Sunday, November 29, 2020

Interesting Interview: Sonia Fetherston

I know I can sound like a broken record in these introductions, but I am such a fan of this week's interviewee.  Sonia Fetherston is one of the nicest Sherlockians I have ever met, and on top of that she is so knowledgeable, and you can tell she really enjoys spending time with the Canon and other Sherlockians.  I was a bundle of nerves at my first BSI Dinner this year, but I was lucky enough to sit next to Sonia.  She was right there the whole time and made me feel so welcome and made sure I was right in the mix of the evening's conversation.  In fact, not getting to see Sonia at the 2021 Dinner is one of the things I'm going to miss the most because of the changes due to Covid-19.

I also got to work with Sonia this year on an upcoming anthology on Sherlockian collecting, and I was blown away by the knowledge and passion she has for this hobby of ours.  She has written two books for the BSI Press, both biographies of influential Irregulars: Prince of the Realm: The Irregular Life of James Bliss Austin (2014) and Commissionaire: Julian Wolff and His Baker Street Irregulars (2020) and two BSJ Christmas Annuals, Barrymore in Baker Street (2012), and A Woman of Mystery (2017).  If you've read any Sherlockian journals, you've probably seen her byline more than a few (dozen) times, and you can always count on Sonia to brighten your Twitter timeline with canonical quotes and suggestions on who to follow.  

So settle in, and get ready for an interview that it's guaranteed to make you smile and feel like you're talking with an old friend, Sonia Fetherston: 

How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?

The root of the word “Sherlockian” is “Sherlock” Holmes himself. He’s a character who is so sturdy that he transcends time, place, age, gender – there are few, if any, limits. Same goes for Sherlockians. We are people from all backgrounds who celebrate Holmes in every form: in the original Canon, in the creative imaginings of others, and in ourselves. Holmes is a creature of the page, the screen and canvas, the audio play. He is present in pastiche and parody, and absolutely in the “headcanon.” Sherlockians are people who accompany Holmes and Watson on adventures… wherever that may happen to take us. 

Sherlockians are creative, bright, warm, and funny. We come from all walks of life including teachers, medical professionals, lawyers, retirees, pest exterminators, sales reps, journalists, teenagers, entertainers…you name it. It’s a hobby, and it’s also a calling. When I get lost, as we all do from time to time, I’m confident another Sherlockian will appear, pull out a roadmap, and help me along my way.

With friend Bill Barnes, BSI of Sydney, Australia during a visit to Oregon a few years ago on the Oregon coast, where Captain Cook stopped on his way to (or was it from?) Australia. Sonia is a long-distance member of the Sherlockian group the Sydney Passengers.

How did you become a Sherlockian?

When I was little my dad often worked at home so the need to be quiet was drilled into me. I usually ended up sitting in front of the television with the sound turned off. In retrospect this was a great way for a kid to develop an imagination, puzzling out what might be happening on that little screen. Channel 12 seemed to air nothing but old Rathbone/Bruce movies on weekends so I got to see them, over and over, for years. In silence! Rathbone intrigued me so much. On the outside he was very elegant and poised. But with the sound off, even I could see there was this barely-suppressed whirl of energy, impudence, even flashes of anger. Little Sonia would just quietly take it in without ever knowing for real about Sherlock Holmes, or detection, or logic. I don’t believe I actually heard Rathbone’s clipped accent until I was well into my teen years.

As for reading the Canon….that began when I was about eleven years old. One day my mother came home from the store with a Sherlock Holmes book. It seems that was a bonus if you bought ten dollars’ worth of groceries, or whatever. I can’t remember which I tackled first, The Hound of the Baskervilles, or “The Speckled Band.” But I remember being scared absolutely witless. And I was hooked! I still have that book. 

Meeting one of the great police officers in Moriarty, New Mexico during one of her self-described quirky road trips.

What is your favorite canonical story?

“A Case of Identity” is the whole package. It came along so early, yet it set the stage for everything that was to come. The cozy 221B Baker Street sitting room. The easy friendship between Holmes and Watson. A client in distress. A tour de force “reading” by Holmes. A real creep of a villain. Lots of pithy lines. Even the props are all there, like the magnifying glass and pipe. 

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

All Sherlockians are a joy. I’ve never come across one who isn’t! But to narrow it down….hmmm. I’m really keen on some of the early women who were involved, people like Helene Yuhasova and Esther Longfellow in the 1940s, and Mary Shore Cameron and Ruth Berman in the 1950s. They were brilliant and accomplished: writers, collectors, scion founders. Because of overt bias against women at that time they couldn’t hope to become members of the Baker Street Irregulars. But, bless them, they opened the door. Their talent and dignity made it possible for other women, like me, to succeed later.

Presenting on the topic of women Sherlockians at Portland State University.

What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?

Every subset is interesting. Every last one. If people try to tell you otherwise, don’t believe them.

Book-signing in New York

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

I research quite a lot, and then I write. I’ve published something like twenty-five papers in The Baker Street Journal, plus many others in Sherlockian magazines, anthologies, and textbooks. I’ve written a couple of books, and a couple of BSJ Christmas Annuals.

For Sherlockian purposes, I enjoy biographical pieces. It’s fun to identify people who came before, with an aim of introducing them to a new generation. I have one piece that’s coming up in the BSJ about an utterly forgotten comedian whose heyday was more than a hundred years ago. He created a parody of Sherlock Holmes that was THE hit of the season in Chicago, which was a great big theater town in those days, second only to Broadway. The great Al Jolson happened to be in the audience on opening night, and even he couldn’t get enough of this comedian. I found old publicity stills and theater reviews, plus the original script, buried deep in dusty archives. I got to tell this man’s story, to revive his work, for today’s audience. It’s an honor, and a responsibility.

At a BSI Weekend in New York some years ago I was pulled aside by a twinkling young fellow. At the time I didn’t have a clue who he was. He said, “I know your work. You research vintage newspapers and magazines.” He recognized that about me because he does, too. Turns out he was Mattias Bostrom, the great Swedish Sherlockian who’s edited a whole shelf of books concerning Arthur Conan Doyle’s many outings in the press. Mattias and I became great friends because we’re such kindred spirits.

Archive-divers: Sonia and fellow “Irregular,” Swedish Sherlockian Matthis Bostrom, BSI at a dinner in New York.

No matter what the day's turmoil is on Twitter, your Canonical quotes are the one fixed point in my timeline.  How do you choose the quotes that you post?

Thank you! I love pulling snippets from the Sherlockian Canon and “Tweeting” them each day. Some are humorous, some are high drama, and some just tug at the heartstrings. People often get in touch to tell me one of the quotes inspired them to read, or re-read, the story it came from. How cool! I often include photos with the quotes, pictures I take of Holmesian odds and ends I have around my house. Here’s a funny story: once one of my Twitter followers showed up on my front doorstep and spent a couple of hilarious hours on a scavenger hunt. She searched the rooms for Holmes objects I’d Tweeted pictures of over the years. Every time she found, say, the Star Trek Geordie/Watson bobblehead doll, or the 1970 Sherlock ash tray, she would absolutely squeal with delight! 

As for choosing the quotes, each day is different. Sometimes I find inspiration in that morning’s headlines. Sometimes I start with a single word – like “griffin,” which, by the way, only appears in one of the Canon’s stories, in “Shoscombe Old Place” – and just follow where that single word will lead me. Often, though, they’re lines that resonate personally. My own favorite quote is from “The Adventure of the Empty House,” when, after Holmes’s hiatus of three years, Watson settles into a familiar happy place:

“It was indeed like old times when, at that hour, I found myself seated beside

him in a hansom, my revolver in my pocket, and the thrill of adventure in my heart.”

Who wouldn’t want to be right there with them?

With the charming Canadian Bob Coghill, BSI. Sonia lives in Oregon, and they most often meet up halfway, in Seattle, where they are both active members of the local scion society “The Sound of the Baskervilles,” which formed 40+ years ago on a boat in Puget Sound.

Your Sherlockian card collection is well-known.  How did you start out collecting such a specific item?

Many Sherlockians will have a half-dozen Holmes-inspired greeting cards stashed with the rest of their stuff. A couple of weeks ago I was helping Rebecca Romney prepare material for the 2020 Cameron Hollyer lecture she’s giving, and her topic is collecting. I had all of my greeting cards spread around the floor, and just out of curiosity I counted them. To my surprise there were almost 500 different examples, dating back more than a century! And counting…yesterday I bought five more from a man in England. In another year or two I will be donating them all to the University of Minnesota’s Sherlock Holmes collections.

All this came about when I noticed an advertisement aimed at “crafty” people – scrapbookers – people who play with scissors and glue, for goodness sake – suggesting they should buy old greeting cards and cut them to smithereens. The card in the ad was a 75 year-old valentine with Sherlock Holmes examining a big red heart through his magnifying lens. This was outrageous on two fronts. How dare you destroy this beautiful old thing, and how dare you do that to the Great Detective? So of course I bought the card myself in order to save it. Then I bought another, and another. Probably a majority of the cards I have are from the 1930s and 1940s, coinciding with the rise of popular films about Sherlock Holmes. Over the years I’ve developed a little network of dealers who help me watch when rare Holmes cards come on the market. I have Sherlockian greeting cards for Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Mother’s and Father’s Day. I have thank you cards, and friendship cards, and birthday cards – even some unusual old postcards. The only type of card that I don’t have is a Sherlockian sympathy card, but if one is out there I will find it! It’s likely there are items in my collection that are the only remaining examples of their kind.

My friend Jerry Margolin has really inspired and encouraged my collecting. Of course, he is the pre-eminent collector of original artwork with a Sherlock Holmes theme.

With Rosane MacNamara, BSI and Jerry Margolin, BSI as we tour Jerry’s extensive collection of Sherlockian art.

What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?

Besides the Canon itself? Well, it’s probably sacrilegious to say this, but I really dig Samuel Rosenberg’s old book, Naked is the Best Disguise: The Death and Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes (Bobbs Merrill, 1974). It’s a work of literary detection, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and somewhat not. The author leads us through the conscious and unconscious ways in which Arthur Conan Doyle composed the Holmes Canon. A bit of what Rosenberg came up with still outrages the orthodox, so don’t get me started on “The Red-Headed League”! But I do very much enjoy lit crit, and I’ve always appreciated this volume.

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

Time for my turban and crystal ball. 

Obviously, technology will be important. We’ve gotten a taste of its potential because of the COVID pandemic. Suddenly, scion societies (and now the BSI itself) are gathering on Zoom and other platforms, rather than in person. It’s an opportunity to include many more people. This year my home scion has hosted lots of virtual visitors from across the country (even from other countries) because our monthly meetings are on Zoom. In a few weeks I’ll be the guest speaker at an upcoming Zoom meeting with a scion society on the East Coast, and I don’t even have to leave my home to be with them. Technology is such a useful way for Sherlockians to connect.

And speaking of technology, I expect that quite soon we’ll see Sherlockian magazines and journals cease their paper-and-ink publishing and go all-digital. It’s cost-effective, and eliminates most delivery problems. As a researcher and writer – more important, as a reader – I like the notion that material will be even more widely available, and more convenient, for everybody.

Sherlock Holmes embraced technology in his time: typewriters, telegraphy, cameras, telephones, fingerprints, and so on. We can, too!

Catching up with old friends Don Hobbs, BSI and Russell Merritt, BSI at the Yale Club.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Interesting Interview: Mark Jones

Mark Jones is a name that has become well-known in the American Sherlockian world over the past few years.  He's been a regular in the British Holmesian world, but we colonists are just getting to know him, mostly from his great podcast, Doings of Doyle, that he co-hosts with Paul M. Chapman.  You may have also seen his name pop up in the Baker Street Journal, Serpentine Muse, and Canadian Holmes.  

I got to meet Mark in New York at the beginning of this year, and he is one of the most delightful and intelligent Sherlockians I know (and that's saying A LOT).  His knowledge and passion for Arthur Conan Doyle and the Sherlockian Canon are impressive, and his easy to talk to demeanor will win over anyone who wonders if they should check out some of Doyle's non-Sherlockian works.

How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?

For me, a Sherlockian is someone who enjoys – and obsesses about – Sherlock Holmes in whatever form they have encountered. Given the nature of obsession, I would have thought most Sherlockians will have read some of the stories at some point: when I become interested in a new topic, I tend to hoover up anything and everything to do with it and suspect that is true of others. That said, I don’t see the need for ‘entry requirements’ before someone can be regarded, or regard themselves, as a Sherlockian. It’s a broad church and we all have our preferences. The more the merrier, I say.

How did you become a Sherlockian?

When I was ten years old, I used to watch repeats of the Basil Rathbone movies with my grandmother who loved them and black and white movies in general. My favourite was The Scarlet Claw (1944) which probably tells you a lot about my psychology. 

Then, about a year later, I read the entire canon during a rainy three-week caravan holiday in Scotland and was hooked. I dipped in and out of the stories until the mid-nineties when my then girlfriend bought me the Baring-Gould Annotated (Reader, I married her). But I didn’t really become “active” in Sherlockian circles until 2014 when I met Paul M. Chapman and Teresa Dudley at a book fair in York, UK. They introduced me to their society, The Scandalous Bohemians, and it really took off from there.

What is your favorite canonical story?

I’ve always loved The Red-Headed League (1891). For me, it captures the breadth and depth of the Sherlockian universe: the peculiar characters, London setting, deductions and revelations, camaraderie between our heroes, and humour. There’s a warmth between Holmes and Watson that feels absolutely genuine. It helps that the Granada adaptation, which was on TV shortly after I read it, is so good. Often when I think of the story (or indeed any story), Brett and Burke come immediately to mind.

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

I’m fortunate to be a member of a great Sherlockian society called The Scandalous Bohemians, based in Yorkshire, UK. We’ve struggled to meet during lockdown and I miss my companions and our conversations very much. We have some brilliant, clever, witty Sherlockians of note in our midst and plenty more who have never been seen in print. It’s hard to pick anyone from their company, or indeed wider, but the person I’d suggest is Kathryn White BSI. Kathryn has been active in Sherlockian circles far longer than I have and always has an interesting and scholarly perspective on things. Plus Kathryn and David Stuart Davies are a pair so you get two for the price of one!    

What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?

It’s odd to think of Conan Doyle as a subset of Sherlockiana and not vice versa, but Conan Doyle it is. 

One of the things that really fascinates me is the relationship between Conan Doyle’s life and wider work and the Sherlock Holmes stories. Taking this line often reveals new perspectives on the canon. For example, The Sign of Four (1890) is Conan Doyle’s third attempt at telling a story he toyed with in Uncle Jeremy’s Household (1887) and The Mystery of Cloomber (1888). The Sign of Four is the last and best of the trilogy but it didn’t arrive fully-formed – it has literary ancestors that cast it in a different light. 

Other examples are Conan Doyle’s attitudes to alcoholism, which explains why he was so cautious about collecting The Adventure of the Cardboard Box (1893), and his views on divorce law reform, which feature in works like The Adventure of the Abbey Grange (1904). There is usually something from Conan Doyle’s wider work that makes you pause and think twice about what was actually going on in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

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

I’m really drawn to two things: puzzles within the canon and the influences on Conan Doyle. The first is played very much in the spirit of The Game while the latter is more akin to historical research.

For the former, I’ve always loved the writings of Professor John Sutherland, particularly his essays on puzzles in classic fiction of which "Is Heathcliff a Murderer?" (1996) and "Will Jane Eyre Ever Be Happy?" (1997) are probably the most famous. Most of the puzzles are not puzzles per se but questions unposed. I’ve set myself the task of writing one such puzzle for each of the sixty stories. So far, I’ve written about ten including pieces on Victor Hatherley’s thumb, spies in The Adventure of the Second Stain and coincidences in The Adventure of Black Peter.  

As for the latter, I like to explore the things that influenced Conan Doyle to try to get closer to understanding the person behind the pen. I find him endlessly fascinating – a mass of contradictions. I can’t help but feel that we haven’t really uncovered the true Conan Doyle yet. There’s a darker side to Conan Doyle that is obscured by the stories he tells about his own life, and his wider fiction gives us glimpses into what that darkness might be.  

How did you and Paul decide to start Doings of Doyle?

When we met, Paul and I discovered that we were just as interested in Conan Doyle’s wider work as we are in the Sherlock Holmes stories. That’s not common in Sherlockian circles and so we were keen to connect with like-minded folk. We’re both keen radio listeners and thought that podcasting was a very immediate way to bring the works of Conan Doyle to a new audience. We were also inspired by the various Sherlockian podcasts, particularly Scott and Burt’s I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere and Trifles. We had a great start and then were locked out of our studio due to COVID but we’re now set up to record remotely and have three episodes about to go into production.

Many Sherlockians (myself included) don't pay much attention to Doyle's other writings.  What are we missing and where would you recommend we start?

If you are a Sherlockian who reads the canon then you will find that a lot of things that you enjoy about the Sherlock Holmes stories are also present in Conan Doyle’s other works. He has a tremendous ability to conjure up characters, settings and tone in a few words which makes him hugely accessible. This apparent simplicity is one of the reasons why academics have tended to undervalue his work, though that is now changing.

Conan Doyle really was the master of the short story so I’d recommend dipping your toe in the water with some of his shorter non-Sherlockian work. Probably the closest in feel to the Sherlock Holmes stories are his gothic tales which were recently collected in an excellent Oxford University Press volume, Gothic Tales, edited by the wonderful Darryl Jones. Within that large volume, there are the Round the Fire stories, written around the time Conan Doyle consigned Holmes to the Reichenbach. Many of them could easily have been Sherlock Holmes tales, with suitable adjustments. I’ve often thought about rewriting them with Holmes and Watson but I lack the fiction-writing gene (I’d happily edit a collection if someone is interested in the idea – hint). 

Credit: Roger Johnson

What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?

As much as I love his longer fictions, particularly The Lost World (1912) and The White Company (1891), I’d stick to the short stories. Go for one of the Brigadier Gerard collections or better still the complete edition. They contain some of Conan Doyle’s finest writing and provide the perfect balance of excitement, adventure and humour. We’re going to cover two linked tales in the podcast – How the Brigadier Held the King and How the King Held the Brigadier – which between them sum up everything there is to love in the Gerard stories. 

We all know that Conan Doyle came to dislike writing the Sherlock Holmes stories and I think that fundamentally colours how we, as Sherlockians, see Conan Doyle. There is none of that with Gerard – Conan Doyle is having a whale of a time so they are joyful from cover to cover. I envy all who have yet to experience them for the first time – you’re in for a treat!

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

Unlike our two heroes, the Sherlockian movement is not “one fixed point in a changing age” – it has always adapted and will continue to do so. I’m a historian by training so apologies if I overthink this but I see three “great ages” of the movement so far. The first saw the foundations of the BSI and the London Society, established The Game and set the camaraderie and scholarly tone. The second really took off in the seventies off the back of TV and Meyer’s The Seven Per-Cent Solution (1974) and led to the outpouring of pastiche as people felt empowered to create their own stories. The third has been the massive proliferation of adaptations and variants over the last twenty years which has brought entirely new audiences to Sherlock Holmes. 

What’s interesting to me is their respective attitudes towards Conan Doyle. When reading the early BSJ’s, I’m always struck by how knowledgeably the founders write about Conan Doyle’s wider work – Christopher Morley wrote that Raffles Haw (the alchemist in The Doings of Raffles Haw, 1891) was a third Holmes brother for heaven’s sake! They seem rather less dogmatic and more playful with the concept of “the Literary Agent” than I think was the case during the second phase when The Game could get a bit po-faced. Now in the third phase, authorship is everyone’s and Conan Doyle is just one of many creators. 

I suspect (and hope) Conan Doyle will be more of a presence in the Sherlockian movement in the coming years. Academics are now taking him more seriously, there is more interest generally in his wider work and there’s an enthusiasm to blend the boundaries around the things we include in our hobby which is all for the good. There are good things coming for Conan Doyle too: Ashley Polasek’s The Conan Doyle Review, the new Edinburgh Works of Conan Doyle and a new annual Conan Doyle meeting on the fringes of the BSI weekend. Paul and I will be doing our bit with the podcast. Whatever happens next, I’m sure it will be just as enjoyable as all that has gone before.