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Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Into a Sherlockian Time Machine

Sometimes watching the sausage made can be fascinating. “Dear Starrett—”/“Dear Briggs—,” edited by John Nieminski and Jon L. Lellenberg, affords that opportunity.

This first volume in the BSI Archival History Series, published in 1989, is a series of letters between Old Irregulars Vincent Starrett of Chicago and Dr. Gray Chandler Briggs of St. Louis. The correspondence begins with Briggs writing to Starrett on March 30, 1930 about Starrett’s “proposed book on Sherlock Holmes, William Gillette, Conan Doyle, et al.” Soon they were sending each other books and artwork.

That “proposed book” was published in 1933 as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a Sherlockian classic dedicated to Briggs along with the actor William Gillette and the artist Frederic Door Steele. But the Briggs-Starrett correspondence shows that the concept of the book changed a lot along the way. The profuse illustrations that Starrett envisioned didn’t make it, but the map of Baker Street by Dr. Briggs (who identified 111 Baker Street as the true address) did.

Reading these letters is like stepping into a time machine as Starrett’s project unfolds. We know what will become of it —what it will be and how important—but he doesn’t.

And then there’s this: On Nov. 20, 1933, Starrett wrote to Briggs, “We must really organize an international Holmes society. We could meet at irregular intervals and call ourselves the Baker Street Irregulars.” That passage evoked this charming reflection from Jon Lellenberg:

“There we have it! Vincent Starrett’s suggestion of founding a Sherlockian society called the Baker Street Irregulars—made apparently with no inkling at all of Morleyesque stirrings in New York, which were still contained within the unreported gatherings of Morley’s Three Hours for Lunch Club and the Grillparzer Sittenpolizei—though that was about to change, after the Duane Hotel gathering which Morley called for Holmes’s birthday on January 6, 1934.”

Lellenberg then lays out a charming “critical mass” theory about the birth of the BSI: “that it had to happen somewhere about that point in time, and that if Morley had not done it, then Starrett, Briggs, Bell and others of their circle would have.”

And 90 years later, the Sherlockian world is still a very lively place to be.

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