Thursday, July 30, 2020

The ones on the outside

Ever stop to ponder how Sherlock Holmes might have a certain appeal to the outsiders among us?

When coming across something like the large accepting group of LGBTQIA+ at an event like 221B Con, one might, at first, consider it just a result of the porny fanfic community who found a  fountain of inspiration in BBC Sherlock. And at this point, many will say, "Well, Sherlock was always gay, so, of course . . ." And you might not agree with that, just as you might not agree that Irene Adler was the one and only love of his life. We all have our favorite matches to make for the boy.

But what really makes Sherlock one of us, whatever your community might be, is if you've ever had that feeling of belonging to the outsiders, those who life has placed outside the mainstream.

Sherlock Holmes was a white, British man in a time when the white, British man was at his peak. This is true. But he took advantage of every privilege he was given, and used it to walk outside the lines. He could have been a doctor, sure. He could have gone to work at Scotland Yard. He could have made his way as a research chemist. But he took none of those roles, and better still, he did not deny all traditional roles simply to go criminal and exist for his own selfish gain. No, Sherlock Holmes stepped outside the lines to help those whose problems were in that area where no traditional answers would serve.

And Sherlock Holmes had a certain acceptance for those who were also on the outside. While "You have been in Afghanistan, etc." might be the famous first line, the more important words Sherlock Holmes says to John Watson will always be, "Come on . . . Get your hat." It's that first moment when Sherlock Holmes offers an invitation to his depressed room-mate who views his life as meaningless. Sherlock Holmes is figuratively holding out his hand with those words and saying, "Join me."

Holmes doesn't see Watson as a potential biographer. He doesn't want Watson to carry a gun and be his backup. He simply thinks that he's going to get a laugh at the expense of Lestrade and Gregson, and his sad old roomie needs a laugh. It's a small kindness, but a kindness none the less. An acceptance of one human being going, "Come on, let's share a laugh."

Sherlock Holmes is never quite who anyone wants him to be, but he gets done what he wants to do. John Watson, as loathe as he is to go on about himself in print, seems to have had a similar problem fitting into a societal norm. And how many fans that have followed their exploits since 1887 would profess toward being one of their fellow folk who stand outside the conventions of life?

A whole lot of us. Even those with a modicum of success inside the systems.

But even in a hobby of so many outsiders, we still find those who think we need to put up fences now and then. Once, that was not letting women attend certain club dinners. Other criteria get proposed on occasion, usually be someone with a specific person or group in mind that they want to keep outside the gate. Creating an "outside" for a hobby based on an outsider, a hobby so normally accepting of outsiders, will always be a burr in my Sherlockian saddle when it arises, and I'm fine with that. It should be the sort of thing that makes us yelp.

And I think Sherlock Holmes himself would like it that way.

"Come on , , , Get your hat." Wonderful words.

The 2020 blogging quota

While I'm not sure how concerned anyone else is about the number of times I post about Sherlock Holmes in a given month, looking at the little "Blog Archive" scoreboard is something I do from time to time, to see if I'm winning against the me of other years. And this year, I am definitely not winning.

I've done about 33% less posting so far compared to last year, and I've got excuses: podcasting, less in-person Sherlockian events to write about, not even an Elementary left to debate, John H. Watson Society duties, trying to write a book, etc.  But Sherlock Peoria management (which is also me) is just not happy with the numbers the staff is putting on the board. Every time month-end nears and I'm down from the previous month, or the previous year's same month, I start desperately whipping up a couple more blog posts for the month to try to bump the stats slightly.

A good motivation for blogging? Not necessarily. For writing, however, just exercising the old verbal functions? Just fine.

One more on the pile.

The wealth of a Sherlockian

Vincent Starrett had a copy of Beeton's Christmas Annual.

A working writer, a newspaper reporter making what reporters did, Starrett was never a wealthy man. He lived through the great Depression, came to the brink of complete poverty, even selling his Holmes collections on occasion. And when he wanted to buy a particular book, there weren't enough Sherlockians at that point that he had to compete with any previous generation's wealthier scions to obtain it. In 1917, he was said to have the best Sherlockian collection in the United States.

But, a hundred years go by, and nobody can be Vincent Starrett any more. The last Beeton's up for sale went for $156,000, which is still less than complete collections or Doyle manuscripts have gone for. But those things are for the very wealthy and the institutions at this point. Vincent Starrett couldn't even be Vincent Starrett right now and afford to have the best Sherlockian collection composed of only items produced in the last ten years, I'd wager.

Collecting has always been a past-time that favored those with deep pockets. Sure, before eBay, you could get by with traveling a lot and being observant and clever, but the world-wide auction house suddenly put you in competition for any given item in a battle of who would pay the most for it. I suspect that Baby Boomers might have the last great generations of middle and lower class Sherlockian collectors, between those changes and the rise of digital works, along with the fact that current generations are trudging up economic hills much steeper than most of their parents.

Every generation works hard for its money, with the exception of those members who get handed it by their parents, and we've seen more than a few of those in the Sherlockian realm. But as a fandom ages successfully and its objects age and grow in value, as ours has done, the difference between what one Sherlockian has and another has becomes a much greater divide than in Starrett's day.

But we know it's not the things that matter, really. It's the people.

Who you enjoy associating with can definitely influence the Sherlockian path you take. When we gather, we usually see Sherlockians at their best -- happy, energized, engaged -- which is why we often say "Sherlockians are the best people!" Even those of us that are eventually suspected of murder can be fun to have dinner with once or twice. On that account, Sherlockiana can be a great leveler. If we're meeting in a venue that requires no extravagant cost, no tuxedo or ball gown, we can mingle with folks from every station of life, and often never know of anything but a common love of Sherlock. (Once upon a time, I was very shocked to learn I had a judge or two in the ranks of those I enjoyed at workshops. Turned out that judges were regular people, too, and not tremendous authority figures in their off hours.)

Sometimes I look at our Sherlockian world and worry a tad about economic disparities and how they might one day affect us. But then I remember the vast economic disparities that have always been with us. Edgar Smith was, no doubt, afforded some opportunities and abilities as a high level executive at General Motors, but his reputation for welcoming Sherlockians with open arms was always there as well. As long as that attitude stays with us, and we don't slip into "but what if we just gate-keep a little bit because . . . well, that person," I think we'll be okay. Ever notice how Sherlock Holmes wasn't really into personal vendettas or refusing clients with governess job issues, as much as he might have griped about dealing with people? That does tend to come with the hobby, in most cases.

There's a certain wealth that comes with being a Sherlock Holmes fan, and I hope we always have that luxury, whatever happens with the economic precipice we seem to be standing on these days. Sherlockiana made it through the depression once, and, hopefully, we won't have to do it again. But let us never lose our true riches of spirit, for any reason.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

The Story Ruiners Society

This past Thursday, a stalwart band of summer Sherlockians met for our monthly library discussion of a Watsonian tale, and as always a delightful time was had by all. Inquiring minds digging deep into a case's details always provides many a reward, new takes and surprising info abound. This time, however, our tale was "The Red Circle," and as we dove into the depths of that record of crime and vengeance, matters just got darker and darker.

There is a lot at the end of "Red Circle" that remains unexplained, and Sherlock Holmes does not at all seem interested in explaining it.

We know the monster Giuseppe Gorgiano was working with a team, as evidenced by the two men who kidnapped Mr. Warren and then released him.  We know that Black Gorgiano went into the vacant house, was stabbed to death, and Gregson and Leverton saw three men leave the house after Gorgiano went in. We know that all concerned were part of a larger criminal organization, and plainly, some members of that group were still roaming free at story's end, but now knew where Emilia Lucca was.

Gregson says he is taking Emilia Lucca to see his chief, and then, apparently, turn her loose on London streets. We don't know what happened to her husband Gennaro, even though Emilia is insanely positive about his fate. I say "insanely" because this was a woman who was just dancing around a bloody corpse a few minutes earlier.

Holmes and Watson, of course, just ditch the whole scene and head to Covent Garden for a show, and once can easily imagine some mid-credits scene in an adapted version where their happy enjoyment of a concert is intercut with scenes of Emilia Lucca back on the streets and being murdered by another Red Circle killer while Wagnerian music from the concert plays over it.

When all was said and done, there was talk of yet another podcast (not by me, definitely) in which the hosts discuss the darker implications of every Sherlock Holmes story's end. So many have those vague Watsonian tales of "it seems like justice happened, but nobody really knows" that it wasn't that hard to imagine.

As dark as things have seemed in the world lately, a dark take on the Canon would not seem entirely out of place. But would it help our mental state?

Well, crazy Emilia seemed happy enough for a bit there. Who knows?

Friday, July 24, 2020

His Lost Poem

And now, a theoretical first draft of Conan Doyle's poetical introduction to The Lost World:

I have wrought my simple plan
To make a boy from a grown man,
To give a Cumberbatch a fan,
And see Omega Watson's can
Explained as how it has a tan.

I'll spin at hearing Sherlock's span
Especially in American
With fic of Brady girl, that Jan,
Whom a Wolff might surely ban
Along with that half of her clan.

Should have wrote a guy named Dan
Who Canonically was a Sherlock stan,
Just to rhyme with words like "Iran"
And the Sussex Duchess Meghan.
He could drive old Sherlock's van.

But before this draft you pan
Wanting boys who are half man.
Just recall ol' buddy Han,
Who was hot to your old Gran,
And wish that he had played Moran.
As published by Doubleday Doran.

Have I done all that I can?
Rhyming things with the word "plan?"
Now I'm repeating again and again,
And that didn't rhyme with plan!
Oh, goddamn! Afghanistan!

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

A previous generation's head Irregular

Sonia Fetherston's new book, Commissionaire: Julian Wolff And His Baker Street Irregulars, arrived yesterday, and having a furlough week off work (no sympathies needed, just a cost-saver and I got to take some vacation pay and leave unemployment for those who need it) with time to spend, I made short work of reading it. I don't normally review books in this blog, as there are many more books out there than I want to read, even involving Sherlock Holmes, but when I found myself almost a third of the way through the book after just unwrapping it, it seemed to justify a few words.

With two Christmas Annuals of The Baker Street Journal and a previous book in "The Baker Street Irregulars Biographical Series" under her belt, Sonia is a practiced hand at writing Sherlockian biography, and it shows. Since I'm not usually a BSI history guy, I didn't pick up her first book, so I don't know if her style of gathering reminiscences from existing Sherlockians and written comments of past Sherlockians went on there or not, but the way they peppered this book made it a nice breezy read, easy to pick up and read in small spurts if needed.

The life of a quiet little fellow who held a club together when it needed an anchor doesn't make for the most dramatic reading, and this book is as much a celebration of his life by those who remember him as some sort of tale of dramatic triumph and tragedy. He made maps, he put out a journal, he had parties at the New York apartment where he lived most of his life. Since his papers were all lost after his death, there is no chance for a deep dive into his inner thoughts, but the book gathers what we do have and presents it well for those who want to know a bit more about the Wolff.

I was definitely one of those. Sonia contacted me as she wrote the book, to hear my memories of Julian Wolff, and I persistently told her that I didn't know if I had anything of worth to tell. I had one black and white photo that Gordon Speck took of me standing beside Julian Wolff in 1987, and that picture is practically my entire memory of the man who carried the Baker Street Irregulars from the sixties into the eighties. (Why Gordon used black and white film, I don't know. I shot color that same year.) My own pictures from that year featured John Bennett Shaw and Peter Blau, whom I considered the superstars of Sherlockiana back then, as collectors were the thing.

So it was good to go back and learn of the man who caused so much grief in my own Sherlockian life. Well, I can't completely blame him, of course, as we all cause our own problems to some degree, but the chapter of the book "No Gurlz Allowed" amply shows how Wolff's membership policies set up one young Sherlockian for a rift with the organization Wolff had been running until a few years before. The book's cover photo of Julian Wolff with chin upraised might look noble in some ways, but to me, he now just looks stubborn.

So it was good to learn about a fellow from the past whom I met once, really didn't know much about, yet affected my world (and probably yours too, either directly or in ripple effects). And Sonia Fetherston does an excellent job of telling that story through the eyes of a legion of his fellow Sherlockians.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Sherlock Holmes Magazine, reviewed

Okay, let's be honest. Some of us didn't expect much from Sherlock Holmes Magazine.

We'd lived through things like Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine that were as much about other detectives as Holmes.We'd paid fifteen bucks for a supermarket glossy thing that just reprinted old stuff most experienced Sherlockians knew by heart. Magazines also seem like a dying format these days, as the internet gives us fresh pictures and news before a publishing house can crank up its press. And Sherlockians . . . well, we've never had the numbers to support an all-Sherlock ongoing full color magazine.

What can I say, us older folks have a lot of outdated ideas in our head. The market isn't just the United States or Britain anymore. And the funding site model make it possible to make sure you have the buyers before you produce the product. But beyond that, I really, really didn't expect the raange that editor/writer Adrian Braddy would scoop up in his arms-wide hug of the current state of Sherlock Holmes.

Cumberbatch piece, check. Conan Doyle piece, check. We'd expect those. Photos and bits on both upcoming Netflix productions? Good. An Audible-produced Holmes game for Alexa voice interfaces? Hadn't heard of that. Switzerland banning Sherlock Holmes in the early 1900s? That's very interesting. A thoughtful look at one of the stories. The struggles of the first Sherlock Holmes novel. Holmes work during lockdown. Theater. A feature on The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes? Well, singling out that movie alone shows someone has taste.

But there's so much more than that one paragraph even describes. It's the range of this friggin' magazine that makes it wonderful. Instead of just taking what comes their way, the rations that fan-based Sherlockian publications, even the top of the line, have always existed on, the creator(s) of Sherlock Holmes Magazine went out of their way to capture the full range of Sherlock Holmes in this moment, along with bits of the past that are still of interest, all put together in an exciting and enjoyable manner.

The only sad part of this magazine's arrival was that somehow weather and my mailbox got one edge damp. It quickly dried, but is a just a touch wrinkled in one spot, which makes it no longer in mint condition. But you know what? This isn't a magazine to keep in mint condition. This is a magazine you can pick up time after time, put a little loving wear on it, and make it your own. Fuck collecting when something is this good -- I'm not going to be selling it off before I die.

Can Sherlock Holmes Magazine keep it up? I would be glad to see it. And am also glad to admit that I was very wrong in my assessment of what a magazine dedicated to Sherlock Holmes can be in the year 2020. We have such a rich wealth of Sherlockiana behind us, and, it seems, some real treasures ahead of us as well.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

A visit to the society with the longest name

As we Zoom-wander across the land, popping in on faraway Sherlockian societies, one sees a lot of different meeting-styles and personalities in our local groups. This weekend's Saturday jaunt was especially pleasant, as I was already filled with good spirits from the first live podcast recording of an entire Watsonian Weekly episode, and then found myself at a gathering of "The Noble and Most Singular Order of the Blue Carbuncle." Having enjoyed myself at Portland's Left Coast Symposium last August, it seemed a good group to look in on, as well as to check if any of them had been abducted by mysterious federal mercs, who seem to be yet another dire sign of the times.

What I found at this gathering of the long-named Sherlockian group was something I hesitate to mention, as one really hates to cause something that good to get too popular and lose its cool. But, being a blogger who hasn't posted much lately, I am also driven by other forces.

The Noble and Most Singular Order of the Blue Carbuncle is a happy, chatty group. About fifteen souls attended and four or five of us were distant drop-ins who seem to be making a habit of making the rounds. But the local membership itself was what really shined from the start, with many members making very informative presentations on the story of the month, "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton." Each of them added a layer of insight and meaning to that familiar tale, and after the Portland regulars were done, Michigander Rich Krisciunas brought in a presentation complete with slides that totally turned the story upside down and brought dark rumors about Holmes and Watson to the fore.

The meeting was like a mini-symposium, and like my previous Zoom of the day, went on to almost two hours, just because everyone was having such a lovely time. Elinor Gray even took us out to see her bees so close-up that you had to wonder how she wasn't stung, but she has plainly attained a level of bee mastery/familiarity where that is not a problem. It made for a lovely pastoral wind-down to the meeting after all the great discussion that came before it.

One of the need side effects of being able to attend local meetings from afar is not just that you get to learn what the members of that Sherlockian society bring to the subject at hand -- you also get to learn what makes each group's meetings enjoyable and pick up tips just from seeing them do what they do. And this Saturday's gathering from Portland was definitely good for that, as well as just getting to see familiar faces from last August's weekend there.

As bad as things are with the pandemic and the hit on the economy we're taking, there are still rays of sunshine brought on by the storm (or is that just lightning?), and this past Saturday was just beaming with them.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Ghost Town Sherlock

Somehow I stumbled into the Library of Congress photo archives online this week, and in searching for Sherlock Holmes, found this little beauty, a photo of an old Wyoming hotel named Sherlock Hotel.

South Pass City, Wyoming, was born out of an 1865 gold rush, with a population that rose and fell with the gold. Three years in, a little hotel called "Idaho House" opened for business, eventually became "South Pass Hotel and Restaurant," and then, in 1873, was bought by a widow named Janet Sherlock.

The neighboring Grecian Bend Saloon has a lovely little sign in the photo that declares it was "Built by Sherlock in 1889" and anyone with sense would immediately go "Okay, another business for Janet Sherlock!"  But who ever accused a mad Sherlockian of having any sense?

I mean, come on! "Built by Sherlock in 1889?" Two years after Watson published A Study in Scarlet and the year before The Sign of the Four? And, 1889, a year where Sherlock Holmes had no recorded cases for the first five months? And, point three, did you ever notice with the timing of Reichenbach Sherlock Death and Watson writing for Strand, that Watson didn't tend to publish stories when Holmes was active in London?

Sure the widow Janet Sherlock was a major figure in Wyoming women in business. Sure, she also owned the the Smith Sherlock General Store and the whole town is now a historic site. And, sure, she was also born Janet McOmie in Scotland in 1844, and came to the United States in 1861 after converting to Mormonism and married Richard Sherlock, by whom she had three children.

But is the lunatic Sherlockian supposed to just accept that twenty years later, a fellow with a name very much like "Sherlock McOmie" just happened to be in London solving the murder of two Mormons who had been chased out of America by a crazed trapper? Are we supposed to just look upon that as mere coincidence?

Let's get back to that Grecian Bend Saloon, founded in 1889. You do know that in 1888, the kidnappers and murderers of a Grecian gentleman escaped Mr. Sherlock Holmes and were later vaguely said to have been brought to vigilante justice in "Buda-Pesth." So if Sherlock Holmes had some reason to leave London in 1889, and followed some criminals to America, and maybe even had some relatives in Wyoming he wanted to visit . . . .

Nawwwww, that wouldn't work at all, would it?

Oh, well, ghost towns are kinda cool anyway. And this one has a Sherlock Hotel.

Friday, July 10, 2020

The hardest thing about writing a Sherlock Holmes story

It seems like everybody's writing Sherlock Holmes stories these days. 

Maybe we always were, but back in the day nobody was getting theirs published. I can think of one very talented Sherlockian friend who got one novel published, and wrote a second one, but that second one only got read by a couple folks on individual copied sheets of the typescript because nobody was publishing pastiches at the time. And another friend who worked hard to complete an entire novel about Mrs. Hudson that the world never saw. The gateways to being published were much harder to get through twenty or thirty years ago.

But now every Sherlock Holmes fan has to try their hand at writing a tale of Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson. The thing we never realize when that impulse first strikes us, however, is that those classic stories we love so much weren't really about Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

They were about Grant Munro, Violet Hunter, Thorneycroft Huxtable . . . all of those colorful individuals, either at the front of the story, as clients, or at the back of the story as a criminal or victim, like Eugenia Ronder. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are really just there to help them tell their story.

We always get more of Holmes and Watson in the novels, because the form itself demands more content, and Holmes talking about his methods or Watson romancing the client adds more content, but the story there is still of Henry Baskerville or Mary Morstan, their lives, their issues. Sherlock Holmes is really a side character in their story.

One can nit-pick pastiches to death with rules and injunctions about Victorian details or not bringing in celebrities, but a good Sherlock Holmes mystery lives or dies on the strength of the characters who aren't Sherlock Holmes. In at least one commercial series of pastiches, I know the author created a character who sure seemed strong enough to move out and carry his own book, but the publisher demanded Sherlock Holmes stay in the stories to boost sales. But it was that original character, and his supporting cast, that made those books worth reading.

Holmes and Watson will always be the decorative icing on a mystery story cake, if you're not trying to write a story of their lives, which many do. It can be a lovely, well-decorated Sherlock cake, but once you cut into it, once you get past Watson's warm Baker Street intro, that cake better be able to stand on its own. I know I've put down my metaphoric fork on a few story cakes once the icing got eaten.

That story within the Sherlock Holmes story will always be the big challenge, and it was Conan Doyle's secret super power. He wasn't just a great writer for creating Sherlock Holmes. He was a great writer for creating Kitty Winter, Nathan Garrideb, and Henry Baker, without whom, Holmes might have never risen as high in our esteem.

It would be an interesting challenge for Sherlockians to have a little beauty pageant of sorts where you don't write a pastiche, you don't write a word of Holmes and Watson, you just write up a character study of the ideal client or victim for a Sherlock Holmes story, and that person can have no relationship to any existing person from the Canon. They have to stand alone, even without us knowing what their mystery is about. And like the traditional beauty pageant, there would be different parts of the competition, like "Distinctive Physical Appearance," "Memorable Name," and "Stand-out Trait." How much do each of those make us want to hear their story?

For those of us that write, and would like to write a Sherlock Holmes mystery, those non-Sherlock stars of the show will always be the challenge, and one worth spending a little time working on.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The long, long journey of one Watsonian.

Way back in early February, the deadline for the spring issue of The Watsonian came around. Remember February, that cold, cold month when we were still going to movies and living our lives? Every spring issue of that Watson-based journal starts in February. This year, however, it's journey into my hands was a bit more epic than usual.

The editing process on that issue of The Watsonian began in February, of course. A piece or two trickled in as it did, still making the issue. Elinor Gray, Rowan MacBean, Elise Elliott, Mary Alcaro, James McArthur, and Jen Snyder all pitching in to read over the pieces, help clean them up, and make a few suggestions to the writers. As we edited, the world began to transform itself into a pandemic landscape, but nevertheless, by March 23, we had finished our initial task. Elinor Gray took on layout responsibilities -- The Watsonian really does have a rather fancy layout -- with Ariana Maher's guidance as she moved on from that role and some scheduled meetings, and by the end of April it was pretty well in hand.

May saw the journal at the printer, who let us know that they had been designated "an essential business" by their governor, yet were running on shorter days with smaller staff due to pandemic concerns. By the end of May, our Selena Buttons (Beth Gallego) got the proofs of the issue, and I know my copy seems to have been mailed June 15th, according to its envelope. By June 27, issues were starting to arrive in the hands of Watsonians, and, happily, I started to hear good things.

But did The Watsonian make it to my mailbox before today, July 7, 2020?  Nope. Not sure what was up with that postal journey from New Jersey. But here's the thing:

Now that this "five months in the making" journal arrived at my house, I find that we have published a freakin' 140 page book. You'd think that the editor-in-chief would be aware of such a thing, and I did go through the PDF, but there's nothing like the weight of an actual book in your hand.

Crossing that finish line after five months in a world that none of us saw coming when we took on The Watsonian definitely had more of a feeling of accomplishment than the previous issue. I know everyone involved was dealing with a lot more than just putting out a journal on Sherlock Holmes's best buddy. We've gotten used to some of pandemic life, but it's still hitting us, and here we are at the starting line all over again, with the fall issue's deadline on August 15. (Adjusted back a couple of weeks after this spring's late run.) But, looking at this monster issue now in my hands, I think we'll be okay.

So, if you have Watson-related fact, fiction, art, songs, poetry, prose, puzzles, or print entertainments of anything else that will fit in a journal, consider sending it along to for next issue. There's even a potential theme of Watson's life before army medical, if you're looking for a prompt. Who'd he love, who'd he lose, what made John H. Watson the man he came to be?

Gotta love a John H. Watson, as well as a thick old journal about him. Hoping for another.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

To Doyle or not to Doyle. That is the question!

My first visit to a Crew of the Barque Lone Star meeting this afternoon yielded a surprise bit of controversy. With Zoom a lot of distant Sherlockians and familiar faces were attending, as tends to happen these days, and there was a quiz, a paper presented, all the things one expects from a local meeting of a Sherlock Holmes society. And then Steve Mason brought up a proposal for an ongoing feature for future meetings . . . on the life of Conan Doyle.

Now, we all know there are many a controversial subject in the Sherlockian hobby, subjects that can get debated, problems that ask for solutions, and opinions always seem to demand immediate disagreement. But the one thing I didn't expect to evoke the longest discussion of the meeting was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though I should have. Get ready for the blasphemy. And worse, I'm going to openly demonstrate what pond scum I am. But I want to make a point.

The above picture is my Conan Doyle shelf. Biographies, biographies, biographies. The "lumber-room of his library," to turn a Holmes phrase.

And this picture is one of the shelves of non-Sherlock Holmes books by Conan Doyle that I have sitting out, not tucked away in boxes. Holmes and Watson finding their tent in front of those books might given you an omen of what's to come.

The discussion at the Crew of the Barque Lone Star meeting began with the thought of holding a separate meeting to discuss Conan Doyle. The quantity of material on his life was brought up. And while everyone seemed to agree, "Yes, Conan Doyle should be discussed!" a whole lot of folks were a little bit, "Just maybe not here . . ."  Because, let's be honest. Sherlock Holmes fans are not necessarily Conan Doyle fans.

The two shelves of books you see above are not there because I love Conan Doyle -- they're the cover charge I pay to get into the bar. I'll give the author his due, but come on . . . fairies? It may not be "Cancel J.K. Rowling!" worthy, but take away Sherlock Holmes and there are a lot of other historical figures I find a lot more fascinating than Conan Doyle. Other authors even. (Given my place of origin, Mark Twain always gets a lot more of my local-team love. Man, if that guy had actually created Sherlock Holmes, I hate to think . .  .)  The only time I really bone up on Conan Doyle is when I am asked to speak to a non-Sherlockian audience, and like Sherlock Holmes with Copernican theory, I do my best to quickly forget it.  (I was shamed by a particular friend for scoring 4 out of 10 on Steve Mason's Conan Doyle pop quiz, but I quickly admitted that my ignorance was not an accident.)  I'll dig into my books as need be to tie something into the life of John H. Watson, but the good doctor remains my focus.

When Doylean scholarship started to rise in the 1980s, I wasn't that interested then, and, for my own past-times, I'm still not. Life is short, and there's more fun to be had with the original sixty stories than I can keep up with, as I still enjoy taking in new non-Sherlock media as well. Even Conan Doyle himself put thoughts in Sherlock Holmes's head  like "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose." While we don't always get to pick our own line of work like Sherlock did, we do get to choose our own line of fun.

And history can be fun, which is why we love weaving Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson into it. It's a great exercise of the imagination to take documented historical facts and try to make them coincide with what we know of those two men. Merely reporting on known data about Conan Doyle? Well, that's good for educators and scholars. Discovering new data on Doyle as some of the great Doyleans among us have done? That's gotta be a great adventure in discovery, but resources for that work are limited, it's not the wild, wild, untamed West that are the lives of Holmes and Watson, where anything is still possible. Anything.

My old buddy Don Hobbs made the point that the Baker Street Irregulars don't discuss Doyle at their annual dinner, and that's following a tradition that goes back to their start. Playing the game, staying in Holmes and Watson's world. The BSI Press, of course, prints a lot on Conan Doyle, their manuscript series being a major part of that. And their symposiums do not ignore Doyle either. But there's a reason that the phrase "Sherlock Holmes society" has that name on the door. Sherlock Holmes is the one we want to discuss. Conan Doyle tends to be the one we "should" discuss.

And I will freely admit to being the kind of person Doyle called "the man who's half a boy." (And not the half from the movie Walk Hard, but I digress down the path of a favorite Watson.) A more mature Sherlockian will rightly have an entirely different opinion, but I've never been anything but a Sherlockian with a thirteen-year-old's love of Sherlock Holmes. And I know I'm not alone. Nor am I representative of the whole Sherlockian world. Few of us are, if any.

The thing is, Sherlockiana has room for all of us, and a spoonful of Conan Doyle in the midst of a full Sherlockian meeting might make some of us hold our nose and swallow that medicine as quickly as possible, but if it remains a feature and not the main program, it's the credits before the movie, the TSA before the flight, the . . . um . . . you probably don't need those metaphors.

 I had a good time sitting back and enjoying the meeting of the Crew of the Barque Lone Star today, including the discussion on how best to fit Doyle into the program. It's a question worth consideration, and one each of us gets to decide in our own Sherlockian lives. It's okay to look at the program for a Sherlockian symposium day and pick which hour you can retire to your hotel room for a rest and a little HBO . . . not that I've ever done that . . . nooooo.

Have fun out there, however you do it.

P.S. You know how sometimes someone will look at your library and go "Have you read all those books?" Some shelves, yes. The Doyle shelves . . . . welllllll . . .

Saturday, July 4, 2020

"I'm proud to be an American, where at least . . . hey! Conan Doyle!"

The image of Americans is always taking a beating, possible deserved sometimes. Right now, we're dealing with the fact that our yee-haw cowboy mentality means some of us can't get behind basic pandemic-limiting strategies, especially with a certain incompetent in a key position. But Conan Doyle never seemed to be a fan until he wanted our dollars either, going by what we see in the Sherlock Holmes Canon. So on this, the US's day of patriotic birthday celebration, let's take a look at Sherlock's Americans.

1. )  Bigamous, kidnapper sexists. A Study in Scarlet.
2. )  Obsessive, stalker frontiersmen with weak hearts A Study in Scarlet.
3. )  Women who toy with European men of power and good British detectives. "A Scandal in Bohemia."
4. )  Floridians who join racist murder cults then try to pretend it didn't happen. "The Five Orange Pips."
5. )  Racist murder cultists. "The Five Orange Pips." 
6. )  Bigamous cowgirls who toy with innocent British nobles. "The Noble Bachelor."
7. )  Potentially bigamous widows who hid their past from innocent British chaps. "The Yellow Face."
8. )  Chicago gangster molls who hide their past from innocent British squires. "The Dancing Men."
9. )  Chicago gangsters who just can't let an ex go. "The Dancing Men."
10.)  Sneaky Pinkertons who fake crime scenes on British soil. The Valley of Fear.
11.)  Murderous labor groups. The Valley of Fear.
12.)  The Irish-American who doesn't speak proper English. "His Last Bow."
13.)  Cartoon stereotype thugs from the South. "The Three Gables."
14.)  Counterfeiter/con men whose nickname is "Killer." "The Three Garridebs."
15.)  Senators who look like Abe Lincoln, but evil. "Thor Bridge."

The first depiction we see of the American countryside is "an arid and repulsive desert, which for many a long year served as a barrier against the advance of civilization." Even when Doyle is being complimentary, as with Lucy Ferrier, he writes that she was "as fair a specimen of American girlhood as could be found in the whole Pacific slope." So, yeah, she was fair, by West Coast American standards, at least. 
Sure, Sherlock Holmes says "It is always a joy to meet an American," but he quickly follows it up with his dream of being fellow citizens of "the same world-wide country under a flag which will be a quartering of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes."  Ponder that one for a moment. Sherlock's brother was the British government. Sherlock Holmes had gotten this idea from somewhere that UK and US could team up and take over the rest of the world, plainly by UK using US as its muscle in that takeover. And with all those murderous gangs, cultists, crooks, and tricksy women, how could the US not make a good bully-boy for Britain?

Even Sherlock's compliment gets a certain sinister overtone when viewed amidst the larger picture of Americans in the Holmes Canon. But, at this point, I think what was potentially a Mycroftian idea for world domination is safely behind us, with covid taking the wind from our mutual sails.

But, you know, Sherlock Holmes did come to America in the 1900s. And we did defile him, by his own admission. (He'll flat out call a guy a "bonehead" after his American time.)

So, maybe July 4th isn't a real good Sherlock-celebrating day in America. But we've done pretty good for ourselves, considering all the bigamy, murder cults, gangs, Lincoln impersonators, and generally improper English, even if we're not teaming up with old Mother England to dominate the world any more. We can at least enjoy a pint in a pub with another former empire and toast better days.

And maybe agree that King George was funny in Hamilton.

Friday, July 3, 2020

The elders of Sherlockian publishing.

Doing a little Watsonian research this week, I came up on this phrase from the submission guidelines in the first issue of The Watsonian, back in 2013: "Aspiring to become a publication with some degree of the prestige of the Baker Street Journal or The Sherlock Holmes Journal . . ." And then I thought, how many publications have I seen with that very thought. I remember distinctly that moment when our local journal, Wheelwrightings, had seen some success in the 1980s after moving to a true typeset format, which few had back then, and the then-editor pondered "Are we as good as The Baker Street Journal?"

So many have aspired over the years, and many have actually succeeded . . . for a single issue, or maybe more. I don't think that anyone considers in their ambitious moment of journal creation, is that The Baker Street Journal began in 1946. The Sherlock Holmes Journal began in 1952. The prestige of either of those journals, as up or down as the quality might be, is largely dependent upon the fact that they were here first, and they have survived.

And that didn't come easy. The Baker Street Journal started with gloriously fat issues and top writers, then failed as a commercial venture in 1949.  When it was revived in 1951, its construction-paper covers and paper-brad bindings made it look more like an elementary school project than what we would now consider a journal, but it lived on, and there was no shame in that. The Sherlockians of 1951 were surely just as glad to see it in their mailboxes as anything that came after.

The Baker Street Journal has been passed through many hands in its history, typeset on a typewriter when needed, published by a university press when arrangements could be made, just doing whatever the current Irregulars sustaining it thought necessary. To say it has always done this, or always been that, would be a very questionable statement, as it has been many things over the years, fanciful at one moment, scholarly the next. It printed writers who saw their by-line printed with pride, and writers who used fake names. It had the same cover year after year with a stapled spine, and it has had color covers with square-bound spines. None of that matters so much as, like a rock star who stage dives into a trusting crowd, it manages to float through the years on the hands of Sherlockians passing it forward to those who come after.

We've seen that take place with Canadian Holmes, and with The Serpentine Muse, both begun in the 1970s and showing signs of the longevity of BSJ and SHJ, having passed through a few hands to get to 2020. Will we see that again, in an era when digital publishing has pushed ink-on-paper to the side? More journals that cross the forty year mark?

It all depends upon if someone finds something in their existence worth carrying forward. It could be out of a sense of obligation to those who came before, or a duty to those yet to come. Sherlockian publishing has never been a successful model for profit, so we know it won't be for purely mercenary reasons, and it you just want to gather a bunch of essays and publish them for a Sherlockian audience, books are becoming a very popular way to do that of late. No, continuing forward with a publication whose name has lasted for years requires a bond that extends over generations.

Any one of us can do something once. Doing something across time takes many of us, bound by common cause, even though our reasons for being behind that cause may differ. And that's what our journals are, really, a common cause called Sherlock Holmes Or maybe John Watson.

We shall see.

Maximum information, Sherlock's era versus our own

"They can go everywhere, see everything, overhear ever one."

"He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of the web, but that web has a thousand radiations."

"All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience."

If there's one theme that runs throughout the Sherlock Holmes Canon, it is this: Gather as much information as you can.

We know, of course, that Sherlock Holmes advised against trying to keep all of that information in one's head: "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded our, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty laying his hands upon it."

And yet he read all the newspapers he could, gathered every fact on every case, and listened carefully to every client. "Mr. Mac, the most practical thing that you ever did in your life would be to shut yourself up for three months and read twelve hours a day at the annals of crime." Even as he makes his point with Watson by saying he'll forget Copernican theory to make room for something more practical in his head, he's still preaching pouring more data into one's brain.

In Victorian times, Sherlock, Mycroft, Inspector MacDonald, Professor Moriarty . . . everyone had to work at gathering that data. It could only come in so fast, even with all of London's morning papers, criminal networks, and street urchin legions. We're faced with a slightly different situation these days.

Our own legions of Baker Street Irregulars are as vast and undisciplined as can be -- how many different people do you find "reporting" to you every day on social media? Even if you limit your associates on the web, friends of friends of friends have a way of sneaking in. News aggregators pull stories from far more sources than London had papers in Holmes's time. You can search and scroll and jump from hyperlink to hyperlink while YouTube keeps feeding you videos and a podcast plays in the background. How many of us have adapted to taking in multiple channels of input at the same time? If we ever figure out a language that works with smell or taste, we'll probably try to add a couple more.

We're in an entirely different position than Sherlock Holmes these days . . . or are we?

Going back to that "brain attic" speech, and others like it, you can see that Sherlock Holmes was also about how one processes all that input. Even at his start, as he scanned so many disciplines to pull from each the techniques that would be useful to him in his work, you can see him keeping this and tossing that, keeping focused on his goal of improving the art of detection.

I saw a headline recently that claimed human brains were reaching the limit of their ability to take in information. I suspect that Sherlock Holmes, John H. Watson, and every attention-paying Sherlockian that came after have always known there were limits. Everything has its limits. It's what you keep and what you throw away that is the grand trick, and we see a lot of folks choosing to keep the entirely wrong tools in their mental toolbox of late, substituting fantasies for facts. But Sherlock Holmes is still with us, for as fantastic as he was, there are still a lot of useful truths in his example.

Even now.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

One magical . . . something!

If you hadn't noticed from this blog, I love to write about Sherlock Holmes.

I'm very glad that a few folks like yourself actually read it, too, as it gives me an excuse to write some more, even though I often think I might just keep writing about Sherlock Holmes if I was sent on a Mars mission with no human contact for the rest of my days. At this point, it's what I do.

The thing that has me going on like this tonight is that I have the pleasure of doing the message part of the Sunday service at the local Universalist Unitarian church in a couple Sundays. (That's not a typo -- Peoria's version of a Unitarian Universalist church does actually flip its name the other way.) Summer services there are a chance to speak on a lot of topics, and my old neighbor and friend Bob Burr was talking about Sherlock Holmes at their summer forums as far back as the early eighties, even though he never attended.  I think between Bob and myself, we've talked about Sherlock Holmes there in the summer at least four times. And this year, I'm adding a fifth.

Well, technically, I won't be at the church, as -- you know the drill -- online meeting large and small are the order of the day. I think it's a Facebook stream I'll be speaking on, though the video with be accessible later.  I'm going to miss the crowd, but it's the writing of a talk that's always the large share of the fun, bringing in points from the Canon, something Don Hobbs made me think of in our last week's conversation on The Watsonian Weekly, stuff from history that pertains . . . Sherlockiana is such a wonderfully wide field that it can touch almost everything in some way or another.

Writing about Sherlock Holmes can make you laugh, it can bring a tear, it can make a solid point when a point needs to be made. It's never just about the "Elementary, my dear Watson!" moment (unless of course, you're writing specifically about the "Elementary, my dear Watson!" moment). Sherlockian writing is an all-purpose tool, and if you look at any collector's shelf you're liable to see it put to all sorts of uses: Teaching computer languages, telling you how to buy insurance, expounding the principles of faith, retreading the facts of the Kennedy assassination, and, of course, more direct things like exploring Conan Doyle's psyche or teaching us the history of a time and place Holmes was in the middle of.

But best of all is probably when we just take that all-purpose tool and play it like a ukelele or a pipe organ, or wield it like a paint brush or sculpturer's chisel. Sherlockiana is a musical instrument and Play-doh and a photo filter app and a word reservoir and . . . a playground.

And so many of the uses of this magical instrument are spun up with words, like incantations in a Harry-Potter-eque world where a secret culture of Sherlockians live amongst folk who don't even know the magic exists.

I think that's why I like to write about Sherlock Holmes so much. Sometimes it feels very much like wizardry, thanks to that genie we all found at some point in our lives, even though somebody always tries to bottle him up or impose rules upon casting his spells. (Silly wabbits.)

Have fun out there, my friends.