the mothers of these people? As in most comics, many of the key characters are men, and the family is fairly patriarchical. What kind of woman marries in to this family? What do they bring to the family dynamic? Why don’t we see them in the adventures?

So, my mind imagined a story centered on the wife of Number Two — I imagined her as an Emma Peel-type character, probably a member of MI-6 (in the first book, Edgar Jr. makes a reference to being a fully-trained MI-6 agent). Factor in the fact that she’s the mother of Edgar Jr. and Trey, then she’s in her child-bearing years in the nineties.

The story that was shaping up in my mind was that she’d left the Holmes, Inc. group — that, in fact, she’d faked her own death and went back to MI-6 to work on a long-term undercover case. The story would start with Edgar Sr. having tracked her down (he never really bought in to the story that she’d died) and then the story would tell the highlights of her relationship with Number Two backwards through the years, ending with a soppy scene of Number Two and the future Mrs. Holmes pledging their eternal love to each other — a scene essentially undermined by our knowledge that she does, in fact, abandon the family.

Some of the parts of the story that were fun for me included the idea of exploring Number Two’s Don Johnson/Miami Vice-like years. I wanted to see him with feathered hair and pastel jackets with shoulder pads and rolled-up sleeves. I also wanted to raise questions about whether or not there were types of missions that Holmes, Inc. wasn’t ideally suited to solve: they’re a mercurial family, wanting to swoop in to a case, spend a day solving the big mystery, and swoop off to the next big adventure. What about longer-term intelligence gathering and HUMINT? I think that the latter are her skills (but, like Emma Peel, she’s also ready with a good karate chop), and at some point, she realizes that there’s an important threat that needs precisely this kind of spycraft and she’s the one who can do it.

People in the room hated hated hated the idea that she was a mother who abandoned her children. There were a lot of probing questions about what might possibly be so important that she’d choose that. Ty pushed back on the idea that she willfully faked her own death, as that seemed too cruel a thing to do to her family. Me, I think that characters who make choices that we find uncomfortable are interesting characters and I like exploring their stories.

I found myself reflecting, after the fact, how most of the modern visions of Holmes accept that he’s a bit of a dick, but we excuse it because he’s brilliant. But as I described Mrs. Holmes as a bad mother, that needed justification, and a really good reason why she’d do this. Interesting.

Another objection that was quickly raised was that my proposed story contradicted the official character bible that establishes that Number Two’s wife was a homemaker. Ty quashed that concern, taking the pragmatic view that if we haven’t seen it on the page, it isn’t set in stone. (For my part, it turns out that I hadn’t seen the character bible before — we’d been sent links to this site, rather than this other one, and I hadn’t seen the more fully-fleshed-out Holmes, Inc. universe backstory).

As I’ve been writing this out, now, I find myself reflecting on that scene from the end of The Hours where Julianne Moore’s character makes this speech, after acknowledging that she abandoned her children:

It would be wonderful to say you regretted it. It would be easy. But what does it mean? What does it mean to regret when you have no choice? It’s what you can bear. There it is. No one’s going to forgive me.

Pitch #2: Different Intelligences (or “Good Holmes Hunting”)

My second story pitch was also a story based on Number Two. The character write-up emphasizes the idea that he’s not as strong in deductive reasoning as the other members of the family, but his strength lies in planning and business and logistics. I wanted to see a story where he was using his different strengths in a way that was meaningful (in one of those “show, don’t tell” kind of ways).

The story I came up with built on a moment from book two, where Elizabeth Watson chooses to kill a villain, essentially in cold blood (The villain was politically connected, and unlikely to be prosecuted for his horrific deeds). Another story in book three referenced this incident as well.

The thing I wanted to explore was the idea that, as in Good Will Hunting, heightened intelligence doesn’t mean that one can’t experience trauma. And I think that Number Two’s skills suggest that he’s more people-savvy and he’s the one who can see the very slight ways in which Elizabeth is avoiding certain types of cases because of that history.

I wanted the story to explore the limitations of deductive reasoning — that if you put all your character points into logical deduction, you might have deficiencies in other areas, and it’s those deficiencies that Number Two’s skills compensate for.

I imagined the story as a little interlude-type piece, basically between cases. Number Two’s role is to oversee all the missions, and Elizabeth is supposed to be the field leader, and so the story was imagined as a standard status meeting between them, except that Number Two has a hidden agenda to raise his suspicions about her trauma. Elizabeth, being one of the deductive types, sees where his little intervention is headed and is all, “hey, I’ve replayed the events a million times since then, and it was the least-worst outcome and I’d do it again if the same circumstances presented themselves.” To which, Number Two replies: “well, that sounds like a logical series of conclusions… it’s too bad that the human unconscious isn’t always completely logical.”

Ty’s primary objection was that he felt that the story wasn’t sufficiently well-defined. His key question was, “yes, but what are they doing?” In essence, I think that his concern was that it was going to be a talking-heads story and I get how that’d be fundamentally boring to draw. For my part, I wanted it to be a quieter story, because I think that that’s the kind of space in which Number Two’s skills shine the best. (There had been a few other pitches in the night about Number Two saving the day, but those pitched seemed to be framed around how Number Two succeeds in the world that the rest of the family operate in; I was more interested in a story set in his domain.)

Anyway, this became the story that Ty struck from my list of pitches.

Pitch #3: Compromise and Complicity (what happens when “Scooby-Doo” meets “Syriana”?)

My primary idea for this story goes back to that moment, mentioned in “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”, where Holmes shoots the letters “VR” (Victoria Regina) into the wall. The original Holmes is clearly a patriotic Queen-and-Country type, and I thought that was an element that hadn’t been really explored.

I was also interested in confronting the conceit of the mystery genre, which is that everyone (except the villain) wants the truth to come out and that the authorities will intervene when it does. My question is, fundamentally, what happens when solving the mystery goes against the wills of the Empire?

The story I imagine is basically modeled on the Patrice Lumumba case. I imagine it based in a small, fictional African country that probably borders on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (because I figure that conflict minerals are central to the story). This country has its own Patrice Lumumba figure in its history — a popular leader-type whom western powers feared was essentially a Communist. Like Lumumba, he was deposed in a CIA/MI-6-backed coup and assassinated in the night.

Now, it’s 50 years later, and a new populist government has been elected. And the new government comes to Holmes, Inc., wanting them to look into this past case — Holmes Inc. has some of the world’s best investigators and forensics experts. The Lumumba-figure is an important symbol in this country’s history, and getting a clear answer and real evidence that he was killed by Western imperial forces would do a lot both to heal some of the wounds of the past, and to promote anti-neo-colonial movements in Africa. The thing is, nobody in the British Foreign office wants those things. If Holmes Inc. finds hard evidence of MI-6 complicity in this past coup, there goes plausible deniability. Perhaps it’ll destabilize the region. People might start talking about the Congo and maybe even Rwanda, and the West’s access to conflict minerals (and, by extension, consumer electronics) is imperiled. So the Foreign Office is pressuring Holmes Inc. to drop the case.

When I pitched it, I didn’t take a firm side about whether or not I felt that Holmes Inc. would side with the Western establishment or the plucky underdogs, but I think that their history suggests that they’d be more affiliated with the establishment. So I’m interested in telling a story where they’re not necessarily the good guys, in the end.

It’s a risky story, I figure. I’ll be in danger of tripping on all of the “How to Write About Africa” stuff.

So, after I pitched all three, the crowd voted to decide between the first and third. They gave me a resounding tie. There had been a couple of close votes in the night, but this was our only tie. So I asked “does that mean I get to break the tie?” Apparently I did; I chose to go with the third story, although it was a hard call.

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