Sunday, May 10, 2020

Interesting Interview: Burt Wolder

If you've met Burt Wolder in person, you've been lucky enough to spend time with one of the nicest men in Sherlockiana.  Burt has been a Sherlockian for over fifty years, and he seems delighted with every Sherlockian topic he comes across.  Whether he's giving hilariously bad answers to the Canonical Couplet on I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere, or dazzling you with his deep knowledge of the week's given topic on Trifles, Burt is a pleasure to spend time with.  And I was lucky enough to get him to say a few words about our hobby for this month's Interesting Interview.

How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?

I think it’s like any other passion, interest or hobby, any other specialty. You would expect coin collectors, numismatists, for example, to know other collectors, to read journals about collecting, to understand the arcana of mints, issues, designs, medallic art. You would expect people with a passion for art or oil painting or for the piano to know the groundbreakers, the virtuosos in the field, to know about the turning points, the innovations, the great moments.  To know things that will not be general knowledge.  A Sherlockian is someone with all those characteristics, but with a particular focus on the world’s first consulting detective, on the records of his cases and sometimes on the people who make up the community that’s grown up around all that. It’s a very elastic term, and can encompass people who collect Victorian antiques, or manuscripts, or illustrations, or first editions, or who write their own fan fiction, or who might have a couple of Inverness coats or caped-back ulsters in their closets

How did you become a Sherlockian?

By reading, which some people might think is the only way to become a Sherlockian, but it’s not so. Over the years Scott Monty and I have spoken to several people whose first connection with Sherlock Holmes was through a cartoon or a movie or comic book. I became an enthusiast at the moment I discovered there was such a thing as being an enthusiast, and that there were other enthusiasts. It was after the Baring-Gould annotated was published. I don’t remember any of my school friends who were particularly interested. I had first read the stories when I was in the fifth grade. Julian Wolff put me in contact with Steve Clarkson, who helped me connect with people of my own age in my area, so he made my first connections.

What is your favorite canonical story?

Well, that depends on your criteria for selecting a favorite. When I was first reading the cases the ones that had the greatest impact on me were “The Speckled Band,” because of the snake; “The Red-Headed League,” just for the fun of it; The Hound of the Baskervilles, because it such a great story, and “The Final Problem” because it was so sad, and because of the Paget illustrations. I also loved The Sign of the Four — who could resist a peg-legged villain and an Andaman Islander, apparently wandering around London with nobody noticing? One of the cases that I have the greatest respect for today as a more informed adult is The Valley of Fear, because I think Conan Doyle was at the top of his game at that point.

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

It’s harder to find a Sherlockian who isn’t interesting. In the last few years we’ve had books about Bliss Austin, and Vincent Starrett has been widely written about, and soon we will have a book about Julian Wolff. There has been much written about John Bennett Shaw, and Chris Morley was an amazing character. Marina Stajic, a toxicologist and a great writer, is interesting. We have to count Helene Yuhasova, the poet laureate of the BSI, as a Sherlockian, and her story is interesting. An old friend, Chris Steinbrunner, has been in my thoughts this week, along with Robert L. Fish; Bob Fish wrote the Schlock Holmes stories, and a good deal else. My friend Albert Silverstein is interesting:  he was one of the last children evacuated to England from Austria, put on a train by his parents when he was about four years old as part of the Kindertransport rescue program. Did I mention Susan Rice and Evy Herzog?  They are interesting, great writers and great Sherlockians.  Hey, how about you?  You’re interesting.

What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?

I’m really interested in everything on the subject to some degree, but I suppose my big interests are around research, writing, papers, comedies, plays, art and illustration, and on Conan Doyle. And interviews, or at least just talking about Sherlock Holmes, which is something that Scott Monty and I have done for an astonishingly long time through our podcasts.


What things do you like to research related to Sherlock Holmes?

Anything, as long as I can figure out a research path. I was delighted to be asked to write a chapter in Trenches: The War Service Of Sherlock Holmes about Holmes’s experiences as Altamont, and about Irish secret societies. For a forthcoming book I just completed an essay on the Royal Navy and the Admiralty in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. I wrote about BSI members and horse racing Upon the Turf: Horse Racing and the Sherlockian Canon. And I am just starting a new essay on Holmes’s return from the Great Hiatus and how his new cases were presented to the public. I jump at any chance to spend time at the New York Public Library.

You were part of the influx of young Sherlockians in the 60's and 70's.  What was it like being part of that community?

It was great fun, but it was a blur. I was a shy kid and very much in awe of people like Julian Wolff and the other adults who were then prominent in The Baker Street Irregulars. I had a lot of fun with Andy Page, but he was light years ahead of me in Sherlockian scholarship.

I Hear of Sherlock has been cranking out episodes for 13 years now.  How did it all get started?

It was timely.  Audio equipment, radio, old time radio, sound recording and editing, all these things had been hobbies of mine since I had been a teenager, but this was a new medium, a whole new toolkit, with digital audio and the internet. It’s something that Scott Monty and I began talking about. We were both early fans of podcasts, and it seemed to us that there was a lot to talk about when it came to Sherlock Holmes. And that was before the BBC Sherlock and the latest renaissance.

What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?

Just one book? I suppose I have to cheat and say any annotated addition, Les Klinger’s most recent set, or the Sherlock Holmes Reference Library, or the Baring-Gould annotated, if I can get away with classifying those as just one book. Beyond that, I suppose I’d have to recommend The Grand Game, which gathered really great Sherlockian scholarship in two volumes. For sheer enjoyment I recommend Michael Dirda’s On Conan Doyle – Or the Whole Art of Storytelling all the time to people I suspect of being great readers.

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

Flourishing in ways unexpected, I’ll bet.  I don’t know that the past has much predictive value, except at a high level.  Popular culture will still be important, and popular culture and Sherlock Holmes will have moved on unpredictably. I am looking forward to it.  I’m optimistic.

1 comment:

  1. Nice little piece, Rob. A couple of suggestions- you might add a link to the video of Ep 189 that you display the thumbnail for (something like this link: ), that was a fun and consequential episode. Secondly, I think you transcribe, "I have to cheat and say any annotated addition," but you mean, "...annotated edition."