Sunday, September 5, 2021

Interesting Interview: Ira Matetsky

I am VERY excited about this week's Interesting Interview!  Ira Matetsky is a Sherlockian that I could go on and on about because he really encompasses what's great about this hobby.  So often we talk about folks that are smart, fun to be around, or that make everyone feel welcome, or elevate the discourse of any discussion they are a part of.  All of these phrases describe Ira perfectly. 

Ira has been working with Ross Davies on the Baker Street Almanac and has been a regular at the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes events for a while now.  But he's also the head of the Nero Wolfe society, the Wolfe Pack, serves on Wikipedia's Arbitration Committee, has appeared on CNBC, in Vanity Fair and The Washington Post, and is an absolute delight to talk with.  So settle in, and spend some time with one of New York's most likeable people, Ira Matetsky!

How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?

I’ll echo the answer that many of the people you've interviewed have already given:  A Sherlockian is someone with a serious interest in Sherlock Holmes.  For me, the Holmes of the Canon is at the center, but that does not mean that adaptations are excluded.  We can also construe "Sherlockian," in the broad sense, to include the time we spend giving attention to Arthur Conan Doyle and his world and works, and also, on a meta level, to the study of Sherlockians ourselves, and our organizations and activities.


How did you become a Sherlockian?


Like many Sherlockians, I first discovered Holmes when we were assigned a story to read at school.  In my case, it was "The Red-Headed League" in sixth grade, and I enjoyed it enough to read through the rest of The Adventures.  By my late teens or early twenties, I had read through all of the Canon, and I knew from various sources that there was a big Sherlockian world out there, but I never quite found the right entry point to it at that time.  By the early 1990s, while still rereading the Canon and picking up an occasional collection of pastiches, I was focusing on a different detective:  I came across an advertisement for the activities of the Wolfe Pack, which is the literary society for the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout.  That group is based in New York City, which is where I live, and I started attending its meetings and activities.  In 2007, I became the Werowance (President) of that group, a title I still hold, and expect that I will for years to come.


I remained a casual Sherlockian until around 2014, when several things happened around the same time that focused me more closely on Holmes.  First, the late Peter Crupe, a dedicated Sherlockian and Baker Street Irregular who was also a long-time Wolfe Pack member, invited me to start attending meetings of the Montague Street Lodgers of Brooklyn, the BSI scion that he chaired.  I'll always be grateful to Peter for getting me started.  While I was there, another area Sherlockian, Chris Zordan, urged me to look up the Sherlockian Calendar and start attending other scion meetings as well.  I soon attended a meeting of the Priory Scholars of New York, a venerable scion that Judith Freeman had recently revived.  Nick Martorelli did an excellent job as discussion leader, and I was hooked.  It turned out that since I live in New York City, within 90 minutes of my apartment I could readily attend at least five different BSI scions, as well as Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes luncheons and get-togethers, and the BSI Weekend itself.  New friends such as Robert Katz, Susan Rice, Mickey Fromkin, and many others helped me find my bearings among the overwhelming array of choices and opportunities.


And as if I hadn’t been drawn enough already, in 2014 I received a call from Ross Davies.  I’d known Ross since 2002; I was a semi-regular contributor to his law review, The Green Bag; we’d been working together since 2005 on a long-term legal history project; and he and I had co-edited the Nero Wolfe-themed 2012 edition of The Green Bag Almanac and Reader.  Now Ross told me that the 2015 Green Bag Almanac and Reader would have a Sherlock Holmes theme, and asked if I’d like to help annotate “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder.”  Of course I would. The whole world seemed to be saying to me, "Ira, you need to spend more time thinking and reading and writing about Sherlock Holmes."  And so I have.


What is your profession and does that affect how you enjoy being a Sherlockian?

I'm a lawyer, primarily a litigator, at a law firm in Manhattan.  "Law and Sherlock Holmes" is one of my specialties, and I've done some work on legal aspects of the Canon, with more to come.  I referred to my profession when I chose my ASH investiture:  drawing from "The Solitary Cyclist," I am "The Lawyer Whose Name Was Given in the Paper."

What is your favorite canonical story?

If pressed for a favorite among the short stories, I would probably name the obvious choices, so let me take this in a different direction.  In general, I find the stories collected in His Last Bow to be undervalued.  The book begins weakly, as “Wisteria Lodge” is not Watson’s best writing and Conan Doyle made a mistake by making it the first story in the collection; but it was important to get “The Cardboard Box” between hard covers, and after that I’d rank the next five stories (in publication date order, BRUC, DEVI, REDC, LADY, and DYIN) as high as any other set of five successive stories in the Canon.  And then of course the collection finishes strong with “His Last Bow” itself.


As for the novels, all four are excellent and important, but I especially enjoy The Valley of Fear, including both its Sherlockian and its American sections – but very much excluding the anti-climactic and disappointing Epilogue.  If, as we do, we admire Sherlock Holmes, it’s a considerable let-down when Holmes knows that an innocent person is threatened and is unable to save him, leaving matters no better than if Holmes had never heard of the case.  If we think of Watson as having written the book, then we are left with the sad ending, unless we want to console ourselves with the thought that Watson might have been instructed to write a false epilogue to throw evil-doers off Birdy Edwards’ trail.  If we think of Conan Doyle as having written the book, then we are left to wish that H. Greenhough Smith at The Strand Magazine might have said, “Sir Arthur, this is another outstanding contribution, but would you mind putting in another day’s work on the last chapter?”  If anyone ever needs an idea for a Sherlockian writing contest, one could do worse than “give The Valley of Fear a better epilogue.”


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

I agree with those who have answered this question in past interviews by saying that all Sherlockians are interesting.  We are, and for decades have been, a strong community of varied people with a fascinating range of backgrounds and interests.  At this point, it's self-perpetuating that all Sherlockians will remain interesting; in the unlikely event that a truly dull Sherlockian came along, that attribute would be so unusual among us that in itself, it would make the person interesting.

I could readily have named more than a dozen people in response to this question, including everyone I've already mentioned.  I narrowed down my choices by excluding people who have already either been interviewed on this blog, or been mentioned by others in response to this very question.  Two who have not been either (as far as I recall) are Chris Zordan and Mickey Fromkin.  Chris is a New Jersey Sherlockian who is a chemist by profession (hence his BSI investiture, "Bunsen Burner") and brings his scientific background to his Sherlockian work; he also serves as Bursar of the Priory Scholars, among other activities.  Mickey has been a mainstay of the New York Sherlockian world for decades, a long-time ASH and BSI member, an expert on Sherlockian songs and poetry among much else ... and the 40-year helpmeet of her late wife Susan Rice, whom all of us dearly miss.


What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?

I could mention a few things.  I've already mentioned my interest in legal aspects of the stories.  A second area of interest is the bibliographical history of the Canon, which is a focus of my research and writing, especially now that the libraries are open again.  A third is the history of Sherlockians and Sherlockian organizations. 

A fourth is poetry -- good poetry about the Canon, such as Starrett's "221B" and Edgar Smith's (or partly Helen Yuhosova's?) Baker Street Quartette, but also Arthur Conan Doyle's own poetry.  Granted, not all of Doyle's rhymed writing stand up to rereading a hundred years later.  But he wrote three very distinctive, very different poems that stand out to me.  One is "To an Undiscerning Critic," which is well-known.  The second is "Bendy's Sermon," which could have been an amusing story in prose and is certainly one in poetry, despite the inclusion of one line on which we look askance today.  And the third and most important is "The Inner Room," the most reflective and introspective piece of writing that Doyle ever turned out; if you don't know that poem, you owe it to yourself to look it up (it can be found on Wikipedia), and to give it some thought.


Why do you think there is such a crossover between Sherlockians and Wolfeans?

That’s a good question, but coincidentally, Dan Andriacco, who is also a Sherlockian and a Wolfean, wrote about this very subject just this week on his “Baker Street Beat” blog and said much of what I might have.  There are enough similarities between the Holmes Canon and the Wolfe Corpus to make it natural that the same people who would be drawn to one would be drawn to the other. 


I’m often asked whether I subscribe to any of the theories of a family relationship between Mr. Holmes and Mr. Wolfe.  Not to criticize any of those who have developed or endorsed those theories, but I don’t care for them; with apologies to the memory of Stephen Jay Gould, Holmes’ world and Wolfe’s world will always be Non-Overlapping Magisteria to me.  There is, of course, a direct connection between them, but the connection is Rex Stout, BSI.  Stout was, of course, a devoted Sherlockian.  I enjoy researching and writing about Stout’s own Sherlockian work and his long-time role in the BSI (which went far, far beyond “Watson Was a Woman”).  And I also find that many times when I reread a Wolfe story, I find in it a little “Easter egg” reference to a Holmes story.  Some of these were clearly intended on Stout’s part, while for others we may never know whether a given reference is an intended homage or a subconscious call-back.


What can we look forward to in next year's Baker Street Almanac?

You’d need to ask Ross that, as he’s the editor-in-chief and will contrive whatever will make next year’s Almanac unique.  I can anticipate that it will have all of the usual features, including a contemporary history of the year’s Sherlockian activities around the world.  In addition to a possible special article, I’ll be contributing my annual column “Sherlock Holmes and the Law 2021,” and that as the “Editor of Canonical Annotations,” I’ll be compiling the annual set of annotations of a canonical story.  The story this year is “The Abbey Grange,” and anyone who would like to pick a passage from the story and write a paragraph or two of commentary on it is invited to e-mail me at within in the next few weeks and volunteer. 

What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?

There are far too many to choose from -- even the lists of 100 most important Sherlockian books that a few people have prepared barely scratch the surface.  Of course there are the annotated versions of the Canon.  I find the BSI Press Manuscript Series books to be full of excellent writing and important insights about the stories.  As I mentioned, I enjoy reading about Sherlockians and Sherlockian organizations, so I enjoyed Jon Lellenberg's BSI history books, Sonia Featherston's biographical works, several BSJ Christmas Annuals (particularly Susan Rice's history of ASH, among many others), and so much more.

Mike Whelan was kind enough not only to invest me as an Irregular, but to name me "The Final Problem," so I have a shelf dedicated to the writings of the four previous holders of that investiture:  Jay Finley Christ, Orlando Park, H. C. Potter, and Samuel Gerber.  All four made major contributions.

Not for myself but in tribute to my co-editors Candace Lewis and Roger Donway, the publishers Bob Katz and John Berquist, and all the authors, I will plug the BSI Press book I co-edited, Upon the Turf: Horse Racing and the Sherlockian Canon.  I only regret that my co-editors turned down the title for this book that I proposed:  The Game Is Ahoof.


Where do you see Sherlockiana five or ten years from now?

My crystal ball is no better than anyone else's, and who knows what we'll be doing in the future that will be very different from what we do today?  But I think much of what we'll be doing in 2026 or 2031 will resemble what we're doing now:  attending meetings and conferences, doing research, giving talks, publishing papers, making bad puns, reciting doggerel, singing songs, welcoming newcomers, standing on the Terrace for absent friends ... and most importantly, enjoying each other's company and friendship.


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