Getting to Sherlock Holmes' 148th birthday celebration

Part I of II

Ely Liebow


cting upon the noblest of motives, I phoned Bob Cotner a few weeks ago, suggesting that we get together for lunch. Before you could say “Steak and Kidney Pie and a pint of your best Bitters,” he asked me if I’d do a little article on the annual (aren’t they all?) Sherlock Holmes Birthday Bash in New York this year. Oscar Wilde was suspicious of “long distance” when it was first bruited about. He should have suspected “short distance.”

To the unwashed, the uninitiated, the Sherlock Holmes Birthday Weekend needs more explaining than the Enron debacle. It is a story, to paraphrase Dr. Watson, for which the world is not yet ready.

It probably all began in 1886 when young Arthur Conan Doyle, a struggling physician fresh out of the University of Edinburgh Medical School, set up his red lamp (the precursor to the shingle) at 1 Bush Villa in Southsea in southeast England. Having written stories ever since he was in prep school, he decided to try his hand at a relatively new sort of tale developed by Edgar Allan Poe, the detective story.

Originally, he was going to name his brand-new detective Sherrinford and his companion Ormond Sacker. Instead he chose the name Sherlock (supposedly from a cricket bowler of the same name) and Holmes from Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, an author whom Doyle greatly admired.

While it took the Holmes stories a while to click, once they appeared in the Strand Magazine Doyle and the Strand came on like Gangbusters, as they used to say.

It was a Monseigneur Ronald Knox who, tongue well in cheek, really began “the game,” generally referred to as Sherlockismus or The Higher Criticism. Positing the notion that half the western world “knew” that Sherlock Holmes was alive and well, Mgr. Knox went a few steps further. The tales, he averred, were written by Dr. John H. Watson, late of the Fifth Northumberland Fusseliers, and his literary agent was a struggling young physician who’d had several brushes on his own with the publishing field.

In 1934, Christopher Morley, then editor of The Saturday Review of Literature, inserted a crossword puzzle in the magazine, with the proviso that all those who submitted flawless solutions would be invited to the first meeting of a brand new organization—the Baker Street Irregulars, the Irregulars being the street waifs or street urchins whom Holmes employed to be his eyes and ears on occasion. The new group quickly labeled the 60 stories, the “Canon,” or the holy writings. The game, gentle reader, was afoot, to quote Mr. Holmes, by way of Mr. Shakespeare.

A good number of people met on what was determined as Holmes’ birthday, January 6th, Twelfth Night, and the Irregulars have been meeting fairly regularly ever since.

Christopher Morley, who started many organizations and then went on to other things, did so once again, and thus in short order, Edgar W. Smith, then a vice president of General Motors, became the Gasogene, or president, of the Baker Street group. Mr. Morley now spending more time with his newest organization, the Three Martinis for Lunch Club. Some of the earliest Irregulars included Vincent Starrett, straight from his post at the Chicago Tribune and perhaps the greatest Sherlockian of them all; Gene Tunney; Alexander Wollcott; Elmer Davis; and with regrets from one Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had a most interesting correspondence with Edgar Smith.

That brings us up to my original assignment: What Happened This Year!? Ah, that is a tale for which the world is not quite yet prepared.

To be continued

Editor’s note: Caxtonian Ely Liebow (aka: Charlie Chan) is a specialist in detective fiction and author of Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes (1982). He edited August Harvest: Essays in Memory of August Derleth (1995), and co-edited Sherlock in the Trib (2000).

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