Is your father a Freudian?”
Could that question, which 13-year-old Nicholas Meyer was asked in 1959, really have initiated a chain of events that ended up breathing new life into two classic fictional franchises—and even affecting U.S. nuclear weapons policy?
Causation is, of course, complicated, but it’s possible to connect the dots from that query to Meyer’s role in Sherlock Holmes being a commercially lucrative property in 2019—and in Ronald Reagan’s shift away from believing that nuclear war could be winnable.
These days, with Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch alternating their portrayals of superheroes with appearances as Sherlock Holmes, a legion of fans eagerly await the next installments in their respective series. And Holmes’s status as a firmly ensconced popular culture icon accounts for the publication of dozens of new novels and short stories year after year.
But it wasn’t always so, and many believe that Holmes would not be as present in print as he is today if not for Meyer’s 1974 novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (Dutton, 1974). Meyer, whose fourth Holmes novel, The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols, is being published by Minotaur in October, told PW that he had originally set out all those years ago to write a “story about Sherlock Holmes, not a Sherlock Holmes story.” In The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, he had the inspired idea of having Watson trick a cocaine-addicted Holmes into traveling to Vienna in pursuit of Professor Moriarty, so that his addiction could be treated by Sigmund Freud himself. The book struck a chord with readers, remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for 40 weeks. Its popularity encouraged other writers and publishers, leading to a boom in Sherlock Holmes books that began in the mid-1970s and continues today.
Meyer grew up in New York City, the son of a psychiatrist, Bernard Meyer, who supported the six-year-old Meyer’s initial attempts at becoming a writer. “I’d dictate these stories about our dog fetching the newspaper and transporting it from the store to our home, and my father would write them down.” Eventually, Bernard Meyer tired of being a stenographer and directed Meyer to write down his own tales. Meyer, a voracious reader, “loved The Complete Sherlock Holmes at first read” and began to copy the styles and characters of authors he liked.
Meyer came up with a different way to make creative use of Holmes after a fellow student asked whether his father followed Freud’s methods. Not knowing anything about Freud, Meyer came home and posed that question to his father. “He told me that it’s no more possible to discuss psychology without discussing Freud than it is to discuss the discovery of America without discussing Columbus.” When the older Meyer explained that his work involved listening to both what his patients said, and how they said it, in order to find clues about what was at the heart of their problems, Meyer piped up: “That sounds like being a detective.” When his father concurred, a light bulb went off in Meyer’s head—he realized that Holmes had always reminded him of his father.
That epiphany led Meyer to learn about Freud. “His narrative voice was reminiscent of Watson’s, and, at one point, Freud himself described his following the labyrinth of a patient’s mind as being ‘Sherlock Holmes-like.’ ” Given that Freud and Conan Doyle were contemporaries who had both written about cocaine, Meyer wondered whether they had known each other. Once Meyer learned that Conan Doyle had studied ophthalmology in Vienna for six months, he was convinced he was on to a good idea.
But that idea remained undeveloped for years, until after Meyer had moved to California to try his hand at screenwriting. The 1973 Writers’ Guild strike left him with a lot of free time, and friends encouraged him to get going on the Holmes-Freud novel he’d been talking about. While Meyer was convinced he’d produced something worthy of being published, his agents, who declared that “Holmes was passé,” took a hard pass.
Undaunted, Meyer traveled to New York City, and eventually garnered the attention of Juris Jurjevics. Jurjevics, a future founder of Soho Press, was at the time Dutton’s editor-in-chief and became an advocate for The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a position vindicated by its sales; while its original print run was just 25,000, it has sold more than two million copies to date, according to Meyer’s website. The book’s success led to a 1976 film starring Alan Arkin, Robert Duvall, Laurence Olivier, Vanessa Redgrave, and Nicol Williamson. Meyer wrote the screenplay.
Not all Sherlockians embraced Meyer’s depiction of an addiction-ravaged Holmes, but Meyer felt that Holmes was all-the-more heroic for detecting crime and seeking justice despite the burden of his enslavement to the needle. He followed The Seven-Per-Cent Solution with 1976’s The West End Horror (Dutton), another bestseller. Meyer considers that book, which featured Holmes tracking a murderer among a theatrical world peopled by such historical figures as George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, as a more conventional “Sherlock Holmes story,” rather than one that would lead readers to look at the character differently. Meyer’s next Holmes novel was 1993’s The Canary Trainer, which pitted the detective against the Phantom of the Opera.
Why end a 26-year hiatus since The Canary Trainer with this year’s The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols? “I get a great many ideas for stories, but most of them stink,” Meyer says. “I’ve always been fascinated by forgeries and hoaxes, and I found The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to be one of the most freaky and disturbing things I’ve ever read.”
Meyer views the Trump era as “an age of hoaxes,” and the Protocols as retaining their virulence; they are still cited by anti-Semites today, and as Meyer’s afterword to his new book notes, Vladimir Putin invoked them in 2018 to bolster his assertion that “the Jews” were behind any meddling in the 2016 American presidential elections. The tract appeared in the early 20th century, contemporaneous with when Holmes was sleuthing, and Meyer wondered—what if Holmes was asked to investigate the origins of the Protocols?
The book falls somewhere between the straight pastiche of The West End Horror and the envelope-pushing of The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution, as the Protocols Holmes must wrestle with ethical challenges Conan Doyle never posed for him.
But despite playing a critical role in Holmes’s endurance, Meyer is proudest of something else. In 1983, he directed the television film The Day After, which graphically portrayed the aftermath of full-scale nuclear exchanges between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Among its more than 100 million viewers was President Ronald Reagan, who wrote in his memoir, An American Life, that it changed his mind about nuclear war. That shift would lead to Reagan’s active engagement with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, culminating with their signing of the INF Treaty in 1987.
Remember that Meyer was an obscure screenwriter before The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution’s breakout success opened the doors for him that led to The Day After. And it was a casual question from a fellow student that led to Meyer’s developing Solution’s central concept. As Conan Doyle wrote in the short story “A Case of Identity,” “Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.”
Lenny Picker is a writer living in New York City.