Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sherlockian dinosaur battle!

There is perhaps no older character-based fandom that Sherlockiana. Once a group gets older than Sherlockian fandom, it usually starts looking a lot like a religion. And you can even see things having trended that way in the elder parts of Sherlock-world, something I was reminded of this week when Ray Betzner's Studies in Starrett blog came out with Ellery Queen's forgotten review of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

No, no, not Billy Wilder's movie The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The two guys who formed "Ellery Queen," Daniel Nathan and Emanuel Leopofsky (both using yet another layer of pseudonyms under their "Ellery Queen") were both alive when the movie came out, and only sixty-five (which was a lot older back in 1970) so they might have reviewed the movie. But in this particular case, it was still 1933 and they were reviewing Vincent Starrett's book, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

 And they weren't being very nice about it.

This revelation might come as a stunner to many a modern old-school Sherlockian, as that segment of fandom was pretty much raised to consider The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes a holy book and Vincent Starrett of prophet of the Sherlockian faith. He was, after all, one of the guys doing what we do now in 1933, a real pioneer in the field. As with so many things past, whose impact is lessened on a modern reader who comes upon it much more aware than their 1933 counterpart, we pretty much assume from current reverence that such a book was praised in its day. But no . . .

Ellery Queen pans the book so badly that even he himself admits in the review "undoubtedly I have been appallingly unfair to Mr. Starrett." Ellery Queen isn't even that high on his fellow Sherlock Holmes fans in the review, leading off with "There has never been a more rabid, intolerant, and jealous tribe than the Loyal Order of Sherlock Holmes Enthusiasts. And, more than that, so hypercritical."

Is Ellery Queen trying to be funny, or were the Sherlockians of that time just dicks?

I've met a few Sherlockians who fall into that category, and anyone familiar with the "just Cumberbatch fangirls" garbage from a few years back know that those guys are still out there. And I know that a few old school Sherlockians would put me in that category whenever I make a comment similar to Ellery Queen's and go "C'mon, Vincent Starrett wasn't that great!"

But I remember being disappointed upon seeing Starrett's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes on a paperback book rack at the Pekin Mall Walgreen's for the first time and realizing it wasn't a novelization of Billy Wilder's movie. And then being disappointed again when Starrett's chapter on Sherlock Holmes's methods seemed pretty weak sauce. (So disappointed that it spurred me to write a book-length treatise on those methods to fill the void.) But, man, I never was as hard on Starrett as Ellery Queen went in his review.

What's interesting now is that as the fortunes of mystery genre popularity has shifted with time, a modern Sherlockian might have heard the name "Vincent Starrett" more often than "Ellery Queen," where once that was not the case. Ellery Queen's detective "Ellery Queen" isn't much heard from these days, while Starrett's poem "221B" is still in high rotation among the the Sherlockian faithful. (In fact, I can't remember the last time I thought of Ellery Queen prior to this blog post.)

Reading Ellery Queen's review now is a bit like seeing a tyrannosaurus rex attack a triceratops -- the rare spectacle of two behemoths from long ago battling. But really, they weren't giant writer-monsters completely unlike us -- they were just fans. (The Queens were less than thirty years old when they wrote that review!) They might have been talented, been able to break new ground due to their place in history, but as the Queen review reminds us, they were just fans in a world of other fans. If they never existed, other Sherlock Holmes fans would have risen to take their place, and BBC Sherlock would surely still be coming out this January even if things had been different in 1933, as Sherlock Holmes is still Sherlock Holmes.

And he will probably keep going long after us, just as he kept going so long before us.

Seventy-four years from now, somebody is going to be digging up a Lyndsay Faye review of some piece of fanfic we don't yet know will be cherished by Sherlockians in decades to come and go, "See? They were fanzibbets back then just like we're fanzibbets now!"

And time will just keep marching on.


  1. It's interesting that the back-biting and rivalries of our hobby seem to have been around forever. Even though it's unfortunate, it sadly seems inevitable.

  2. "...were the Sherlockians of that time just dicks? I've met a few Sherlockians who fall into that category..." 'FEW' Brad, that's a feeble attempt at being PC, you can do better than that.