This week we're profiling some of my favorite Sherlockian bloggers as we approach the second anniversary next month of this blog. Today's Q&A guest is Jaime N. Mahoney, proprietor of Better Holmes & Gardens.
When did you launch Better Homes & Gardens?
Better Holmes & Gardens launched on January 14, 2011. I was living a bit of a different life then, and I was able to write and post on a weekly basis, if not more frequently. Circumstances have changed a bit since then, but I still post regularly – several times a month when I can manage it. It never feels like enough, however. I always have ideas.
What were your inspirations?
As Christopher Morley said, “When was so much written by so many for so few?” It was hard to read the immense volume of Sherlockian scholarship that has been researched and written over the years and not be inspired to do the same. Or at least attempt to do the same. Attempt is probably the better word. Alistair Duncan (http://alistaird221b.blogspot.com/) was also a big inspiration for my early efforts. I remember saying that I wanted to start a blog about Sherlock Holmes, but I couldn’t imagine I had anything to say that hadn’t already been said. “Well,” Alistair told me, “That’s never stopped me.” I’ve also been lucky to find a great community of Sherlockian bloggers, like Matt Laffey (http://always1895.net/) and Leah Cummins Guinn (http://wellreadsherlockian.com/), who inspire me to keep writing, and keep things fresh and thoughtful.
Where did the name come from?
What Sherlockian doesn’t like a good pun? (“Though he might be more humble, there’s no police like Holmes.”) Actually, when I first decided in late 2010 that I was going try my hand at a Sherlockian blog, I started casting about for a name. I told a non-Sherlockian friend about my idea and she found the idea of a blog dedicated entirely to a fictional detective just hysterical (as non-Sherlockians often do). She jokingly started throwing ideas for names at me. For example, “Holmes on the Range” and “What’s Up, Holmes?” I think she even tried, “Sherlock Is My Holmes Boy,” before finally saying, “What about Better Holmes & Gardens?” I think I was fully irritated by that point and didn’t think too much of it, but I kept coming back to her final suggestion. It hit the right note with me and it just stuck. If I remember correctly, I think my original idea was that I was mostly going to talk about the Great Detective in retirement, beekeeping, and care of one’s cottage in Sussex Downs. Obviously that idea didn’t pan out.
Sherlock Holmes blogs come in all types. What would you describe as the mission of yours?
I write the blog that I’d want to read, which I suppose might be a simplistic way of looking at things. It never occurred to me that anyone would want to read my writing, outside of people that might feel some sort of familial obligation to do so. I write about Sherlock Holmes because it gives me joy, and my aim is to convey that to people. I write about the elements of Sherlockiana that interest me, and that I hope others will also find interesting. Fortunately, that gives me a lot of topics on which I can write. There are many niches in Sherlockiana, and everyone has a favorite or something about which they want to know more. Thank goodness Sherlockians are lifelong learners by trade.
You have a day job. Where in the world do you find the time to write such a reflective blog?
I’ve lived two professional lives since I started Better Holmes & Gardens. In my first life, I had a very long commute (at least two hours on a good day, usually more), and I had a lot of time to think. And talk. Out loud. To myself. In the car. I’d think and talk and make notes at stoplights and take voice memos on my phone (and honestly probably didn’t look half as crazy as many of my fellow commuters). By the time I’d get home in the evening, the posts would be nearly crafted or well on their way to being so.
Now I have a much shorter commute. I’m not going to say how much shorter because many of my former fellow commuters would sooner take my head off as hear me say it, but now I have a lot more free time. But as we all know, inspiration is variable and some afternoons I find myself screaming at a blank Word document as if it has some personal vendetta against me – so sometimes I write in the morning, or late into the night. Mostly I write about Sherlock Holmes because it’s important to me, but even more so because it makes me ridiculously happy. I always said I would stop blogging about Sherlock Holmes when it stopped being fun. Would you believe that hasn’t happened yet?
You also have a project in which you tweet entire canonical Sherlock Holmes stories, 140 characters at a time. What has been the reaction to that?
From the responses I’ve received, about half think the project is great fun, the other half thinks I’m a raving lunatic, and I suppose both assessments are fair. I’ve had a couple of people ask me why I’m doing it at all, and my answer is usually, “Well, why not?” I’ve also been asked why I’m confining myself to 140 characters (when I could easily post larger excerpts on my Facebook page, for example) and I think it’s really about the challenge. I want to see if it can be done, and I think it can be, but at the rate I’m going, Twitter will probably be overthrown for another social media platform before I’m done.
Do you actually retype the stories or do you copy and paste from an electronic version?
It depends on both the story and the day. I like to post excerpts at least twice a day (occasionally three times, if I can manage it), so if I’m pressed for time I’ll copy and paste from an electronic version (http://ignisart.com/camdenhouse/canon/index.html) and then break the passage down into 140 character increments. I’ll also do this if there is a particularly complicated passage of story or dialogue, something that I want to make sure I get precisely right.
But I far prefer to retype the passages when I can manage it. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was just genius at the perfectly chosen, perfectly expressive word, and some of them really leap out at the reader, particularly when the story is taken in small portions. For example, in “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” which I tweeted in August 2012, Doyle used “subsided” to describe the way in which Mycroft Holmes sits in a chair. Isn’t that marvelously evocative? What’s particularly great about the project is that I can get a sense – via “Retweets” and “Favorites” – about what passages strike a chord with readers and that one was popular.
What is your favorite canonical Sherlock Holmes story and why?
If I had to choose, it would probably be “The Six Napoleons,” as it’s such a wonderfully inventive and imaginative mystery. In addition, I think it’s one of the few stories where readers really get to know Sherlock Holmes, if they look in the right places. Some time ago, I wrote a post on six separate aspects of Holmes’s personality seen in SIXN (http://betterholmesandgardens.blogspot.com/2011/06/it-was-admirable-hiding-place-adventure.html), which was a rather fun angle of examination. And of course, there is something very powerful about the conclusion of SIXN, where Holmes is moved to softer emotions by Inspector Lestrade’s compliment. I think most readers are particularly susceptible to evidence of Holmes and Watson’s enduring friendship, and occasionally it’s nice to see how other characters could have a similar impact. The way in which Holmes reacts to Lestrade in that instance is profound, and I’ve always thought it’s a rather golden canonical moment.
On your Facebook page, you often call attention to Sherlockian products on e-bay. What are a few of the most prized Sherlock Holmes books and memorabilia that you own?
Two of my favorite pieces were gifts from my husband – not because they have any particular monetary value, but because they were his way of saying, “All right, you love this. And I love you.” One is a framed picture of Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. It’s not signed or vintage or in any way valuable, but he bought the picture and picked out the frame himself. I keep it in my office and new visitors always ask me if I’m “related to the gentleman in the top hat.” And one year for my birthday he had some custom M&Ms made (http://www.mymms.com/) with the distinctive Sherlockian silhouette. He had two bags made for me to eat, and then had some put in a glass jar with cork that I keep as a memento. He continuously shows an unparalleled understanding of my personality that leaves me humbled.
I also own a first edition of Vincent Starrett’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. It’s not in great condition, but I value it for a lot of reasons. Primarily because when I found it in the bookstore, I immediately took to Twitter for help in dating the book. Several people assisted me, including Matt Laffey of Always1895.net. He probably doesn’t remember helping me, but I do. It was such a neat way of connecting with the online Sherlockian community, and it’s a bright memory for me.
And I also own a copy of The Sign of Four written entirely in shorthand – because don’t we all need to own one of those?
What has it meant to you to be a Sherlockian?
There’s a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that I’ve always liked: “What's a book? Everything or nothing. The eye that sees it all.” I’ve always felt that this applies to how I feel about being a Sherlockian. What does being a Sherlockian mean? Nothing – it means nothing in the long term, and nothing to someone who doesn’t understand or share my enthusiasm. But it means everything to me. Being a Sherlockian is how I identify myself and that means education and community and friendship. It means a sense of belonging and a place in the world. It means that I will always know and be able to find other people like me. It means that I have a voice. And that means everything.
What genres and particular writers do you like to read outside the Holmes universe?
Not to give an annoyingly dodgy answer, but I like to think I read a little bit of everything. I love Stephen King and Terry Pratchett, and the author who bridges all genres, Neil Gaiman. My favorite non-Sherlockian novel is The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, which I like to describe as a romance novel for people who are love with books. It’s a novel that will both ruin your life and make it infinitely better.
I love books about books, and historical fiction (of course), and I’ve recently discovered a love of memoirs of all types. I also recommend the Barker & Llewelyn mysteries by Will Thomas – a series of Victorian detective mysteries for those who don’t want to make the journey all the way to Baker Street.