Interviews New books

Nicholas Meyer discusses Sherlock Holmes, antisemitism and Raoul Wallenberg

Nicholas Meyer was born and raised in New York, but made a career in Hollywood, as a director, screenwriter and novelist. In 1974, his first novel, a Sherlock Holmes adventure entitled The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, spent months on the New York Times bestseller list. Three more Holmes novels followed, of which the latest, The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols, was published in 2019 and sees Holmes and Watson on the trail of the authors of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous real-life conspiracy theory text which fabricated a plot by Jews around the world to control international politics. Meyer’s fifth Holmes adventure, The Return of the Pharaoh, will be published in hardback in late 2021.

Meyer is perhaps most famous for his role in the history of Star Trek. In 1982, he wrote and directed the best-loved of the cinematic Star Trek adventures, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (skip straight to the end of the below interview to find out what connects that film with the Holocaust). He was invited back to write part of the script for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), and was once again in the director’s chair for the last of the original crew’s adventures, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). He has also written or directed a number of other films and TV shows, including the most-watched TV movie in American history, the nuclear apocalypse drama The Day After (1983), and the time travel drama Time After Time (1979), in which HG Wells travels to 1970s San Francisco in pursuit of Jack the Ripper. Meyer recounts the making of all of these in his excellent 2009 autobiography The View from the Bridge, which is soon to be released as an audiobook.

Nicholas Meyer very kindly agreed to talk to The Holocaust Reader about The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols, which is out in paperback in November 2020.

Why did you decide to pit Sherlock Holmes against the Protocols of the Elders of Zion?

The idea of Sherlock Holmes and the Protocols was one I’d been thinking about for a very long time. When my dad gave me the complete Holmes stories, which I’m guessing was age 11, I was introduced to several historical worlds. I’ll give you an example: A Study in Scarlet, which is the first Holmes story. Imagine you’re 11 years old, and you’re reading about Victorian London and the word “Rache” written on the wall, which the cops think is the beginning of “Rachel”. You’re reading along and you’re having a great time, and you turn the page, and are in Utah, with a whole different cast of characters. This 11-year-old assumed that the printers had glued the wrong two stories together, that it was a book binder’s mistake. Not knowing anything else to do, I just kept reading. Then, I saw how it all connected. So, the first real historical thing that Sherlock Holmes introduced me to, other than his own world, was Mormons. Was Utah. In 1971, when I was a kid and driving across country, I had to go to Utah. I had to see it. The second thing which Sherlock Holmes introduced me to was in The Sign of the Four: The Indian Mutiny, 1857. In four pages, or whatever it was, that Doyle has summed up these events, my 11-and-a-half-year-old self was transfixed. Just mind boggling. You learn about a lot of historical things.

At some point, I learned about the Procotols of the Elders of Zion, and I really don’t remember when that was, because it was years and years ago, when I first heard about these documents. Then, I got hold of the Will Eisner comic [The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion]. This is now about twelve years ago, when I started thinking about Holmes and the Protocols. I am a slow thinker; if I am talking fast, I’m playing a tape. So it took me a long time, and it wasn’t until my agent, In New York, sent me this book [Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History] by her client, Professor Steven Zipperstein, about the Protocols, that the whole thing started to come together for me

Did this seem like the kind of mystery that Doyle would have been interested in? Did it seem like a natural fit to you?

To the degree that I gave a lot of thought about it – and most of my reactions when I’m being creative are intuitive, rather than analytic – in my gut it just felt cool, in the same way that Holmes and Freud sounded cool to me, or Holmes and the “Phantom of the Opera” sounded cool to me.

Am I right in thinking that 1905, in the Holmes chronology, is a gap anyway, that you could drop a story into?

Yes. As a Holmesian, I take the game seriously enough that I always try to be faithful to the chronology. By the way, people argue about the chronology all the time. There are two different annotated Holmes volumes and they have slightly different chronologies, and there are endless arguments to such arcane points as did Holmes go to Oxford or Cambridge or whatever. A pal of mine, who’s a lawyer and a business manager here in Los Angles named Les Klinger, is the author of one of those gigantic two-volume annotated Sherlock Holmes. So, I checked with him, and I asked “according to your chronology, am I safe in this place?” And he assured me that I was. I’m sure there’ll be people who’ll argue, but as I say, arguing is part of the fun of it. The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols takes place in 1905, which is also the year of the mutiny onboard the battleship Potemkin, and it follows 1904 which, as Holmes says, was a very boring year. The new one, which is called The Return of the Pharaoh, takes place in 1910, 1911.

And you were able to have some fun filling in a blank with Watson’s second wife?

I invented his second marriage, though I didn’t invent the fact of the marriage, because he refers to it, but we never learn anything the woman to whom he was married, so I invented her out of whole cloth. She is more or less related to Constance Garnett, the translator of Russian, which was handy for me.

I know you’re a War and Peace lover…

That’s my favourite book!

The Protocols themselves are something which I must admit I’ve never even attempted to read.

They’re impenetrable! Who can read them?!

It feels to me a lot like Mein Kampf, which even as a teacher of the history of this period in Germany, I’ve just never approached, and always wondered why anyone would. Did you try wading through them?

Well, I tried, but I didn’t last very long. What I learned from Zipperstein’s book, and from Will Eisner’s comic book too, is that the Protocols are not only inauthentic as far as Jews are concerned, they’re inauthentic as far as whoever wrote them in concerned. They’re plagiarised copies of a rather more interesting and justifiable political tract that was written way earlier, in the time of Napoleon III, who was the idiot nephew of the original, and who presided for twenty years over a sort of comic-operetta French Kingdom, with his idiot wife Eugenie and all their stupid adventures into war in Mexico, and war with Germany. It was really absurd. Somebody – a lawyer named Joly – tried to write a scathing, disguised political attack on Napoleon III, by inventing a dialogue in Hell. But the idiots who forged the Protocols of the Elders of Zion couldn’t be bothered to write anything themselves, so they just grabbed Joly’s tract, and every time it said “Napoleon” they put “Tsar” or “Jew” or whatever. It was a very lazy patchwork job. On a computer, it would have taken even less time – you’d just say “find and replace”!

The cover of a 1934 American edition of the Protocols

In the rather chilling epilogue to the novel, you chart the history of the progress through history of this text, right up to 2018 and Vladimir Putin making some reference to it. You have to wonder though how many people who have invoked it have even bothered to read it, and I wonder if its impenetrability wasn’t actually quite useful for people who just wanted to hold something up and say “Here it is! Here’s the evidence!”

I don’t think anybody’s read them – they’re unreadable! It’s just, as you say, kind of a prop. It’s like Trump standing in front of a church holding the bible.

There was also an urgency in the project that came with the arrival of Trump.

I was overtaken by events. If I had written this book ten years earlier, when I first thought of it, it would not have been as topical as it proved to be by the time I got around to it. But while I was writing it, I would have had to have been an idiot not to have heard all about fake news and have said “wait a minute, this thing is sort of timely.” When you’re making a movie, and there are world events happening, everything is distilled through the movie. Is this good or bad for the movie? An example: the pandemic. The pandemic is bad for every movie, because it closes movie theatres. It was the same when I did Star Trek VI, which is about the collapse of the Soviet Union. We didn’t call it the Soviet Union; we called them the Klingons. The Klingons, as Leonard Nimoy explained to me, had always been their stand-in for the Russians. We imagined: what if the Wall comes down in outer space? Who am I if I have no enemy with which to define myself? We invented a kind of intergalactic Chernobyl and the Soviet or Klingon Empire is collapsing and they’re going to have to come into Federation, or Western, territory. Captain Kirk is assigned to bring Gorbachev, whom we called Gorkon, to someplace for peace talks. Kirk is a bigot, because the Klingons murdered his son, so he fudges the job. Then, there is a coup d’état within the Klingon Empire by people who didn’t want détente or an end to hostilities. We had already filmed this coup d’état when Gorbachev was overthrown and disappeared in a coup d’état in the Soviet Union. We were in the cutting room; we had shot it before it happened, and we were getting frantic calls from the Paramount front office: “How soon can we get the movie in the theaters??” Nobody was wasting a thought on poor Mr Gorbachev as to whether he was alive or dead! It was just: “This is incredible for the movie!” And in that same way, the advent of Donald Trump, of fake news, of the resurgence of the Protocols, had the publishers saying “wow, this is really good for the book – the book is really timely!”

Nicholas Meyer with Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner on the set of Star Trek VI

The real event which you have Holmes and Watson encounter the aftermath of is the Kishiniev Pogrom, an utterly awful episode in Russia (now Moldova) in 1905 which left 50 Jewish inhabitants of the town dead and many more injured. Was this an isolated atrocity, or was it part of a wave of antisemitism at the time?

It was definitely part of a wave. The Tsar, Nicholas II, who was quite a jerk, was presiding autocratically but dysfunctionally over an enormous country. It was so incredibly backward, in terms of factories, agriculture – everything. In order to explain away and rationalise his utter failure to modernise his society, it was easy and convenient to blame grasping, hoarding, child-slaying Jews. The slaughter at Kishinev was “merely” the most egregious example, but there were many others. If you’ve seen Fiddler on The Roof, you’ll be familiar with at least one other instance, in which, for seemingly arbitrary, random and fake reasons, all hell breaks loose and Jewish people are murdered.

Thinking about writing real events, such as what happened at Kishiniev, which prefigured the Holocaust by 35 or 40 years. Is it a tricky balancing act to incorporate horrific real-life events like that into what is, with Sherlock Holmes, a pretty high-stakes adventure?

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that, certainly until more recently, most detective literature never involved or seemed to relate to real-world events. If you think of a lot Agatha Christie – you know, Murder at the Vicarage, Murder on the Orient Express – they exist in a world sui generis, sort of unto itself. After I wrote The Seven Percent Solution, I got into a tug of war with the Conan Doyle estate that seemed to be taking forever to resolve, so I decided to write another story. I wrote a novel called Target Practice, and it was a different idea, which was that I would like to write a detective story that related to the real world, to a world of newspaper headline, that affect us all. I was writing was just after the Vietnam War. It was in the Watergate era. And so, I wrote a novel in which a detective is asked to investigate the suicide of a returned American POW from North Vietnam, whose sister is troubled by the uncharacteristic idea that this brother of hers killed himself. She hires a detective, and he winds up interviewing other Americans who were in the same POW camp in North Vietnam. It was a way of discussing, or touching on, the Vietnam War and the conflicts at home that it engendered, and it was an attempt to yoke the detective genre, which I love and enjoy, with real-world events. I’m too much of an Earth-bound, realist person that I can’t totally lose myself in a total fantasy world.

I’m very interested and have always been very interested in forgery. I’m a forger myself, after all. I forge Sherlock Holmes stories. And forgery poses philosophical, legal, moral, financial questions. What is the difference between a copy and a forgery? Something you can’t see, evidently. A copy announces itself as a copy. A forgery is intended to deceive, but the picture would be the same. If you have two paintings, and you can’t tell the difference between – this is a hypothetical question – two paintings of a lady smiling, and one of them was painted by Leonardo da Vinci, and the other was painted by me, but – and this is the given – you can’t tell them apart, by any means, then why is one better than another? It’s a tricky question. The best answer I ever heard was that one could not exist without the other.

Once you’re interested in forgery, it isn’t long before you come across the most successful forgery of all time, which is the Protocols. What I realised form the very beginning, I think, was that this was a case that Holmes was going to lose. You couldn’t put him up against the Protocols and have him be successful. Watson announces at the beginning: this is the story of a failure. And there’s a precedent for that. There are Doyle cases, notably a short story called “The Yellow Face”, in which all Holmes’s conclusions are absolutely wrong. He does fail. Like his cocaine addiction, it’s part of what makes him human, and perhaps for that reason more memorable than cartoon heroes or people wearing tights and capes.

You’ve peppered these Holmes books with cameos from the real pages of history. I’m interested to know how you go about doing that, and how much you need to know about the real people who become a character. And have you ever done it with a person who was still alive?

You know, the second part of your question is easier to answer first, because I don’t know if I have done it with a person who is still alive. I have two wonderful books by Stephen Sondheim – one is Finishing the Hat, and the other is Look I Made a Hat – which are brilliant book, not just because they reproduce his lyrics, but because they give you his thoughts, and his thoughts will teach you how to think. One of the rules, he says, is “I will not criticise a living person”. He’ll talk about Hammerstein, about Jerome Kern, about Gershwin, about Alan Jay Lerner, but he’s not going to talk about Andrew Lloyd Webber, though the temptation must be salivating! But he doesn’t. I don’t think, other than some glancing allusions to Donald Trump in the “fake news” department the Protocols book, I’ve done it either, and I don’t think there’s a real reason for it. I think Sondheim wants to be tactful, wants to be diplomatic; I don’t know that I’m motivated by any scruples. That’s the second part of your question.

How you deal and how you treat historical figures is a much more confusing issue. To me, it’s intuitive. I’ve written a lot about George Washington; I’ve read a lot George Washington. I’ve formed some very definite opinions about what this person was like. Same with Sherlock Holmes, and for the purposes of this discussion you could argue he’s real or not real, but to me, as a kid, he was very real. I took him very seriously, and I took Watson very seriously, and I always hated all the Sherlock Holmes movies. I hated that Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce combination, because Watson was always a jerk and an idiot, and I never understood why a genius would hang out with an idiot. And so, I was at pains to do a kind of revisionist version – back to the original, or at least my original impression – where Watson may not have been a genius, but he was an average guy, and in which Holmes’s vanity wasn’t simply going to be satisfied by the plaudits of somebody who was simply a dummy.

So, when I read about someone like Anna Strunsky, who’s nominally, I suppose, the heroine of Protocols – she was, apparently, extremely attractive, she had love affair with, among others, Jack London – I  began to form an impression, and the impression was formed from three people: One was the real Anna Strunsky, from what I could learn about her; another is the heroine of Ivanhoe, the “Jewess” Rebecca; and third is her wonderful incarnation in the movie Ivanhoe where Elizabeth Taylor plays her. So it was a kind of mushing together of those three originals into what becomes Anna Strunsky. When you’re dealing with historical material, there are lines that I intuitively – though not analytically – feel, which you can’t cross, or you shouldn’t. If you can’t work within those limitations, then maybe you’ve got the wrong person in mind. But I can’t tell you what those limitations are; I just know the moment you’ve crossed them and you go “no, no, no – not this.”

George Washington is, as I’ve said, my hero. I keep reading books about him and I’m fascinated by him. I’ve a very clear impression of him. He did own three-hundred-and-some-odd slaves. It cannot be denied. One of them, a woman named Oney Judge, ran away, got as far as New Hampshire, and he was relentless in trying to pursue his property, as he saw it. I think it’s a big mistake to try and erase that. A lot people, right now in the midst of this overcorrection, or what some people would characterise as an overcorrection, would say: “let’s tear down the Jefferson Memorial, let’s tear down the Washington Monument”, because these people turned out to be people of their time and they did bad things. They were not perfect; they were not gods. Interestingly, the Greek version of gods were never perfect; they were just like us. So Washington is a deeply flawed human being.

What is a paradox? A paradox is an irreconcilable contradiction with which we are none-the-less forced to live. Great men and great women are not necessarily good men and good women, by our standards. Great artists are not necessarily great people. There are some famous people, whether you’re talking about the antisemitism of Degas, or whatever it is that Woody Allen or Roman Polanski are accused of doing, or what Michelangelo apparently did. I think it’s a mistake – my opinion – to throw out the best things these people ever did with their lives, because of the worst thing they ever did. Washington owned slaves, but in addition – not in spite of, or instead of – he was also some kind of great man. A hero.

People got very upset when I depicted Holmes as a cocaine addict. First of all, I didn’t depict him as a cocaine addict; Doyle depicted him as a cocaine addict. I took from Doyle. I did not invent. And these people all seemed to feel that by depicting him as an addict, I diminished him. But here’s my argument: if a man leaps into a raging torrent to save a drowning child, we can probably agree that he performs an heroic act. If the same man leaps into the same torrent to save the same kid and does it with a ball and chain attached to his leg, is he more heroic or less? I would argue more, that Holmes functioning despite the ball and chain that his addiction constitutes becomes more remarkable, more heroic, not less. And by the way, George Washington was the only Founding Father who at his death freed his slaves.

Raoul Wallenburg

One last question, something that I’ve been wondering for a while: I read an interview in which someone asked you what you’d been reading, and you said you’d recently read a book about Raoul Wallenberg.

I’ve read tonnes of books about Raoul Wallenberg!

Well, this made something go “click” in my head, because I’d been watching a documentary about Simon Wiesenthal, in which at some point Wallenberg was mentioned, and it was said that Wiesenthal had said of him something like “He’s not really gone, as long as we remember him.” And I thought about Dr McCoy saying much the same about Spock at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan…

I’ll tell you exactly where that came from. It was the day we were filming that scene, and I was sitting in my chair at the sound-stage at Paramount, reading the New York Times. And I read someone asking Wiesenthal “well, what do you think? Is Wallenberg still alive?” And he said this. I leapt out of my chair and said “hang on, hang on – we’re putting this in the scene”. That goes back to my remark earlier, that when you’re making a movie, everything is viewed through the prism of the movie. That’s how it got it – that’s where it came from.

The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols by Nicholas Meyer is published in paperback in November 2020.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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