I'm going to bet that the name James O'Leary is familiar to many Sherlockians. But how many of us know the actual man? He and I have crossed paths on the Internet and have had pleasant conversations at Sherlockian events, but I've never felt like I got to know James. That was a big reason I wanted him to be a part of this Interesting Interview series.
If you have met James or read any of his writings, you'll know that he is a very intelligent guy with heartfelt opinions. He's written a great monograph that the John H. Watson Society put out a while back, has been an active writer on the I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere website, and pops up in all kinds of Sherlockian conversations on the Internet. His writings are always focused on a canonical subject, but this week the subject is James himself! So let's get to know one of the newest members of The Baker Street Irregulars, James O'Leary!
I can only answer as to how I define myself as a Sherlockian. For me it's a literary pursuit, and playing the Games as honoring the genius of Arthur Conan Doyle; by reading Sherlock Holmes and John Watson as real people and the adventures as true events lightly fictionalized by Watson. That's not to say that I don't appreciate or enjoy pastiche or visual and audio representations of the pair, just that my desert island pick would be the Canon and Higher Criticism. I respect the differences of an individual's personal Sherlockian experience.
How did you become a Sherlockian?
While I had seen Daddy Duck and Mr. Magoo on TV and read Encyclopedia Brown, America's Sherlock Holmes in sneakers, I first met Holmes in the sixth grade (back when that was in elementary school) when the class read HOUN. In middle school I found The Adventures and The Memoirs then in high school the rest of the Canon and the Higher Criticism. That's when I considered myself a Sherlockian. I subscribed to the BSJ and the Baker Street Miscellanea. This was during the Great Boom of the '70s--a heady time to be a budding Sherlockian.
What is your profession and does that affect how you enjoy being a Sherlockian?
I've worked for the United States Postal Service for ten years and work and non-work do not intersect.
What is your favorite canonical story?
I‘ve decided that if I'm forced to pick one story then I have chosen CREE as my designated answer. You could look at it as the perfect pastiche--strange goings on in a suburban or exurban house, puzzling most members of the household, a damsel in distress and weird sexuality. It is not science fictional; ignore Holmes' musings about thick and horny knuckles and survival of the least fit prolonging their worthless lives with a fountain of youth--Watson has the last word when he says that this is a case best left to an alienist, though he buries it in the middle of the story with lumbago--rejuvenescence was a topic ripped from the headlines with rich and famous males using monkey glands to restore physical and sexual vitality. There's a lot going in the story people miss.
Who is a specific Sherlockian that you think others would find interesting?
What a tough question! I don't think I could narrow it down to a couple dozen people. I'd suggest listening to I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere and Steve Doyle's Fortnightly Dispatch. Or attend a local scion society meeting. You're bound to meet someone interesting.
What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?
As an active chronologist, what can the average Sherlockian learn from paying attention to the discussion around the dating of the stories?
This is an example of why chronology is important and it has nothing to do with the date of any individual story. You will hear some Sherlockians say that Watson's writings are responsible for Holmes' fame—think of the film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes taking place in 1887 and Watson’s Strand stories a public hit (The Strand started in January 1891)—but that is chronologically impossible. While Watson wanted to write up A Study in Scarlet to let the public know of Holmes’ role in solving the Stangerson/ Drebber murders, he could not sell his manuscript until 1886 and it wasn’t published until November 1887, six months after “Europe was ringing with his name and when his room was literally ankle-deep with congratulatory telegrams” with the press disclosure of the “whole question of the Netherland-Sumatra Company and of the colossal schemes of Baron Maupertuis.” Holmes was famous of his own accord before the less-than-best-sellers STUD and SIGN saw print and presumed dead when the public sensation Strand series started in July 1891.
After Holmes returned in 1894, he forbade Watson to publish until he was on the eve of retirement. These facts have baring when Mycroft says, “I hear of Sherlock everywhere since you became his chronicler,” in GREE; when Stapleton says, “It is useless for us to pretend that we do not know you, Dr. Watson. The records of your detective have reached us here, and you could not celebrate him without being known yourself,” in HOUN; or when John Douglas says, “I've heard of you. You are the historian of this bunch. Well, Dr. Watson, you've never had such a story as that pass through your hands before, and I'd lay my last dollar on that,” in VALL.
You were an avid promoter of Elementary during its run. What argument would you make to a newer Sherlockian to sell them on this show?
Forget about the arguments made in 2012 that the BBC is a quality outfit and Sherlock is made by fanboys for fans while American network TV is schlock made by hacks trying to turn out a knockoff to make bucks. Elementary wanted to tell its own Holmes story through the lens of the Canon and the lens of the mythos fans built around it. Through seven seasons the teams behind the show demonstrated deep knowledge of the Canon and the acting was uniformly excellent if almost never recognized at award time. I would direct anyone interested to check out my blog posts at IHOSE “Addiction, Elementary and Doyle” from October 4, 2013, “Elementary and the Hound” from March 25, 2016, and “Elementary’s Mycroft and Morland Holmes — A Tale of Doyle's Two Mycrofts” from June 25, 2016.
What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?
I would recommend The Grand Game Volumes I and II from the BSI Press and The Best of the Sherlock Holmes Journal Volumes I and II from the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. You’ll be reading the best Higher Criticism of the last 120 plus years.
Where do you see Sherlockiana in 5 or 10 years from now?
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. (I can write that better than I can pronounce it!) I think the essence of Sherlockiana has been remarkably consistent; the comradery, fellowship and genericity. The tent has gotten larger and that is a trend I hope continues.