Andy Solberg is one of those guys who makes you feel like you've known him forever. After about five minutes of conversation, he's treating you like an old friend. His is a name I've seen on a ton of things over the years, and I finally got to meet him last month in person. As advertised, I immediately felt like an old friend. Andy is spoken so highly of by many Sherlockians that I already had a high expectation of him and was even more impressed by how great of a guy he is once we got to talking.
But for those of you who don't know Andy, you may be asking: why him? This guy's Sherlockian resume is as long as my arm and he's been publishing since before I was even born! He's currently the Gasogene of the Six Napoleons of Baltimore and a past Gasogene of Watson's Tin Box of Maryland. He's a member of the Baker Street Irregulars and the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, and any member of those two groups can tell you how great he is to be around. So let's spend some time with a guy everyone loves, Andy Solberg!
How do you define the word “Sherlockian?”
I define a Sherlockian as anyone who currently genuinely loves reading the Sherlock Holmes stories, even if they are still reading them for the first time. They may lose their Sherlockian status if they don’t stick with them and just enjoyed them while they were reading them. But every scion society has newer Sherlockians who are joining the Sherlockian community, and I always think that they can add refreshing insights to the discussion.
Years ago, there was a kerfuffle in the Sherlockian community when someone used the phrase “real Sherlockians” to refer to scholarly Sherlockians. I think that is a false distinction. I think that he meant that “real Sherlockians” were people like him (a seasoned Sherlockian who writes articles). Lots of people come to the Sherlockian habit for different reasons, whether they came because of the books, BBC Sherlock, the Rathbone films, or other avenues. If they continue to read (and reread) the stories, they are Sherlockians. There may be different levels of immersion and involvement, but they are all Sherlockians.
How did you become a Sherlockian?
I remember when I was around ten years old, I found a book of Sherlock Holmes stories on a top shelf in my parent’s back hall (essentially a mudroom). No one in the family knew how it got there. I read them and found them boring. I thought, “I guess these aren’t for me.” I returned the book to that shelf. It disappeared as magically as it appeared. No one ever saw it again.
About ten years later, I picked up a random book. It was the collected works of A. Conan Doyle. I began reading the Sherlock Holmes stories and have been re-reading them ever since. Go figure!
After I graduated from undergraduate school (where I majored in Philosophy), I decided to fill my time by writing a paper for myself on the philosophy of Sherlock Holmes. I didn’t even know that there was a Sherlockian community, let alone a Baker Street Journal. I was just writing the paper for myself. Then, I got ahold of Baring-Gould’s Annotated Sherlock Holmes and learned about, well, everything.
I wrote to Julian Wolff and asked if there was a Sherlockian society in Boston (where I was living). I was invited to attend the Speckled Band dinner. There, someone asked if I had written anything. I mentioned my paper, and he suggested I send it to the BSJ. It was published in the December 1976 issue. I have been doing Sherlockian analysis and writing periodic articles ever since. I have often joked that my four years of studying philosophy at Brandeis prepared me for a career of writing on Sherlock Holmes.
What is your profession and does that affect how you enjoy being a Sherlockian?
I am a strategic planner for hospitals, health departments, and other health providers. At one time, I ran a health care planning regulatory program for the State of Maryland. I also taught community health planning at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. I’ve joked that it’s allowed me to feed my Sherlockian collection, but it has been more than that, as two books on Sherlock Holmes and medicine for BSI Press demonstrate. Because Conan Doyle and Watson were both physicians, I have always found interest in their points of view and how they reflected public health at the time.
What is your favorite canonical story?
I have only recently come to realize that the first four chapters of A Study in Scarlet are my favorite part of the Canon. It is some of the most beautiful prose in the Sherlockian saga - in all of literature, really. The saga, which is a forty year chronical of Holmes’s life, starts not with Holmes, but with a down and out retired military physician in London. It is filled with Watson’s typical self-deprecation and incredible humor. Remember, it may be set in 1881, but it was written in 1886, so Watson had been living with Holmes for at least five years when he wrote his impressions. He knew he was dead wrong.
Who is a specific Sherlockian that you think others would find interesting?
That is the toughest question you ask. There are so many interesting Sherlockians. I am not sure that I have met one who is actually boring. (Well, maybe one or two.) On the whole, I always love the interaction between Sherlockians. We are generally critical thinkers who, as we contend that Holmes and Watson are real people, are starting with our tongues place firmly in our cheeks. The wit runs high. My best Sherlockian friends are my co-editor Bob Katz and Francine Kitts. Both are tremendously interesting people.
But there are so many with whom I am genuinely friendly and find (or found, if they have passed on) interesting. This is going to get me in trouble because I will just name a few. (Forgive me if I forgot to mention you.) Mike Dirda has been called the best-read person in America. I love his essays, book reviews, and books. Scott Monty and Burt Wolder have been a blessing to the Sherlockian community with their I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere podcast. It is an oral history of the Sherlockian world. Evy Herzog is one of the nicest people in the world and is a living piece of American Sherlockian history. Of course, Peter Blau is always interesting, a great raconteur, a long time friend, and another important historical figure. Glen Miranker was Chief Technology Officer at Apple and brought out the IMAC and the MacBook. But so many Sherlockians are giants in their fields, Al Rosenblatt, Les Klinger, Nancy Holder, Curtis Armstrong, Maggie Schpak, Nicholas Meyer, Russell Merritt, Rebecca Romney,… So many more.
I love spending time chatting with them. I miss Ralph Earle, who was an ambassador and was the Chief Negotiator on the SALT II Treaty. And those of us who are not necessarily “giants in our fields” are still incredibly interesting people, doing remarkable things. All these people are (or were, in the cases of people who have died) approachable, and we have developed some level of friendship. That is why I love Sherlockian gatherings. Getting to know interesting people better is a huge benefit of the Sherlockian community.
What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?
I like the 60 stories. I am not crazy about pastiches or films. It is the chronicle of Holmes’s and Watson’s lives that interests me. I like themes and analyses. I don’t take quizzes. I’ve often said that I think that all Sherlockian tests should be essay exams. And the Sherlock Holmes Canon is a bridge to so many interesting related subjects. That is why I love to read the Baker Street Journal. I am always interested in new analyses of the stories or “Sherlock Holmes and ______.” But they have to be faithful to both the stories and the history of the time.
As someone who has worked on more than a few books in the BSI Manuscript Series, what keeps you coming back to these types of projects?
Bob Katz and I have co-edited four Manuscript Series books and two books on Sherlock Holmes and medicine. I love doing these projects for several reasons. First, the Manuscript Series makes Conan Doyle’s hand so accessible. You can see his thought process. Also, the related chapters about different facets of the stories are so interesting.
The same is true of the books on medicine. Bob and I approach the books starting with questions to which we have always wanted answers. If we have these questions, others will have them, too. And the authors who accept the responsibility for answering our questions do such a wonderful job. We require them to keep speculation to a minimum and to document all of their content. Keep things canonical and real! They always come through for us. We generally choose authors with related expertise, so they know their fields and can do the research that is required to answer the questions. The books are a lot of work, but we’ve loved doing each one. We learn so much from them.
You served as Chair of the Baker Street Irregulars Trust from 2013 to 2019. What does the Trust do, and why should Sherlockians pay more attention to its efforts?
The Baker Street Irregulars was the first Sherlock Holmes literary society, founded in 1934 by Christopher Morley. I’ve read histories of fandom that have said that modern fandom began with Morley and the founding of the BSI. The Trust is not a Sherlock Holmes collection. It is an institutional archive of the history of the BSI. And, it is an important record of an early literary society that has survived and thrived all these years as the popularity of Holmes has ebbed and flowed.
Generous BSI have donated thousands of items that document the history of the BSI. As I have said previously, Sherlockians are tremendously interesting people, and the BSI has continuously had well known and interesting members. The Trust runs a BSI Oral History Project that reaches back into members’ memories from many years. Many of them are reflected in correspondence, photos, and other material in our archive. The archive has been used by fandom researchers, academics, Sherlockians, and non-Sherlockians. It is located at The Lilly Library at Indiana University.
When I was the Chair, we began to make the Trust’s holdings and BSI history available to people at home by posting them on the Trust’s website. There you will find a page for every BSI Dinner with photos and, in some cases, recordings. You’ll find selected Oral History Project interviews and features on items in the collection. Of course, The Lilly also has a finding aid to assist researchers to locate items in the collection.
Sherlockians (BSI or not) should pay more attention to the Trust because the history of the BSI is the history of the Sherlockian community. It all started with Christopher Morley. There was no organized Sherlockian community before Morley decided to start it, and the BSI has been the central to the Sherlockian movement ever since. And the history continues to unfold. Today’s BSI are as interesting as yesterday’s, and it is important to document their personalities and the role of the BSI as times evolve. It’s important that BSI members keep sending the Trust their BSI related correspondence, photos, etc.
What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?
While there are lots of books that I could recommend, the one book I would recommend that Sherlockians get is William S. Baring-Gould’s Annotated Sherlock Holmes. I note that it is currently available on Ebay for under $30. Sure, it’s more than 50 years old (my God!), and, yes, many, many more articles have been published in the interim that could or should be among the annotations. But, to me, Baring-Gould best captures the romance of playing the Grand Game (contending that Holmes and Watson are real). It reads just like it was – a labor of love. Les Klinger’s much more recent New Annotated Sherlock Holmes is also excellent, but I find that it doesn’t quite have the romantic flavor of Baring-Gould. If you can’t get Baring-Gould’s version, certainly get Les Kinger’s version.
By the way, I once wrote an article that recommended books for Sherlockians based on whether one wanted a classical collection or just wanted to both enjoy the stories and have some other neat Sherlockian books. I identified a core group of books for the casual Sherlockian, the budding Sherlockian collector, and the researcher. I also identified some books that are just plain fun and some books for those who are interested in the reading more about the Baker Street Irregulars. You can find that article in the 2019 Baker Street Almanac (as a free PDF) here.
Where do you see Sherlockiana in 5 or 10 years from now?
I have a non-Sherlockian friend who is amazed at how frequently Sherlockian references come up in popular culture almost every day. I believe that Sherlock Holmes will still be a “thing” in 10 years. I have seen Sherlockian popularity ebb and flow over the last fifty years. We go through a lull, Sherlockian societies age and attendance declines, and then Baring-Gould’s book hits the market. Then a lull. Then Nick Meyer’s Seven-Percent Solution is a NYT bestseller for forty weeks and terrific film, bringing younger people into the Sherlockian community. Then a lull. Then PBS does the Canon with Jeremy Brett, and the community expands. Then a lull. Then BBC Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch. I suspect we will have a lull until the next time someone succeeds in making a popular Sherlockian book or movie. But I see the Sherlockian community surviving for many years.