Everyone seemed quite sane until the meeting began.
The patent examiner, the doctor, the geologist, the archivist, and even the journalist had chatted reasonably, civilly, and wittily as 48 adherents of the Red Circle gathered over steak and prime ribs.
Until the name of Sherlock Holmes was invoked.
"In my Sherlock Holmes room at home . . . " Helen Wesson was saying. "I once was showing some visitors the books and the pipe and the cane. Finally one of the guests asked me, 'but was he a relative?'"
"I know their marriage will last. They're both Sherlockians, and there would be a bitter custody battle over the joint library," Peter Blau observed while reporting a recent romance to the Red Circle.
"Check the reference in the Canon . . . "
When Sherlockians talk of the 56 short stories and 4 novels recounting the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, it is the Canon or Sacred Writings in Capital letters. So is the Great Detective. And when Sherlockians meet, it is always 1887 and the address - even a restaurant on Wisconsin Ave. - is always 221B Baker Street. London.
There, on Friday evening, were 48 grown men and women pondering, with all the intensity of high school students taking SAT exams, the questions in a quiz drawn from the Sherlockian adventure of the evening. "The Golden Pince-Nez." Before that came New Year's riddle-resolutions for Canonical victims or villains.
Sheldon Wesson, a prefectly solid and sane-appearing citizen (the Sherlock Holmes room in his Alexandria home, he explained, is a library-cum-guest room) posed this:
"Three little maids from school are we,
From New York University.
Our color adorns the varsity.
But circumstances make us flee."
"Ah, the Violets." a New York-bred Sherlockian quickly deduced from the riddle's evidence. He named Violet Smith, Violet Hunter, and Violet de Merville from the Sherlockian stories (Violet Westbury also was accepted).
The Red Circle is Washington's scion (Sherlockians like quaint words and phrases) of the parent organization, the Baker Street Irregulars, founded in 1934 by Christopher Morley, who also organized a three-hour lunch club for anyone who dropped by his Saturday Review offices. It is the American counterpart of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London.
Back in 1949, the Bill Gold column in the Washington Post ran a short mention of a high school student interested in meeting others addicated to the Sherlock Holmes stories. Karen Kruse got three responses, and a socieity was formed with just enough members to fill the four posts of officers.
"We talked about a name - each society is named from a story title or a slight parody of it," recalls Dorothy Bissonette, one of the original band of four.
"That was back in the McCarthy era when it was dangerous to admit that you liked red cabbage. Karen has come up with 'The Adventure of the Red Circile' as one of the suggested titles. She was thrilled when someone suggested that we might be investigated."
There is a letter from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover declining an invitation to attend a meeting of the Red Circle. Radio broadcaster Elmer Davis, who had been head of the Office of War Information during World War II, was an early member.
In the '50s, with members leaving town, the Red Circle wasn't too active. Then in 1970, Peter Blau, a Sherlockian whose wit matches his fanatic dedication, came to Washington and became the "sparking plug," as Holmes would have put it.
Blau, who was inaugurated into the Baker Street Irregulars as the "Black Peter" of the Sherlockian story, is a man who knows that a moon crater has been named Sherlock, that Charlie Chaplin made his stage debut as Billy in William Gillette's "Sherlock Holmes," and that T.S. Eliot once acknowledged Holmesian references in his "Murder in the Cathedral."
Blau, who is the Washington representative of Petroleum Information Corp., researched through piles of manuscripts and miles of tape to get the conversation between Apollo 17 Astronaut (now Senator) Jack Schmitt and Joe Allen back at Houston command headquarters.
"Both are Sherlockians, and during a lull, they talked about the Canon," Blau said. "I wanted to publish it as the longest-distance conversation on Holmes."
Under Blau's sparking, the Red Circle now has 250 members on its mailing list and draws upwards of 100 at its irregular meetings. Blau has perpetrated such programs as a picnic at the zoo's cat house with questions on lions, tigers and other beasts in the Holmes stories.
When Wayne B. Swift and Francine Morris found they shared more than a love for Sherlock Holmes and were married this fall, the Red Circle took note of the occasion with a canonical courtship and marriage program.
"Most of the weddings described in the Canon don't have happy consequences," Blau pointed out. "In the Notable Bachelor," for instance, the bride drops her bouquet as she passes a pew and it is handed back. When she goes to the hotel for a wedding breakfast, she vanishes." (The bouquet-retriever turns out to be her first husband, believed deceased.)
Anyway, Red Circle bride and bridegroom both have vanished overseas.
So they weren't there for the Red Circle meeting on Friday when Helen Wesson's riddle mentioned a maid who "behind her trailed a lengthy train" and another Sherlockian found the clue, with a hint of another's time and fashion, to be "boa" for the story of "The Speckled Band" (with a snake as the death weapon).
Nor did they hear Blau recount the story of a British diplomat who played Sherlock Holmes in a re-enactment of the Reichenbach Falls death plunge at the site. That was a few years back when the Sherlock Holmes Society was touring Switzerland. Some British papers commented on the propriety of a senior civil servant portraying Holmes, Blau recalled.
"What about the propriety of a senior Sherlockian portraying a civil servant?" asked Dane Hargrove, a Sherlockian and archivist at the National Archives.
To the other Sherlockians, it seemed a proper question.