Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Colonel First [ENGR]


In "The Engineer's Thumb," Colonel Lysander Stark is our main antagonist.  While not one that is normally listed as a best villain in the Canon, I think we are doing this malevolent German a disservice.  What we have in this story is a baddie who may actually be a template for so many others to come later on in the Canon.

We are told repeatedly that Stark is thin, German, and a colonel.  Another villain whose thinness will be accentuated?  Professor Moriarty.  A dangerous German?  Von Bork.  And a deadly colonel?  Colonel Sebastian Moran.


I admit, there's nothing ground-breaking there.  Being thin isn't a major component of villainy, colonels aren't well-regarded throughout the Canon, and people from other countries are usually dangerous according the Conan Doyle.  So let's look a little closer at Stark.

The colonel has done his research before reaching out to Victor Hatherley, knowing that he is an orphan, a bachelor, and lives alone.  Beddington will do the same such research before he reaches out to Hall Pycroft in "The Stockbroker's Clerk."

Of course, we all know by now that when a stranger offers someone too much money for a simple job, things are suspicious.  This strategy will be used again in "The Stockbroker's Clerk" and "The Copper Beeches."


But Victor Hatherley isn't as smart as we are, and he agrees to go with Stark to his secluded house (cough, cough, "Wisteria Lodge") by way of a long, quiet, and disguised carriage ride like the one that will be repeated in "The Greek Interpreter."

Once there, Stark will be betrayed by a woman in his household, supposedly someone who in on his schemes, as she tries to warn away a man in danger.  Sound like Beryl Stapleton from The Hound of the Baskervilles?  Sorry, that story won't be written for nine more years.  So let's stick with "The Engineer's Thumb."


Hatherley soon learns that Stark is a counterfeiter, just like Killer Evans will be in "The Three Garridebs."  But Colonel Stark is so fierce that he is not opposed to killing someone to achieve his mission, sort of like Hugo Oberstein in "The Bruce-Partington Plans."

Elise tries to stop Stark from killing Hatherley, insinuating that he has promised not to harm anyone after the last time.  We will see James Wilder make a similar promise to his father later in "The Priory School."  


While listening to this story.  Holmes says Colonel Stark is "a cool and desperate man."  Jack Stapleton (HOUN) and Baron Gruner (ILLU) will both be described as "cool" by Holmes in later stories and George Burnwell (BERY), Giuseppe Gorgiano (REDC), and Von Bork (LAST) are all called "desperate."

We learn that Colonel Lysander Stark is actually an alias.  But so is the identity this villain is using in town.  The locals know him as a patient staying with Dr. Beecher.  A villain pretending to be a resident patient?  I'm sure that idea won't be used again.

And this "Dr. Beecher" is actually Stark's accomplice, who turns out to be softer-hearted than the colonel had counted on.  Just like Jack Woodley will find out about his accomplice in "The Solitary Cyclist."  


Of course, Colonel Stark escapes Sherlock Holmes.  Another villain will escape justice just two months later in "The Beryl Coronet."

So while Stark may not be a top villain, I think this cleaver-wielding criminal should be recognized for laying the groundwork for so many malefactors that would come after him.  Let's all give Colonel Lysander Stark a big thumbs up.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Interesting Interview: Laurence Deloison

This January, Laurence Deloison was the first French woman to be inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars.  And that is important enough itself to warrant an interview this Sherlockian that not enough of us Americans know well enough.  But I am lucky enough to be a class member of Laurence's and through some emails and keeping up with her Facebook posts, I quickly learned that she's more than a history maker.

Laurence is the president of one of France's Sherlock Holmes societies, Le Cercle Holmésien de Paris.  But on top of that, she is a world traveler, energetic Sherlockian, and a friend to all that meet her.  Laurence is one of those people that once you learn a little about her, you immediately want to learn more and more; she is that fascinating.  So get ready to meet someone you're going to want to spend more time with in this week's Interesting Interview, Laurence Deloison!


How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?

For me anybody who is a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast, and wants to share this passion with same-minded people. I don't make a distinction between someone who discovered the Sherlockian universe through the Canon, Rathbone, Cumberbatch, a pastiche or a comic book. All roads lead to Holmes! 

How did you become a Sherlockian?

I was offered The Hound of the Baskervilles for my birthday when I was 10 or 11 years old. Love at first sight! I was already reading some Agatha Christie novels at that time, so I loved a good mystery. But here was this incredible character… Sherlock Holmes ! I went to the library to ask if they had more of  it, and read it all during my summer vacation that year. 

However I think I had already been exposed to Holmes earlier than that, with the Sherlock Hound animated series by Hayao Miyazaki which used to air on French tv. It really loved it as well.

Growing up Sherlock Holmes always stayed somewhere on my mind but I didn’t really have access to any other content. Until one day I caught some reruns of the Granada series on tv… which completely revived my interest. I was now old enough to travel on my own, so with a friend we bought a ticket to London and rushed to Baker Street. That was the first of many visits to the Sherlock Holmes Museum.

It also coincided with the arrival of the internet, which changed everything. I realized that there were so many movies or books I knew nothing about. But most of all, that I was not alone in my obsession and that there were even people calling themselves Sherlockians! I had to join them of course.


What is your profession and does that affect how you enjoy being a Sherlockian?

I work in the travel industry. For several years I was doing international sales for different hotel groups (I even worked for the canonical Hotel du Louvre in Paris). Hence my BSI name, “Claridge’s Hotel." Now I work for a company which specializes in expedition cruises to the polar regions, so I guess you could also call me Sigerson! Actually there is a direct connection to Conan Doyle who worked as a surgeon on a whaler in the Arctic. When I did my first trip to the Arctic, I read the diary of his voyage Dangerous Work, and I left it in the ship’s library at the end.

The great advantage of my work is that I get to travel a lot, which I will talk about later. But that also means that I sometimes miss some of our meetings in Paris…

What is your favorite canonical story?

They are many… But I think I would say "The Blue Carbuncle." First because who doesn’t love a good Christmas story? And I think it has everything: comedy, drama, some great deduction scenes, the Victorian society with the rich and the poor, and Holmes being magnanimous at the end. 

I love the scene at Covent Garden where they are trying to get information about the origin of the goose, by pretending they have made a bet about it (which was reused in a very clever way in Sherlock BBC’s "The Hounds of Baskerville").

Who is a specific Sherlockian that you think others would find interesting?

What I love about meeting other Sherlockians, is that there are people from very diverse backgrounds, that I probably would never had met otherwise. And such interesting people! In the end, like Holmes and Watson, being a Sherlockian is very much about friendship. And I have made wonderful friends along the years.

One of them is Bonnie MacBird, who came to one of our meetings a few years ago. At the time she was doing some research for her first book Art in the Blood which is partially set in Paris. I am very happy to see that her series of Sherlockian novels has expanded, with a 5th one coming up soon. 


What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?

I am not a collector, because I live in a small Parisian flat so space is an issue. (However I have some Parisian friends who it doesn’t stop!)

So I like to collect experiences. Every movie, theater play, exhibition, escape game directly or indirectly connected to the Sherlockian world, I am here for it! 

Also whenever I travel to a new city, I am always looking for any shop or restaurant with a name related to SH. I just enter Google maps and type “Sherlock Holmes," “Baker Street," “Conan Doyle," “Moriarty”… and very often there is something. I have a good collection of pictures from all over the world. The latest in date was the Sherlock Holmes Pub of Malaga, Spain. 

I remember spending the longest time looking for an alleged Sherlock Pub in Istanbul. When I found it the name had changed but they told me that the Sherlockian décor had been taken to another bar nearby… which I finally found! That was a fun investigation. 

I even travelled to Riga in Latvia just to stay at the Sherlock Art Hotel there (which is great!), and look out for filming locations of the Russian television series with Vassili Livanov.

Now that makes me think… maybe I should write a Sherlockian world travel guide ?

What does Sherlockiana look like in France?

First of all, an interesting difference is that in France we call ourselves “Holmésiens” (Holmesians) instead of Sherlockians! 

Or course it might not be as big as in Anglo-Saxons countries, but Sherlock Holmes is a popular character in France. After all he has a French grandmother! And he (or rather is double Herlock Sholmès), was the adversary of Arsène Lupin.

To give you an example, in the past couple of years we saw about 8 different Sherlockian theater plays in Paris, most of them being new creations. So the character keeps up inspiring.

Like everywhere else, there was a great dynamic in the Sherlockian world created by Guy Richie’s movies with Robert Downey Jr, quickly followed by the Sherlock BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch. That drew so many new people to SH, and I think it is fantastic.

I had already been involved in Sherlockian societies before that, but in 2012 we decided with a group of friends to create “Le Cercle Holmésien de Paris." It celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and I am very honored to be its president. We gather in a Parisian pub every second Wednesday of each month. So every Sherlockian in town is always welcome.

We are a small but tight group of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts who most of all enjoy having fun together. Recently we organized a treasure hunt in the streets of Paris, during which we smashed 6 Napoleon busts until finding the Black Pearl of the Borgias!

And this summer we are travelling together to Scotland on the footsteps of Conan Doyle, Joseph Bell… and the Lochness monster.

As someone who travels quite a bit, how does that influence how you enjoy this hobby of ours?

I feel very lucky to have been able to visit many places connected to Sherlock Holmes. London of course, where I go often and is one of my favorite cities. But also Reichenbach Falls, Dartmoor, the collection of the Toronto Public Library…

I love how those places give us the possibility to connect between fiction and reality. Look how Speedy’s Cafe in London has become a place of pilgrimage for a new generation of Sherlockians!

But travelling has been also the opportunity to meet Sherlockians around the world. In the US and UK, but also in Japan or Brazil. One day I was travelling to Brazil for work and decided to reach out to a local group of Sherlock BBC fans. They were very active online, but had never met in person. So we took the opportunity of my visit to organize a gathering. I honestly thought I was going to meet 5 or 10 people. It finally turned out into a large event in a library of Rio de Janeiro, where I found myself on stage answering questions in Portuguese. It’s really fascinating to see what a universal appeal there is for the character.


What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?

An interesting French book which I would recommend is Maximilien Heller by Henry Cauvain. I must give the credit to Takeshi Shimizu from the SHSL who first told me about this book and translated it into Japanese. I don’t know if it was translated into English.

It is a novel published in 1870, so 17 years before STUD.

It is the story of a doctor who meets a strange man called Maximillien Heller. He is tall, thin, lonely, enjoys opium and chemistry, has great capacities of deduction, sometimes uses disguises. And they go solve crime together.

Rings a bell ?

Where do you see Sherlockiana in 5 or 10 years from now?

I believe there is a new generation of Sherlockians that is very capable of maintaining traditions but also creating new ones. With my club we sometimes do animations in public libraries and the children are always very curious and interested in Holmes.

The Sherlockian world will probably evolve, adapt, but I am sure it will still be doing strong !

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Interesting Interview: Howard Ostrom

If you've read a Sherlockian discussion on Twitter of Facebook, the name of this week's Interesting Interview will be familiar to you!  Howard Ostrom is probably the most knowledgeable guy out there when it comes to Sherlockian performers.  And when someone has a question about a play, movie, television series, or YouTube video he's often there to help out.

It seems like I've know Howard since I signed on to the Sherlockian Internet, but I really came to appreciate him when he contributed a chapter to The Finest Assorted Collection, where he detailed his transformation from autograph collector to chronicler of performers.  His obsession, er I mean passion has collected THOUSANDS of folks who have ventured into the sphere of performers.  But now it's time to turn the lens on Howard himself, and see how he enjoys this hobby of ours!


How do you define the word Sherlockian”.


My definition would be way looser than most others. Simply a Shelockian (or Holmesian) is anyone who enjoys the character or enjoys the author, be it scholarly or has a fan.  They can write scholarly papers about him, or simply don a deerstalker, or perhaps more so today cosplay wearing Cumberbatch’s coat and scarf combo, or make a fan video, or be in a legion of zoom, or sing about him, or, design fashions based on him, there is only one requirement for me for being a Sherlockian, they must be good company and always have fun with it.

 

How did you become a Sherlockian?

I used to answer that question with two responses. I was quite a reader as a young boy, and after reading and liking my older sister’s Nancy Drew books, the local librarian suggested I try the Hardy Boys and/or Sherlock Holmes. I loved Holmes, the Hardy boys not so much. So when my parents got their first TV, the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films were always on in New York and I was really hooked. 

However, now I realize through all the research I’ve done on Sherlock Holmes in the media that a sublime Holmes image may have already been planted in my mind from the many things I actually witnessed him in, even prior to those early occurrences. Learning that the TV shows, cartoons, and comic books I watched and read almost all had a Sherlock Holmes type character in them may be actually where I first came to appreciate the detective. 

I can give you many examples, but to keep it short here are just a few examples. Kukla had dressed in a Holmes costume on Kukla, Fran and Ollie (1947-57).  Dressed as Sherlock Holmes and forever peering through his magnifying glass,  John J. Fadoozle was the self-proclaimed marionette police inspector who protected the fictional town of Doodyville from 1947 - 1954, on the children’s program The Howdy Doody Show. Then of course their were the comic books I had where Holmes would show up in Batman and Superman comics occasionally, or he had the Classics Illustrated versions which I owned, until Mom threw them out when I was away to college. So to cut this answer short, basically I no longer can pinpoint how I became a Sherlockian - just the fact that he was in my world must be the answer.

 


What is your profession and does that affect how you enjoy being a Sherlockian?

My profession has always been in the pari-mutuels industry.  It has negatively affected my ability to enjoy being a Sherlockian as it is an industry which required me to work weekends my entire life. This does not not allow me to attend BSI or scion events, which may be why I’ve been under the BSI radar all these years and never been invited to be a member. 

 

What is your favorite canonical story?

Hey or (hay LOL), I’ve been in the pari-mutuel industry my entire life, which involves horse racing. The company I work for now, Ocala Breeders’ Sales, breeds and sells racehorses. My nom on the ‘Hounds of the Internet’ and the  ‘Welcomes Holmes’ discussion groups has been Straker since day one. So you tell me what my favorite canonical story is!


Who is a specific Sherlockian that you think others would find interesting?

I’ll name you two if you don’t mind, since both are fantastic Sherlockians that most people don’t know enough of. They are Ray Wilkcockson and Ross K. Foad. 


Ray Wilcockson is a retired English teacher living in Morecambe, England who maintains a fantastic blog featuring much on early stage Holmes productions. His blog can be found at: http://altamarkings.blogspot.com  It is incredible, and everyone needs to check it out. Ray has co-written papers with me and contributed more entries for me to “The A-Z List of Sherlock Holmes Performers” than perhaps even myself. 


And speaking of The A-Z List of Sherlock Holmes Performers” it can be found on Ross K. Foad’s No Place Like Holmes website at: https://www.nplh.co.uk along with so many other Sherlockian essays and videos. Ross is a young man from Kingston-on-the-Thames, England, who created the first internet Sherlock Holmes series, filmed entirely from a green screen in a small room in his house. His various internet series are highly entertaining, as are the Diogenes Documentaries he also created for YouTube. You simply must check both these extremely interesting Sherlockians’ links out.


What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?

I’m really into the Quasi-Holmes productions being created world-wide by the explosion of interest created by the BBC Sherlock Series and the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films. Especially notable are the incredible new shows being produced in Finland, Russia, S. Korea, Japan and China in the last decade. I’m still working daily on “The A-Z of Sherlock Holmes Performers” which is at 8,017 entries with over 17,000 photos as of the moment I’m answering this question. Also I’m working on expanding my Silent Films database which has over 360 films in, while I doubt you will find a reference book with 100 even.


What is it about Sherlockian films and shows that draws you to them so much?

Just watch Basil Rathbone, Jeremy, Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Vasily Livanov, Kenneth Macmillan, Yûko Takeuchi, Douglas Wilmer, Christopher Plummer, or Peter Cushing in the role and you will understand why. Holmes is someone we can believe is real, a testament to that is how many people do believe he is real. 

I gave a lecture at a  small church school for mentally challenged children and their parents recently, and here is an interesting statistic that came from it. To find out how much these children and parents knew about Sherlock Holmes I started out with the question who has heard of Sherlock Holmes? All 11 parents and the 7 children raised their hands. Then I said lower your hand if you think Sherlock Holmes is a real person. 9 of the 11 adults lowered their hands, none of the children did! 


Your database of Sherlockian performers is like nothing I've ever seen before.  How did it get started?

I started the A-Z database as my own personal cross reference file for the Sherlock Holmes Cyclopedia that Thierry Saint-Joanis and I were discussing at the time. I correspond with Peter Blau daily, and when I mentioned I was starting an A-Z List to him, he stated that was mission impossible and I’d probably regret ever starting it. I love the thought of a mission impossible, and now I’d agree with him that it is impossible for too many reasons to explain here. Still I love all the people I’ve met doing it, and it has been a fun journey. You must check it out at https://www.nplh.co.uk where the first 8,000 entries are posted. If you are reading this interview you just may be in it!


What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?

When I began collecting books I remember trying to get all Shaw's Top 100 list. With all my moving around the books unfortunately had to go. Yet, today I find it sufficient just having Mattias Bostrom's FromHolmes to Sherlock,  David MacGregor's Sherlock Holmes: The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Les Klinger's Annotated Sherlock Holmes on my shelf, and my own databases (which dwarf anything DeWaal compiled) in files on my computer. 

I try to avoid pastiches, just too many out there, but if I think hard the two I enjoyed the most were Ten Years Beyond Baker Street by Cay Van Ash and The Surrogate Assassin by Christopher Leppek.


Where do you see Sherlockiana in 5 or 10 years from now?

Since Sherlock Holmes is the man who never lived and will never die I don’t see it going away. In compiling information for my Holmes on Screens database the amount of entries keeps increasing (mostly due to foreign entries and internet streaming).  The year 2018 entries alone I could write a full volume on. It is so large. The number of stage plays keeps increasing largely due to Ken Ludwig’s success. 

The large amount of product needed for all the streaming channels these definitely will increase the Holmes productions being looked into. It already has, i.e. Enola Holmes 1 & 2, The Irregulars, The Sniffer, Border Town, Maiden Holmes, Anna the Detective, Massage Tantei Joe, Drama Queen, et al. I could go on and on… The point being I see it growing exponentially larger.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

A Most Dark and Sinister Business [SPEC]

On a Zoom today talking about "The Speckled Band," a friend asked what kind of story it was.  They argued that it wasn't really a mystery, there wasn't much adventure to it, certainly not a romance nor a horror.  They decided to concede that it was just a "ripping good yarn."

I can't argue with that assessment, but I think SPEC can be classified a bit more.  


When we think of Gothic fiction and Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles is probably the first thing that comes to mind.  But I think SPEC got there first.

Gothic fiction (a broader term than Gothic horror) requires three big components: a monstrous or threatening villain, an old estate or castle setting, and a mood of dread and danger.  And story delivers all three.

This Brute

Grimesby Roylott is one of the best villains in the Canon.  And that's because he's one step away from being a Gothic monster himself.  From a long line of brutes ("Violence of temper approaching to mania has been hereditary in the men of the family.") and part of a family that almost seems doomed to fail (four successive heirs were of a dissolute and wasteful disposition, and the family ruin was eventually completed by a gambler), Roylott almost qualifies as being from a cursed lineage.  And by having mastery over dangerous and threatening animals such as a cheetah, baboon, and poisonous snake, Roylott keeps those in his household and surrounding scared of him.


And just listen to some of the phrases that Watson uses to describe this doctor when he visits Baker Street:
"a peculiar measure" of clothing
"a hunting-crop swinging in his hand"
"his hat actually brush[ed] the cross bar of the doorway and his breadth seemed to span it from side to side"
"A large face, seared with a thousand wrinkles"
"marked with every evil passion"
"bile-shot eyes"
"thin fleshless nose"
"a fierce old bird of prey"

Combine those phrases with Roylott's show of power bending a steel poker with "his huge brown hands" and later his "hoarse roar" as he bellows at boy driving a trap and you have a character that isn't too far away from Frankenstein's monster.  In fact, Roylott's last act upon this earth is to release a "horrible cry which ... swelled up louder and louder, a horse yell of pain and fear and anger all mingled in the one dreadful shriek.  They say that away down in the village, and even in the distant parsonage, that cry raised the sleepers from their beds."

A true monster.


All Was Dark in the Direction of the Manor House

While many Gothic villains are equated with castles, the forlorn manor house can be just as intimidating of a setting.  Helen Stoner and her late sister, Julia, are essentially prisoners in Roylott's "two-hundred-year-old house, which is itself crushed under a heavy mortgage."  Helen takes pains to describe this manor to Holmes as to emphasize the character of the place where haunting whistles foretell doom.  But Watson's description when he finally sees Stoke Moran for the first time really elevates this setting to Gothic proportions:

"The building was of grey, lichen-blotched stone, with a high central portion and two curving wings, like the claws of a crab, thrown out on each side. In one of these wings the windows were broken and blocked with wooden boards, while the roof was partly caved in, a picture of ruin. The central portion was in little better repair, but the right-hand block was comparatively modern, and the blinds in the windows, with the blue smoke curling up from the chimneys, showed that this was where the family resided. Some scaffolding had been erected against the end wall, and the stone-work had been broken into, but there were no signs of any workmen at the moment of our visit. Holmes walked slowly up and down the ill-trimmed lawn and examined with deep attention the outsides of the windows."

"Curving wings," "claws of a crab thrown out," broken windows, a roof partly caved in, "ill-trimmed lawn"...  Is this a place you'd want to hang out?  You know the kids in the neighborhood think this house is haunted!


And what is it like living in such a dreary setting?  "We no feeling of security unless our doors were locked," testifies Miss Stoner.  And she describes the windows as being "[V]ery small ones.  Too narrow for any one to pass through."  Once those bedroom doors are locked, the step daughters are essentially trapped!  And while Helen and Julia Stoner are locked away in their rooms, a cheetah and baboon wander the grounds freely.  They never said so, but it is hard to miss the juxtaposition of freedom vs. being caged between the people and animals under Grimesby Roylott's charge.

Once Holmes and Watson have started their silent vigil inside or Stoke Moran, they are in literal darkness.  As if to amp up the effect that this house has on the reader, Holmes tells Watson, "Do not go asleep; your very life may depend upon it."

If Stoke Moran isn't a house that invokes terror, I don't know what is.

It is Fear, Mr. Holmes.  It is Terror.

The villain and the setting of "The Speckled Band" are enough to make this a top-tier Sherlockian adventure, but the mood that is set throughout this tale is what pushes this story from "a ripping good yarn" into the realm of Gothic fiction.

In the opening paragraph, Watson sets the scene by telling his readers that Holmes "refused to associate himself with any investigation which did not tend towards the unusual, and even the fantastic."  This is hardly the typical introduction that tells us that Holmes will do something impressive or this case will be a difficult one.  No.  This case will be unusual and fantastic.


In a subtle nod to the dark mood, Helen Stoner tells her story of woe while she is dressed in black.  She appeals to Holmes as if he has superhuman powers: "I have heard, Mr. Holmes, that you can see deeply into the manifold wickedness of the human heart."  While she can't say specifically what terrifies her, Miss Stoner admits that her "fears are so vague."  All she knows is that her stepfather is somehow involved, saying later that "He is so cunning that I never know when I am safe from him."

Describing the death of her sister, Helen states that Julia's face was "blanched with terror" and shrieked in a voice which could not be forgotten.  And when did all of this take place?

"It was a wild night.  The wind was howling outside, and the rain was beating and splashing against the windows.  Suddenly, amidst all the hubbub of the gale, there burst forth the wild scream of a terrifies woman."  

She may as well have started her story off with "It was a dark and stormy night...."

After Miss Stoner has left, Holmes himself adds to the Gothic atmosphere by invoking the Evil One by yelling out "But what, in the name of the devil!" when Grimesby Roylott arrives to threaten our heroes.  Later on, Holmes will predict terror when he tells Watson that their vigil at Stoke Moran will result in "horrors enough before the night is over."  As the denouement of the story comes, Watson is blinded, essentially blinding the reader as well.  All we know is that Holmes's "face was deadly pale and filled with horror and loathing."  Not even during the climax of this terror are we to know what is preying upon the Stoner sisters.


In the end, the villain is defeated and logic wins out over terror.  But along the way, the heroes, victims and readers are kept in a perpetual state of fear.  "The Speckled Band" can definitely be classified as Gothic fiction, as it it is "a most dark and sinister business" indeed.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Interesting Interview: Karen Wilson

Scintillation of Scions is one of the big annual Sherlockian events, and this week's Interesting Interview will be a familiar face to anyone who's ever been in person or watched it online.  And you can probably even think of a few songs you've heard our interviewee sing as well.  For the longest time, the name Karen Wilson was one that I associated with high quality Sherlockian output, but wasn't someone I'd ever really had a chance to talk to.  

This January, Karen was invested into the BSI and I was gobsmacked to find out that she hadn't been a part of the group for years or even decades!  I really got to know Karen two days later at the ASH Brunch when we shared a table.  What a delightful lady!  Seriously, you could not ask for a better person to spend a few hours with.  And for those of you who are lucky enough to know Karen, you'll know that her laugh will instantly bring a smile to anyone's face.  So get ready for the interview equivalent of a warm hug because this week's Interesting Interview is with Maryland's own Karen Wilson!


How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?

A Sherlockian is someone whose interest in the Sherlock Holmes stories (and the character) goes beyond mere enjoyment and into the realm of investing time, energy, and resources into the pursuit of “meta-enjoyment.” If friends and family are shaking their heads and rolling their eyes a little at your Holmes thing, you might be a Sherlockian.

Some collect and devour books of pastiches and/or Holmesian scholarship and/or Victoriana; some produce such material; many seek out online or in-person groups of like-minded individuals; all perk up at any apparent mention of or allusion to Holmes (however tenuous) in any context. I think you can be a Sherlockian without manifesting all of those symptoms at once, but most full-fledged (as opposed to budding) Sherlockians are guilty of at least one.

How did you become a Sherlockian?

I was 14 years old, I think, when I saw on display at the local Waldenbooks Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Percent Solution, new out in paperback and promising a meeting between Holmes and Sigmund Freud. Never having read any Holmes, but knowing that Freud was a real historical figure, I went home and asked my parents whether Sherlock Holmes had actually existed. Would you believe they weren’t sure? I bought Mr. Meyer’s book, hoping to find out, but I hardly got two pages into the story before I realized I was going to need to read some other books first.

I ploughed though the Canon in a summer and never looked back. Newspaper articles about The Seven Percent phenomenon featured interviews with Sherlockians from all-male scions who made it seem like that part of the community would never be for me, so I became a “solitary cyclist” instead. My shelves were soon filled with pastiches and scholarship found at secondhand stores (and the odd reprint ordered from Magico). I’d stay up till the wee hours on weekends to watch Rathbone & Bruce on some fuzzy UHF channel’s late movie show. I wrote Baring-Gould-compatible fanfictions in my head. And I never lost hope that I’d make a friend who was also a true fan.

Connecting with the wider Sherlockian world didn’t happen for me until the advent of home Internet access, but by then I’d been a Sherlockian for decades.


What is your profession and does that affect how you enjoy being a Sherlockian?

During the week, I’m a teacher of philosophy to undergrads; on the weekends, I’m a church organist & choir director. All that employment curtails the amount of travel I can do for the sake of the hobby, but I do what I can. Being a musician, of course, has hugely affected the way I play the Game (more below). And being a teacher has kind of made me a go-to quizmaster in several of my local scions. Since writing tests is pretty much What I Do, I’ve never minded.

What is your favorite canonical story?

I used to answer SCAN, without even having to think about it. As a musician, I couldn’t help identifying with the musician anti-heroine who thwarts Holmes’ dramatic denouement. But as I’ve aged, I’ve developed more of an affinity for poor Mary Sutherland of IDEN, unlucky both in love and (IMO) in her choice of detective! Mary is the anti-Irene, and if I write a fanfiction in my head these days, it involves some sort of justice for Sutherland.


Who is a specific Sherlockian that you think others would find interesting?

How can I choose just one? Okay, here’s a delightful chap: Brent Morris is a past Gasogene of my home scion (Watson’s Tin Box of Ellicott City, MD) and the spouse of the lovely Jacquelynn Morris, BSI. A celebrity in the worlds of both Freemasonry and magic, Brent is also a PhD mathematician and a terrific scion meeting speaker. His talks on cryptography and on the academic career of the dastardly Moriarty are among the best and most entertaining I’ve heard. As a fellow (if former) mathematician, I may be biased, but only a little. Brent gets the blend of fun and scholarship just right, and we mid-Atlantic-area Sherlockians are lucky to be able to claim him.

What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?

My special area of interest, as suggested above, is music. And I mean all of it: music in the Canon, music dating from the era of the stories, music associated with films and plays about the stories, and musical expressions of Holmesian fandom. I can’t claim expertise on every sub-topic, but last year I was privileged to be able to edit (with Alex Katz) the work of others who can. The fruit of our collective labors is the new BSI Press book, Referring to My Notes: Music and the Sherlockian Canon.


What goes into making Scintillation of Scions happen every year?

Until COVID, the answer was “an amazing committee of helpers, the generosity of folks who donate or create fantastic items for our charity bag raffle, the willingness of vendors to schlep boxes of books and other interesting Sherlockiana to sell, and the keenness of both veteran and first-time speakers to travel to Maryland (without the lure of an honorarium) to share their passion for Holmes and his world.” It also takes a certain amount of eagerness in the Sherlockian community to attend, since a non-trivial number of participants (more than 80) is required to cover expenses at a typical hotel conference facility. I would say that before 2020, I devoted 30% of my Scintillation energy to finding a slate of terrific speakers and 70% of it to worrying about attendance. The committee and vendors did the rest.

In the era of “Scintillation @ Home” via Zoom, the committee, auction, and vendors have all been put on hold. We’ve still needed the terrific speakers and the eager attendees, of course, but the other key element has been Zoom-meister Greg Ruby (with shout-outs to the also-helpful Monica Schmidt and Steve Mason). While finances are not a big concern (freewill donations have covered our expenses), I still worry about attendance: when you invite people to do the work of preparing a talk, you want to give them an audience!

This year’s Scintillation will be another (the last, I hope?) “Scintillation @ Home.” Back when commitments to a hotel would have had to be made for an in-person 2022 event, the COVID outlook was just iffy enough that I couldn’t confidently sign on the dotted line. We will be holding the event on Saturday, August 20, 2022, and if I ever get through final exams, I will be inundating the Internet with details.


As a musical Sherlockian, how does that influence how you enjoy Sherlockiana?

I do enjoy the non-musical aspects of the hobby (reading, quizzing, nit-picking, drinking, etc.) just like anyone else, but music – parody song, for the most part – is the primary way that I contribute to the proceedings. In fact, the real question should be, “How does the fact that I am always on the look-out for songs to parody influence how I enjoy anything *else* in my life?” Often I’ll hear something that seems like Holmesian filk fodder, and I’ll have to go on a mad search for pen and paper before I lose my idea. It probably disconcerted my fellow patrons, but I was muttering possible rhymes for my Holmesian take on the Hamilton opening number on my way out of the theatre!

What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?

I never like to miss an opportunity to show the love for a curious Holmes-adjacent novel dating from 1984 and entitled W.G. Grace’s Last Case. It’s by the late, great Willie Rushton, and what makes it curious for a book that otherwise ticks all the pastiche-y boxes is that Sherlock Holmes isn’t in it! Instead, the titular cricket legend stands in for the Great Detective. Assisted by a post-Reichenbach Watson-in-mourning, Grace encounters a host of other famous Victorians, both real and fictitious, as he attempts to solve the on-pitch murder of a bowler he was facing at Lord’s. The story spans several continents and outer space (!), and I’m laughing out loud right now just thinking about it.


Where do you see Sherlockiana in 5 or 10 years from now?

Perhaps I’m not a great one to ask, seeing as how my youthful self failed to predict that things would eventually go co-educational! But I do think that the rise of online meetings in the wake of the pandemic is a trend that will continue. As grateful as I have been for Zoom these last few years, I personally will always prefer in-person meetings, but I concede that they are less “democratic.” Younger Sherlockians who are (1) more comfortable with tech and things virtual and (2) less able to scare up the $40 -100 that some dinner meetings can cost (not to mention travel expenses) will surely want to keep the Zooming alive.

Monday, May 9, 2022

So I Went to Chicago [VALL]

Saturday was DePaul University's annual Pop Culture Conference, and this year's theme was A Celebration of Sherlock Holmes.  It was unlike most other Sherlockian conferences I've been to as the majority of the speakers here were academics that focused on Sherlock Holmes, instead of Sherlockians that took an academic approach to our hobby.  It may seem like a small distinction, but it was enough of a change to make this conference feel like something different.


During most hours there were up to four talks or panels you could choose from, so you had to resolve yourself to the fact that you'd be missing out on some good stuff.  I missed out on some great talks by Chicago lawyer Stephen Lee, set designer Arwel Wyn Jones, travelling Sherlockian Monica Schmidt, SherlockComics.com creator Johanna Draper Carlson, and many more.  That being said, here are a few highlights from my day:

First of all, it was nice to spend time with some old friend the evening before and throughout the day, but one big plus for this conference were all of the faces that were new to me.  Plenty of academics from around the country and locals interested in the talks were on hand to bring fresh insight to discussions.  I was happy to connect with some people I'd only met online and get to know new folks.  The talks are nice, but I'm at conferences to spend time with other Sherlockians.  

The talks were separated into two styles: keynotes and panels.  The panels had three speakers and each had a 10 to 15 minute presentation followed by Q&A time.  My first panel grouped three guys together around the theme of the friendship between Holmes and Watson.  Music professor Josh Harvey talked about how adaptations use musical scores to reinforce character qualities in their presentations.  Josh had discoursed on this topic with Moriarty over on the Parallel Case of St. Louis blog last year, so you can get a taste of how his mind works.  I am always amazed anytime Josh gets talking because that guy really knows his stuff!  He was followed by Walter Podrazik who examined the friendship model in House, and David MacGregor took us on a whirlwind history of Holmes in media adaptations and highlighted his favorites.


My next event was Curtis Armstrong taking us through his history as a Sherlockian and an actor and how those two paths sort of crossed, but never fully.  It started out with a great story of  his youthful production of Baker Street Theater that he hosted each week on a local high school radio station.  Curtis talked about his brushes with Sherlockiana professionally from appearing in an episode of House to a small comment in an episode of Supernatural.  But he announced that his two paths had finally merged with an Audible production that would come out this summer where Curtis gets to portray Inspector Gregson in episodes of Moriarty starring Dominic Monaghan as the famous professor.  And Curtis said that the writers of this show know their Canon.  He promises lots of Easter eggs for us and plenty of attention to the characters in these episodes.  

Ashley Polasek followed Curtis and talked about her role as managing playwright Ken Ludwig's business as he is in the process of creating a new Sherlockian play to premiere next year, Moriarty.  Ashley took us through Ken's creative process on building a play from scratch instead of adapting one big story like he had in the past with Baskerville.  This new play promises to use the professor, Mycroft, and Irene Adler along with Holmes, Watson, and plenty of new characters.  It was very interesting to see how Ken worked through the Canon, picking things that would work in his story, as well as what he chose to mold, merge, and adopt in this process.  Ashley didn't give away any spoilers, but you could tell from the pictures of the marked up canonical texts that this play will have plenty of Sherlockian pieces coming together for one big event.


The last hour for me was another panel, this one collecting three topics about Sherlockian fandom.  Allison Broesder talked about her work in creating foundational information for people entering the Sherlockian fandom and meme culture expert David Kocik talked about the history of the "Creepy Watson" meme from the Sherlock Holmes video game.  But, hands down, my favorite talk of the whole day came from Lucy Miree.  Her piece was entitled "There is No Master's Degree in Sherlockology: Flattening the Holmes Fan Hierarchy and Recontextualizing Love of the Great Detective."  As much as she could in her ten minutes, Lucy talked about how there is very little difference between fan and scholar or pastiche and fan fiction.  She cited The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, prolific fan fiction writers, The Baker Street Journal, and a ton more.  I could have listened to her talk for a full hour on this topic and hope to see more from this Sherlockian soon.  

After that, it was time to drive back south to get home.  It's always tough leaving conferences and the people you've been spending time with and being immersed in Sherlockiana.  But this one was a little more bittersweet knowing that next year's conference will be on to a completely different topic.  I'm very glad I made the weekend trip and look forward to seeing more from these speakers in the years to come.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

The Celebrated Author [VALL]

I find Sherlockian history interesting, but the actual people who have participated in this hobby are even more fascinating and entertaining in my opinion.  And for my money, the writings by Christopher Morley and Vincent Starrett are always worth checking out.  I'm branching out from these two authors' Sherlockian writings to their larger bibliographies, but Morley just loves Holmes too much to stay away for long.

Christopher Morley is known among Sherlockians as the founder of the Baker Street Irregulars.  But to many others in the world, he was first and foremost and first-class writer.  His novel, Kitty Foyle, was turned into a Hollywood movie in 1940 and starred Ginger Rogers.  


But for me, Morley's strength comes in his essays and short stories.  I've read a few collections and recently finished The Ironing Board.  I knew that this collection included "On Belonging to Clubs" in which Morley famously laments his small creation called the Baker Street Irregulars had grown into a movement with scions spread across the country.  This is only one paragraph in an eleven page piece and while as a Sherlockian, I call it a famous line, to most folks I guess it wouldn't be much more than a passing comment in a larger story of Morley's views on clubbing up back in the day.

But as I breezed through this delightful collection, I came across so many more Sherlockian moments that show just how deep Holmes was ingrained in Morley's lifeblood.  The short story "Time of Life" is a fun creeper that name checks The Hound of the Baskervilles and in which a character states that it is his job to notice what others don't. (Wonder where that line came from?)

A few pieces on and you come across "An American Gentleman" where Morley lays out the argument that Robert Louis Stevenson was a major influence on Arthur Conan Doyle's writing style.


After that is the essay "A Christmas Story Without Slush."  In my naivete, I had always thought that Morley's comment about "The Blue Carbuncle" was just that - a comment.  But no!  There is a whole essay on the excellence that is BLUE.  A treat to read at any time of year, Doyle's story or Morley's essay about it.

Another fun turn in The Ironing Board is a few short stories starring Dove Dulcet, former literary agent and amateur detective.  This character now works for military intelligence and is helped out immensely by a certain London detective's sister.  

"Watson a la Mode" is another essay that delves straight into the Canon.  In this one, Morley makes a case that Watson got out of the medical trade and made his money by going into dressmaking.  Some of today's Sherlockian essays can be pretty tongue-in-cheek, and you'll find the roots of that tradition in this 1946 piece.

So if you are someone who enjoys essays or literary ramblings, let me encourage you to track down the wider writings of Christopher Morley.  And don't worry, you may find yourself immersed in stories about a church that exists under a bypass or tributes to folks Morley finds important, but don't worry dear Sherlockian.  When it comes to Christopher Morley, sooner or later all roads seem to lead back to Baker Street.