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Sleuth's Centennial : Sherlock--Myth Blurs the Reality

January 14, 1987|TYLER MARSHALL | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Answering 40 letters a week is hardly unusual for an office secretary, especially one whose boss is widely known.

What is unique about Sue Brown's job is that her boss is the famous but entirely fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Although Victorian author Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his unique character into a life of leisurely retirement in the English countryside more than 60 years ago, mail still arrives daily for Holmes at 221B Baker St., the London residence from which he and his close friend, Dr. John H. Watson, tracked criminals through four novels and 56 short stories.

Today, one century after Holmes made his debut in "A Study in Scarlet," a British financial house called the Abbey National Building Society occupies the address and employs Brown to answer the sleuth's correspondence in addition to her other duties of writing corporate press releases.

From Young and Old

Mail arrives from the young and old in Western countries, the Third World and the Communist Bloc, reflecting one of the most curious, enduring myths of English literature, a myth so powerful that it has blurred the borders of reality.

Holmes, for example, rates his own entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, an entry longer than many of those about real persons.

An American writer, Vincent Starrett, chronicled Holmes' life in a volume that many public libraries classify as biography rather than fiction, while commemorative plaques in London mark the location of important events in the detective's life with no hint that both the characters and the incidents were fictional.

Stamps honoring Holmes have been issued by governments as far-flung as Cameroon, San Marino and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Several years ago, Nicaragua graced a stamp honoring Interpol with the sleuth's silhouette, replete with the trademark deerstalker hat and curved calabash pipe.

'A Splendid Game'

"It's become a splendid game, but I don't how long it can last," noted John Murray, chairman of John Murray Ltd., publisher of Doyle's works since 1917.

If the small global army of avid Sherlock Holmes followers has any say, the "game" will be afoot for many more years.

Thousands of these Sherlockians, mainly from Britain, the United States and Japan, engage in a kind of Holmes mania, mulling over the deeper meanings of minor details from the detective's adventures and re-enacting the significant events.

Every 10 years, for example, a group travels from Britain to the Reichenbach Falls near Lucerne, Switzerland, to re-enact one of the best known of all Sherlock Holmes scenes, the life-and-death struggle between the detective and his archenemy, Prof. James Moriarty, along a narrow ledge above the falls.

This year, many Sherlockians plan expanded activities to mark the 100th anniversary of their hero's debut.

In London last week, the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, with about 800 members, held its annual dinner in the august surroundings of the main House of Commons dining room to hear former Home Secretary Merlyn Rees draw similarities between crime now and in Holmes' day.

A few days later in New York, the Baker Street Irregulars, named after the street urchins that Holmes occasionally employed, held its own annual celebration.

And in Southern California, local devotees, about 50 or 60 members of the Non-Canonical Calabashes, gathered Saturday, some of them in deerstalkers and tweeds, in the infield at Santa Anita to watch the 16th running of The Silver Blaze, a race named for a kidnaped racehorse that Holmes helped recover in the story of the same name.

Curved for Actors

(The group is so named because the Holmes stories, known to devotees as the Canon, never say that a calabash was among the pipes that Holmes smoked, said the group's founder, Sean Wright of Los Angeles. The stories do specify clay, briar and cherrywood pipes, but actors in plays about Holmes introduced the curved calabash because pipes with straight stems wiggled when the actors spoke their lines, Wright explained.)

Other special events are planned throughout 1987 by groups in several countries.

"It's going to be a very busy year," predicted Stanley MacKenzie, an actor who has assembled one of the most comprehensive reference collections on Holmes.

Heightened interest surrounding the centennial activities has already increased the detective's mail, which routinely includes wedding invitations and Christmas and birthday cards in addition to letters.

Wants His Lost Toys

"Some write out of curiosity to see if they'll get an answer; some want to express admiration for Holmes, and others want help," secretary Brown said. A recent letter from a Tacoma, Wash., boy, for example, sought help in tracking down the person who took his toys.

"My mom will pay any fees if you just take my case," the letter concluded.

Another recent letter from a Texan asked if Holmes and Watson could "help my government to find out where the millions of dollars from the Iran arms deal went."

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