Sherlock Holmes remains alive, but he never sits still


August 24, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

LONDON — The title of a monograph written by Sherlock Holmes was rendered irregularly in yesterday's Sun. Instead of "The Distinction Between the Ashes of Various Cigarettes," the title was "Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos."

The Sun regrets the errors.

LONDON -- Sherlock Holmes remains alive, of course, and no more so than in his chambers at 221b Baker St. where it is always Victorian London and preferably foggy on the street below.

We seem to have just missed him, the half-dozen of us who have climbed the 17 steps to the sitting room.


Holmes invariably breakfasts early, according to Dr. John Watson, who shared this flat until his marriage. The breakfast table by one of the two broad windows has already been reset with gleaming china and crystal.

The maid expects Mr. Holmes will be back later for his dinner of beef stew. "At 5:30 on the dot," she says.

The book he's been reading lies on the taboret by his chair before the glowing fireplace: "The Life of the Bee," by Maurice Maeterlinck.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wanted to retire Holmes to Sussex to keep bees. Conan Doyle had also tried to kill him off in 1893 when he and Professor Moriarty disappeared into the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland.

But Holmes proved too resilient. Conan Doyle had to resurrect him for "The Hound of the Baskervilles," "The Valley of Fear" and another shelf of short stories.

"My head is still spinning. Holmes is alive!!" wrote Dr. Watson in the diary preserved in the display in Mrs. Hudson's quarters on the third floor of what is now the Sherlock Holmes Museum.

"To my chagrin, for the first time in my life I fainted," said the bully doctor who had survived the second Afghan war with a Jezrail ball either in his leg or shoulder. Conan Doyle couldn't seem to remember which.

"We don't want to give the impression that Sherlock actually lived," says Grace Riley, a director of the International Sherlock Holmes Society, the proprietors of the museum. "That would be immoral. But characters do begin to really live don't they?"

They certainly do for the true Sherlockian faithful who have read and reread the entire canon of 56 stories and four novels. They are the experts who discuss and debate and write papers on the Sherlockian minutiae, much as Holmes wrote on "The Distinction Between the Ashes of Various Cigarettes" and "Upon the Influence of Trade on the Form of the Hand."

Holmes' treatises are preserved at the museum, along with his deerstalker, his cape, his magnifying glass, his lock pickers and a pair of hair-trigger revolvers.

The revolvers are presumably those with which Holmes one boring day during "The Musgrave Ritual" pumped a couple dozen bullets into the sitting room wall, describing the initials "VR," Victoria Regina.

"This person never lived," says Mrs. Riley, "and he never died. We don't have a birth certificate and we don't have a death certificate.

"Although we do have the odd person who asks: When did he die? We say: We don't ask that question here."

Mr. Holmes still receives about 500 letters a week. Some ask his aid in the solution of a mystery. But the consulting detective seems not to be consultable anymore.

"We wriggle out of that," Mrs. Riley says. "We reply that Mr. Holmes thinks the evidence would have been lost by now."

The museum opened in 1990 and received about 17,000 visitors. The number has roughly doubled every year since. Mrs. Riley expects about 80,000 this year.

"That's about our maximum," she says. A private bobby regulates the queue outside now.

Mrs. Riley says she's amazed at the number of people who will pay five pounds (about $7.50) to see what are essentially a few rooms furnished in Victorian style.

"Most of our visitors are literate people," she says. And adults predominate ten to one. "He's the hero of the more developed mind."

"Doctors, lawyers, police, lots of sheriffs from America, any number of private eyes, the ex-director of your CIA -- a fellow named Webster."

The real mystery perhaps is why 221b Baker St. falls between 237. a real estate office, and 241, a chartered accountant firm. But no 221 actually existed in Holmes' time. Baker Street was renumbered in the 1930s.

This house best fits the clues in the canon, Mrs. Riley argues. And 100 years ago it was the only lodging house in upper Baker Street.

"Sherlock shouldn't be left in limbo," Mrs. Riley says. "He should be settled down."

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