Sunday, August 23, 2020

Interesting Interview: Charles Prepolec

Billing this week's interview subject as "interesting" may be underselling it.  Sherlockian editor, Strand completest, former mystery bookstore owner, and wearer of one of the finest mustaches in our hobby, Charles Prepolec is a Sherlockian who knows his stuff.  Widely knowledgeable about many facets of Sherlockiana, Charles is also an all-around good guy, someone who is fun to spend time with because he's probably the straightest shooter you'll ever meet.  If Charles has an opinion on something, he will share it.  And if he doesn't have an opinion on it, you can bet he will go out and learn enough to form one.  

I've known Charles online for a while now, and got to finally meet he and his wife, Kris, last summer in Minnesota (which seems like years ago).  Getting to see them again in New York this January and sitting with them in a corner booth during the ASH brunch was like being at the cool kids' table in the high school cafeteria.  Charles and Kris were so welcoming to everyone I saw them interact with that weekend, whether you were a longtime friend or newbie like myself.  And he brings that same vibe to this week's interview, expounding on our favorite topic: Sherlock Holmes.

So settle in, prepare your TBR list to have some titles added to it, and get ready to spend some time with Charles Prepolec!

How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?

For me, personally, becoming active in the 1980s, I tend to take a fairly traditional perspective on the term itself, if perhaps not the expression of it. That is to say I feel a Sherlockian should have a baseline familiarity with Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon of Sherlock Holmes stories, have an interest in discussing or researching elements of said canon, and want to engage and share with others of a similar bent; and, if possible, join or form a Sherlockian society.  These are the basics for me. If your interest is only in BBC Sherlock, or pastiches by a particular author, or whatever other single thing that is a derivative of the canon, but doesn’t necessarily include an appreciation of the canon, then I tend to think you’re a fan of that particular thing, and not necessarily a ‘Sherlockian’ by my definition. Your mileage will, of course, vary. In the end though, it’s just a word used as a label, so I’m not terribly precious about its usage one way or another these days.    

How did you become a Sherlockian?

As a kid, and an only child at that, I was a massive geek. Comic books were my all and everything, and also something of a ‘gateway’ to classic genre literature, particularly in the SF, fantasy, adventure and mystery genres. From comics I made the jump to Doc Savage and The Shadow pulp reprints, James Bond books and movies, Edgar Rice Burroughs, etc… and along the way I’d bump into Sherlock Holmes on a regular basis, as one does with literary archetypes.

Phil Farmer’s Wold Newton concept, expressed in DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE, put Holmes on the same family tree as Doc Savage. Otto Penzler’s THE PRIVATE LIVES OF SPIES, CRIMEFIGHTERS AND OTHER GOOD GUYS I bought for coverage on The Shadow and James Bond, but there was a chapter on Sherlock Holmes, so there he was again. So, at 10 years of age I read The Hound of the Baskervilles… and hated it. That Sherlock Holmes guy was barely even in it. Pfui!

Jump ahead to ten years later, and I was still a comic book nerd, but one who was now following artists I liked. One such artist was Gene Day, who had been handling inks and then full art on MASTER OF KUNG FU, which in turn introduced me to the work of his brothers Dan and David Day who would handle some of the inking. One day in the mid 80s I walked into a comic book shop and CASES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES number 1, with art by Dan and David Day and the original Arthur Conan Doyle story text from The Adventure of The Beryl Coronet, caught my eye.

I loved everything about it. That led me to buy a cheap edition of THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Timing being what it is, I had just broken up with a girlfriend, so when I read the words ‘To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman’ I was entirely hooked. At the same time, the Jeremy Brett Granada series was on PBS, the STUD centenary was coming up, and I stumbled across a meeting notice for a local Sherlock Holmes group in a bookstore, so I went to a meeting. In addition to our local group, I also ended up joining The Bootmakers of Toronto, the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and The Sydney Passengers of Australia. Becoming a Sherlockian became sort of unavoidable.    

What is your favorite canonical story?

The Sign of Four. To me it’s a perfect representation of a readable late Victorian romance novel (romance then being largely applied to any sort of adventure fiction) with a recognizable Holmes, rather than the proto-Holmes of STUD, and a wonderfully gothic and exotic tone. The Watson watch deduction sequence is probably the best in the entire Canon, and hell, Watson even gets the girl, either of which alone makes it a standout story.

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

I find most Sherlockians interesting, but if you’re not familiar with Greg D. Ruby, of Baltimore, you should be. I first met Greg on a Christopher Morley Walk during the New York Birthday Weekend in 2015 (I think, it was) while he was recovering from a severe ankle injury. Anyone crazy enough to go on an extended walking tour while nursing that sort of injury is someone I wanted to know, and we’ve been friends ever since.

In addition to being a charming companion at gatherings, a fellow aficionado of German beer and cuisine, with an incredible knowledge of odd Sherlock Holmes appearances in television commercials and animated shorts, Greg founded and manages The Fourth Garrideb scion society, a group that focuses on coin collecting (numismatics) related to the Sherlock Holmes stories. His research is remarkable and the regular newsletter mailings and updates to the website are a veritable treasure trove of new, odd and interesting collectibles that go well beyond coins. Now celebrating it’s sixth anniversary, I strongly urge readers here to go along to and check out Greg’s handiwork. 

What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?

I’m a collector by nature, so that is my main focus, but I’m also heavily interested in how the character of Sherlock Holmes has become part of the general pop culture psyche in a way that extends to only a handful of characters. When I first got into the hobby, my focus was pastiche, film and art, which were both signifiers and drivers of Sherlock Holmes growth and eventual iconography in pop culture. Film (incl. television and audio) is an extension of art (illustrative), comic books hit all kinds of buttons, and any spinoff writing, fiction or non-fiction, underground or mainstream, are indications of pop culture penetration and success. We’re sitting at over 130 years of interest in this character, and I daresay that the only earlier characters of English lit with as strong a reach into pop culture are King Arthur, Robin Hood and Frankenstein, although Sherlock Holmes’s near contemporaries like Dracula and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde are right there alongside him. Holmes, and those others, are avatars of our modern mythology, replacing the gods of Greece and Rome. As a student of history, I'm aware that context is everything, so it's amazing to see Sherlock Holmes share as much genetic material with, say, King Arthur or Robin Hood, as he does with Batman, in the pop culture landscape, and that fascinates me.

Of course, there is also Arthur Conan Doyle's writing, which is delightful and both of and ahead of his time. It's a somewhat tired and tiresome comparison, but he really was the Stephen King of his day, and in some ways the J.K. Rowling, too, being a major celebrity, one of the highest paid genre authors, and publicly vocal on every matter under the sun. As the years pass, I'm more interested in Sherlock Holmes as part of my interest in Arthur Conan Doyle. As such, I never have nor will play 'The Game' in the traditional BSI sense. Watson as a writer is far less interesting to me than Doyle as a writer, or human being. 

Umm, no idea where I was going with all this, but clearly, it’s not one particular subset that interests me, as much as I like to tell myself that I’m largely just a collector of books.

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

Like to research? Nothing. Research is a necessary evil to me when required. As a collector, however, I do spend a good deal of time looking over bibliographies and tracking down details around early magazine appearances of both Sherlock Holmes and other Arthur Conan Doyle story appearances. I’m more interested in ACD’s life and what he was doing when writing the Sherlock Holmes stories than I am in Watson’s wandering war wound, or other canonical minutiae. So, I suppose that boils down to a preference of researching ACD, rather than Holmes.

In your previous life, you were a mystery bookstore owner, and now you are an editor (Both dream jobs for many Sherlockians!).  Which career do you think was more influential on your life in Sherlockiana?

Huh, now there’s an interesting question; one I’d never given any thought too previously. Looking at it now, it’s clear I’d never have got into editing if I hadn’t had a bookstore first. Opening up Mad for a Mystery was a direct result of my interest in Sherlock Holmes. I’d grown frustrated with the education program at the University of Calgary - yes, I had planned to be a teacher - and decided I’d drop out and open a bookstore instead of finishing my degree. This was the late 80s and mystery-themed specialty bookshops, like Otto’s The Mysterious Bookshop in NYC, seemed to be everywhere and all the rage… except for here in Calgary, so I figured it was a sure thing in an ‘if you build it, they will come’ sort of pipe dream.

I built it, but they mostly didn’t come, however, I  did sell some books to John Bennett Shaw via mail order, met Peter Wood, BSI (who would be responsible for my first invitation to the BSI dinner in 2003), turned down a book launch for Bradley & Sarjeants’s MS. HOLMES OF BAKER STREET, but did hold a launch for Beth Greenwood’s 1989 pastiche SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE THISTLE OF SCOTLAND, and I got to meet Kathleen I. Morrison, a local Calgarian who achieved media recognition in the 1940s as ‘The World’s First Lady Sherlockian’, so I learned a great deal.

While customers were infrequent visitors, publisher’s reps were not, and among them was Jeff Campbell, the regional rep for Berkley-Jove and Pocket Books. We hit it off, became friends (Jeff would later be Best Man at my wedding in 2006), and a little more than a decade later, when we were both out of the book trade, it was Jeff who suggested we put together a journal of Sherlockian pastiche, since he was developing skills as a writer and I was looking for a way to give back to the community that brought me so much joy. That journal idea, after soliciting stories via the Hounds-L email list and word of mouth, morphed into a couple small micro-press anthologies called CURIOUS INCIDENTS, which did remarkably well, each selling out a print run of 250 copies, in a matter of months, largely through direct online sales, although we got copies into mystery bookshops in New York and Seattle. I was rather proud of that since both Chris Roden (Calabash Press) and George Vanderburgh (The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box) told me at the time that print runs over 100 copies would leave me with boxes of books mouldering in my garage for years. 

A few years later, when my taste for horror fiction had largely overshadowed my Sherlockian interests, Jeff and I decided to take another swing at the cat, but this time, rather than traditional Sherlock Holmes pastiche, we decided on a solid horror-Holmes hybrid anthology. Instead of self-publishing we also decided to pitch to a Calgary-based publisher. We arranged a meeting with Brian Hades of EDGE SF&F, explained our angle, dropped the two volumes of CURIOUS INCIDENTS on the table and said we’d like to do the same, with a horror twist, but have you publish them. In 2008 we launched GASLIGHT GRIMOIRE: FANTASTIC TALES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES at the World Fantasy Convention, with stories by Barbara Hambly and Kim Newman bookending the collection, and have published three more in the series since then, plus a book of new Professor Challenger stories, and I found myself co-editing a book of Dupin stories for Titan books.  

Given all that, while my professional editing gig has had a tremendous impact in raising my profile within the Sherlockian community, my bookselling days are also, in my mind, inextricably tied to any success I’ve had either as a Sherlockian or professional editor.       

Anyone who follows you on social media knows about your growing collection of original Strand magazines.  How did that collection start?

My interest in collecting The Strand Magazine just sort of hit me in, of all places, The Strand bookshop in New York during a BSI weekend. For decades I’d been buying pastiche and every other new Sherlock Holmes-related book that came along, and most were neither worth my time or money. So, on that particular NYC visit to The Strand I stepped off the elevator on the third floor, and found myself staring at a copy of the large print first edition of ACD’s THE LOST WORLD, and immediately fell in love with it.

Ridiculously expensive, but less so than any copies available online, but I knew my wife would give me grief about it, plus I’m cheap, so I started scanning the shelves for other choices, and landed on three bound volumes of The Strand Magazine at $40 a pop. As I was paying for those Kris sidled up to me and said ‘If you really want it, go for it, just don’t expect any birthday or Christmas presents.’ So, I bought THE LOST WORLD, which I carried home in my luggage and had the three Strands shipped.

That shopping experience changed my approach to collecting. While I had about four bound Strands on the shelf since the late 80s, when those new additions arrived I suddenly realized I could have first editions, that preceded the first book editions, of all Sherlock Holmes stories except STUD and SIGN for considerably less than the cost of the collected book editions, have all the illustrations rather than the small selection reprinted in book editions, and I’d have an insight into everything popular, or going on the world, at the time they were written.

You can pick up all the Strand volumes published in Doyle’s lifetime for less (especially if you’re not fussy about them being in original bindings) than a fine UK first of THE HOUND, and we’re talking about 80 volumes in that run! For the first time in my Sherlockian collecting ‘career’ I actually hit on a finite collection goal, rather than the open-ended ‘I want it all’, vacuum-cleaner, John Bennett Shaw approach that I’d been half-assing at for decades.

In the 3-4 years since that NYC trip I’ve cut back on buying pastiches and even ‘writings-on-the-writings’ (all in both tracks limited to the work of friends, those with a solid track record, or featuring a subject I can’t resist), and my collection of The Strand Magazine has grown to nearly 60 of the 80 volumes published by Doyle’s death in 1930.  As a collector, now with a finish line, I’ve never been happier. 

What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?

As a collector, I’m inclined to direct anyone towards A BIBLIOGRAPHY OF A. CONAN DOYLE by Green and Gibson. It’s invaluable for identifying first and early editions of ACD’s writings. As a pop culture enthusiast, FROM HOLMES TO SHERLOCK by Mattias Boström is a must read. As a student of the Victorian era, George MacDonald Fraser’s FLASHMAN, and the rest of the books in the series, receive my strongest recommendation, as you’ll never look at the Victorians, or the age, in quite the same way again, plus Holmes, Watson and Colonel Moran even turn up in one of the stories. Often, when asked about my favourite author, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll say Fraser rather than Doyle. How’s that for an endorsement? 

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

Pretty much the same place it is right now, give or take a level of popular enthusiasm driven by whatever is on film or television screens at the time. The level of general interest or enthusiasm is cyclical, but the level of iconography in pop culture remains constant, so it just depends on whether it’s the boom or bust stage that comes up when you spin the wheel in any given year. Since Sherlock Holmes, as a character, defines the term ‘detective’ in the public eye he’s a constant in our new pantheon of myths and so will always engender interest and devotees. I think the hobby will be doing just fine. 


  1. Superb interview of a phenomenal fellow. I learned a great deal about the man who was always nice enough to answer my sometimes crazy questions since as far back as the beginning of The Hounds of the Internet. Found it especially interesting that his initial reading of HOUN turned him off by the lack of Sherlock Holmes presence in it. Then I was a bit surprised it was "The Cases of Sherlock Holmes" comic book series that hooked him on Holmes. The Day brother covers were certainly eye poppers, but I would have guessed he would have come across "The Classics Illustrated' comic book series much earlier, as I once had done. Throughly enjoyable read Rob!

  2. Our duo appear in Flashman and the Tiger - but read them all!