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.


  1. Great interview! Sonia is a Sherlockian gem - up there with the blue carbuncle, the black pearl of the Borgias, and the Mazarin diamond.