Sherlockian group's love is no mystery

Holmes: An Ellicott City club's members enjoy examining the life and exploits of the famous fictional detective.

Howard Live

April 08, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Seated around a long, rectangular table at a restaurant in Columbia last week, about 15 members of Howard County's Sherlock Holmes society each toasted an animal (or animals) from the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.

The members raised their glasses to two dogs named Carlo (in The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire and The Adventure of the Copper Beeches), a trained cormorant mentioned only as part of a previous (and unwritten) case in The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger, and the titular Hound of the Baskervilles.

The combination toast and memory test is a regular practice for members of Watson's Tin Box, which offers lively conversation, literary insight and good-humored quizzing of Sherlockian knowledge for casual readers and the Holmes-obsessed.

"We have our little rituals," said Steve Clarkson, a founding member, noting that some activities are modeled after practices of the best-known Sherlock Holmes society, the Baker Street Irregulars in New York.

But, he said, the Ellicott City-based group "is basically laid back. The whole idea is let's have fun, and we do."

Sherlockian societies operate all over the world. One Holmes-oriented Web site lists more than 400 active societies, most with names derived from Holmes titles, characters or locations.

The Howard County group took its name from the "travel-worn and battered tin dispatch-box" mentioned in the story The Problem of Thor Bridge. It is said to be in the vault of a bank at Charing Cross in London and to contain the notes John Watson kept on Holmes' cases.

Members meet on the last Monday of every month a good distance from Charing Cross -- at Bertucci's restaurant in Columbia's Snowden Square Shopping Center.

Occasionally the group sponsors outreach events, including an annual "Saturday with Sherlock Holmes" at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. That event, celebrating its 25th year in November, includes two Baltimore-based Sherlockian groups, the Carlton Club and the Six Napoleons.

Last month, Watson's Tin Box gave its first presentation at the Miller branch library in celebration of Holmes' 150th birthday. Club members talked about Victorian England and code-breaking, and some appeared in costume as Holmes' landlady Mrs. Hudson, Holmes' brother Mycroft and Holmes himself.

The club also plans to reach new readers by sponsoring an essay contest for seventh-graders next school year.

Since the first stories were published, "they clicked with the public and still do," said Andrew Solberg, a club member who was master of ceremonies for the library event.

A dedicated fan of the stories, Solberg said he was glad to find Watson's Tin Box.

"This is the most relaxed, welcoming, informal Sherlockian group you're going to find," he said. "It includes people who are longtime Sherlockians and also people who are reading [the stories] for the first time."

Marjie Leonard, a program analyst from Columbia, agrees.

Leonard, who like many members first read the stories as a child, was drawn into the group when co-founder Paul Churchill's car (driven by his daughter-in-law) slid into Leonard's car on a rainy day. A discussion about insurance led them to a lengthy chat about Holmes.

"It's cool to talk about Holmes and Watson like they are real people," she said -- although club members note they do so strictly tongue-in-cheek.

Among the die-hard Holmes followers are Churchill, a semi-retired Latin teacher at Centennial High School, and Clarkson, a retired inquiry specialist with the federal government who moved a few years ago from Ellicott City to Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

The two, who met when Churchill taught Clarkson's stepdaughter in Latin class, started the club 14 years ago with Rod McCaslin, a Centennial history teacher.

Every meeting begins with a toast to adventuress and opera singer Irene Adler, who bested Holmes in Scandal in Bohemia and was thereafter referred to by the detective as "the woman." Then there are toasts based on some category within "the canon," as the 60 Holmes stories are called. The club's president, called the gasogene, chooses the subject.

There are announcements of Sherlockian interest and presentations on such topics as mathematics in the Holmes stories or an element of Victorian English culture.

Toward the end of the evening, the group discusses one story chosen for the month.

At that point, Churchill, who has made a hobby out of assembling items related to each of the 60 cases (he has also decorated his home to mimic the sitting room of Holmes' at 221B Baker St.) brings out his evidence box.

Last week, he unpacked items related to The Sussex Vampire. Among them were authentic British newspapers from the 1800s and carefully re-created letters from Holmes to his clients.

"If he can't find the actual evidence, he always finds faux evidence," said the current gasogene, S. Brent Morris of Laurel.

Clarkson, the group's trivia expert, usually wraps up the evening with a quiz. He has written a book of Sherlockian tests, as well as The Canonical Compendium, a book indexing various categories, such as weapons and vehicles, and the stories in which they appear.

"The more you know about this kind of stuff, the more you enjoy it," Clarkson said.

Meetings of Watson's Tin Box are open to the public and everyone is welcome to join. Information: e-mail sbrent332 @comcast.net.

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