Was Sherlock Holmes an American?
Quick, where do you find the following: "Ha, ha! What have we here? Tiptoes, tiptoes! Square, too, quite unusual boots. They come, they go, they come again -- of course, that was for the cloak."
"You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive."
"He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson."
If you didn't recognize these quotes from "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," "A Study in Scarlet," and "The Final Problem," respectively, one assumes your knowledge of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes (of Baker Street, London) and his chronicler, Dr. Watson, is barely (dare one say it) . . . elementary.
But for many Sherlock Holmes fans -- the kind who stay up to see the 3:00 a.m. movies with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson, or who pay hundreds of dollars for first editions of the Holmes books, or who scour the city for a single, Holmesian Persian slipper -- the great detective is more than a fictional character.
It's been that way for most of a century.
When a weary Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, plagued by the overwhelming popularity of his creation Sherlock Holmes, tried to do him in by having him tumble down a waterfall in 1897 in the "Final Problem," he failed. The public outcry was so great Sir Arthur was forced to "resurrect" his hero (Holmes, it seemed, had faked the accident to escape his arch-enemy, Moriarity). Even now, 50 years after Sir Arthur's passing, Holmes lives on.
Chief among the Sherlock Holmes aficionados are the New York-based "The Baker Street Irregulars" (named after the six small, dirty "street Arabs" employed by Sherlock Holmes on various occasions). Dr. Julian Wolff, the group's Commissionaire who also works on the 2,000-issue quarterly publication "The Baker Street Journal" (circulation 1,500), says society members basically study the writings about Sherlock Holmes.
"You'd think that all the questions that could be asked would have been, but we have a big backlog of articles awaiting publication," he says. "People write and write and write."
Indeed the interest is worldwide, and includes such groups as the "Sherlock Holmes Society" in London, "The Sons of the Copper Beeches" in Philadelphia, "The Rascally Lascars of Beverly Hills," "The Friends of Irene Adler" in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and "The Five Orange Pips of Westchester County" in New York.
Although most people first encounter Sherlock Holmes in their teens in one of the 60-odd tales of his exploits, many of the members of the Sherlock Holmes societies are a bit older. In one group, for instance, the membership includes a retired book editor, a patent attorney, a computer expert, a detective, and the curator of a museum. Author Isaac Asimov is a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, as were Rex Stout, and historian-author Fletcher Pratt.
Even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an honorary member of BSI. In fact, he caused quite a stir at one point when he submitted the ethnocentric and highly questionable theory that Holmes may have been an American, "brought up by his father or a foster father in the underground world, thus learning all the tricks of the trade in the highly developed art of crime."
President Roosevelt's letter, written Dec. 18, 1944, went on to say, "At an early age he felt the urge to do something for mankind. He was too well known in top circles in this country and therefore chose to operate in England. His attributes were primarily American, not English. . . ."
Devereux de Gozzaldi, a jovial-looking middle-aged man who works in a magazine advertising office is well aware of the fascination of the fictional detective. He's been a Sherlock Holmes fan since he first read the detective stories several decades ago. He's received the Baker Street Irregulars' "Irregular Shilling" for his demonstrated interest and service over many years. He currently serves as "The Poker" of BSI's local scion society, "The Speckled Band of Boston."
"All the officers have titles that relate to the story ['The Speckled Band']" says Mr. de Gozzaldi. "There's the Keeper of the Band, The Herpeton, The Cheetah, and I'm The Poker. In the story, Dr. Grimesby Roylott followed his ward Helen Stoker to 221B Baker Street to consult with Holmes and Watson. He was a big fellow, and he came in and said, 'I saw my ward leaving here, and I warn you Holmes if you keep meddling in this affair you'll come to harm.' With that he picked up the poker by the fireplace and bent it into a loop. After he left Holmes laughed and bent it back."
The Speckled Band's annual dinner includes such appropriate fare as Clams Roylott, consomme a la Stoke Moran (the gloomy setting of "The Speckled Band"), and beef and kidney pie a la Martha Hudson (Holmes' housekeeper). Following the meal are papers on various aspects of the great detective and his cases, as well as Holmes quizzes.
Topics range from "Sherlock Holmes -- Fiddler or Violinist?" and "Sherlock Holmes and the Motorcar, A closer Reading of 'His Last Bow' with some Observations upon the Automotive Aspects" to the intriguing question, "Could Hudson, the superb butler in the Bellamy household in 'Upstairs-Downstairs' have been the son of [housekeeper] Martha Hudson?" (The conclusion -- very possibly, although theory proponents hasten to add that the father was assuredly Mrs. Hudson's husband, not Sherlock Holmes.)
According to Dr. Wolff, much of the popularity of the Sherlock Holmes stories is caused as much by the setting as the action.
"It's a picture of an era when things were supposedly quieter and nicer," he says. "Of course we like the stories, but it's the picture of the times we all like."
James Keddie, whose father started the The Speckled Band in 1940, agrees.
"I think the appeal is the Victorian era -- kind of slow and easy life, no automobiles. There was a lot of crime then, too, but somehow it seems a bit different."
He says he inherited his love of Holmes from his father, who, in Scotland, would queue up with hundreds of other young men to get the latest copies of The Strand -- the magazine in which the Holmes' stories originally appeared.
And for the proper ambiance, Mr. Keddie keeps such artifacts as a gasogene (used to carbonate beverages), a tantallus (bottle-locking mechanism used in bars), a dark lantern (an early form of flashlight) that London bobbies used to use, and even a Persian slipper of the sort that Holmes had hanging by his fireplace.
"My father was determined to find a Persian slipper, and after scouring all around Boston he finally found a pair of them. So he bought the slippers then threw one away, because Holmes only had one slipper."
Ironically, many Holmes aficionados show little interest in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. July 7, 1980, marks the 50th anniversary of Sir Arthur's passing, but when asked if any special commemorations are in order, Dr. Wolff says, "Well, we're not planning anything." He pauses for a second then adds doubtfully, "Maybe some of the scion societies will be."
Then again, maybe not. After all, recognition of Sir Arthur might promote the belief that Holmes was merely the figment of an author's imagination -- and as anyone who has journeyed to London's Baker Street looking for 221B or has made the pilgrimage to Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland (the site where Holmes fell to his supposed death), that couldn't be true. The fascination with the great detective is like a quest, full of excitement and fun. As Mr. de Gozzaldi says with a laugh, "Anybody who dabbles in this hobby is really a grown child."