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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Ray Betzner: Student of Starrett

Bert Coules, Mark Gegan, Ray Betzner, and Steve Doyle at McSorley's Old Ale House.
Photo courtesy of Jacquelynn Bost Morris
Ray Betzner, BSI (“The Agony Column”), curates the blog Studies in Starrett, “an exploration of the works of Charles Vincent Emerson Starrett.” I asked Ray a few questions about himself and about Starrett, one of the premier figures in the first generation of Sherlockians. 

First of all, just to get our bearings on this topic, where would you place Vincent Starrett’s star in the Sherlockian galaxy? How important was he in the twentieth century and how important is he today? 

I place Starrett on equal footing with Christopher Morley and Edgar Smith, the troika of the Sherlockian Golden Age in the United States. Like Morley and Smith, Starrett’s affinity for Holmes started when he was a boy. But they diverged in adult life: Morley collected friends and Starrett collected books, while Smith had a mind for organization and a secretary to do the hard work.

Starrett’s book, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, helped many in this country realize they were not alone in their Holmes idolatry. Before the internet connected Sherlockians, Starrett was one of those vital links that helped build the Holmes community we enjoy today. He deserves a good-sized star in the Sherlockian firmament for that alone.

Probably Starrett’s best-known work is the groundbreaking The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. You edited Gasogene Books’ handsome 75th anniversary editionHow many copies of the book in various editions do you own? 

All of them. Which is to say, that I have at least one copy of every edition produced in the U.S., England and Japan. All together, it’s 15 by my count.  

Steve Doyle and Mark Gagen deserve a lot of credit for that book. They didn’t stint in the production values. We wanted to make a book that Starrett would have been proud to put on his shelf, and I think we succeeded.  

Is The Private Life the most important book about Sherlock Holmes not written by Arthur Conan Doyle? 

That’s a tough question. As much as I am an advocate for Private Life, its influence in the last several decades has waned as newer works have come along, like William S. Baring-Gould’s Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which will likely be eclipsed by Les Klinger’s books.

To really enjoy it today, you have to treat Private Life as a product of its time. Otherwise, it will seem hopelessly out of touch with modern life. Despite this, there are some passages that are timeless. Like this: 

“But there can be no grave for Sherlock Holmes or Watson … Shall they not always live on Baker Street? Are they not there this instant, as one writes? … Outside, the hansoms rattle through the rain, and Moriarty plans his latest devilry. Within, the sea-coal flames upon the hearth, and Holmes and Watson take their well-won ease … So they still live for all that love them well: in a romantic chamber of the heart: in a nostalgic country of the mind: where it is always 1895.” 

As a teenager, you encountered the Canon and The Private Life at the same time. Do you think that simultaneity had anything to do with your passion for Starrett? 

Absolutely. The two books are forever linked for me. It’s also true that the copy of Private Life I first read (the 1960 University of Chicago edition), opened my eyes to a group called the Baker Street Irregulars. The BSI seemed like a Valhalla to a teenager growing up amidst the steel mills of Pittsburgh. I never thought I would one day be a member of that group. I am still amazed. 

Billy Wilder’s “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” has nothing to do with the Starrett book. Do you ever wish the film had a different title?  

I like the film, although Starrett did not. He was a huge fan, and friend, of Basil Rathbone and ranked his Sherlock among the best. Rathbone fit Starrett’s desire for a cold, calculating machine capable of working out the most tangled skein. Billy Wilder’s camp and hints of homosexuality did not sit well with Starrett.  

What is your second favorite Starrett work? And why? 

Starrett’s sonnet, “221-B” is immortal. I can still get a little choked up reading it. There’s one line that summarizes my relationship to the Holmes world: “Only those things the heart believes are true.” If you lack this sense of child-like wonder, you will only see Holmes as cardboard caricature.  

Starrett only attended one meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars in his long life, but was very active in the Sherlockian community in Chicago and in print. What has it meant to you to be part of a large network of friends sharing your interest in the great detective? 

Starrett stayed close to Chicago because of the fragile emotional health of his second wife, Ray Latimer. I, on the other hand, have had the great joy of being with Sherlockians in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Indianapolis and even little Morgantown, W.Va. Many of the men and women I meet in these places have become an extended family. Their wit, scholarship and friendship have been a big part of my life.  

How is being a Sherlockian in the age of social media different than it was in 1934, when Christopher Morley founded the Baker Street Irregulars, or even in 1974, when Starrett died? 

There are a lot of differences, but here’s one that strikes me as significant: In the past, you were largely restricted to being a Holmes fan at those moments when you corresponded with others or attended an event. Now, people live out their association with Holmes 24/7. 
While some lament the loss of exclusivity that came with the fading of an elect (and eclectic) group of (mostly) men who controlled the Holmes movement in the past, the Sherlock Holmes movement of today is diverse, lively, challenging and often utterly delightful. This is meant to fun, not a religion with a litmus test of orthodoxy.  To quote Morley (from a different context): "The whole matter is now hopelessly, delightfully and permanently confused. Long may it so remain!"

I have come to appreciate today’s movement, while maintaining a great respect for those of the Golden Age.  

What is your favorite Sherlockian activity or event? And why? 

While I love the twice-yearly meetings of the Sons of the Copper Beeches in Philadelphia, nothing beats the Baker Street Irregulars dinner weekend. The energy and joy that comes from gathering hundreds of like-minded men and women from around the globe is like Christmas, New Year’s and Mardi Gras rolled into one. At the same time, I especially cherish the quiet moments spent with a handful of folks over a meal or a drink as we share stories, remember absent friends, and plan new projects. Why else would otherwise sane people go to New York City in January? 

To learn more about Vincent Starrett, check out Studies in Starrett and the Facebook page

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