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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Revisiting a Holmesian Classic


Just as Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes film had nothing to do with the classic Vincent Starrett book of that name, neither is S.C. Roberts Holmes and Watson: A Miscellany guilty of any relationship to a much-reviled movie. 

(“The lowest and vilest alleys of London do not present a more dreadful record of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson than does Holmes and Watson.” – Rotten Tomatoes) 

I think of S.C. Roberts as one of the British counterparts to Starrett. He was part of the original Sherlock Holmes Society in England, founded simultaneously with the Baker Street Irregulars in 1934. Faber & Faber (where Sherlockians T.S. Eliot and Frank V. Morley shared an office) published his monograph Doctor Watson, the first biography of the good doctor, 1931. 

Holmes and Watson: A Miscellany, published in 1953, is well-named. It brings together in one book a number previously published essays, including the contents of Doctor Watson. This was exactly the architecture of The Private Life two decades earlier. 

I recently acquired excellent copies of both the book and the monograph from the BSI Trust. Like Starrett, Roberts is a wonderfully evocative writer who plays The Game with the perfect touch; he feels no need to impress with the novelty of his speculations in the parts that profile the title subjects. 

His contemporary account of the Sherlock Holmes Exhibition of 1951, though nowhere near as complete as the 2018 Christmas Annual from The Baker Street Journal, is quite interesting. 

In the vein of pastiche, Holmes and Watson includes a radio play (“Christmas Eve”), a short story (“The Adventure of the Megatherium Thefts”), and a curiosity. The curiosity is six and a half pages of what Roberts says is a draft Watson manuscript recounting Holmes’s investigation of the death of Cardinal Tosca, one of the famous untold tales of Dr. Watson. 

The curiosity is that Roberts presents the beginning and the end of the case, from which any reader can deduce the middle. Basically, all the plot is there. Why not write the whole story? The fragment is already half the size of “Megatherium,” with just as good a storyline.  

That takes nothing away from the fact that Holmes and Watson is a fine book, full of pleasing passages. I will end with one of them: 

“The Baker Street mise-en-scène is indeed one of Conan Doyle’s master-strokes. In some way not easy to define, No. 221B has become a focal point of the metropolitan civilization of the nineties – the November fogs, the hansoms, the commissionaires, the gasogene, the frock-coats, the Wigmore Street post office” (p. 106). 


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