NEWS AND REVIEWS OF WORK DIRECTLY RELATED TO BAKER STREET IRREGULARS HISTORY



By yours truly:


New York, City of Cities, by Hulbert Footner (1879-1944)


Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1937.


For the student of BSI history, the personnel of Christopher Morley’s Three Hours for Lunch Club tend to divide into three categories: ones who went on to significant roles in the Baker Street Irregulars, such as Elmer Davis, W. S. Hall, and Robert K. Leavitt; ones every literate person should recognize, who (even if attending a BSI dinner once) left no mark on the BSI, such as Buckminster Fuller, Don Marquis, and Stephen Vincent Benét; and ones you’d have to look up to know about at all, such as David Bone, Franklin Abbott, and Hulbert Footner. Bone was a mariner with an interest in Joseph Conrad shared by Morley; Abbott was an architect and artist whose drawings illustrated some of Morley’s “Bowling Green” columns in the Saturday Review of Literature; and (William) Hulbert Footner was a mystery writer whose novels are unread and forgotten today.


Yet Bill Footner deserves more attention than I, and I daresay you, have given him previously. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1879, he came to New York at the age of nineteen to be an actor; got occasional parts in legitimate theater, and occasional vaudeville turns as well, and achieved a certain sort of immortality by doubling as Alf Bassick and Sir Edward Leighton in a road company of William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes. And like many would-be actors who come to New York, he did a lot of other things as well to make ends meet, including turning to writing. Some travel-adventure books about Canada did not make a noticeable mark, so he turned to mysteries next, more successfully this time. Of some three dozen mystery novels, his final one, Orchids to Murder, was published by Harper & Brothers in 1945, following Footner’s death from a heart attack the previous November 25th.


For this book, Christopher Morley penned a five plus page tribute to Footner, dated December 19th, 1944. “I think Bill was pleased by the many times I told him,” said Morley, “that no living writer had given me such a total of innocent opiate and refuge. One reason why his detective tales have always been for me the perfect laxative is that I usually read them when I should be doing something else.” Morley had read them all, from Footner’s first one published in 1918. But Morley had read it even earlier, he bragged: “I read it in MS, way back about 1916, when I was contact man for Bill at his publishers. He was the first author professionally assigned to me when I started work at Doubleday’s, in 1913. We hadn’t been doing too well with his early novels of the Canadian Northwest, and Bill wanted to develop a new vein. He wrote The Fugitive Sleuth (first a serial in one of the soft-paper magazines) as an experiment.”


By 1921, when the Three Hours for Lunch Club was being convened, Morley included Footner in this magic circle. Footner had published at least two more mysteries by then (Thieves’ Wit and The Owl Taxi), and would write many more. “I used to embarrass him by pointing out unconscious mannerisms that he repeated from time to time,” said Morley, “or certain stock characters who took part, e.g. the stout man walking up Fifth Avenue with a slapping archfallen behavior of the feet, making more movement than progress. This, I sometimes had a horrid suspicion, was me. I reproached him, he denied it, but retaliated by actually putting me and other friends (by name and in person) in a crime story laid in Hoboken, The Mystery of the Folded Paper, 1930.”


Its protagonist is a member of The Three Hours for Lunch Club, at the time it had taken Hoboken’s Old Rialto and Lyric Theatre to stage period melodrama like After Dark and The Black Crook, relying on Hoboken’s reputation as a free-range speakeasy zone to help attract Manhattan audiences over, with fair success for a year or two. (Morley’s Seacoast of Bohemia, 1929, covers this episode of life.) As part of the spree, they also took an old foundry for offices and clubhouse, and ch. 8 of Footner’s Mystery of the Folded Paper is a three-hour lunch at the Foundry:


The Foundry is an old brick building of a pleasing quaintness of design, faintly German in flavor. It stands on River Street, facing the Hoboken steamship piers and the broad stream beyond. At this time it had not been altered from its original state beyond what could be accomplished by sweeping and scrubbing. No mere scrubbing could really clean up a place in which the grime of decades of iron-founding was ingrained. As fast as one layer of dirt was removed, another slowly exuded. Walls and rafters were covered by innumerable coats of whitewash which flaked down like snow; and the windows bore a sulphurous patina that had so far refused to yield to soapsuds. Nevertheless, the members of the Three-Hours-for-Lunch Club loved their unconventional clubhouse. It was in keeping with the spirit of the organization.


Inside, the building spread out in a most unexpected and inveigling fashion. A great central hall with a gallery all around, and the mighty traveling crane still hanging overhead; and room after room of different sizes and shapes, and all on different levels. The members never tired of conducting visitors through the endless, empty rooms, running up and down the odd steps, and climbing the casual ladders while they pointed out the future library, billiard-room, the private dining-room, etc., etc. There was a purer pleasure in planning these improvements than in possessing them.


The affairs of the Three-Hours-for-Lunch Club and the Hoboken Theatrical Company were inextricably commingled, and the two organizations shared the Foundry between them. . . . Somebody had presented the Foundry with a set of elaborately carved and lacquered Chinese Chippendale for the dining-room. This was arranged at the rear of the wide gallery upstairs, partly enclosed by handsome screens that matched the furniture; and in the little room thus formed a small company was gathered for the usual midday rites. They were drinking cocktails while they waited for a guest. A cold collation had been sent in from the Continental [Hotel] around the corner.


The contrast of the elegant furniture with its rude surroundings tickled the fancy of the members. They rejoiced in such humorous incongruities, and the Foundry was full of them. . . . Among those present, the principal figure was naturally that of Mr. Christopher Morley, who modestly describes himself as steward in perpetuum to the Three Hours for Lunch Club, but is really the whole works. It is impossible to imagine a meeting without Chris. He is the mercury that causes many disparate elements to fuse. With his opulence of physique and temperament he seems to belong to a younger age than ours. His heartiness, his nimble play with words, his penchant for the theater, all stamp him as a belated Elizabethan.

























(from Morley’s “Bowling Green” column in the July 20, 1929, Saturday Review of Literature.)



Morley, however much he enjoyed Bill Footner’s mystery novels, had a realistic view of their limited place in the genre. “It was a market increasingly overcrowded,” his tribute in Orchids to Murder admitted: “his own vein, which underplayed rather than overpushed his effects, could not possibly become fashionable, and his own sly deliberately casual social comments were often lost on the Whodunit trade.” But mysteries were not all Footner wrote. “In midstream of this hard work he wrote a couple of novels of entirely different mood; I still think if they had been issued over a pseudonym they might have had more attentive reception. They are sombre, sardonic, blunt with knowledge of human trouble. I mean Antennae, 1926, and More Than Bread, 1938. They were of great importance to their author, for they gave him a chance to express certain stoic observations on the human comedy he had watched unflinchingly.” After Footner resettled in Maryland’s Eastern Shore countryside, he wrote nonfiction books about it as well. And in 1937, the same year that four of his mystery novels came out, he published another quite different book entirely: “a testament of his love of New York City,” Morley called it — New York, City of Cities.


Some critics forebear to review books by friends of theirs. Morley gave New York, City of Cities nearly a page and a half in the December 11, 1937, Saturday Review of Literature. Footner “brings to the mystery of New York City the same even shrewdness,” Morley insisted, “the same flair for character and motive that he has always shown in his best detective stories.”


Mr. Footner is wise enough to know that no book can cover the whole of his gigantic subject. He limits himself for the most part to Manhattan Island, and goes about in his sleuthy fashion, inconspicuously conning and eavesdropping. He is in a sense a stool pigeon between the mystery (New York itself) and the inquisitive reader. . . . Adam-and-Eves­dropping is his specialty. Some of the most disturbing and tantalizing things in his testament are unfinished scraps of overheard conversation. It could only have been written by a man who smokes a pipe. He puts New York in his pipe and smokes it.


Without trying to put it so picturesquely — who can compete with Christopher Morley in such a vein? — I had similar thoughts after recently discovering this book of Hulbert Footner’s, and then the story behind him. I’m currently preparing my long-overdue “sources and methods” companion volume to my novel Baker Street Irregular, and felt forced to go back to an early section identifying and discussing the books about New York per se which informed my novel — three about the city itself (all but one published in the 1930s), and seven more about life there in the 1930s and ’40s. Now that draft section of my novel’s companion volume goes on to confess:


I now wish I’d also had, and recommend to anyone thinking of writing a similar book, the W.P.A. New York City Guide (1939), 680 indexed pages packed with an amazing amount of information about New York in these decades. With that, and New York, City of Cities (1937) by Hulbert Footner, a detective-story writer friend of Christopher Morley’s and a fellow member of the Three Hours for Lunch Club, the prospective Irregular novelist may be able to do without the eleven books above.


Morley is quite right about Footner’s “Adam-and-Eves-dropping” in City of Cities, noting several instances of it in his SRL review that stood out for me too: providing what Footner calls “the human side” of New York City in the 1930s, including at police headquarters, at night court, in hospitals including Bellevue’s psychiatric ward, in high society and (to quote Lucius Beebe, as Footner does on café society) in the unfashionable faubourgs like the Bowery and Hell’s Kitchen. Footner is interested in the feminine side too, Hattie Carnegie and Elsa Maxwell, and the anonymous corps of stenographers, shopgirls and waitresses without whom the city would grind to a halt faster than you could say Fiorello La Guardia, as well the haute monde. (Morley thinks his pal “grins a little” about “the administration of debutancy,” a big deal there at the time.) Footner is often not P.C. by today’s fearful standards, but never ill-willed. On racial issues, he is enlightened for his era, respectful of New York’s black community, and fascinated by Harlem and its society. He points out the positive effects of Robert Moses’ redesign of the city’s layout, but also shows his readers the lasting negative effects of Prohibition and Depression. “A Guidebook with the Stuff of Life in It” declared the New York Times’ review on December 26, 1937.


And Footner’s entire book, it seems to me, is uncluttered by cliché. He can and does wax poetic at points, for example his description of night falling and the city’s lights coming on at twilight as seen from the Rainbow Grill, sixty-five floors atop Rockefeller Center, still new at the time. Morley thinks so too, in his SRL review: “Mr. Footner, like every other whose heart is capable of stir, does not see only our great lady’s moods of cockeyed comedy and exhibitionism. In the poet’s truest vein is his description of the lights at dusk seen from the RCA building. Few of us will ever find the words required when we feel the town’s rending and bewitching beauty.”


If I have a fault to find with the book, it’s that Footner falls short on hotels. The Waldorf-Astoria gets two pages, but many New York hotels, and their bars and restaurants which were vital to the city’s life, get unaccountably short shrift. The Algonquin, despite manifold literary and theatrical associations, gets not a single word. Then too, while Morley is mentioned by name in the book, it’s only so Footner can disagree with him about something: “Christopher Morley says that the subway is a grand place to observe the human scene but I cannot find it so.” (Neither could I, after listening to Footner’s reasons and comparing them to my own experience.) It would have been nice too if Footner had taken us to Christ Cella’s on East 45th Street for a Three Hours for Lunch Club session, but he doesn’t. (Probably, like Morley, he didn’t want rubberneckers coming round.) But New York, City of Cities nonetheless reads as if he’s showing the Three Hours for Lunch Club the town, from one tip of Manhattan to the other, day-time and night-time, hectic weekdays and slower-paced weekends, and always the human side of life, what interested Morley and his kinsprits most. The effect was akin to my first visit to New York at age eight with my parents, and the overpowering Circle Line boat trip we took around the island: I still have the guidebook from it. (Footner talks about New York’s boats, too, and the men who ran them.)


For those interested in the BSI’s history, there are no surprise answers in New York, City of Cities, but it offers greater understanding of the setting in which the BSI was born. It may even help explain why, in the year of its publication, there had been no BSI annual dinner, and wouldn’t be one a month later in January ’38, either — not until 1940, after Edgar W. Smith had arrived to take over the labors of dinner-arranging, notice-mailing, and negotiations with waiters that Morley eschewed. Morley may have been too darned busy enjoying New York instead; and tracking down the answers to the “little examination paper on Mr. Footner’s book” he thought should be set:


Why is East 61, anomalously, an Eastbound Street? Where is Marie Curie Avenue? What great hospital center has a swastika design on its central chimney? What restaurant has fatter patrons than any other? Where is the extra show-window that rises from the pavement at night to fill the front doorway of the store? Where is the oldest drugstore, unchanged since 1805? Where are the Jewish Alps? What Negro poet has a fine block of apartments named for him? Who has the most alluring show windows on Fifth Avenue?


And so on, if Morley had cared to set readers an examination: the possibilities in the City of Cities were endless.


As for Footner himself, his unexpected death was a heavy blow to Morley. “The day I heard of his death,” he said to conclude his tribute in Footner’s final novel, “I had just brought back, from a cabin on Long Island Sound which Footner himself had often visited, a large weathered Christmas Log I intended to burn for festival. I heard that Bill had gone (suddenly, without long misery, as he would most have wished) and I carried onto the hearth the great oak stump I had chosen. All day and night it glowed, clear and steady and kind, like his own seasoned affection. I kept thinking of it as his memorial.” So is New York, City of Cities.


(May 23, 2013)




Sherlockian Heresies, by Léo Sauvage (1913-1988)


Ed. with Introduction and notes by Julia McKuras and Susan Vizoskie.


Indianapolis: Gasogene Books | Wessex Press, 2010.

xvi + 233 pp., illus., paper covers

$19.95    ISBN 978-0-938501-53-4


It is a distinct pleasure, particularly in these dumbed-down days, to encounter a solid work of old-fashioned, literate, witty disputation in the Canon; or rather, to honor Sauvage’s insistence, the Conan. Of course, there is no overlooking the fact that the author left this book unfinished at his death twenty-two years ago, so that, rather like the appearance of the Hound in its own day, it is of necessity a retrospective work rather than a harbinger of restored better times.


    Allow me a full-disclosure paragraph. The Sauvage I knew, from the final dinners at Cavanagh’s to the end of his life, was an older cosmopolitan New Yorker: a world-traveling journalist with a command of the most limpid, idiomatic prose in American English (and, I am confident, equally adept in at least two or three other languages), who spoke with a pronounced Maurice Chevalier–like French accent, something that was and is simply not noticeable in New York. His photos on pages 105 and 106 are how I recall him. Although I ended up working on some of his Baker Street Journal contributions, first in the years I helped Julian Wolff at Julian’s dining-room table and later as the Journal’s publisher, I really knew Léo through Julian. They were clearly kinsprits. Léo derived the title of this book from one of Julian’s editorial observations, “Long live heresy!” He captures Julian in a nutshell: “The surgical precision of Wolff’s repartees has rarely been topped, even by Isaac Asimov’s flying saucers” (p. 231). As I have written elsewhere, Julian was the master of the one-liner, and the consummate detector of humbug and pretense.


    The manuscript of Sherlockian Heresies survived for many years as part of the paternal archive saved by the three Sauvage children, and a happy accident brought them into contact with the editors. Mesdames McKuras and Vizoskie are to be congratulated heartedly for their excellent work of investigation, reconstruction, editing, and annotating. Their Introduction is first-rate, and the endnotes to each chapter extremely thorough. They have brought this book close to the form its author would have achieved had he been vouchsafed the time to do so.  Moreover, working with the Sauvage family and an acknowledged battery of human and archival resources, they have brought Léo Sauvage back from obscurity, and revealed who he really was. It’s a long story, so suffice it to say that the Franco-American journalist known to Sherlockians began life as a Jewish German. He grew up in France, married a Jewish Pole, and both of them eventually made themselves over into the French New Yorkers we knew. Not religiously observant (not, of course, that that would have saved them), they survived the Holocaust thanks to the heroic and righteous Huguenots of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Before that, as refugees in Marseille, they had not made it to the front of the line of those saved by the redoubtable Varian Fry before Fry was deported, about which more later.


    Léo Sauvage’s shepherd into the Irregulars was no one less than Edgar W. Smith. Given an assignment some six decades ago on postwar American exports to Europe, Sauvage interviewed a certain gracious senior official of overseas operations for General Motors at his office on Broadway at 57th Street. The niceties of selling vehicles in Europe took ten minutes; the next two hours were devoted to Sherlock Holmes. Léo became a regular Irregular, as he calls himself (“Victor Savage,” 1960), at the annual dinners for nearly forty years and as a contributor to the Journal.


    He began to read the stories as the age of eleven (ca. 1924), and thus was one of that vanished breed able to read certain of the adventures as they were published. He rightly describes the formidable Jacques Barzun, his fellow Frenchman, as “One of the intellectually most impressive Sherlockians I have met.” He repeats approvingly Professor Barzun’s round condemnation of “those intolerable middle sections which potbelly” Sign, Study, and Valley, saying further that “The astute reader reads them once, at the age of twelve, and skips them forever after.” Sauvage observes that, “Astute or not, that’s what I did from the age of eleven” (pp. 53–54).


    Sauvage’s critical strictures in Sherlockian Heresies are not nitpickings; this is not a chapter of faults, so to speak. The only area approaching this minor art form is his distaste for those aspects of American punctuation that put terminal punctuation inside closing quotation marks; then again, the editors did not permit this to survive their work, so the minor issue is moot in this publication. No, he saves his heavy guns for substantive issues, and recurs to numbers of them throughout the chapters:


• Personally a secularist, he is particularly adamant that there is nothing sacred about the writings: there can thus be no Sacred Writings and thereby no Canon. What he consistently demands is that it be the Conan, and he writes often and strongly of Conanicity and the like.


• He deplores the lack of security in the Holmes–Watson flat, and details many instances of life-threatening dangers and serious threats to confidentiality, solely the product of unlocked doors, unlimited access to total strangers, and failures to observe the simplest acts of watchfulness.


• He evaluates various attempts to identify the “best” and the “least” of the stories, sparing no one, taking issue even with such generally lauded works as “The Speckled Band.”


• He makes it abundantly clear that 221B is the address of a whole structure, and not some misguided interpretation of the B as designating the first- (American second-) floor quarters. For that matter, he is doubtful that the actual residence was even on Baker Street, let alone its putative location on that street, whether the bifurcated thoroughfare of the Victorian era or the long single stretch of the decades since.


• He finds the offered “facts” of “The Final Problem” and “The Empty House” completely risible.


There is much more to challenge the engaged reader’s beliefs and assumptions, and he takes serious issue with the findings of even the greatest among us in the past.


    Léo Sauvage would have expected his book to stir up comment; so, if I may, a few minor observations of my own. In my case, they have to do with editorial issues, except for the garish cover, which clashes with Léo’s manifest seriousness and stated tastes:


    Varian Fry was not just forthright and successful, he was such despite the direct opposition of the U.S. Department of State, which at the time was unofficially but uniformly anti-Semitic and officially supportive of the Vichy regime — indeed, one would be accurate in saying that State collaborated with Pétain and Vichy. It was not all just this way, to be sure. Individual Foreign Service officers assisted Fry at the risk of their careers, just as, at sea, the U.S. Navy actively cooperated with the Forces Françaises Navales Libres (Free French Naval Forces) before Pearl Harbor, in direct disobedience of official policy. Still, policy was policy. Fry, who ended his life uncelebrated, suffering from alcoholism and making a poor living teaching Greek and Latin to young boys at a New England prep school, had been more than heroic, rescuing upwards of 2,000 persons, until State had Vichy throw him out of France.


    That (O.S.) or [O.S.] attached to citations of the first thirteen issues of the Journal, from 1946 to 1949, stands for Original Series, not Old Series.


    The Baring-Gould “edition” of his Annotated Sherlock Holmes is an offset-printed paste-up of various London: John Murray publications, and the texts reflect British usage as a result of this. Of course, I agree with the editors that Sauvage primarily used the Doubleday edition, with its errors and Americanisms, occasionally turning to the Baring-Gould Annotated for commentary. (The Doubleday was pretty much the only thing most of us had during Sauvage’s lifetime.)


    But I need to be brief; and you also. Get Sherlockian Heresies. Read it. It will get your own dialectical juices flowing.


George Fletcher is “The Cardboard Box,” BSI, and claims to have retired as director of Special Collections at the New York Public Library. Previously Astor Curator of Printed Books and Bindings at the Pierpont Morgan Library, before that he was the director of Fordham University Press, where he published the Baker Street Journal for some happy years.





Posted October 4, 2010:


SHERLOCK HOLMES, CONAN DOYLE & THE BOOKMAN

Pastiches, Parodies, Letters, Columns and Commentary from

America’s “Magazine of Literature and Life” ( 1895-1933)

Edited and Annotated by S. E. Dahlinger and Leslie S. Klinger


Indianapolis: Gasogene Books, 2010. 272 pp.

ISBN 978-0-938501-503     $29.95


In this, the first decade of the 21st century, anyone who can connect to the worldwide web can be deluged — and paralyzed — by a flood of virtual news, information, misinformation, blogs, opinions, images etc., on nearly any conceivable topic. A hundred years ago, a principal delivery system for those kinds of material was the monthly magazine. One such magazine, The Bookman, appeared with different content on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.


    Both the Senior Editor, Harry Thurston Peck, and the Junior Editor, Arthur Bartlett Maurice, of the American Bookman were obsessed with the doings of Sherlock Holmes. In fact, Peck claimed to be “the only true Sherlockian”; whereas, the annotators of this collection allege (p. 85) that Maurice provided “the first use of the term ‘Sherlockian’ to mean a student of Sherlock Holmes.”


    The result of the mania shared by Peck and Maurice was a devotion to tracking and commenting upon various strands of Sherlockiana, Doyleana, and numerous other detective appearances coeval to their publication. In fact, they published works by writers such as S. S. Van Dine, Carolyn Wells, Robert Barr, Valentine Williams, Vincent Starrett, etc. Not that I would not love to leisurely flip through all of the four decades of The Bookman, but the essence of this volume is that Dahlinger and Klinger have already extracted the full contributions, and reorganized them chronologically and by genre (Chronicle and Comment, Letters to the Editor, Articles, Pastiches and Parodies, and Reviews), giving a contemporary flow to each section.


    This is an excellent route to appreciating the growth and development of Sherlockian appreciation essentially from the beginning. It also places Doyle in the context of his contemporaries like R.L.S., J. M. Barrie, Jack London, Harding Davis, Anna Katherine Green, as well as his predecessors in Poe, Gaboriau, and Vidocq. A lot of this material is familiar to in-depth students of the subject, but it is a quick, rewarding refresher course in the subject matter, with learned annotations, but with occasional nuggets that pop to the surface. For example, the effort to solve HOUN based upon only the first two or three installments: e.g., a human/animal hybrid. (Note: these ingenious solutions were later read by Conan Doyle, “who intimated that they were worthy of Lestrade or Gregson.”) Another nugget of literary gossip is that Ian McLaren is the nom de plume of Rev. John Watson: a nugget attributed to the professional Scotsman Robertson Nicoll who asked "Did ye ken that Thackeray was a verra immorral mon?”


    Why, the “Editorial Adventure Story” by Trumbull White, in which he narrates his long quest to acquire a yet-to-be written manuscript co-authored by Conan Doyle and E. W. Hornung, is almost worth the $29.95 purchase price itself. Hornung, of course, was Doyle's brother-in-law, and that ms. would have described the definitive encounter of Holmes and Raffles. The nugget within the nugget is that Doyle refused to be engaged upon the project despite an essentially guaranteed advance payment of half a million dollars!



(Herewith a personal digression. In an article on “The Art of Parody” (pp. 25-26), one of the editors opines that:


Bret Harte’s first volume of Condensed Novels was entirely admirable, not quite so much may be said for the second. Some of the old dash and fire is missing. Yet, on the whole, most of the parodies are excellent. As poor as any is “The Stolen Cigar Case,” in which Sherlock Holmes as Hemlock Jones deduces a condition of affairs which puts an end to his long association with Watson. But Sherlock Holmes has never been successfully parodied.


As an antiquarian bookseller, I cannot but be painfully reminded of an incident nearly forty years ago. For a period, Mr. Bret Harte represented the United States in the role of Consul to a couple of European cities. Then he settled permanently in London. One night, after a night of partying, Harte returned home to discover that he had lost his cigarette case. The next day he wrote to his host to request its return. About 1972, my mentor, Mr. Van Allen Bradley (author of Gold in Your Attic), offered to sell me that original autograph letter. Sadly I could not afford the approximately $150 he asked for it, and it went to someone else. At that time I knew of Harte as a California friend of Mark Twain. If I had only known that that incident may have provoked Harte’s Sherlockian parody, I certainly would have found a way to acquire that epistle.)



    Meanwhile, other not-to-be-missed nuggets in this compilation include a very late (1927) article by Conan Doyle which relates to his interest in Spiritualism. (Did you know he opened a Spiritualism Bookshop near the British Museum?) Called “The Alleged Posthumous Writings of Known Authors,” it in part attempts to resolve The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which remained unfinished at Dickens' death.


    Last, but certainly not least, this reprints various contributions by Vincent Starrett in advance of his immediate classic The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. They demonstrate the state of mind of a youngish Starrett trying to work from his reporter’s notebooks, showing his growth toward writing his biography. However, at p. 179, Starrett relates an anecdote at the Cliff Dwellers’ Club in Chicago which involved Arnold Bennett and Karl Edwin Harriman. I would swear that elsewhere (in Born in a Bookshop?) the same anecdote is told involving Opie Read and Vincent Starrett. (Note: in more than 35 years of selling rare books in Chicago, I have never seen any which support either version of this anecdote.) Also, there are some fresh twists on the use of a Ouija board in the press room of the Chicago Daily News.


    I enjoyed this book. I recommend it. The annotations prevent a lot of Googling. That which is old is new again in this new presentation. Steve Doyle and his Gasogene Press colleagues are to be applauded for producing this project.


Thomas J. Joyce


Thomas J. Joyce (“The Yellow-backed Novel,” BSI) is a rare books dealer, and a long-time member of Chicago’s bibliophile society, The Caxton Club.




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Posted August 21, 2010:


Sherlock Alive: Sherlockian Excerpts from Vincent Starrett’s

“Books Alive” Column in The Chicago Tribune 1942 – 1967.

Compiled and Annotated by Karen Murdock, with an Introduction by Susan Rice.


Eugenia, ONT: The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2010.

503pp., illus., bibliography, index, paper covers.

$35.00           ISBN 978-1-55246-908-8


It is difficult to imagine the state of Sherlockian studies or the history of the Baker Street Irregulars without thinking of Vincent Starrett. Novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, columnist, bookman, he was the voice of literary Chicago in the middle of the twentieth century. He not only wrote one of the best biographies of Sherlock Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1933), but kept green the memory of the Master in his weekly “Books Alive” column for the Chicago Tribune. Not every column mentioned Sherlock Holmes, but just as King Charles’ head kept popping up in the manuscript Mr. Dick was writing in David Copperfield, the name of Sherlock Holmes would surface in Starrett’s columns without warning. Vincent Starrett saw the world from the point of view of Baker Street.


    This collection begins with his earliest columns in the Chicago Daily News and continues when it moved to the Chicago Tribune. The first is dated September 2, 1942, the last August 13, 1967. (His final “Books Alive” column was September 3, 1967, but did not deal with Sherlock Holmes.) Only those portions of the columns relating to Sherlock Holmes are reprinted, though occasionally an entire column will appear if the context demands it. Interestingly, the very first discusses the manuscript of “The Case of the Man Who Was Wanted,” suspected at that time to be an actual undiscovered Sherlock Holmes story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The last column completely devoted to Sherlock Holmes is a review of Pierre Nordon’s Conan Doyle: A Biography.


    The book is necessarily episodic, but nevertheless it is possible to read it straight through with pleasure as well as by dipping into it at random. Starrett was a man of his times and commented in passing on his times and the people who moved in it. If they just happened to be Sherlockians, so much the better. Whenever a person or event might not be understood by today’s reader, editor Murdock has inserted a footnote of explanation. In addition, there is a lengthy section at the end of biographical sketches (“Personalia”) of Sherlockians and others whom Starrett mentions in his columns. (This reviewer happens to be one of them, by virtue of having written Starrett in 1960 when he was in Library School at the University of Minnesota.)


    But (as they say in infomercials) that’s not all! A dozen appendices record such topics as a Chicago Daily News article about the discovery of the real author of “The Case of the Man Who Was Wanted,” a list of pastiches involving Sherlock Homes and Gilbert & Sullivan, a list of Basil Rathbone’s movie roles before Sherlock Holmes, Ronald Knox’s “10 Commandments of the Detective Story,” an essay on Sherlock Holmes by Christopher Isherwood, and Jay Finlay Christ’s abbreviations for the stories. At the very end (before a most able index) there is a chronology of the Life and Times of Vincent Starrett, with dates and events in the world beyond Starrett as well as those in his own life. It begins almost a decade before Starrett’s birth with the birth of Carl Sandburg, another noted Chicago literary figure and friend of Starrett’s whose birthday is also that of Sherlock Holmes, January 6.


    This is a book for anyone who enjoys reading Vincent Starrett, but it may also serve as a resource to events in the Sherlockian world between 1942 and 1967. There is one column, for June 24, 1945, for which this reviewer wishes to have been told more by the editor. The column mentions a man named Talbot C. Hatch of Minneapolis, who supplied Starrett with some statistics regarding the detective story. Unfortunately, there is no footnote or entry under “Personalia” to explain just who Talbot C. Hatch was. He contributed quizzes to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the 1940s and compiled an extensive bibliography of writers of detective fiction that exists in at least two typewritten copies. We have long wished to know more about the man.


    A book that allows us to read something new by the Dean of Sherlockians (as Starrett was often called) is worth a place on our shelves.


J. Randolph Cox, BSI


  1. J.Randolph Cox (“The Conk-Singleton Forgery Case,” BSI) is Prof. Emeritus (Library, St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn.), and editor of Dime Novel Round-Up.




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