Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Real World Of Sherlock: Guest post by B.J. Rahn

Today I welcome scholar, author and friend, B.J. Rahn. Professor B. J. Rahn teaches English literature at Hunter College in New York. She has been teaching, researching, and writing about crime fiction for over two decades. In addition, she gives courses at the Renaissance academy in Naples, Florida. Rahn has published articles in journals and reference books such as The Armchair Detective, St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writing, Scribner's Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, The Dictionary of Literary Biography and the Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. She alsoleads detective walking tours. In the UK, the tours visit sites in the lives and fiction of authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Margery Allingham. In the USA, the tours feature New York authors Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, Linda Fairstein and Edgar Allan Poe. Virtual tours are available as slide lectures.

B.J. Rahn: 
The Real World of Sherlock

The Real World of Sherlock was not my idea, though I have been a devoted fan of Sherlock Holmes since I was a teenager and am a proud member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. Instead, when an editor at Amberley Publishing read about my Sherlock Holmes walking tours in London, she decided I was well enough acquainted with Sherlock and familiar enough with his world to write a book about it all.

The tours feature costumed characters who ‘materialize’ at appropriate sites along the way. The route begins near Russell Square where Arthur Conan Doyle lived in Montague Place next door to the British Museum and where Sherlock Holmes later followed in his footsteps to Montague Street around the corner. Then we pass by Mr. Windigate’s Alpha Inn en route to Covent Garden market where Holmes found the thief who stole the Blue Carbuncle. Across the street in the cells at the Bow Street Magistrates Court he unmasked Neville St. Clair, the Man with the Twisted Lip. In the next block south stands the Lyceum Theatre, where Mary Marston awaited her fate by the second pillar. Moving along the Strand, we pass Simpson’s restaurant and the Strand Magazine offices before stopping briefly by the post office where Beryl Stapleton sent Holmes the warning telegram in the Hound of the Baskervilles. Having visited the strategic site of the Lowther Arcade so crucial in “The Final Problem,” we viewed the Charing Cross Hotel where Holmes trapped Hugo Oberstein, an infamous spy who stole the Bruce Partington Plans. Finally, we finish at the Sherlock Holmes Pub at the foot of Northumberland Avenue. Among its treasures is the recreation of Holmes’ Baker Street sitting room from the 1951 Festival of Britain.

However, it’s a giant step from researching and leading a walking tour of a given area of London to writing a book about Sherlock’s ‘world’. I quickly discovered that apart from documenting Edgar Allan Poe’s detective tales as a source of literary inspiration, materials in American libraries on Conan Doyle and contemporary London life were limited. Ditto the history of the British police and their methods. This was a perfect opportunity to visit the English version of the Library of Congress in London, my favorite city! So I spent nearly six months happily beavering away at the British Library near St. Pancras and, after hours, enjoying the multitude of pleasures London offers.

Mind you, it wasn’t all skittles and beer! Fathoming the BL catalogue system for late 19th and early 20th century periodicals containing articles, reviews, and interviews often required Sherlockian skills. Inevitably, some volumes were missing or so fragile that pages couldn’t be photocopied. It was thrilling, though, when a sought-after source was located and yielded precious information. Conan Doyle’s interviews in Tit-Bits and the Bookman described how he adapted the diagnostic method of his medical mentor Joseph Bell to criminal investigation and how he literally created Holmes in Bell’s image. Dr. Bell’s article in the British Medical Journal (1874) outlining the medical use of cocaine led me to a treasure trove of reports throughout the 1870’s on cocaine trials by his colleagues and other contemporary practitioners. A decade prior to Holmes’ first appearance, their research provided all the details Conan Doyle needed to describe Holmes’ cocaine habit.

Acquiring the correspondence initiated by Joe Bell after Conan Doyle’s public acknowledgement that Bell was his model for Sherlock Holmes was another high point. Some passages from these letters, lodged in the Stisted Collection of the library of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, have been quoted out of context by several biographers and literary scholars who have drawn contradictory interpretations and/or based questionable claims on them while ignoring other passages. They were a revelation. As a group they filled in the blanks and provided continuity while revealing Conan Doyle’s warm regard and admiration for Bell as well as Bell’s professional respect for his former student. As the two men renewed their acquaintance, Bell offered suggestions for characters and plot lines of Holmes’ adventures. Reading the letters not only solved the mystery of what was actually said and established a basis for legitimate interpretation, but the tone as much as the actual words and phrases brought the two men to life and vividly evoked their relationship. I felt like a voyeur who been privy to the process of creating a Sherlock Holmes story.

Visiting the West Brompton office of the Metropolitan Police Archive produced insights into criminal investigation in the real world. I went looking for photographs of police at work between 1881 and 1913, the period of most of Holmes’ cases, and was given access to box files full of photographs, official records, and newspaper articles. They contained the official order creating Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Department with the appointment of the first six detectives. The personal diary of Inspector Frederick Abberline offered a day-by-day account of Jack the Ripper investigations. Contemporary newspaper cuttings chronicled Inspector Walter Dew’s dramatic trip across the Atlantic to arrest Hawley Harvey Crippen and bring him back to be tried for murder. There was even a picture of the kind of police steam launch used to chase Jonathan Small and Tonga down the Thames in The Sign of Four. I came away with much increased knowledge and appreciation of the Metropolitan Police and a souvenir pen from Scotland Yard.

So my Sherlockian walking tours ultimately led me on a much longer safari into Sherlock’s world.


vallerose said...

the tour sounds like a lot of fun. I was at the Sherlock pub two years ago. quite a place.

Nina said...

I took a class in Mystery Fiction from Professor Rahn to fulfill an English requirement.I took it for fun as I love to read mysteries, but it turned out to be one of the more demanding classes i took at Hunter, and Professor Rahn was quite a character--I particularly remember her witches hat that she wore on Halloween! The research into Holmes sounds fascinating and certainly piques my interest in the book. Thanks for this post!