Sunday, April 25, 2021

Interesting Interview: Barbara Rusch

The name Barbara Rusch was one I'd hear long before I actually got to meet this lovely person.  She is a very active Canadian Sherlockian, being a Master Bootmaker and Vice Chair of The Friends of Arthur Conan Doyle Collection at the Toronto Public Library.  You'll also see her on the roll for the Baker Street Irregulars and the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes and her byline appears all over the place!

But I got to meet Barbara through email last year when she was recruited to be part of an anthology I co-edited.  And just like she did with her interview questions below, Barbara goes above and beyond when it comes to talking about this hobby of ours!  And I typically ask for 4-5 pictures to go along with interviewees answers, but Barbara sent along more than double that, and there were too many good ones to pass up!  I also got to meet Barbara and her delightful husband, Donny, at the Minnesota conference in 2019, and let me tell you, they both wonderful people.  So settle in, and get ready for a fun interview with the queen of Victorian ephemera, Barbara Rusch!

How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?

A question I’m asked every time I use the word amongst the uninitiated. Specifically, “A wha?” “Well,” I respond, “a Sherlockian is anyone interested in the tales of the world’s most iconic detective.” Of course, for me, it extends far beyond a casual study. I’ve been devoted to exploring the stories on a variety of levels – from their literary and cultural components to psychological and socio-sexual perspectives – in addition to the life of their creator, which I find equally fascinating, for decades now. 

How did you become a Sherlockian?

I read my first Holmes tale as a teenager, when my grandmother’s tenant, Mr. Ash, passed away, leaving his library behind, and along with it a legacy of incalculable value. Amongst the books was a slim volume of The Adventures, and I recall “The Speckled Band” as the first story I read, inducing a terrifying nightmare of a whistling snake slithering down the wall and into my bed. Not sure if it was no more than a Freudian dream sequence brought on by puberty or a frightening re-enactment of a Sherlockian vision, but horrifying nonetheless. In addition to the enthralling mystery, I found the Paget illustrations riveting, their fifty shades of gray dissolving at the edges, leaving me to wonder what might have been happening just beyond the margins. 

Years later, when I was pregnant with my son, and suffering from morning sickness 24 hours a day for 3 months, I went looking for a book – any book – to take my mind off the nausea. By the end of the first trimester, I had finished off all 60 tales and was feeling a good deal better, in addition to having discovered a lifelong superhero. 

In 1983, I was doing some research on 19th-century ephemera and its relation to social and commercial history. The librarian at the Toronto Reference Library, Janice McNabb, suggested that I might find the Bootmakers of Toronto, the Sherlock Holmes Society of Canada, of interest, since it delves into all aspects of Victorian and Edwardian life. At the first meeting I attended, the speaker was modelling Victorian women’s clothing, which she was removing layer by layer, stripping down to her corset and knickers. This is the group for me, I thought. And the rest, as they say, is history – at its finest.

What is your favorite canonical story?

I’m drawn to those stories which I find particularly intriguing, opening up to questions that lead down unexplored paths. Just what was the subject of that infamous photograph of Irene and the King of Bohemia? Surely it couldn’t be a simple image of the two of them posing sedately together. Upper class gentlemen, including royalty, married or not, were notorious rakes, and an armload of mistresses was a sign of virility rather than notoriety. Edward, Prince of Wales, the Illustrious Client, never allowed his marriage to Princess Alexandra to interfere with his love life. 

So what did that photograph contain of so scandalous a nature? My opinion is that it was not simply scandalous, but salacious, perhaps more suitable for a French postcard than a royal memento. I’d love to have a copy of it in my collection.

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

I have great admiration for Dan Posnansky, both as a learned and dedicated Sherlockian, and as a collector of all things Doylean. I regard him as something of a mentor. My husband, Donny Zaldin, another Sherlockian I admire, and I were privileged to take a tour of that splendid collection before it went up for auction a few years ago, and I’m honored to now call a few of his prized pieces cherished treasures which have now found their way into my own collection. 

I also have tremendous admiration for Sherlockians who singlehandedly run entire societies, amongst them: Mike Ranieri of the Bootmakers of Toronto (Canada), Steve Mason of The Crew of the Barque Lone Star (TX), Ben and Sue Vizoskie of The Three Garridebs (NY), Ron and Carol Fish of Mrs. Hudson’s Cliffdwellers (NJ), Monica Schmidt of the Younger Stamfords (IA), Phil Dematteis of the Hansom Wheels (Columbia, SC) and Jay Ganguly of the Sherlock Holmes Society of India. Noteworthy Sherlockians all.

What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?

Anything that resonates of 19th- and early 20th-century culture is of interest to me. The Holmes tales are, as Watson observes, “a perfect quarry for the student not only of crime but of the social and official scandals of the late Victorian era.” I’m intrigued by certain aspects of “Black Peter,” which led me to an examination of domestic violence in Victorian England, while “The Creeping Man” forged an unexpected connection to eugenics and the subject of the monster in Victorian literature. 

I’m also fascinated by Conan Doyle’s belief in Spiritualism and what led him to place his trust in two young girls who claimed to have taken photographs of fairies. I’ve written a novella on the subject of the Cottingley Fairies, beautifully illustrated by Laurie Fraser Manifold. I’m currently searching for the right publisher.

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

To quote Holmes’s chronicler again, “The problem has always been not to find but to choose.” Unlike Seinfeld, which was “a show about nothing,” the Canon is a treasure trove of everything, a place where I have been fortunate enough to find an outlet for my insatiable curiosity of all things Victorian. As Nathan Garrideb expressed it, “I am, in fact, the student of many subjects, and you may be surprised at the universality of my interests. The general effect is amiable though eccentric. One day a profession might be made out of what up to this time has been the merest hobby.” 

For the past three years I have been pleased to contribute a regular column in Canadian Holmes, the quarterly journal of the Bootmakers of Toronto. “The View from the Bow Window” is an examination of various aspects of Victorian and Edwardian life as they relate to the Holmes tales, often illustrated with treasures from my collection. As our detective himself observes, “To anyone who wishes to study mankind, this is the spot.” The subjects I’ve explored include: pipes, brandy, the London Underground, cursed gems, the history of wax figures, Prince Albert watch chains, commonplace books, Stradivarius violins – and bow windows. I am eternally grateful to the Sherlockian movement for affording me a platform for my creative urges. 

Your collection of Victorian ephemera is unbelievably impressive.  How did you start collecting items from this time period and what are one or two of your favorite items in your collection?

My fascination for the period led naturally to amassing objects, mostly of paper, and representative of their time. Their significance cannot be overstated. Maurice Rickards, founder of the Ephemera Society UK, wrote in his landmark book, Collecting Printed Ephemera, “In every fragment of ephemera resides the genius papyri, the spirit of the paper – the abiding essence of its message, origin and content.” It presupposes that the paper is somehow possessed of its own DNA – and an immortal soul. My treasures began with a collection of commercial culture – advertising trade cards, calendars, and posters – then progressed to photo albums, valentines, and holographic material such as illustrated friendship albums, private journals and personal letters, anything to do with Queen Victoria, (who, after all, was the centrepiece of the age to which she lent her name), Houdini, and, naturally, Sherlock Holmes and ACD. 

Like Horace Harker, “All my life I have been collecting other people’s news.” How to pick one or two choice items? It’s as if you’re asking me to choose a favorite from amongst my children. However, I, like Sherlock Holmes, “will dive my arm down to find something a little recherch√© … a small wooden box, a crumpled piece of paper and an old-fashioned brass key.” The wooden box features a brass plaque on the lid which identifies it as a gift proffered in 1872 by ACD’s mentor and the inspiration for the great detective, Dr. Joseph Bell, to his prized pupil, Edwin St. George Baldwin, a medical student from Toronto attending the University of Edinburgh, and contains a gruesome-looking set of surgical knives. 

The crumpled piece of paper? Sorry, but it’s impossible to choose just one from amongst several: a letter from Conan Doyle to Bram Stoker, writing to connect on the subject of a project together (which somewhat fancifully feels like correspondence between Sherlock Holmes and Dracula), another to a friend of Houdini’s stating that he and his Spiritualist crew were foretold of his impending death, one to Sidney Paget sending greetings and regrets that the artist wasn’t illustrating his next story after all, and a cheque signed by Charles Dickens and sent by his granddaughter to famed actor William Gillette in exchange for a signed photograph. 

The old-fashioned brass key is an easy one: for many years I have worn one of Houdini’s handcuff keys around my neck, its provenance a fascinating story in itself. Whether or not it helps me escape from tight spaces and dangerous situations is anybody’s guess, but as a good luck charm it sure beats a rabbit’s foot. And I would be remiss if I didn’t at least make mention of my collection of eclectic undergarments, specifically the oversized knickers of “a certain gracious lady,” and a boxful of Lady Conan Doyle’s intimate apparel culled from her bedroom drawer at Windlesham, Crowborough.

How did you decide to bring Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, and Harry Houdini together to hash out their issues with Arthur Conan Doyle in your play, "The Crossing: Three Authors in Search of a Character?"

It’s difficult to know whence such inspiration – or craziness – originates. I was aware that Poe, Wilde and Houdini, three literary and cultural titans with enormous egos, all had unresolved conflicts with Conan Doyle. What I could not have imagined when I embarked upon this journey was just how much they had in common – how similar their narratives, their insecurities and their recriminations. It began to feel as though they were always meant to find themselves in a room together (in this case a barren chamber in the afterlife), engaging in this dialogue, their resentment and appreciation for Arthur Conan Doyle their common point of intersection. A Mystery Interloper (guess who?) only adds to the tension and suspense. Moreover, it was very gratifying to be able to incorporate relevant images from my ephemera collection into the text.

What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?

I read some of Conan Doyle’s lesser-known short stories in preparation for a pastiche published in an anthology of the Crew of the Barque Lone Star, and was enthralled by his tales of mystery and some of the so-called uncollected tales. The man had a way of gripping you by the hair follicles and carrying you along to the end. His tales of horror, like “The Leather Funnel,” which in my opinion rivals Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” on a similar subject, and “The Brazilian Cat” are absolutely terrifying. 

While we’re all aware that The Lost World was the inspiration for “Jurassic Park,” “The Ring of Thoth” which essentially forms the plot of the first “Mummy” film, is rarely credited. Some of his novels, like Rodney Stone, are hilarious. The man had a great sense of humor. I highly recommend a glance beyond Sherlock Holmes.

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

The popularity of Sherlock Holmes will never wane, and each succeeding generation has a new take on the quintessential detective. It’s my fervent wish that our current infatuation with Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr. – or whoever comes next – will not overshadow our hero. As thrilling as the films and television shows may be, no visual medium can hope to surpass the canonical writings and the wonderful adventures Conan Doyle leaves to our imagination.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

It Was My Game to Watch [HOUN]

This week's post is a toast I gave at the Sherlockians of Baltimore meeting on Saturday.

The tradition of being investitured into the Sherlockians of Baltimore comes with a title linking you to that city, and being a baseball fan there was only one choice for me: The St. Louis Browns.  

Ah, that long-lived Baltimore institution of St. Louis baseball.

So imagine, if you will, it is spring 1902.  The Hound of the Baskervilles has just been published in book form.  Arthur Conan Doyle would be knighted later that year.  And St. Louis had a new baseball team!

The St. Louis Browns took up residence in the newly built Sportsman’s Park, where they would play for over half a century.  They would even go on to win the American League pennant while there, but another local team would beat them in that year’s World Series, but we’re not here to talk about St. Louis’s other baseball team.

(Excuse me for a second.  I'm a little thirsty so I will stop and take a quick sip.)

The St. Louis Browns were not known for being a good team.  In fact, in their 52 years of playing in St. Louis, they only had twelve winning seasons.  But they were a fun team, participating in plenty of stunts, including letting fans in the stands manage a game and trying to cheat Ty Cobb out of 1910’s batting title. 

But my favorite of their stunts came in August 19, 1951 when pinch hitter Eddie Gaedel stepped up to the plate.  What was so great about this?  Gaedel was a 3 foot 7 little person, who was so small he had to borrow the bat boy’s jersey with the number ½.  The Tonga-sized Gaedel never swung his bat, the pitcher never found the strike zone, and the shortest player in baseball history walked on four straight balls.

Sadly, these stunts weren’t enough to make money.  While fun, St. Louis baseball fans hearts’ belonged to a different team.

(Phew, it's bright in here.  I better take a second and put a hat on.)

Realizing St. Louis wasn’t big enough for two teams, the Browns eventually moved to Baltimore in 1954, where they were renamed The Baltimore Orioles, FINALLY connecting this toast to Charm City.  

So here’s to the St. Louis Browns, who were last place in St. Louis baseball, and turned in to the Baltimore Orioles, who are currently last place in their division.  But hey, at least we didn’t have to have a toast to the Yankees!

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Interesting Interview: Joe Eckrich

Man, I don't know where to begin with the introduction for this week's Interesting Interview.  Joe Eckrich has been a Sherlockian mentor to me for years.  Some of my fondest Sherlockian memories are the car rides he and I have taken to events or to visit with folks.  This is a guy who is a Sherlockian down to his bones.  He collects books, autographs, friends, and knowledge like you wouldn't believe.  

But first and foremost, Joe is a great guy.  He founded my home scion, The Parallel Case of St. Louis, and ran it for decades.  He's been on the planning committee for our first Holmes in the Heartland, the one that had to be cancelled, as well as lots of the Holmes Under the Arch conferences long ago.  Joe travels to as many events and meetings as he can and is always up for meeting new Sherlockians.  As you'll see below, Joe's passion is the friendships he's made along the way.  If you talk to anyone who is involved in the wider Sherlockian world, they will either know Joe Eckrich, or have heard of him.  And I will bet money that they all have good things to say.

How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?

I loosely define it as anyone interested in Sherlock Holmes, in whatever media.  I believe in a “big tent” theory in which there is room for everyone, regardless of their interest, even if it doesn’t match mine.  In a narrower sense, I suppose, I would define it as anyone involved in organized Sherlockiana in any way.  I have been a member of various Sherlockian societies for over 45 years and have spent some of my happiest times at various Sherlockian events.  I would hope anyone truly interested in Sherlock Holmes could eventually find their way to such a group.  And, of course, however they might have arrived at Sherlock Holmes, I would hope they would appreciate the written word, the actual stories themselves.

How did you become a Sherlockian?

Like most things I suppose it was a combination of things.  I began reading and enjoying detective fiction at an early age and, along with my mother, watched a lot of old movies on television (The Early Show, The Late Show and The Late, Late show) many of them mysteries, including the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, which I very much enjoyed.  Rathbone is still my favorite Holmes.  Anyway around seventh grade I would routinely ride my bicycle to the local public library and take out books, usually mysteries.  They had the one volume Complete and I would periodically check it out and read as many stories as I could before I had to return it.

Flash forward quite a number of years and Nicholas Meyer published The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and the floodgates opened.  Books by Michael Harrison and Michael Hardwick and others were being published.  I would visit local bookshops on my lunch hour and pick up whatever I could find, including a remaindered copy of Baring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street.  While I am not a big fan of the book, it was in the appendices that I found a treasure trove of books and articles on Sherlock Holmes.  I was always a collector and this opened my eyes to a whole new area of collecting.

About this same time the local Sherlockian group, The Noble Bachelors, participated in an event at Southern Illinois University across the river and the local television station ran a piece on it.  My father, who was an engineer at the station, told me about it and from there I contacted Philip Shreffler, the head of The Noble Bachelors, who invited me to a meeting.  The rest, as they say, is history.

What is your favorite canonical story?

While not my favorite story by a long shot I do have a fondness for “The Stockbroker’s Clerk”, since that is my investiture in the Baker Street Irregulars.  When Tom Stix conferred that on me he mentioned it was because I was a government employee.

My favorite story is "The Hound of the Baskervilles."  I also like “The Sign of the Four”.  It has a lot to recommend it, including a mention of St. Louis, which is where the name of the society I founded, The Parallel Case of St. Louis, comes from.  And I am probably in a minority when I say I enjoy "The Valley of Fear."

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

I greatly admire Steve Doyle.  I simply don’t know how he does everything he does.  Just in the Sherlockian world he is one half of Wessex Press, publisher of the Baker Street Journal, head of The Illustrious Clients and broadcaster and host of “The Fortnightly Dispatch”, as well as a collector and friend to many in the hobby.  

Two Sherlockians who are no longer with us were certainly worth knowing, Gordon Speck and Paul Herbert.  Gordon and I travelled to many Sherlockian events in the US and Canada and wherever Gordon went he made friends.  Both are sorely missed.

What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?

I love attending Sherlockian events whenever and wherever possible, not just for the programs but especially for the people.  Getting together with friends and making new friends within the hobby is what makes everything worthwhile.  With Covid-19 it has been difficult but, thanks to zoom, I have been able to actually attend meetings I might not otherwise have an opportunity to get to and I at least get to see friends.  I can’t wait to get back to seeing people in person but I will miss attending some far-flung meetings.

I spend much of my time collecting Sherlockiana, particularly books.  I primarily collect the “writings on the writings”.  I don’t much care for most of the pastiches out there, although I do have a select few.  I also collect Sherlockian autographs of actors and actresses who have appeared in Sherlockian films, TV and stage productions.  I also spend quite a bit of time reading and rereading the books I have.

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

Well, most people who know me know I don’t write papers. That’s not to say I haven’t.  I have actually done a number of them, just not for quite a while.  I also was co-editor of our society’s newsletter for over 10 years and for several years wrote a monthly column on all things Sherlockian for “Plugs & Dottles”, the newsletter for The Hansoms of John Clayton.  While I enjoyed both of those activities, writing is not my forte.  I truly wish it were.

Any research I do is for my own information and enjoyment.  I love to read such books as The London of Sherlock Holmes and In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes by Michael Harrison which delve into the Victorian world that Holmes was a part of.  I also enjoy reading books and articles on Sherlockian media productions and the people involved in them.  The latest issue of The Baker Street Journal had just such an article on H. A. Saintsbury by Paul Singleton which was excellent.  I love anything about the history of the BSI and early Sherlockians.  As a collector of early Sherlockian books it is always interesting to research the background of the books and their authors.

How did you become a Sherlockian actor autograph collector and what are some of your favorites?

I have two sons, one of whom is actually a Sherlockian, and when they were young I would take them to baseball card shows to pursue their hobby.  These shows would usually bring in former players, including Hall of Famers, to sign autographs.  After a while we started obtaining the autographs at these shows.  I wasn’t that interested in the cards, although as a youngster I had been, but I enjoyed collecting signed baseballs and photographs, particularly of players from my youth.  From there we began collecting autographs of various actors and actresses that we liked.  It was a fairly short step to collecting Sherlockian autographs.  Since I have always been interested in old films, classics and otherwise, I am naturally very interested in the various film presentations of Sherlock Holmes and the actors in them.

Most of us love buying books, but you can also be found at many conferences selling books at a dealer’s table.  How has collecting and selling old books shaped your views on our hobby?

I didn’t start out to sell books.  Early on a local BSI and collector was moving from a large house to an apartment and offered his collection for sale, wanting to keep it local if possible.  It was a huge investment for me at the time but I took the plunge (never regretted).  I had been collecting for a while so there were duplicates and, in order to help pay for the collection, I offered the duplicates for sale, sending out lists.  Then a few years later, when I was preparing to get married, I sold off some of my collection the same way in order to clear some debts.  Fortunately I have been able to reclaim almost all of what I sold.  As with most collectors I would periodically upgrade the condition of a book or just buy something interesting if the price was right, even if I had a copy.  Over time I had a supply of books to sell and the logical thing was to set up at the various conferences within driving distance, which I did.

I try to price my books fairly for other Sherlockians, although values are going up.  While the selling helps me afford to attend these and other conferences (I am a retired civil servant), I often wish I were just there to enjoy the conference and mingle with the attendees and I do attend meetings and conferences without selling.  

I am not sure that buying and selling has shaped my views on the hobby other than the observation that there are not as many collectors as there once was.  Also, I find that many newer Sherlockians are unaware of many who went before them and the wonderful books that they provided to the hobby.  While selling I try to educate as well.

What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?

I think a must for anyone, collector or not, is Klinger’s nine volume The Sherlock Holmes Reference Library if you can get it, otherwise his three volume set.  Also, Sherlock Holmes for Dummies by Steve Doyle.  

As for older books, I recommend Starrett’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which is available in inexpensive editions.  I am very partial to A Sherlock Holmes Commentary by D. Martin Dakin.  It has interesting commentary on each story plus a chronological table.  I would recommend anything by Michael Harrison as well as Sherlock Holmes Detected by Ian McQueen and Seventeen Steps to 221b, a British anthology edited by James Edward Holroyd.  

As you can see I am unable to recommend just one book.

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

I think the future is very bright.  Not so long ago many, including myself, were lamenting the lack of young people coming into the hobby.  I am heartened by the many changes taking place which included more and very talented young people joining the ranks.  Also, a large number of older Sherlockians are becoming welcoming to these new members and open to new ways of viewing Sherlockiana.  I also believe that along with the accepting of new there is still a desire among most to keep many of the worthwhile traditions of the past.  

Joe told me I had to include a picture of Louie.
Who am I to argue?