Elementary, My Dear Watson

Gathering Saturday At Pratt To Honor Sherlock Holmes And The Bad Guys He Fought

November 05, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

To most of the world, Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, a master of deductive reasoning created by British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle over the course of 60 novels and short stories. But true Sherlockians, like those who will be gathering at the Pratt Library on Saturday for the 30th year running, know better.

"There's a belief on our part that Sherlock Holmes was a real person," says Andrew Solberg, a member of Watson's Tin Box of Ellicott City, one of three Baltimore-area Holmesian societies putting together Saturday's gathering, which will feature talks and discussions by some of the area's leading Holmes authorities.

Not that they really believe all this stuff, of course - like the master sleuth they so idolize, these men and women are too smart to be so gullible. As Solberg explains, "We proceed with our tongue planted firmly in our cheek."

But in an odd way, partaking in the fantasy, being part of a world where Holmes and Dr. Watson and the nefarious Professor Moriarty once lived, makes it all so much more fun. A world where deductive reasoning can solve any crime, where the bad guys always lose, and qualities like wit and loyalty are always rewarded - who wouldn't want to live in a world such as that?

Or, as Solberg says, "We like to play the game."

Which explains why, with great (perhaps even slightly exaggerated) earnestness, some half-dozen speakers will take to the podium Saturday to discuss "A Gallery of Rogues," the roster of bad guys and ne'er-do-wells Holmes was constantly running up against as he tried to make Victorian London a safer place. They'll be talking about the thugs, the schemers, the traitors, the suave evildoers who were always meeting their match in Holmes.

Die-hard Holmesians love to dissect the world Conan Doyle created, to try to extract tiny bits of information about the characters. (Did Holmes, for example, attend Oxford or Cambridge? Conan Doyle never said, but fans have their opinions.) And they love to try and rationalize the occasional inconsistencies that creep into the narrative. The wound Dr. Watson received while fighting in Afghanistan, for instance: Was it in his leg, as one story says, or in his shoulder?

"Conan Doyle was not a stickler for continuity," says Solberg, in a tone more amused than critical.

It seems unlikely that Conan Doyle, who published his first Sherlock Holmes adventure in 1887, ever thought the character would still be popular more than a century later. He even tried to kill off the detective once, when Holmes and Moriarty fell to their deaths from atop a Swiss waterfall. "Conan Doyle was happy with that," says William Hyder, a retired Baltimore Sun copy editor and member of the Six Napoleons of Baltimore, a Holmes appreciation society that traces its roots to 1946. "He had gotten pretty sick of writing about Sherlock Holmes."

But the public wanted more from Holmes, and Conan Doyle brought him back after a hiatus of nearly a decade. He's been with us, in one form or another, ever since, most notably in an early-20th century stage play starring and written by William Gillette, in a 1940s movie series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and in a series of British teleplays starring Jeremy Brett, whom most fans consider the definitive Holmes.

In all, some 70 actors have played Holmes on film over the years. And on Christmas Day, the movie "Sherlock Holmes," starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, will be released, introducing the great detective to a new generation of potential fans.

Hyder, a major Holmes fan since seeing Rathbone and Bruce in "The Hound of the Baskervilles" as a 10-year-old in 1939, believes Conan Doyle's writing is key to the characters' continuing popularity.

"Considered as great detective stories, they're not that great, people have moved on," he says. "But the characters are so vivid, and the writing is so good. The stories just come alive. [The characters] appeal not only to readers, but to writers, actors and dramatists as well."

At the Pratt on Saturday, Hyder gets the plum assignment of talking about Professor Moriarty, the criminal mastermind and scourge of London. He'll also, Hyder is sure, be asked about the coming Holmes movie, a subject that doesn't exactly thrill him.

"I'll be interested to see it, but I don't expect to like it," he says. "Nobody's come any closer than the Brett series, and I doubt that this one will, either."

Solberg, however, sounds slightly more optimistic.

"I hope it's a huge smash," he says, "and introduces many more people to Sherlock Holmes."

If you go

A Saturday with Sherlock Holmes, featuring talks on "A Gallery of Rogues: The Adversaries of Sherlock Holmes," begins at 10 a.m. Saturday in the Poe Room of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. Free. Call 410-997-9114.

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