Monday, June 29, 2020

That murder they're still wanted for.

After taking another look at the end of "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton," for some thoughts about Inspector Lestrade this week, that story just got weird.

Okay, my initial thought, mentioned on The Watsonian Weekly, was that this was the one time we know that Inspector Lestrade came to Holmes for help and Holmes completely refused.

"My sympathies are with the criminals rather than the victim, and I will not handle this case."

Watson doesn't tell us Lestrade's response to this, but it must be at a point in the relationship between the Scotland Yard man and his consultant where the former had to go, "Well, you're probably right, if we don't catch them, I guess we'll just have to live with that."

Did that sort of weird moment happen often?

What makes it even weird is that in 1904, when Lestrade and his fellow Scotland Yarders read the tale in The Strand Magazine, holy crap, would that suck!  "Hey, Lestrade! Going to visit any escaped suspects for help solving the case today?" "So, you're taking Watson's word that they didn't kill Milverton? Holmes said he was happy he was dead!" How could Watson do that to the poor guy? And wouldn't Gregson 2.0 be knocking on the door of a certain cottage in Sussex after that? (Hmm, good time for a spy mission in America, eh, brother Mycroft?)

Unless, like so many people in Watson's tales, the reason was the usual: The poor fellow is dead now, so I can tell the tale. Irene Adler dies, he tells "A Scandal in Bohemia." Helen Stoner dies, he tells "The Speckled Band." Sherlock Holmes dies, Watson tells the Adventures AND the Memoirs. Watson's stories are practically obituaries!

Lestrade dying or retiring to the country prior to 1904 are the only ways Watson publishing "Charles Augustus Milverton" starts to make sense, and even then is quite problematic.

But let's get to the really weird part of the end of that tale, shall we?

"We had breakfasted and were smoking our morning pipe . . ."

Maybe I'm being all "What's Watson on About by Paul Thomas Miller"* about this, but "our morning pipe?" Sherlock Holmes and John Watson shared their first pipe of the morning? Passing it back and forth, or some romantic two-stemmed pipe for the Baker Street version of Lady and the Tramp? There are a lot of lines people like to bring to the front as evidence of Johnlock, but "smoking our morning pipe" passes a lot of them up for just sounding like couple-speak.

And even for couple-speak, it's just a little weird. Have a wild night, but c'mon! Sharing a morning pipe is just a little too sugary sweet, boys!  Especially if Lestrade's coming in, then it's an over-the-top PDA --  "Sorry, G. We're occupied. *wink*" -- which is actually a marvelous diversion to keep the inspector's mind off realizing that you're his prime suspects.

Hmmm. Maybe it's not all so weird, after all.

But they're still wanted for that murder, as far as Scotland Yard is concerned, to this day.

*A regular feature on The Watsonian Weekly. Listen in, amiga!

Saturday, June 27, 2020

"Of all ghosts the ghosts of our old lovers are the worst."

As the years have passed, the BBC TV series Sherlock seems to have taken on the role of "ex-lover" to some Sherlockians. When the name comes up, the break-up overshadows the original love. And those who never thought it was good enough for you love to jump in and validate their original thoughts. Seeing such trends makes one wonder if someone ever really loved that former lover, and so I had to ask, "Hey, Twitter, how many episodes of that show did you really like?"

And here was the response.

One hundred and two responses isn't huge by any other measure, but when one considers that a lot of Sherlockian publications got by with a hundred or so readers, it fits the hobby. The thing that BBC Sherlock had that most Sherlocks don't was a direct, contemporary rival. Another potential lover who came on the scene and went, "Hey, I can do what he does . . . but American."

So I ran a second survey, on CBS's Elementary.

Only twenty Sherlockians responded, and the results were dramatically different, much more polarized. Probably because one can actually tick off the Sherlock episodes in your head, remembering all thirteen (yes, thirteen, you apocrypha lovers) and actually counting the good and the bad. With Elementary's massive episode count, individual ones are hard to remember and either you liked the show or you didn't. What interests me more is that only twenty people felt enough energy about it to even click the survey, as opposed to five times that number for Sherlock.

More Sherlockians seem to hate BBC Sherlock with a passion at this point than seem to love CBS's Elementary -- there's definitely an energy there. Elementary was a steady, reliable show that was what it was. If you didn't like it in the first season, you probably wouldn't have liked it in the last season if you stuck around -- which you probably didn't. Sherlock was a roller coaster ride -- personally I remember how much I loved A Study in Pink, then never felt the urge to re-watch The Blind Banker, but was greatly enthused about The Great Game.

As time passes, will this be our history with the TV Sherlocks of the 2010s? The passionate, great-sex-but-troubled-and-maybe-abusive lover versus the boyfriend who was so steady some thought he was dull? And to play out that metaphor, will there be those who had their sexy-time with Sherlock,  settled in for a long-term with Elementary, then run off to have a blazing affair if Sherlock makes a sweet face and returns for a season five, while the old folks go "Don't do it, he's a bum and still not good enough for you!"?

Movies, however, must have an entirely different metaphor, as I tried to squeeze Downey into this and it just doesn't work. You don't form a relationship with a movie the way you do a TV show, even if you do carry on a love of that film forever. (Had The Great Mouse Detective and Sherlock Holmes in the Twenty-Second. Century been competing cartoon series, I'm now curious how similar polls would result. Or if the coming Enola Holmes and The Irregulars on Netflix were both series, rather than a movie and a series. But for one shining moment, we did have Sherlock and Elementary, both knocking at your Sherlockian door ready to take you out.

"Of all ghosts the ghosts of our old lovers are the worst," old Trevor told young Sherlock Holmes in "The Gloria Scott." How was Sherlock to know that he'd one day be that ghost?

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Severed ears and sisters

Our local Sherlock Holmes discussion group met online this evening to discuss "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" for a second time, the tale notoriously appearing in two separate collections and thus tricking its way into our rotation twice, as different folk set the order for different years. And yet, even with a repeat session, some very new things were there to be learned.

Melissa Anderson was back with us tonight, and brought along a historical tidbit I don't remember hearing of. While we all know "Cardboard Box" has Watson thinking of Henry Ward Beecher, a fiery speaker against slavery who came to England to drum up support for the Union during the Civil War, we don't often think about Henry Ward Beecher's famous sister.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, writer of Uncle Tom's Cabin, was active in the anti-slavery movement, even helping with the underground railroad. And when her book was published, she got death threats, as well as a package in the mail with a severed human ear. The ear was that of a slave, which makes it all the worse, as it wasn't just a victim of the moment, but a lifelong victim.

In "Cardboard Box," we have the severed ear of what may have been an abuse victim coming to someone's sister as well, and given that Harriet Beecher Stowe's brother figures prominently in the story's opening, one can see where Doyle might have had the Beecher family on his mind.

Domestic abuse and alcoholism may be the featured social issues of that story and not slavery or racism, but that severed ear and specifically named Beecher  . . . there can be no coincidence here. Conan Doyle read much of the Americas and wove our problems into his tales, and this, though all the characters are British, still seems to be one of those times.

Our conversations went deep into the relationships and mindsets of the characters of "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box," as they are deep waters indeed. Did Conan Doyle portray sailors as anything but murderous? (Yes, there was that good one in "Abbey Grange," but he still killed a guy.) How much different was Jim Browner's version of events from what really might have happened, and what Sarah Cushing might have told us, had she gotten to speak in the story? Were Sarah and Mary "oops" babies of a marriage, being twenty years younger than their sister Susan, or might this been a case of daughters passed off as siblings to keep the good name of the family?

Deep waters indeed, maybe even deeper than the English Channel where the earless bodies of Mary Cushing Browner and Alec Fairbairn were dumped, never to be found. "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" may not have started as a favorite when we began our discussion, but by the time we hit the end, we all had to admit there was a lot here to discuss, and well worth consideration.

No matter who your sister is.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The first time ever we saw their faces . . .

I don't know if you've ever thought about this, but outside of Watson's agent, his editor, and the production folks at Beeton's Christmas Annual, everyone else in 1887 got a look at Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson before they ever read a word of the stories. They looked at the very faces of Sherlock and John, and, if they focused on them at all, had to go "Who's that?"

No matter how quickly you got past the ads in Beeton's Christmas Annual in late 1887, the first thing you came to was an illustration on the left hand page, and the start of A Study in Scarlet on the left hand page.

Most of us would surely look over that illustration before reading a word of the text, of course.

And there, even if we wouldn't have realized it yet, was our first encounter with Mr. Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson, M.D.

YEOW! Get a look at those goons, will ya? What's your first impression of the two most beloved heroes of detective literature? Not exactly Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. (There's an artist's challenge: Johnlock porn with those two, in that Beeton's ink style.)

I mean, Watson is "as thin as a lath," but that moustache! It's almost like my theory about Doc Holliday faking his death, coming to London, and changing his name to Watson could be proven with that big old moustache alone. What is going on with his necktie? And his Sherlock Holmes! What kind of hat IS that? The weak chin, the sad eyes, the wispy sideburns . . . not exactly a leading man. That coat does seem to get it, though, so points for that. And he's got his lens out on moment one, at least that stereotype has deep roots.

You just look at those two boys and think of what babies of Sherlockian art they are, fresh out of the printer's womb and about to slap their readers on the bottom rather than vice versa. The artist who created that image, David Henry Friston, had been drawing for magazines for twenty-four years at that point, and surely didn't consider this assignment up to the level of his art for H.M.S. Pinafore of Pilgrim's Progress.  Who was Sherlock Holmes, or even this Dr. Doyle, anyways?

It makes sense that a fellow like Sherlock Holmes would not make a great first impression. Some people you just have to get to know to appreciate the walking wonder you've encountered. And, hopefully, that was Watson's invalid moustache, and he gave it a solid trim once he realized he was going to be going out in public again.

Personality will just get you so far.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Who do you write for?

Reading an old letter from my late friend Gordon Speck last night, as we were just starting up a new Sherlockian society back in the 1980s that involved a bit of writing. Gordon was considering all of the writers involved and had an interesting thought: What if we all banded together, coordinated who was going to write for what, and keep the big four journals of that era well-stocked with manuscripts.

The impulse came, I'm sure, from a crisis The Baker Street Journal was having at the time with getting issues out. Three of the "big four" journals he cited at that time are still with us: the BSJ, Canadian Holmes, and The Sherlock Holmes Journal, each the unofficial standard-bearer for Sherlockians of an entire nation. But that look back made me stop and consider who we're writing for now. Where in the 1980s, there were "the big four" and dozens of local sion journals and newsletters of varying formats and qualities, along with a few fanzines that contained Sherlock Holmes material, the landscape is almost bafflingly large now, and more of it involving Sherlock Holmes fiction than ever before.

There's probably more of everything than ever before. Conan Doyle is certainly getting his due, with his own academic journal, The Conan Doyle Review, on the horizon, but John H. Watson is, too, with The Watsonian. (Not that the latter is academic.) While The Serpentine Muse is not strictly focused on Irene Adler, Adventuresses are behind it, and still going after forty-five years. Sherlockian publishers range from MX Publishing to Gasogene Books to . . . wait a minute . . . Doyle's Rotary Coffin just put out its third book, sneaky little devil. One would think we'd run out of things to write about with just those, and I know for a fact I'm missing many a journal and publisher in this brief look.

There came a point in the lives of Sherlockians, maybe in the 2000s, when we finally realized we couldn't collect it all and had to specialize, buying only along certain themes or subjects. Now it seems that the writers among us have to make choices as well. Do you want to reach the largest audience or the knowledgeable few that will enjoy your work the most? Do you want to make yourself known to a certain club or join a community by contributing to their body of work? Do you want to do it for fun or . . . oh, to be so ambitious . . . money/

The day when a group of writers could band together and support a small group of journals are not gone from us, but even as when Gordon Speck first suggested it to me, it's a bit like herding cats. The right person can still marshal a team of writers for a given project, usually be simply asking them -- it's always a joy to be asked. And it takes a special person to be a good editor, as we writers tend to be too driven to fire our own words into the void more strongly than gather, perfect, and publish.

Which brings me to my twice-a-year dilemma: As editor-in-chief of The Watsonian, it's time once again for me to start reminding folks that we love to print stuff about John H. Watson. You know the guy, right? You have thoughts on the man, surely. And if you have stories, poetry, articles, artwork, or anything else about John Watson that you'd like to see printed in a high quality journal for other folks who love John H. Watson, you might want to send it to -- our August 1 deadline is coming up, so the wait to see your work in The Watsonian is at its shortest time of the year. (It's for the fall issue, of course, so don't expect an Amazon Prime two-day turnaround!)

But no matter who you're writing for, even if it's just for yourself at this point, keep at it. There's no better way to order your thoughts, calm your soul, and even enter a certain kind of meditative state if you practice letting the words fall out without judgment or fear long enough.

Because somebody out there wants to read your stuff. It may take a bit to find them, but in this big ol' world -- they're there.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Thank you, gentlechaps, I have been entertained!

"What do we love about Sherlock Holmes?" the classic question goes. The answers are as numerous as Sherlockians, and even a multiple of that. But if you wanted to round a good chunk of them into one simple statement, it would just be this: "He entertains us."

Sherlock Holmes entertains us. Whether in the original stories, the imitations, the adaptations, or spin-offs, or even in the study, the research, the collecting, and the archiving -- it all is entertaining to someone. Sherlock Holmes himself is of marginal importance to our culture if you remove his entertainment value, as much as we'd like to claim more due to his importance in our Sherlockian lives.

What entertains varies from Sherlockian to Sherlockian, and even the arguing over what entertains us is entertaining to us. (And is practically a genre within a genre in itself.) And this week, we got a treat that will surely cause a little bit of fodder for that genre, the third book from Doyle's Rotary Coffin, the society for the acceptance of even the most out-there of Sherlocks. The book's title is "Sherlock Holmes" is and Anagram of "Snarky Clock" and 327 Other Holmesian Facts, and that title should tell you everything you need to know about the contents: This book is not for the obsessive-compulsive literalist with no sense of whimsy.

"Sherlock Holmes" is and Anagram of "Snarky Clock" and 327 Other Holmesian Facts is, to put it plainly, a hundred and twenty pages of delightful and entertaining lies about Sherlock Holmes and his contributions to our culture. In a hobby that is often too slavishly devoted to documenting minute details, the sheer freedom from sense that explodes from this book is a lovely refreshment in a time when pandemics and societal stresses are wearing us down. When I picked this book up, I smiled, I chuckle, and I suddenly found myself busting out laughing despite all the concerns of the day. Boy, was the timing of its publishing just perfect.

Comedy is hard, as humor is a very personal and often individual thing. (My love of the movie Holmes and Watson has demonstrated that time and again.) Is there humor in the sentence "Contrary to popular belief, the word 'detective' never appears in the Sherlock Holmes stories"? Well, it helps to be familiar with the old trope "The words 'Elementary, my dear Watson' never appear in the original Sherlock Holmes stories." If that trope is well imbedded in your head, the parody in that line comes through loud and clear. If not . . . well, it might be a little baffling as to why someone would write such a ridiculous and plainly false statement. So be warned: "Sherlock Holmes" is and Anagram of "Snarky Clock" and 327 Other Holmesian Facts is chock-full of in-jokes targeting those with a mind deeply imbedded in our hobby. It's also got a few "dad jokes."

But here's the thing: This was the most impressive thing I've seen in the Sherlockian world this year. The sheer onslaught of completely ridiculous statements, page after page, from so many angles and so many corners of Sherlock Holmes culture, could at the same time feed the analysis engines of some future Sherlockian AI, become the chosen holy book of a Sherlockian society based around marijuana edibles, or just be one of those things that makes some of us laugh hysterically while others go "I don't get it."  Dare I use the over-used word "genius" in reference to this book, or would that not be high praise enough?

"Sherlock Holmes" is and Anagram of "Snarky Clock" and 327 Other Holmesian Facts should be approached with as open a mind as possible, so don't let my review give any expectations or reason for you to buy it. The fact that it is only $3.80 on Amazon or absolutely free in PDF form on the Doyle's Rotary Coffin website is enough reason to pick up the book. Past that, you're on your own.

Sherlock Holmes still entertains us, after a hundred and thirty years, but at this point he's being powered by some wonderful human batteries. May that Energizer bunny in a deerstalker go on and on and on.

Afterword note: I have been informed there are 497 "facts" in this book. Even the title is a base canard! Be thou forewarned!

Saturday, June 13, 2020

A good day, an inspiring day.

Well, we're definitely in a new place now.

Today's "Scintillation of Scions: At Home" event, replacing the annual Maryland weekend that usually happens around this time, was something we really hadn't seen yet, gathering hundreds of people to listen to a handful of speakers on Sherlockian topics. Unlike a typical Zoom meeting, we weren't looking at all those hundreds of people as they listened, just looking at the speaker and their Powerpoint if they had one. Seems pretty simple? Like watching YouTube or something, right?

Well, not quite. Running it in windowed mode, it was easily possible  to have the speaker in a corner of the screen, the rolling chat from the other attendees in a little window under that, two windows for Twitter (one for normal feed, one for hashtag #SOSatHome), one window for podcast notes, one window for the searchable Canon, and then whatever else needed a window along the way.

You would have a very had time pulling that off at a live, in-person symposium, as well as the part where you get up and go make a sandwich. While I've sat for five hours straight, the single feed of one speaker at a time, looking attentive as your only second activity, can be a bit wearing. Usually I need a break to go up to the room and chill. Oddly, adding more input to the equation was the perfect recipe for the perfect Saturday.

The talks were just the right length, between fifteen and twenty minutes, and the side chat added a layer that was there if you needed it, not if you didn't. A little Twitter side drama between a prominent Watsonian and a former member of the Shingle of Southsea just to add spice? Icing on the cake. And then after a nice balance of eight completely different topics, we got to watch an actually decent Sherlock Holmes movie that no one had seen lately, using the chat feed as a close-caption riff-track. (I mean, it's nice to watch some of those old black and white things for perspective, but they can often be sleep-inducing.)

I mean, I may be a little ADHD, a little old and jaded and looking for that new thing far too often, but you know what? Today was just a whole lot of fun, and what more could a Sherlockian want?

The really great part was the possibilities today's grand experiment opens up for our Sherlockian community. We have "proof of concept" for a larger scale remote gathering, and when you consider we've only been experimenting with Zoom gatherings for three months, the future has some real potential for Sherlockian activity. Who knew these options were available?

Well, we know now.

Every Sherlock Holmes weekend has the potential to leave you excited about the hobby, and inspired for your next projects or future events. This one? Adding a new level to that.

Onward and upward!

Friday, June 12, 2020

SOS Happy Hour at the Dangling Prussian

Well, I didn't get to polish any glasses or wipe down the bar with my rag during my bartender shift at the Dangling Prussian. The popcorn went untouched and the bar nuts as well. And I'm still finishing this bottle of Zombie Killer. But the fact that I happily "worked" an hour past the end of my shift was probably a sign that the evening was well spent.

With now four hundred sign-ups to "Scintillation of Scions -- At Home" this weekend, I didn't know how things might go at the Diogenes Club Friday night happy hour. Fourteen breakout rooms were set to happen, but not all at once (it looked like six overlapped with my shift), and the math on that looked kind of scary. Even with a 300 person limit, that meant fifty potential people per room! So, instead of hopping on early and seeing what the others were up to, I waited until my time, then went on. (Also, spending a little time on set dressing and lighting -- I wanted to do my Zoom call best!)

Okay, maybe not my "best" best. The good Carter thought I looked drunk in that picture and I hadn't had a sip yet. But I had my Sherlockian "flair," I had my sign (hanging from an off-camera aluminum ladder) and I had giant Paget Sherlock, neatly trimmed out for the first time, pouring drinks in the back. The puffy shirt is just because I like a puffy shirt. Why we don't wear puffy shirts all the time is beyond me.

Soooo, 7:30 comes, and the able captain of the event, Monica Schmidt, moved me into the breakout room that I was "celebrity bartending." (Sherlockiana is a funny hobby in that we're almost all celebrities within our ranks, it seems like. If I remember your name and you're a Sherlockian, that's good enough for me. I mean, Sherlockians, right? You just don't see 'em every day!) The chaotic mob scene I feared turned into me in a breakout room by myself, since it was a brand new room.

I turned away for a minute to get a bottle, and turning back, my first visitor popped in (@221BCrow), followed by a second, and just as we started to chat, the screen filled -- The Red Circle Lounge had let out and Peter Blau had apparently put in a good word. Of course, two of the new faces had been earlier hosts of their own breakout room, Julie McKuras and Howard Ostrom, and eager for more. They might have even both gone for the whole six happy hours, I think, which would have been quite a thing.

We had between thirteen and sixteen for most of the time, and it was good to see folks like Nea Dodson, Charles Prepolec, and Vincent Wright again, and hear Tina Rhea and Michael McClure again (as some were a bit more shy and just did audio), as well as meet some new folks (I should have written down names, as sixteen ounces of Zombie Killer [221 calories per serving!] has not helped my memory. I keep wanting to say "Dawn" was there, and I know there was no "Dawn" there. I have no alcohol tolerance left.) We did get to see Elinor Gray cook, though! 

While it was good to hear from the familiar faces, at it's most busy there were some new folks that I was disappointed we didn't get to hear as much from, as the conversation had a certain Darwinian aspect to it, and it was easy to get talked over if you started to say something. The one flaw in a virtual cocktail party, you can move from room to room, but you can't move from this two or three people to that two or three people as you would at a regular cocktail party. Organized Zoom meetings tend to be a bit more . . . organized.

It got easier to hear from folks as our numbers dwindled as the Dangling Prussian went past its scheduled time and we ran for an extra hour, though one still might get a quiet drop-in. The funny thing was, just like Friday night at a typical conference, at some point people spoke of needing to get their sleep for the next day's events, and I am here trying to stay awake long enough to finish a blog post on it.

What exactly did we speak of? Were secrets revealed? Am I about to say something as trite as "What happens at the Dangling Prussian, stays at the Dangling Prussian?"

Could be. In any case, it was a very pleasant way to spend an evening, and I think that even after the plague days are done certain of these Zoom gatherings will survive, as I'm seeing so many people connecting who otherwise couldn't do the travel needed for so many events. We even did discuss the possibility of future live events offering a program feed as a second tier of registration in addition to their live attendings.

We've only started this era of remote Sherlocking, now that we were forced into it. And it's pretty good. On to tomorrow's events!

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Self-publishing Sherlockians!

While there's a lot of big news out of Minnesota of late, there is also small news coming from there, as well. I'm only using the word "small" here, as next to world news, Sherlockian news cannot help but be small. Taken from a strictly Sherlockian perspective, however, I don't think I would ever consider much that comes out of the Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota small. They're even incorporated, I notice just now, looking at the heading of their newsletter, Explorations.

The Minnesota Sherlock Holmes club's twelve-page summer newsletter arrived this week, with some impressive contents, some of which will definitely get a mention on the Watsonian Weekly, for the usual reasons. But what I had to call out from this issue that especially caught my attention was an article titled, "Self-Publishing Houses, Explorer's Style."

Self-publishing, in the non-Sherlockian world of the past, was viewed by many as a literary sin. "Vanity" presses made their living printing the books of those who couldn't get the editors of any publishing house to buy their books. I had a great-uncle, who after he died, was discovered to have a whole box of vanity press books under the floorboards of his bedroom. He had his book printed by Vantage Press, and never told anyone. Three hundred pages in hardcover, written in his retirement from the field of electrical engineering, the book is a treatise on man, intellect, and cosmic energy. (You'd think if you found your late great-uncle's book on cosmic energy, you'd get super-powers out of the deal, but, alas, no.) It's a pretty radical text, so one could see why he might have had second thoughts about distributing it around a little farming community.

Sherlockians, however, are not so shy about printing their own little works, often as banquet favors or gifts to friends. And the Norwegian Explorers, it turns out, seem to have at least seven personal press imprints among them. "No Litter Press" from Lucy and Bob Brusic, "Duchess Press" from Julie McKuras, "Martin House Press" from Gary Thaden, "221T Press" from Karen Ellery, "High Coffee Press" from Tim Johnson, "King of Scandanavia Press" from John Berquist, and "Picardy Place Press" from Phll Bergem.  A collector's mind immediately looks at that list and goes "Gotta catch 'em all!" like they're Pokemon. And I'll bet there definitely was at least one person in Minnesota who did look at this month's issue of Explorations, then go to their collection to start checking them off. (Not sure who, specifically, but Sherlockians do have a type among them.)

Myself, I took one look at that article and went "MY PEOPLE!" and gave them a mental group hug. My own little imprint "Baker Street Digressions," started in 1982, inspired by things I had heard who printed his own little chapbooks from scratch, even making his own paper. (Wish I could remember the name.) While I have indulged myself in a bit of "48 Hour Books" printing once or twice when the budget could afford, I've always got the most pleasure from assembling a little booklet from scratch. (Some folks who attended a certain St. Louis weekend a couple decades ago, saw my shabby attempt to manufacture a clothbound hardcover from scratch.

Self-publishing isn't just about thinking your work is good enough to skip the gatekeepers of the world, which often proves to be an error. Sometimes it's just that your love of the printed word is so great that you can't help but try to produce some of those printed words yourself, by doing whatever it takes. And doing it as a surprise for your Sherlockian friends, with their own love of the printed word, just adds to the fun. And Minnesota, especially if you've ever seen what they've produced at past Sherlockian weekends, has a wonderful way with words on paper, both in the words and the paper.

It's not quite as easy as podcasting, the new form of self-publishing where you don't even need to be literate. (Though I suppose you have to read the software menu bars and such to get it out on the web.) But it's also not that hard if you really, really want to do it. (Hand-writing a single copy for an audience of one works, too. Been there, done that. Blank books just beg for that sort of ridiculous effort.) Something about that ink just gets into your blood. (I could talk about newsprint in your nostrils, but that's a whole 'nother story, and, yeah, gross.)

Anyway, while I always knew that there were a number of Sherlockian self-publishers out there, especially around Sherlock Holmes's birthday at certain dinners, seeing a group of them all at once in Explorations was a real treat. It would be fun to see a world-wide census of such personal publishing efforts, because I'm sure it would be massive.

And just one more way we celebrate Sherlock.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Watson, Racism, and Me . . . or You

For those who don't get into podcasts, here's the text of the opening talk from this week's "Watsonian Weekly" podcast. It's an often silly podcast, but when times call for something a bit more, we try to do a bit more.

Watsonians and Sherlockians like to give John H. Watson a lot of credit for bringing Sherlock Holmes to us with his narratives. We also like to point out his flaws and faults. Before anyone was doing that “well actually” retort to anything on the internet, Sherlockians were doing “well actually” to John Watson, fact-checking him, calling out his incorrect calendar dates, how he didn’t get his war wound or his wives the same twice, etc. And for the most part, we work hard to excuse him.

But John H. Watson was far from a perfect fellow, and as much as we’d like to change gears when it comes to his stories like “Three Gables” and suddenly start putting all that Steve Dixie business on his literary agent, John Watson has to own that, too. This is where things start to get a little uncomfortable for the good doctor, and for us as well.

Chances are, among the handful of people who listen to the Watsonian Weekly podcast, and I am grateful for every one of them, we don’t have any black listeners. And there’s a reason for that. It’s not that we’re overtly racist and not that we don’t care about people who aren’t white, British-identifying, doctors, or those who have nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes. It’s just that the Watsonian Weekly is a John H. Watson centered podcast, and our buddy John just isn’t very representative of the struggles faced by people of color.

Without kith or kin in England, John Watson managed to become a doctor, and even as a wounded veteran who was unable to work, still got a pension that allowed him to live comfortably by sharing a two bedroom apartment with a guy who would make him famous. While I know that the phrase “white privilege” triggers defensiveness in a lot of us, John H. Watson would surely not have had any of that had he been a person of color, coming from a similarly humble background.

It didn’t matter that Watson didn’t have family behind him. It didn’t matter that he was disabled and getting government money to live. It didn’t matter that Watson was not a hardworking doctor, running off to go on adventures with his weird friend all the time.

John Watson succeeded, in spite of all that, because the world around him allowed him that. Hell, he even helped break into a house and escaped a murder scene, then had the police come into his apartment, have someone say “Hey, one of the murderers looked just like you!” and didn’t get arrested.

John H. Watson is the very poster child of white privilege, when you come right down to it.

Now, suppose we pointed this out to Dr. Watson if we could be in the room with him today. What do you think his response would be?

Would it be “I earned this! Let everyone else find a weird room-mate and write stories about them that the Strand publishes and gets them famous! Not everybody gets to be me, and that’s sad for them, but it’s not my fault.”

No. That doesn’t sound like Watson at all. That’s not our Watson.

No, John H. Watson could admit when he was wrong. Can you imagine how many times, living with Sherlock Holmes, that Watson had to own up to being wrong? If any human being ever didn’t have any chance of being a narcissist in a bubble of his own opinions, it was the guy who shared rooms with Mr. Sherlock Smarty-Pants Holmes, always there, always ready to take you down a peg.

Watson was a racist like we’re all racist, and trying to do better, if we can just stop and admit our own flaws.

Our Watson wrote what he wrote about Steve Dixie, but he also wanted to hang a photo of Henry Ward Beecher on his wall.  Beecher fought to end slavery, came to England to rally support for his fellow Americans fighting for that cause, and went on to fight for women’s rights when that war was done.

I’ve written before about how we have to look deep into the Watson we see on display in “Three Gables,” the older man who is frightened by the huge black man threatening him in Baker Street and then played it off to supposedly comic effect in the story, as if to say, “I wasn’t that scared.”  I think Watson would have owned up to that if you spoke to him about it. And he would have tried to do better.

We’ve been living in fear of a virus for months now, and at the beginning of that, the fear had people doing stupid things, like hording toilet paper. Frightened people get selfish and silly. And there are those who want us to be frightened now. To look at a protest and fear a damaging riot. To look at reform and fear that something will be taken from us. To look at someone different from ourselves and be so frightened that we let the wrong people have power, just to be safe from an imagined threat.

John wasn’t in the Ku Klux Klan like Elias Openshaw or Captain Calhoun. Like the rest of us, he might have felt the temptation to go, “Well, that is racist. I plainly am not that.” But we know. We know for a fact, reading his own words, that Watson did not always see people of color the same way he saw his fellow white Englishmen. And just as he is an everyman who stands in for us as we read those stories,  we have those same flaws within us. They can be found in the most primitive parts of our brains, studies have shown that.  But he always tried to do better. And he would try to do better now.

If John H. Watson stood for anything, it was being there to help a friend, or even someone he just met, despite the fear, despite the possibility his life would change. And it wasn’t just because he had Sherlock Holmes.

No, John Watson went to demon-hound haunted Dartmoor, alone. John Watson went into an opium den on the docks to find Kate Whitney’s husband for her, alone.  He was a good man who always wanted to help. And he didn’t stop wanting to help just because he might find out he was wrong on this point or that.

There’s a scene in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” that people love because Watson sees emotion in Holmes for a moment, after they nearly die of the poison Radix Pedis Diaboli. But there’s a moment earlier in that series of events that I want to call out today, a moment that doesn’t focus on Holmes so much as John H. Watson.

As the deadly fumes take hold of Watson and Holmes in that story, Watson’s imagination runs wild and every one of his senses starts screaming at him that something horrible is coming. His exact words are “all that was monstrous and inconceivably wicked in the universe.” He writes of the feeling that a horror whose very shadow would be enough to destroy him is at hand, and he feels his hair rising, his eyes wide with terror, and he tries to scream, but he can’t. John H. Watson is paralyzed with fear and despair. Paralyzed. He is frightened beyond anything he’s ever seen before, and he’s seen a lot.

But even with that level of paralyzing, screaming fear coursing through him, John Watson looks over and sees another person, and I don’t think it even matters who that person was. Watson sees that other person with the same features Watson has seen on the dead. And in that moment, Watson draws together an instant of strength and sanity to act.

The fear is there, yes, but John Watson’s concern in that moment isn’t for himself. It’s his concern for that other human being in the room, his empathy, his lifelong commitment to helping fending off death itself when it comes for other people,  that drives Watson out of his chair, despite all the fear in the world, to help that other person and to save them both.

And that is the Watsonian moment I think we need to focus on right now. To see how the lives of others are being threatened and push through our fears to help them. Without that impulse, without that drive to help another, Watson would have been either insane or dead after the Devil’s Foot vapors took him. If he only thought of himself, the fear and paralysis would have been his end.  But Watson looked beyond himself, saved that other person and also saved himself as a side effect.

And that’s where we are right now. In a bit of a nightmare that we can only get through if we try to save others instead of ourselves. To push past our own fears, our own pride, the threats to ourselves, and try to help that other guy. Just like John H. Watson did.

There’s a reason we have a John H. Watson society, and it’s not all Sherlock Holmes.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Sherlock Holmes and the police

One of the interesting issues that comes up when looking at current events through a Sherlockian lens is that of Sherlock Holmes's relationship with the official police force of London.

We're starting to see ideas come forth about how we've put too much on our police forces over time, how some places have tried using social workers to respond to calls that didn't need an armed response: Homeless people, drug addiction, certain non-violent domestic issues. The police are called for these things, just as they are for robberies, burglaries, etc., when they might be better saved for serious crime. And when we look at the role of the police in depth, it also gives us an opportunity to look at the role of that fellow Scotland Yard went to when they were baffled, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Think of how many times Sherlock Holmes was asked for help by his community in ways that had nothing to do with the police. "Should I take this governess job?" "What happened to the Red-Headed League and the money they were giving me?" "Why did my fiancee not show up at my wedding?" None of these were matters for the police, but they needed some insights from someone.

And that meant Sherlock Holmes. He did a little social work himself, we find.

What about Sherlock Holmes's attitude toward Scotland Yard and the London police? He loved to poke fun at the inspectors and was never thrilled with constables who let someone slip by. He was even buddies with one or two of them, like Lestrade who got to sleep on the couch at 221B at least once (and maybe more, if his wife got mad enough at him).

Overall, we can safely say that Sherlock Holmes seemed to think one thing about the police of his time: That they could do their job better. He had hopes for the promising young inspectors who showed signs of being good at their work. He depended upon them to clear up the Moriarty organization after he pointed them in the right direction. His methods have inspired investigators for a hundred years.

Sherlock Holmes was definitely not anti-police, even though he sometimes took the law into his own hands and worked around them. But what Sherlock Holmes was completely against was bullies. And there's where his attitudes tie to our current situation. When policework crosses the line from investigation and crime prevention to bullying, whether that bullying be from treating black folks worse just for the color of their skin, or tramping over a non-violent protest, we can be pretty sure that Sherlock Holmes would consider that NOT improving the work of the police.

If you step back and look, it's not hard to figure out how Sherlock Holmes would look at the police situation today. It's also not hard to see how some of the bully-ish members of the force would deal with a Sherlock Holmes in the modern day: "Oh, look, Mr. Smart-ass has some drugs in his sitting room! You're coming downtown, Mr. Sherlock Holmes." It probably wouldn't be pretty.

But Sherlock Holmes was good at talking himself out of many a situation where violence was threatened in his home, some of which where Watson was about to respond to violence with violence. Holmes was a very smart man. Not perfect, of course, but smart. And he worked toward making things better in his community, with everyone who came to his door.

As things get complicated, Sherlock Holmes is still a decent fellow to think about now and then. Even now.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Societal changes and Sherlockiana.

Nothing will make you angrier than waiting for social change. And when it comes, when strides get made, when the public presses declare "SUCCESS! CHANGE HAS COME!" and the parties are over, some problems always seem to remain. Yet since once change has happened, those residual issues can get easily ignored by those who just want a happy, settled existence. Which is all of us, really.

Let me share an article with you from the decade when I was growing into my Sherlockian self.

The article, in The Wall Street Journal for January 6, 1984, was headlined "To a Sherlockian, Some Coolness To Women Is Elementary Canon." It was a write-up of the Sherlock Holmes birthday weekend in New York that year, and really covered it from a distinct point of view: What was the deal with this club that didn't allow female members?

I had the same question.

In the 1980s, the Baker Street Irregulars were the only game in town for American fans of Holmes, because the internet hadn't really made us an international fandom yet. Every American Sherlockian club was a "scion society," a subsidiary to that group, even if no actual ties or responsibility existed. That Canon of our Canon's William S. Baring-Gould's Annotated included a whole chapter on the club right up front. The B.S.I. was Sherlockiana to us back then. And it had a problem with women.

Leadership would change, the former head of the club, whom no one wanted to disrespect, died, and women were finally admitted to the club in 1991. Huzzah! Things were great, right? You could have female parts and get in, right? Now hold on a minute, though . . . not all the female Sherlockians can get in. Just like not all the male Sherlockians can get in. You have to be chosen.

Current members have to suggest you to the head of the group. He has to find nothing "wrong" with you, which includes dressing appropriately for appropriate occasions, not having any dark rumors spread about you whether or not they were true . . . all those things that influence that final gatekeeper's decision-making process. (And both those examples come from snubbed BSI who later got in, once they were somehow in the good graces again.) The Baker Street Irregulars wasn't discriminating based on gender any more after 1991, just discriminating on non-transparent choices of the one guy.

Now, the last "one guy" tried to lay out some "exemplars" for future BSI heads to make that choice. I got a couple folks mad at me for comparing that to trying to create a Sherlockian master race, and, yes, I do get free-handed with my metaphors. But here's the thing: We have to step back and look at the big picture.

The strict BSI invitation-only and limited "prom queens" a year system is all about protecting traditions that have never stayed constant over time. Being able to have a banquet in a single room without going first-come, first serve. Not letting in the "riff-raff." Making sure our own honors from getting in before now still feels important. The only thing is, this protectionist attitude completely limits the opportunities for the Baker Street Irregulars to be entirely what they once were -- a cornerstone part of the hobby. To some, they definitely still are. However . . . .

In 2010, the Sherlockian world changed. There are those who might tell you it didn't, but if you're out in the world, reading this, you probably know better. We had a surge unlike any surge of new potential Sherlockians before. Rather than opening its arms and figuring out how to embrace this wave, a protectionist attitude arose and responded with "We're a literary society!" despite decades of film buffs in their ranks and a Sherlock actor at their very first dinner, and those ranks were closed all the tighter. Instead of embracing the new world of so many new kinds of Sherlockian involvement, the Irregulars started focusing on their history and archives.

That same spirit that kept women out of the group for so many years was still alive in those years of holding newcomers from BBC Sherlock at arm's length. Now, as a decade has passed and the hardiest of those souls have stayed with us and managed to start gaining the notice of the "right" people, it might be easy to deny that attitude of exclusion existed, just as it was easy to say that once women were allowed, discrimination didn't exist. When you're on the inside and comfortable, it's easy to say there's nothing wrong with the world, privilege doesn't exist, and we all have equal opportunity, even in a silly little hobby like Sherlock Holmes fandom (even with its scholarly side, which we tend to wear like a medal on our fandom chests sometimes in front of the other fandoms).

Societal change works pretty much the same for a simple little Sherlock Holmes society as it does for society at large. People don't want to make big moves unless forced to, and even when big moves happen, little problems of the same sort can't be ignored just because the one big move made us feel good for a moment or two. We're in a time when we might see a big move get made, though given certain factors (or one certain factor) we may not. But the trick is to remain aware, even after the big move. To just keep trying to make things better for everybody.

And maybe let the world know you are trying. I often post a blog and hear "Why are you always criticizing the B.S.I.?" The answer is simple -- because no one else will do it in public. I'd hear complaints all the time during the NYC birthday weekend and elsewhere spoken privately. And as the one Baker Street Irregular who became persona non grata the moment I was made a member back in 1989 due to the women thing, I really never had anything to lose by speaking my mind in a public forum. So many Sherlockians worry that saying anything won't get them the invitation to that single dinner, so they don't. But if a private club wants to continue to claim itself flagship to a public hobby, maybe being a little more actively inclusive might help. And I don't mean just "Hey, you're welcome to come to us!" which is where a lot of organizations fail when looking for younger or more diverse membership. I mean, maybe be a little more like the group of street urchins the club was named after.

"Go everywhere, see everything, overhear every one."

I can think of one major Sherlockian event that's been happening for years with no official representation of the those urchins. But maybe they just don't want more people expecting to get invited to that dinner. 

A great Sherlockian once told me of the B.S.I. country club style policies, "It's hard to turn a train." And it is. But if you buy tickets for one route over another, the railroad will eventually build to go where the passengers are.  Right now, we're trying to get the world to basically rebuild a railroad so it stops running over black people, and one might say I shouldn't bring up other social issues when we're focusing on that one thing. But it's all kind of connected, you know. When we're judge-y and exclusive for one reason, in one area, we're more likely to spread that attitude into other areas as well.

It's hard, I know, but well worth trying. And when big changes come, if they do, we might celebrate for a moment . . . then get back to listening and still trying to make things just a little bit better.

My apologies to those in my life whose experiences I can't speak directly to without this Sherlockian lens. My biggest minority status probably is just being a Sherlockian in a world of folks that would rather do anything else. But I'm listening, and trying to figure out the rest. Good luck and all my hopes for a better tomorrow are with you.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

When you think the problem is solved

If Conan Doyle liked to put anything in his Sherlock Holmes stories, he liked to put things to be fearful about. Weird American religious movements, weird short people of color from the South Pacific, the Romani, Germans, people with facial tics, bicycle stalkers, voodoo practitioners, South Americans, sea creatures, harpooners, Italians, unions, monkey-men . . . fear made an excellent foe for the clear logic of Sherlock Holmes to cut the fog and put an end to.

And Sherlock Holmes always showed people not to be afraid, through simple facts.

Foreigners were a special favorite of Doyle's, and Americans were well represented among them. The very first Sherlock Holmes story has everyone who's doing bad things coming form America. The third story features an American female troublemaker. The fourth story revolves around an American-based con. And in the seventh tale, an American secret society reaches out its mysterious hand to kill innocent Britons. Americans. So much trouble. I'd be afraid of us, if I were you.

As much as I used to think of the stories of Sherlock Holmes as a place to escape from the cares of the day, of late, the cares of the Victorian era seem too close to our own. It's very hard to read "The Five Orange Pips" this week, that seventh tale I just mentioned, without thinking of current events. And being frightened of Americans.

No black people are involved in "The Five Orange Pips," just a grown-up British kid who had a truly racist uncle who lived in America for a while. It turns into sort of a family curse situation, and holds the racism at a distance. Even in Holmes's books, it's "Well, there was this Klan thing in America, but it's mostly gone." The Victorians, like every generation of humans, liked to think they were better than their predecessors, the new improved humans. Better than the previous generations, better than Americans, better than those wee little Andaman islanders.

And that's where the problems come in.

It's never "been there, done that, done!" We brought in Prohibition, we got rid of Prohibition, alcoholism remains with us. We broke up a phone company monopoly, we got some fair labor practices, and now . . . Walmart and Amazon. We elected America's first black president, and, yeah, that just echoed what happened when Australia elected their first woman president: People kinda went "Checked that box, don't need to think about the old 'ism' any more!" And then the trouble starts.

Any time we get to thinking we're something better than other humans, past, present, different, whatever, the same old shit comes back. "When one tries to rise above Nature one is liable to fall below it," Sherlock Holmes once said about a human-animal experiment gone wrong, and to deny the existence of our natural failings, those lower-brain functions from our animal origins that drive so much in us, we fall.  We go tribal, we start looking at "the other" as lesser -- that's pure monkey-brain, just like sexual appetite, mothering, etc. It's in all of us.

And the minute you take your eye off those inner basic functions, those parts of us that are Nature itself, we fall. Being human is a constant climb of trying to be better than our worst instincts. Sherlock Holmes, like many of our other stories we tell ourselves, is one of those legends we use to model our better selves, they feed the hope that we can rise above, be a better person, and keep trying for one more day.

Things are hard. They may get harder. We can't say "I'm not a part of this" and look away (though if the stress gets too much, and you feel you might break, do look away for a bit and do self care). It's our very nature as humans that brings us to these points, but there is definitely something in us that makes us look up to a star, a hope, a dream of better, and try to make life better, for ourselves and others.

Sherlock Holmes once said he would give his life to rid his city of an evil, and he almost did give his life. Maybe we can't all live up to that, but as he also said "We can but try," with whatever is within our reach. And maybe we can all start making everybody else a little less afraid of us Americans, especially our fellow Americans, who are pretty much afraid of each other right now -- a lot of folks with a very damn good reason to be.  Murders will do that. (Step one, as I'm sure Sherlock Holmes himself would tell us, is always "Stop the murders.")

We can but try. And we all gotta try just a little harder right now. And then keep trying.