Canberra author LJM Owen and the curious case of Sherlock Holmes in Queanbeyan

Canberra author LJM Owen and the curious case of Sherlock Holmes in Queanbeyan

Canberra author LJM Owen has more than a clue about writing a Sherlock Holmes story.

Owen, author of the Dr Pimms: Intermillennial Sleuth novels, has just contributed The Adventure of the Lazarus Child, her first published short story, to an anthology called Sherlock Holmes: The Australian Casebook.

Author LJM Owen has a PhD in palaeogenetics.

Author LJM Owen has a PhD in palaeogenetics.Credit:Elesa Kurtz

Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson appeared in four novels and 56 short stories. Although Holmes was not the first literary detective, he continues to have a perennial allure as the ultimate crime investigator.

Owen explains her involvement in the anthology: "My publisher suggested that the Holmes anthology was right up my alley. They said 'would you like to do a 3000 to 7000 word Sherlock story set in Australia?'."

Cover of Sherlock Holmes: Australian Casebook.

Cover of Sherlock Holmes: Australian Casebook.

The set up was explained thus: "It is the year 1890. Sherlock Holmes' fame has spread even to the colonies as he and his stalwart chronicler, Dr John Watson, are swept up in an array of mysteries Down Under. They find themselves summoned from location to location, traversing all corners of the strange island continent of Australia, challenged with mysteries and a geographical and cultural landscape with which they are unfamiliar. From eerie shadows on cave walls, to an actor's most grisly curtain call, an abduction by a demon, and an inexplicable drowning, to the odd affair of the reputed biggest man in Australia, a purloined bunyip, and to sinister, bearded bushrangers, the tales within this collection provide fresh perspective to the Holmes phenomena and will intrigue, delight and entertain readers."

Owen jumped at the chance. "As a writer I'm more Holmesian than Sherlockian," she says. "Which means I'm constricted by the original set of works created by Conan Doyle. Sherlockians, on the other hand, can write outside that canon.

"I tried to get a feel for the language and personalities of Holmes and Watson. I tended to adopt John Watson as a guiding light – he can be very acerbic.

"I pick up the story of Holmes and Watson in Sydney in 1890. Holmes is driving everyone crazy with his wild experiments – at one stage smashing a window with a didgeridoo - so to distract him, Watson carefully places a newspaper article in his path, of a mysterious story a Queanbeyan boy who is found dead in a waterfilled trench who then is seemingly, miraculously brought back to life."

The Adventure of the Lazarus Child, is based on the true story of a 16-month-old Queanbeyan boy who went missing in June, 1889 and was then found apparently dead by his distraught family in a trench filled with water, and though black in colour, is said to have been revived with no ill effects.

"Holmes, of course, is outraged, and sets out to prove the story is nonsense," Owen says.

"I researched the town as it was then, and have incorporated local landmarks such as Walsh's Hotel, the hospital and the railway station."

"The other key real name I used was Beard. According to the local museum, in 1828 an ex-convict named Timothy Beard, who was known to be an innkeeper from Campbelltown, had a squattage called Quinbean (said to mean Aboriginal for clear waters) on the Molonglo River. Beard was credited with having the first settlement close to the present site of Queanbeyan, though his occupancy was illegal.

"I could see this Mr Beard considering himself the founder of Queanbeyan and becoming the pushy grandfather who insisted one of his descendents must become mayor."

The other contributors to the anthology are Kerry Greenwood and Lindy Cameron, Meg Keneally, Kaaron Warren, Lucy Sussex, T.S.P. Sweeney, J. Scherpenhuizen, Will Schaefer, Robert Veld, Doug Elliott, Philip Cornell, Raymond Gates, Jason Franks, Narrelle M. Harris, Steve Cameron, and editor Christopher Sequeira himself, and with an introduction by Baker Street Irregular (a reference to fictional characters who appear in various Sherlock Holmes stories as street boys who are employed by Holmes as intelligence agents) Bill Barnes, and illustrations by Philip Cornell, J. Scherpenhuizen and Marcelo Baez. It is released this weekend.

Watching the detectives

Owen has degrees in archaeology and library management and a PhD in palaeogenetics.

She defines palaeogenetics as "the study of the past through the examination of preserved genetic material from the remains of ancient organisms", adding: "In relation to my Dr Pimms series, I usually describe it as the reconstruction of the genetics of past human populations.

"My PhD involved comparing the genetics of past human populations through the examination of dental remains. This expertise fed directly into my first novel, Olmec Obituary. The forensic science in all three Dr Pimms novels is based on firsthand experience or significant research. I also drew on my understanding of forensic science methods and techniques available in 1890 when constructing the storyworld for my Holmesian tale."

She describes her style as having "cosy mystery sensibilities". But can murder and mayhem have a light side? "In terms of the way readers tend to consume my crime writing, yes it can," she says. She follows the strict Agatha Christie dictum of no graphic sex and no expletives.

And her inspiration? "I love all the things I've done in the past and I put it all into my fiction, I researched various genres and discovered crime is what I really like to write about," she says.

She adds that her extensive world travel has informed her work also. "Quite a bit," she says. "I'm planning nine books (Dr Pimms) and plotted them all to include my travel experiences. They are drawn from my memories.

"I'm motivated by, and find real women in history, fascinating."

Owen employs what she calls the snowflake method developed by Randy Ingermanson in her writing.

"I start with one line that describes a whole scenario and then flesh it out, all the while making sure the story remains intact."

Women of the world

The hero of Owen's Intermillennial Sleuth novels is Dr Elizabeth Pimms, a skilled archaeologist, knowledgeable Egyptologist and reluctant librarian at Canberra's fictional Mahony Griffin Library. Elizabeth's best friend describes her as curious, intellectual, tenacious and secretive.

From the age of four Elizabeth dedicated herself to the discovery of lost civilisations and ancient treasures. Young and a touch naïve, Elizabeth is aided in her investigations by the machinations of her phrenic library - and a growing sense that something is awry in the world.

Asked to reference the Dr Pimms series, Owen suggests it is a hybrid of Bones, the US TV crime procedural based on Kathy Reichs' Temperance Brennan novels, and the rural potboiler Midsomer Murders. Readers have drawn comparison with the Alan Grant series by Josephine Tey, Falco series by Lindsey Davis and the Corinna Chapman series by Kerry Greenwood.

Part one of the planned nine-book series is Olmec Obituary, which was initially crowd-funded via Kickstarter in early 2015. The book was picked up by Echo Publishing and released again in August 2016 with a new cover. Much of the book is set in Canberra where Dr Elizabeth Pimms works while she unpicks the cause of mysterious deaths in ancient civilisations, and more contemporary crimes. The second book, Mayan Mendacity, sees Dr Pimms exploring the ancient world of Mayan politics, scribes and female rulers.

Part three, Egyptian Enigma, due in March 2018, sees Dr Pimms on the hunt for the identity of a cache of mummies hidden in a Golden Tomb. There are female pharaohs, ancient grave robbers, modern cannibals, loads of skeletons, cats and cups of tea, she says.

Asked who she imagines playing Dr Pimms on screen, Owen nominates Emma Stone "because of her eyes".

With an anticipated nine books in the series - one each year - Owen has set herself an ambitious task. Each book will explore a different civilisation and the people that inhabited them, a pattern that demands Owen spend weeks and months engrossed in academic books and papers before the words are written.

Owen, whose mother was a teacher, moved often around NSW as a child. She attended university in Canberra, then went on to work in several public service departments before landing a job as a librarian with the National Library of Australia. It was in the map room at the library Owen imagined the Dr Elizabeth Pimms character.


She still lives in Canberra.

Meet LJM Owen and have your book signed on Saturday, November 18 at Harry Hartog in Woden at 11.30pm and the Queanbeyan Library at 2pm. She will also conduct flash signings through the morning, including at the National Library Bookshop and Paperchain Bookstore Manuka, with alerts given on social media.

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