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Friday, June 17, 2011

Bridge of Light

Solar Pons is quite a character, and I don’t know quite what to make of him.
Probably any serious student of Sherlock Holmes knows that Solar Pons, a name that means “bridge of light,” is usually thought of as a pastiche of the Master – simply Homes under a different name.

In part, that was certainly true. August Derleth, then a 19-year-old from Wisconsin, started writing the first of the Pons tales in 1928 after being assured in a letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that no more Holmes stories would be coming from him. Pons has his own faithful Boswell (Dr. Parker), a brother (Bancroft), a housekeeper (Mrs. Johnson), and a frequently alluded to address in London (7B Praed Street).

Derleth wrote 68 Pons stories, which exceeds the Holmes Canon by eight. In the final collection, The Chronicles of Solar Pons, which I just read, there are references to Pons wearing an Inverness cape and a deerstalker hat (which was never said of Holmes in the original stories, but never mind). Chronicles also contains at least two stories inspired by references in the Conan to famous unrecorded cases of Sherlock Holmes.

Despite all this, Solar Pons is not quite Holmes. His adventures, even the ones written in the late 1960s and early 1970s, all take place in the 1920s and 1930s – the generation after Sherlock Holmes. Pons even refers somewhere to “my distinguished predecessor.” And in one of the Chronicles, he is called “the Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street.”

I like Vincent Starrett’s observation that Pons “comes to us with a twinkle in his eye, which tells us that he knows he is not Sherlock Holmes, and knows that we know it.”

Pons has his own following – the Praed Street Irregulars and a series of Pons pastiches by Basil Copper. I agree with his fans that the best of the Pons stories are well worth reading. And I am strongly attached to one particular Pons book in my library for a reason that has nothing to do with its literary merits.

Many years ago, at a library sale, I bought a book called Three Problems for Solar Pons. It was published in a limited edition in 1952 – three weeks before my birth – under the impression that these would be Derleth’s last Pons stories. In reality, he continued to write them until his death in 1971 and these three stories were republished with others in The Return of Solar Pons.

The low print run of 996 copies makes Three Problems the scarcest of the Pons books. But if you would like a copy, a rare book dealer in Oregon has one for sale now for $450. Happily, I paid 25 cents for my copy.

What’s your take on Solar Pons?

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