Sunday, July 25, 2021

Interesting Interview: Bill Mason

You know who everyone loves?  Bill Mason.  And with good reason.  Bill is one of the most welcoming folks I've ever met in our hobby.  And if that weren't enough, he's unbelievably smart, wickedly funny, a great writer, and a hell of a speaker.  Let's be honest, Bill Mason is the Beyoncé of Sherlockiana.

Bill sang for everyone at the first Holmes in the Heartland in 2018, brought down the house in Minnesota in 2019, and probably would've had an amazing presentation somewhere in 2020 if it weren't for Covid.  He's been recognized all over the place, BSI, ASH, Bootmakers, etc., and as far as I know the scion he formed, The Fresh Rashers of Nashville, is the only scion named after bacon.  What's not to love?

How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?

A Sherlockian is a devotee and student of Sherlock Holmes and his world, starting with the 60 stories of the Canon, but of course continually expanding from there. A Sherlockian has made a significant investment of time and psyche in the character and in The Game, as we call it.  

This is different, in my view, from a “fan” who might simply enjoy a Holmes story or some particular pastiche or cinematic adaptation. A Sherlockian will have that “inner self” attachment to Sherlock Holmes, and that attachment will manifest itself with a high degree of enthusiasm and commitment. A substantial slice of a Sherlockian’s life will be spent “pursuing Sherlock Holmes,” that is, the Holmes of the Canon.  That’s what inspired the title of my first book.  

How did you become a Sherlockian?

My mother was a high school teacher of English and French, and she always made sure I was a reader, not only of chapter books and comic books (which I devoured), but of quality literature as well.  On my thirteenth birthday, she gave me a copy of the Whitman Classics edition of Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, illustrated by Jo Polseno.  I just loved it, and soon read the rest of the tales. In my first year of college, I spent a couple of weeks’ worth of  lunch money on  Baring-Gould’s two-volume The Annotated Sherlock Holmes and discovered for the first time not only the writings about the writings, but also the existence of organized Sherlock Holmes societies. This captured my imagination.  I was excited and wanted so much to be a part of that.

What is your favorite canonical story?

“The Man with the Twisted Lip” is my favorite short story.  It has everything a Holmes tale should include: the right atmosphere, a good mystery, a glimpse at the lives of both Watson and Holmes, and a solution found in a manner that only Sherlock Holmes would employ.  

As for the novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles endears Holmes to me more than any other tale. The book’s popularity is understandable: it never fails to produce both thrills and pleasure with each reading. 

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

A much harder question would be asking me to name a Sherlockian who is not  interesting.  I am continually amazed, not only by the larger-than-life personalities of Sherlockians throughout the world, but by their depth of expertise and knowledge.  There is no subject you can name, in or out of the Canon, that doesn’t claim some Sherlockian as an expert who can captivate your attention.  The personal lives and accomplishments of our fellow devotees are often amazing, and the art of conversation is alive and well in the Sherlock Holmes universe.

Since you ask me to choose, I have to say that there is never a dull moment with my favorite Sherlockian, Julie McKuras.  She knows so much about Holmes and the Canon; about our hobby, its history, and its personalities; about current events both inside and outside our peculiar subculture. Julie and Mike have traveled the world for Sherlockian events.  And she deserves to be recognized for contributing immensely to the Friends of the Sherlock Holmes collections at the University of Minnesota Library, to the Norwegian Explorers and the BSI and ASH, and in countless ways to individuals interested in Sherlock Holmes. Julie is not just interesting: she is the most fun to be with, the most fun to talk to, and the most fun to just know.

What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?

Well, I am a collector, and a huge segment of our home has been surrendered to Sherlock Holmes-related books, periodicals, comics and collectibles. I have abandoned collecting just everything, as I did on my younger years. I continue to search out early 20th Century Sherlock-related fiction, and Sherlockian-themed comic books, but I rarely purchase a pastiche. Is there any Victorian or Edwardian real-life or literary personality who has not been paired with Sherlock Holmes at this point?

The “writings about the writings” interest me greatly. Reading the early essays and observations of Sherlockian scholars, and the new insights that are continually being advanced, helps me keep the Canon always fresh in my mind.  They make it clear that something new, something previously undiscovered, something profound and/or something outlandish can be culled from those stories.

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

I like to focus my attention on the Canon itself and examine previously unexplored themes, sources, or motifs in the Canonical stories. My favorites among my own writings have been those that advance a new idea: that “The Illustrious Client” is point-by-point a retelling of Dracula, that Conan Doyle had a recurring formula throughout the Canon (absence + 3 = death), that The Hound of the Baskervilles is replete with sexual themes and the moor is the personification of sexual perversion, that Latin American references in the Sherlock Holmes stories were derived from an obscure travel book by a French adventurer, that the colors of Holmes’ dressing gowns had a profound effect on his personality and performance. I never know what previously untraveled path a rereading of the Canon might suggest. Research follows the initial idea, and often takes an unexpected turn. 

What got you so interested in parodied versions of Sherlock Holmes?

I was asked to be the keynote speaker at “The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes” conference in Minneapolis in 2016. The talk was divided into three major sections: a history of Ellery Queen’s 1944 anthology of the same name, a discussion of parodies, and a review of “misadventures” in the Canon itself. 

As I prepared the talk, I was struck by the huge number of parody names from what I called the “true phonetic gold mine” of the name Sherlock Holmes. I put together a list of hundreds of those parody names, from Airlock Holmes to Zoolock Holmes, and I included an eight-minute almost-chanting recitation of that list during my speech. The reaction was gratifying (I will never do it again), and I decided that something more than just a list of those parody names would be a fun project.  The result was A Holmes By Any Other Name: The Twistings and Turnings of “Sherlock Holmes”, an annotated list of 561 parody names for Sherlock Holmes (and those for Watson and Moriarty as well).  

Getting the information for the annotations, of course, required lots of reading and research.  That book was published in 2018, and I have continued to polish and add to that text.  I now have 629 different parody names, many of which have multiple annotations.  I have to admit that I no longer scour the literature for new entries on a regular basis.  That could become an obsession, detracting from my regular obsessions. 

As someone who speaks at lots of conferences and attends even more, what aspect of them are you most looking forward to once Sherlockian conferences resume?

Seeing people in person. Getting one-on-one with fellow Sherlockians.  Seeing those faces, enjoying those smiles, hearing those voices for real and not coming out of a thumbnail window on a zoom screen. Meeting new Sherlockians, or finally putting a face with a familiar name. Heckling the speakers I know best from the back row, and getting a good-natured grilling in a side meeting by the old-school Sherlockians for whatever Canonical errors I made in my presentation. Dinner and discussion with my fellow devotees. Seeing those power-point pictures on a big screen, and laughing with the presenter when the pictures get out of order. Trying to outbid fellow dead-serious collectors in a Peter Blau-officiated auction. Perusing the dealers’ tables. Eating things at the box luncheon or the conference banquet that my wife won’t let me have at home. Seeing a Sherlockian skit or hearing a comedic song. Trying my best to understand what the hell those youngest Sherlockians are talking about. Catching up with all those I have missed seeing because of this damned pandemic.

The late Tom Stix, “Wiggins” of the Baker Street Irregulars, was fond of saying that “Sherlock Holmes is about people.”  He was so right. The people make this hobby wonderful.  

What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?

For research, there is no substitute for The Encyclopaedia Sherlockiana by Jack Tracy.  He put that together in a time before word processing or internet searches, and it is still the go-to reference book for me whenever I am trying to put together an essay.  It is a remarkable work of scholarship. 

Otherwise, I continue to be a fan of Naked Is the Best Disguise by Samuel Rosenberg. He advanced ideas that were revolutionary at the time, and they are still controversial today.  Some people hated the book. Others (like me) appreciated the deep dive into the Sherlock Holmes tales. That book, more than any other outside the Canon itself, made me really think about different aspects to the Holmes saga. Now, 47 years since it appeared, I still marvel at its innovation.

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

I used to fret about the future of the Sherlock Holmes universe because I was afraid that younger people, with so many avenues of distraction and less literary interests, would not become involved.  I credit another “Wiggins,” Michael Whelan, with disabusing me of such worries.  He knew all along that there will always be those who appreciate Holmes and Watson for the quality of the stories and for what they represent. I foresee a continually growing and ever-more-diverse group of Sherlockians every year.  A decade from now, the traditional approaches to scholarship and community will have meshed much better with the more modern, more technology-driven approaches, and Sherlockiana will continue to thrive.


  1. Very good. How do we get Bill to
    sing for us at Rashers brunches?

    1. Tell him for every song he sings, you’ll donate to whatever Al Gore’s current project is.