“Oh no,” you say. “Not an excerpt from yet another unpublished book?” I’m afraid so. This book is entitled: “Upside Down and Backwards: Events, Musings, Adventures and Rants from an (Over) Examined Life.” It’s a collection of essays written over many years of business travels and social adventures. You may find more on my blog: https://thejokesmith.wordpress.com . I may be found at Jokesmith1@aol.com . Regards, -Ed M.
This first essay on Mr. Holmes is based on an event that occurred in the mid-Seventies:
Sherlock Holmes and The Adventure of the Arrogant Interloper
“The Hound of the Baskervilles” was the first Sherlock Holmes story I ever read and I was hooked forever. The attraction is multi-faceted. It is the man himself, a logical being in an illogical world. The mood of the Victorian era as felt in the damp, teeming confines of gas lit London. The thrilling adventures of the world’s first forensic detective who pioneered what today we call Crime Scene Investigation (CSI). The memory of a time where Evil triumphed only briefly, and Justice always prevailed in the end. Holmes’ archenemy, Professor Moriarty, may have been the “Napoleon of Crime,” but down deep I knew he was no match for the Master of Baker Street.
Holmes always knew what was right. Others looked, but he saw. He based his deductions on observation, logic, knowledge, and a cultivated intuition. Occasionally, he’d take the reader down the pathways of his thinking so we could marvel at all we had missed. “When faced with a number of candidate solutions,” he once said, “eliminate all that are impossible and whatever is left, however improbable, is the answer.”
Of course, there are always contrarian views. David Willis McCullough wrote that “…much of Holmes’ appeal rests on the suspicion that he’s mad as a hatter.” McCullough may have a point, but it never stopped me from reading and re-reading the Sacred Canon of fifty-six short stories and four novels which constitute the revealed truths of Sherlock Holmes as recorded by his companion, Dr. Watson, and published by their agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
One day, more than a few years back, I read a newspaper article about The Speckled Band of Boston, a chapter of the world-wide society of Holmes’ admirers who call themselves The Baker Street Irregulars. They had scheduled their annual birthday dinner “…in honor of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, late of 221B Baker Street in London.” The organizer’s name was given. I tracked him down and wangled an invitation to the event.
The dinner was held on a dark and damp winter’s evening at The Tavern Club, one of Boston’s oldest and most prestigious private clubs. It is located one block and one hundred years off Boston Common, down an unfashionable alley, is unmarked, and housed in an aging Victorian mansion that smacks of what people once called “Genteel Poverty.” Just cross the threshold and that image, like the outside world, disappears. There is gentility galore but no poverty to be found at The Tavern Club.
Impressions: Dark, oak paneling smelling of age, care, and polish surround the reception area and lounge. Overstuffed club chairs circle a field stone fireplace which both illuminates and warms the bar area. Framed hunting prints decorate the walls, with an occasional grainy photograph of what looks like a college rowing team from the early 1900’s. It reminded me of an evening I spent at Boodles, the famous London private club (and keeper of the quality gin of the same name). An English business colleague regaled me with stories of what club life was like before The Great War went and spoiled everything. “We had one chap whose job was to wash the members pocket change so they would not have to touch any soiled money. Another chap ironed each newspaper after it was read so the next member could have an unwrinkled read as well. There was an attendant in the Gent’s Room who offered you freshly laundered and warm towels, while brushing your jacket, and offering a shine. Those were the grand days.”
I don’t know if people like that worked at The Tavern Club now but, given a 19th century system where 90% of the people existed to care for the other 10%, it might have been a reasonable idea at the time. In the absence of any opportunity, pressing newspapers sounds better than working in the damp and dangerous mills, like both of my grandfathers did.
The club’s collection of sterling silver attracted my attention. It was a time when restaurants were putting water in ashtrays to stop people from stealing them, and here were polished trophies of long ago regattas and races on display shelves around the main room, open to be seen and touched. What a pity that such trust is unique enough to warrant notice. I made my way to the main dining room where the Master’s birthday dinner was about to begin.
The attendees were a cordial bunch. They were mostly older men, business types and professionals, Harvard people. There were doctors, lawyers, educators, politicians, and a sprinkling of high tech people from the firms surrounding and feeding off the Cambridge brain trust. The Band makes for strange bedfellows.
The conversation was restricted to matters relevant in 19th century times. It was mostly about Holmes and his adventures and related trivia. Toasts were proposed while stories were exchanged and personal adventures shared.
“Have you visited the Sherlock Holmes Pub just off Trafalgar Square? It’s the very hotel in which Sir Henry Baskerville stayed, you know.” I did know. I had fish & chips in the second floor restaurant one night. I sat just this side of the glass wall through which Holmes’ room could be viewed. I remember everything was dusty. Mrs. Hudson was clearly not on duty that night.
“Have you been to ReichenbachFalls?” I had not. “There’s a plaque on the very spot where Holmes and Professor Moriarty tumbled into the cascade.”
We moved into the dining room. A place had been set at the head table for Holmes should he decide to attend. “He’s still alive and well, you know,” someone one volunteered. “He keeps bees somewhere down in Sussex. Another band member chimed in, “Quite right that he’s alive, you know. If he had died there would have been a major obituary in The London Times and nothing has been published so far.”
The logic was as good as the main course: Kidney pie, a Holmes favorite. Like the manure pie in the old hunting joke, I don’t think it could taste good no matter how well it was prepared. After dinner came coffee, brandy, cigars, and The Quiz. It’s The Quiz I want to tell you about.
The Quiz is a 50 question true/false, multiple choice romp through the flotsam and jetsam of the 56 short stories and 4 novels (“The Sacred Canon”). It is tough. If you don’t know the significance of “Rache”, who carried the book, “Origins of Tree Worship,” or where the Norwood Builder hid, you don’t belong in the game. You are out of your league. But – if you know all that, plus the secret of Bodymaster McMurdo and why the Noble Bachelor deserved to die, you may have a fighting chance. If you have a photographic memory, you have a very good chance.
I do not have a photographic memory, but I’m close enough to be mentioned in the same breath. I am constantly trying to forget business letters I inadvertently memorize as I read them. I know the second verses of more songs than George Burns on his best day. I can do Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs, a la Martyn Greene, until the cows come home. One of my biggest problems as a writer has always been deciding whether or not I just created something original or just recently remembered reading it. Tell me: Have you read this story before? Never mind; I really don’t want to know. Once, as a sophomore in college, I commented to my adviser that I might be an Idiot Savant. He thought about that for a moment, and then said, “I’m sure you’re half right.”
Bottom line: I know my Sherlock Holmes.
There is just one winner of the Band’s annual Quiz. That person gets a one-year custodianship of a silver Paul Revere Bowl sculptured exclusively for the Band. It is a beautiful thing with a legend and motto engraved upon it along with a facsimile of the loathsome serpent that gave The Speckled Band its name. Also engraved are the names of every annual winner of the quiz dating back to the dawn of recorded time.
I wanted that bowl. I coveted it. I wanted it so badly I could taste it. I felt its silver coolness and marveled at its uniqueness. I could visualize it on my mantle and played through my head the several scenarios I’d act out with friends and neighbors who saw it and asked, “What is that?”
I began The Quiz. It was tough, but so was I. Fifteen minutes later I laid down my pen with supreme self-confidence. I was a sure winner with a perfect paper. I wondered how I’d get the silver bowl across The Boston Common without getting mugged in the process.
Eventually (yawn), everyone else finished The Quiz. The quiz master began reading the official answers. There was a chorus of groans punctuated with cries of “Damn!” and “Of course!” thrown in for good measure. We had gone through 48 of the 50 answers, and I had every one of them correct.
Then came the last answer: It had to do with how a certain character died in one of the stories. I had written “poison,” and even added “cyanide” for extra credit. It was the burnt almond smell that gave the poison away, as I’m sure you know. The Band’s official answer was “Apoplexy.”
“Apoplexy?” That went out with The Vapours. The Band was wrong!
There were no perfect scores, the quizmaster said, so the bowl would not be awarded this year. He asked if there were any challenges or protests. I bit my tongue and said nothing.
“Surely,” he said, “someone must have a challenge. Last chance: Speak now or accept the Band’s answers and be silent forever.” Heads bobbed this way and that as people looked around the room. I raised my hand.
“Well done!” “Good Show!” they cried. There was a smattering of applause. They asked for the detail of my challenge. I told them about that last question and why the character surely died of cyanide poisoning and not “Apoplexy.” A judicious “Hmmm” from the quiz master seemed to support the validity of my claim. I pressed on, making my point as clearly as possible.
The quiz master heard me out with what I now know what thinly disguised glee. He thanked me for my challenge; congratulated me on my knowledge and diagnosis, and applauded my courage in confronting the Band in its lair, so to speak. It occurs to me know that he said nothing about my judgment.
Turning to the Band, he asked if anyone would defend the Band’s solution. Two elderly and distinguished gentlemen rose and came forward to a smattering of applause, several nodding heads, and a couple of smiles.
The quizmaster said names and titles that sounded something like, “May I introduce Dr. Wilton Cabot Coolidge III, Dean of Pathology Emeritus, Harvard Medical College, and Colonel Robert Lodge Weston, retired Commandant, Massachusetts State Police. Gentlemen, you may begin.”
I tried to say, “I withdraw the challenge,” but the old gents were too quick for me. The doctor explained the differences between the symptoms of cyanide poisoning and Apoplexy in terms so crisp and straight forward that a functional illiterate could not have confused the two.
Then the Colonel examined aloud the clues described by the author in the crucial scene which made the cause of death only slightly less obvious than a train wreck.
By now, my brain was functioning again in full defensive mode. I made an unconditional surrender and withdrew the challenge. I earned a standing ovation this time, I think, for my good judgment.
There were more toasts all around, good fellowship reigned supreme, and the evening ended much too soon. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
And the Quiz, was it a set-up you ask? I think not. Everyone deserves a little serendipitous fun now and then, and I just happened to be theirs. I enjoyed the entire evening, dinner, even the Quiz and challenge, and – oh yes, I can always use the humility.
I do have one request to make of any medical practitioners reading this: The evening in question happened years ago. If there is any new research suggesting that Apoplexy might be brought on by cyanide poisoning, I would like to know about it. I don’t know what the statute of limitations is on the Quiz, but I still want that bowl.
Just be sure of your facts, please. The Speckled Band of Boston plays rough.
As they say on TV: “But wait! There’s more!
This is a paean to Mr. Holmes written several years later. It too is included in my unpublished book, “Little Matters of Small Import” as “Detectiverse.” I got the idea from Alfred Lord Noyes (1880-1958) famous English poem “A Song of Sherwood,” which contained the haunting line “Is Robin Hood Awake?” It’s worth looking up on Google.
For Sherlock – A Baker Street Memory
A dismal night in London town, a world that’s turning upside down, no hope of help from kin or crown – Is Sherlock Holmes awake?
For I heard the Professor’s plan, the Colonel saw me when I ran, but Holmes will help me if he can – Is Sherlock Holmes awake?
Yes, I have heard the tortured scream, where Moriarty reigns supreme, and freedom just a madman’s dream – Is Sherlock Holmes awake?
A spider crouching in his lair, with webs outstretching everywhere, and none with strength enough to dare – Is Sherlock Holmes awake?
The fog swirls moist around my feet, at last I’ve come to Baker Street, perhaps it need not mean defeat – Is Sherlock Holmes awake?
There’s someone standing in the dark, just there – beyond the HansomPark, his man – Moran! – to claim his mark – Is Sherlock Holmes awake?
I see the man whom Evil made, the gaslight flashes off his blade, and now my hopes begin to fade – Is Sherlock Holmes awake?
A fist explodes in Moran’s face, a sack of bricks – he drops in place,
“My friend and I have watched your chase; Moran has little guile or grace,
His king, I fear, falls to my Ace; now join us for a partridge brace,
And tell us all about your case. Of course I am awake.”