One of the used books I picked up in New York during the Baker Street Irregulars & Friends Weekend last month is A Praed Street Dossier. It’s August Derleth’s fascinating little coda to his Solar Pons saga, revealing information about “the Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street” not covered in the stories.
“Without exception, the Solar Pons stories have been written around titles,” Derleth writes in a chapter called “The Sources of the Tales.” I’ve done that myself, notably a short story called “Dogs Don’t Make Mistakes.” In another chapter, Derleth lists his favorite stories and those of his readers.
All of this had me thinking anew about Pons, who is almost but not quite Sherlock Holmes, as I have written before. I turned two friends and dedicated Ponsians for their take on the character. First, Bob Byrne:
Why Solar Pons? I wrote an essay with that very title. You can read that one here.
Derleth created Pons because he enjoyed the Holmes stories and Doyle informed him there would be no more. Which proved to be the case. We all know of Doyle’s rather harsh feelings towards his greatest creation. Derleth was a successful author in several fields who enjoyed writing about Pons and Dr. Parker. His non-fiction writings about Wisconsin and his efforts in the worlds of H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos were much more important to him.
But whereas one can see Doyle’s lack of interest in stories like “The Mazarin Stone,” Derleth's professionalism and fondness for Pons shine through from the first story to the last. And Derleth was a very good writer – so he produced very good stories.
But Pons is more than just a shadow of Holmes. He’s less obnoxious and he’s willing to consider the supernatural, though he’s inclined to the rational solution. His humor is less acerbic. I find Pons much more likeable than Holmes while still being a genius in his profession.
Derleth was a solid plotter. I am almost never disappointed with his story structure. And his ability to draw from real life was impressive. “The Adventure of the Golden Bracelet” was based on an actual archaeological scandal, as I wrote about here. It’s one of my favorites. “The Adventure of the Stone of Scone” is another example.
I've read all sixty of the original Holmes stories more times than I can count. And I like them. But I find Solar Pons to be a refreshing alternative to just poring over the Canon time after time. And while there are definitely some talented Holmes writers out there, I’m not sure any of them does it better than Derleth did.
I created SolarPons.com and my free, online newsletter, The Solar Pons Gazette, because I think every Holmes fan would do well to read the Pons stories.
One Sherlockian who would agree is David Macum, who continued Derleth’s tradition in The Papers of Solar Pons, a short story collection published last fall. Says David:
What captivates me about Solar Pons is that his adventures embrace everything that’s great about the Sherlock Holmes stories so perfectly – the characters, the interactions, the settings, the types of mysteries – but they are presented in such a way that they go beyond the World of Holmes to reveal that such a world continued long after The Master had retired to his bees in Sussex. Pons very capably carried on Holmes’s work in 1920’s and 1930’s London, even as a number of other detectives, such as Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey, also moved to fill the void.
I believe that Pons continued to have an existence beyond his initial connection to Sherlock Holmes because, like Holmes, his adventures – at least when they were initially being published – were occurring in a time that was contemporary to the readers, and thus had a great deal of authenticity.
Pons sprang onto the scene fully formed, with many of the same characteristics as Holmes in terms of appearance, method, and types of cases, and this immediately gave him validity. His chronicler, Dr. Parker, evinced the same narrative style as Dr. Watson. There were other similarities, such as setting – London for both of them, with similar lodgings, Pons’s at 7B Praed Street instead of Holmes’s 221b Baker Street rooms – and associates, such as landlady Mrs. Johnson instead of Mrs. Hudson, Inspector Jamison instead of Lestrade, and brother Bancroft instead of Mycroft.
By the time the first Pons adventure was published, Holmes’s cases had taken place decades in the past. The Pons stories – at least initially – were being recorded contemporary to when they were occurring, in that unsettled era between the World Wars. When first published, Holmes’s cases also had that same here-and-now feeling, with settings in places where people lived or could visit or walk by every day.
Although Derleth continued to Literary-Agent the Pons stories until his death in 1971, he always firmly recorded cases set between 1919 and 1939. However, the 1970’s weren’t that far away from the 1930’s, and the stories didn’t seem too far in the distant past. Now, with every passing year and decade, the era of the Holmes stories – and the Pons stories too – gets further and further away.
Doyle and Derleth had the advantage of being Literary Agents that dealt with matters set in times that they actually knew and had lived through, and that gave their efforts credibility. This is very apparent when reading about Holmes, and one has that same sense when enjoying the adventures of Solar Pons.