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Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Staying at Holmes for Christmas

What a Christmas present the world received in 1887!

Even a non-collector like me can understand the sheer wonder of reading A Study in Scarlet in its original publication setting, Beeton’s Christmas Annual for that year.  No wonder a copy sold for $156,000 at Sotheby’s in 2007, although others have gone for less. If you can’t afford that, you can hold a copy in your hands for free at the Lilly Library in Bloomington, IN.

You can also buy a facsimile from a British publisher online at a very reasonable price, $25 or less. But that wasn’t always possible, which is why the Baker Street Irregulars and the Sherlock Holmes Society of London together produced the first facsimile edition in 1960 based on two incomplete copies.

That effort was part of the BSI’s Baker Street Incunabula series that began in the 1950s. And because the volume was “strictly limited” to a printing of 500 copies, 100 of which were allocated to the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, it became a collectable in its own right.

Which is why Magico Magazine issued a facsimile of the facsimile in 1987, the 100th anniversary of the original. It has a illustration cover by Scott Bond, originally commissioned by Don Pollack for the Spring 1987 issue of the late lamented Baker Street Miscellanea. And that is what I have, courtesy of the late R. Joel Senter, Sr. 

(Denny Dobry reports that John Gibson, dba Conan Doyle Books, also produced a facsimile in a slipcase in 1987.)

Reading A Study in Scarlet in the same format as its first readers is a little like taking a trip in a time machine, and that makes it a singular pleasure. 

The Magico book is hardback, and it comes value-added: Catherine Cooke, the well-known British Holmesian, provided a nice introduction covering the familiar story of A Study in Scarlet’s origins and the not-so-familiar stories of Mr. and Mrs. Beeton; H. D. Friston, the first illustrator of Sherlock Holmes; and how the 1960 facsimile came to be.

The latter story is also covered in Edgar W. Smith’s afterword to the 1960 book.

A Study in Scarlet is a short novel, but somehow seems longer in the Beeton’s. Maybe that’s because there is so much advertising. The last page of the Annual is numbered 168, but that doesn’t count the 32 pages of adverts before the novel starts. It does count the 26 similar pages that follow Study and the two predictable but rather entertaining short plays that follow it. So, in sum, 58 pages of advertising out of 200. Maybe that helped keep the price down to one shilling.

The ads are delightful, from the patented “lung invigorator” to “Steiner’s Vermin Paste” with a charming illustration of said paste throttling a rat. But I’m mystified by the assurance that Yorkshire Relish is “sold by all grocers and Italian warehousemen.”

There are deeper waters here, however. Did “Matthews’s Purified Fuller’s Earth” inspire Col. Lysander Stark? Did Sherlock Holmes have recourse to “The Great Buxton Remedy for Rheumatism!” in his later years on the bee farm? And, most of all, does “Watson’s Castor Oil Pills” hint that the good doctor had a side gig?

After all these years since 1887, there is still much to be explored about the world’s first consulting detective and his Boswell.

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