As I am now hours away from my seventy-sixth birthday, my thoughts turn naturally to the birthdays of my youth, back in the years just after World War II. I have never been one for presents, and it is now more than five decades past the time when I either expected or really wanted them, but I do recall fondly what may well have been my favorite birthday present of all.
Right about when the war was ending, my father took me to the Jamaica branch of the New York Public Library and helped me get my own library card. The first book I took out was a stubby fat copy of THE COMPLETE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, all sixty stories and novels. I read them almost in one sitting, in much the way that young people today gobble up Harry Potter. That Christmas/Birthday [since I was born two days after Christmas, my presents were always combined], I got my very own copy. It had a bright red cover, and very thin pages. Over time, the cover frayed, the pages began to yellow, and a few pages even tore, but I clung to the book and read it over and over.
In 1946, The Baker Street Journal was founded, a publication of the official organization of Holmes fans called the Baker Street Irregulars. [For those unfortunate souls who have never read the canonical works, the Baker Street Irregulars were an informal collection of rag-tag street urchins in Victorian London who were Holmes' eyes and ears in the lower classes. He would dispatch them on missions and they would bring back snippets of useful information.] I subscribed to the Journal for several years, possibly from its very inception. Its format -- if this tells you anything -- was larger than ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION and GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION, but a good deal smaller than Colliers, Life, and The Saturday Evening Post. The articles in those days were all deadly serious faux scholarly exercises based on the collectively agreed upon fiction that Sherlock Holmes and John Watson were real people who had actually resided at 221B Baker Street under the tutelary eye of Mrs. Hudson.
The Sherlock Holmes stories are a fascinating collection of late Victorian light fiction. One of the surprising facts about them is that there is almost no violence, of the sort we have become accustomed to even in the traditional country house English mysteries by Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, or John Dickson Carr. Indeed, in some of the stories there is not even an indictable crime.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, like that other Victorian creative figure, Sir Arthur Sullivan, aspired to the status of a serious artist, and he grew to hate his immensely popular creation. Eventually, in a desperate effort to be rid of him, Conan Doyle killed Holmes off at the Reichenbach Falls, but the public were having none of it, so Conan Doyle was compelled to bring Holmes back to life, rather in the fashion of modern television soap operas, papering over the contradiction with the implausible story that Holmes had survived the Falls and had been traveling for several years in the East to sample the wisdom of that part of the world. Indeed, so little did Conan Doyle think of his characters that in one passage, famous among aficionados, he misplaced the wound that Dr. Watson had suffered from a Jezail bullet in Afghanistan, shifting it from the shoulder to a leg.
As a boy, I dreamed of one day publishing my very own article in the Journal, but that was not to be. [My first publication was actually a Letter to the Editor of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, written as a sixteen year old Harvard Freshman.] Somewhere in the rocky passage from boyhood to manhood, my copy of the COMPLETE SHERLOCK HOLMES was lost. I do not anticipate mumbling "rosebud" as I expire, but I do wish I had somehow managed to hang onto that tattered book.
When I next arise, I shall officially be on the downward slope toward octogenarian status. It has been a good run, withal, but much too short.