Issue 01 (September 2003)
he American Mensa Directory lists 243 members who have indicated that one of their interests is Sherlock Holmes. Not just an interest in reading the Holmes stories, but in analyzing them, comparing them, and in some cases memorizing them.
Although it didn’t occur to me to mention Sherlock when filling out the Mensa form, I should also be on that list. I have read what Holmes scholars call “the Canon”—the complete authoritative text of all the stories, published as a single volume by Doubleday—uncounted times. I have savored those moments at 221b Baker Street when Holmes and Watson listened to another inexplicable narration by one of Sherlock’s clients. I have followed Holmes’ reasoning with admiration (and maybe a modest suspension of disbelief) as he turned over an object in his hands and proceeded to deduce a list of facts about its owner. And I have traveled vicariously with Holmes and Watson as they set off to unravel another skein of cause and effect amid the variegated scenes of Victorian London. In fact, as a teenager I almost joined the flagship of Holmes scholarship societies, the “Baker Street Irregulars.”
At that time, admittance to the Sherlockian elect required taking and passing an examination of some 500 questions about Holmesian minutiæ. “Identify three spaniels mentioned in the Canon.” “For which client did the Master disguise himself as a Nonconformist clergyman?” “What was the title of the painting by Greuze owned by Professor Moriarty?” It is not surprising that true Sherlockians could dredge up such information; one I knew (who was a member of the Irregulars) could recite passages from the Canon by the page. As early as the l950s, a detailed chronology of Holmes’ life had been laboriously worked out and a concordance of the Canon was being circulated in typescript.
Holmes scholarship got a big boost in 1967 with the publication of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes in two volumes, a comprehensive guide and variorum to the Canon. This was followed in 1977 by The Encyclopedia Sherlockiana, compiled over a period of six years by Jack Tracy and published by Doubleday. The Encyclopedia was so successful that it came out in paperback; it is now being remaindered for $3.95, if you are lucky enough to find a bookstore that has it.
The Encyclopedia Sherlockiana is one of those reference books you can read from cover to cover. It answers all the nagging little questions that haunt those familiar with the Canon. What was the “gasogene” that lurked in the corner of 221b Baker street? The book has a description, complete with a cross-section diagram. (For those who can’t wait to know, it was an arrangement of two glass globes, one above the other. In the bottom was pure water, in the top a dry mixture of chemicals that produced carbon dioxide gas. When it was gently tilted, a small quantity of water could be transferred through a central pipe to the top chamber, where it started a reaction that aerated the water in the bottom. The resulting soda was drawn off through a valve). What did Watson mean when he said that Stamford “had been a dresser under me at Bart’s”?
The Encyclopedia defines “dresser” as “a surgeon’s assistant” and includes a contemporary photograph of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, the oldest benevolent institution in the metropolis. What is a “tidewaiter”? He is a customs official who meets incoming ships. What is “aqua tofana”? It is a secret poison, supposedly invented by a Sicilian woman named Tofana at the end of the seventeenth century and used by her to dispatch no fewer than 600 souls. Questions like these, which had bothered me for years, were now laid to rest.
On the other hand, the Encyclopedia has its obtuse moments. Because it is dedicated to the proposition that Holmes was real and everything in the Canon is true, it is forced to glide over certain awkward bits. Watson’s war wound, for example. Under “Jezail,” it notes merely that Watson was struck “on the shoulder or in the leg.” But that hardly does justice to the gap between A Study in Scarlet, where Watson was “struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery,” and The Sign of Four, where we find him nursing his “wounded leg (which) had had a Jezail bullet through it some time before.” In one of the early journals of Holmes scholarship I recall a much less forgiving article on the subject. It was illustrated with a villainous drawing of Watson, his back to the enemy, bending over to tie his shoe while a single bullet causes both wounds. The scurrilous author went on to offer some entirely uncalled-for speculations on his possible loss of manhood in the process and the nature of his subsequent relationship with Sherlock.
By the way, the Encyclopedia scorns to recognize the famous deerstalker cap, Inverness cape, and calabash pipe of popular Holmes iconography. These are the inventions of various play-wrights and movie directors—they have no provenance in the Canon. The characteristic pipe, indeed, was concocted on the spur of the moment by an actor with sore teeth who wanted something that would rest comfortably on his chin during the performance. Holmes holds the odd distinction of having been portrayed by more different actors in movies and TV than any other fictional character—over 100 so far.
One of the more delightful sections of the Encyclopedia is the entry about the “Untold Tales”—stories that Watson alludes to in passing but which we shall never hear. One can speculate for hours about “the singular affair of the aluminium crutch” or the “repulsive story of the red leech.” The “bogus laundry affair” tantalizes us, along with the arrest of Wilson “the notorious canary-trainer,” and the case of the giant rat of Sumatra, “a story for which the world is not yet prepared.” Alas that Watson was never moved to lay before the public “the whole story concerning the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant”! Nevertheless, these asides in the Canon stimulate many pleasant reveries for the dedicated Sherlockian.
Seldom does a fictional character come so alive as Holmes. For some, he surpasses his creator in substance. The Encyclopedia, for instance, unblushingly refers to Conan Doyle as “literary agent for Dr. John H. Watson in the placing for publication of Watson’s adventures with Sherlock Holmes.” It is an irony that Doyle, who spent much of his life proposing theories of life after death, should live today as an adjunct to the creatures of his imagination.
George Towner was born in Reno and grew up near Berkeley. As a teenager he began making gangster movies using an old 8mm camera, one of which featured a car being pushed over a cliff off State Highway 1. He has started and sold two successful technology firms, and currently works for Apple Computer, where he is the most senior in age. He lives with his wife in Sunnyvale. They have two daughters and a son.