A personal account of a recent Holmes gathering in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, August 2010
A Spirited Weekend
My spouse Vicki and I were at breakfast earlier this summer with a former colleague, and happened to mention that we would soon be attending a Sherlock Holmes conference in Minneapolis. His reaction was perplexing—bemused, and a little patronizing. When we pressed him for an explanation, it became apparent that he was picturing a convention hall teeming with caped mummers and souvenir hunters; deerstalkers and magnifying glasses and calabash pipes everywhere; only a small variation on a Comic Con show or a convergence of Star “Trekkies.” An impression apparently shared by Bill Ward, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter who wrote the advance story.
I was pretty sure they were both wrong. Sherlock Holmes readers are a sophisticated lot, I thought. Some may be overly fond of inauthentic “pastiches,” or susceptible to the persistent “game-playing” vice, which may deprive the sufferer of his capacity to distinguish between fiction and reality. And a few may be too enamored of the Hollywood “franchising” phenomenon set to spin itself out for years to come.
Yet most, I reflected, are probably serious, unpretentious everyday people who came to know and love the great detective in much the same way I did . . .
I have been a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast for nearly a half century. It began in junior high school, when, following the lead of my older brother, I first peered into the pages of the Arthur Conan Doyle “Canon.” In high school there was the standard classroom exposure to Speckled Band or Red-Headed League (or maybe even both), summarily got out of the way with some perfunctory teachers’-manual comments, as is too often the case. But I kept on reading, and by the time I graduated I had been through all 56 stories and 4 longer works at least twice each.
The pattern continued through my adult working life (it is not so difficult, after all, to keep a favorite volume at one’s elbow and to return to it occasionally, no matter what one’s line of work). But it was always a private endeavor, a welcome escape, and little more. I’d heard of the Baker Street Irregulars (who drew their name from The Sign of Four), and even knew of “Scion” societies around the country, where regular citizens who shared a passion for the famous detective could gather occasionally to share their enthusiasm. But there was no such organization in my city, and, in that barren pre-Internet era, I looked no further.
Retirement and a second marriage eventually brought me to Madison, Wisconsin, where I soon became aware of The Notorious Canary-Trainers, a sanctioned BSI scion active since the late 1960s. And through NCT I learned that Sherlockian gatherings were held with surprising frequency around the world, and that The Norwegian Explorers, one of the oldest and most active scions in the nation, sponsored a conference every third year in their home city of Minneapolis. Vicki and I eagerly signed up for the 2010 meeting, held the first weekend in August and titled The Spirits of Sherlock Holmes. It met and exceeded our best expectations.
The festivities actually got underway on the eve of the conference, with an informal cocktail party and buffet dinner graciously hosted by Norwegian Explorers Julie and Mike McKuras at their home in nearby Apple Valley. Guests milled about the pool and patio, sipping Pimm’s Cups and enjoying high-spirited badinage. Sherlockians of the highest eminence, archivists of the world’s foremost Doyle collections, distinguished authors and scholars, many of them modestly bearing the coveted BSI honorific, mingled genially with humble dilettantes like ourselves. Conviviality generated itself, food and drink were expertly prepared and served by a contingent of Apple Valley neighbors, and The Spirits of Sherlock Holmes was a great success even before it formally began.
When it did begin, early the next afternoon, the setting exemplified a decorous congeniality worthy of 221B Baker Street itself. Conferees met at the Elmer L. Anderson Library, an adjunct of the University of Minnesota library system, which, not coincidentally, houses one of the largest Doyle collections in the world. The meeting space, directly adjacent to a magnificent display of Doyle and Sherlockian memorabilia, was a classroom triplex, perfect in size and outfitting to accommodate the 100-plus participants (to be completely honest, we did spot a couple of deerstalkers). Vendors, held to a modest number, suggesting an emphasis of quality over volume, lined the outside walls, offering everything from original manuscripts to the latest best sellers, from 3-for-a-dollar “I-Heart-Sherlock-Holmes” buttons to the rarest first editions. There was even a caricaturist who would create customized Holmes-related nesting dolls and portraiture. At the front was a large table and speaker’s dais, flanked by the necessary but unobtrusive audio-visual equipment. Seating was arranged with optimal sight lines throughout the room, with plenty of space for easy mingling between sessions. Presentations were held to under an hour, and breaks were ample and frequent.
The list of speakers was a constellation of Sherlockian celebrities. Ray Betzner of Temple University guided us through “A Study in Starrett,” a close look at the life and work of the man who penned the famous poem read aloud at our annual dinners. Another Pennsylvanian, Dr. Gideon Hill, mindful of the conference’s theme, led a “spirited” examination of Dr. Watson’s alleged alcoholism, and in a surprisingly humorous vein. Also very spirited was a formal debate, between author and scholar John L. Lellenberg and Dr. Richard Sveum of the Norwegian Explorers, concerning the origins of Sherlockian scholarship. The renowned and always popular Leslie Klinger contributed a characteristic bit of “gamesmanship,” as did newcomer Tim Reich, with an amazing spin on “Colonel Warburton’s madness” (The Engineer’s Thumb) as illuminated by Guy de Maupassant’s story Le Horla. In a more serious vein, there was an international panel of distinguished archivists, including Peggy Purdue of Toronto, Neil McCaw and Catherine Cooke of the United Kingdom, and the University of Minnesota’s own Timothy Johnson; and a guided tour of an unusual exhibit inspired by the late Allen Mackler, an eccentric and well-beloved friend of many of those present.
Not on the platform but lending prestige to the galleries were many more luminaries, including Sherlockian senior statesman Peter Blau, Steven Doyle, co-author and editor of the recently published Sherlock Holmes for Dummies (don’t kid yourself; it’s for all of us); Karen Murdock, whose impressive scholarship and dogged scrutiny of the Canon is on proud display in her essay Repeat After Me; and author and blogger Brad Keefauver, whose rousing after-dinner lecture propelled Holmes through the Abbey Grange and into realms unexplored hitherto. The speech capped of the conference’s centerpiece, the Saturday evening banquet, which also featured an auction of high-end artifacts, knocked down by the venerable Blau; abundant and exquisite food and drink; and a general gaiety which must stand unrivaled by any gathering in BSI annals.
The party dispersed at noon Sunday, with the awesome concentration of experts scattering again to their respective home bases. For them it was, no doubt, another valuable opportunity to engage collegially with their worthy peers in the enviable task entrusted to them: to venerate and perpetuate a literary and cultural treasure. For the rest of us, it was a welcome chance to absorb, to think, to learn and to indulge. I am told that similar gatherings are held around the calendar and around the world, most with open registration. If the others are as well-organized, as instructive and as stimulating as The Norwegian Explorers’ Minneapolis triennial, then may I issue the call: let this be your summer vacation, your long-weekend getaway, your guilt-free extravagance, your intellectual jump-start. There is something for everyone, and nothing goes to waste. If you like, you can even bring your deerstalker.
By James E. Briggs, aka Little Jimmy Briggs, of McMurdo’s Camp, at the lumber camps of Michigan and Wisconsin August 2010