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Sherlock Holmes through the eyes of an ultimate fan

Michael Dirda reports from this year’s Baker Street Irregulars banquet.

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Should I go? Last summer I’d agreed to deliver the toast to Sherlock Holmes at the annual banquet of the Baker Street Irregulars in New York. But as Friday, Jan. 14, approached, the omicron variant was, as they say, raging. Still, I’d been boosted and everyone attending was required to present proof of vaccination. How, then, could I let the team down?

Happily, I didn’t get sick and tested negative after returning home. Perhaps it wasn’t happenstance that the Westin Hotel on East 42nd Street, where most Irregulars were staying, is directly across from the Pfizer World Headquarters. Signs on its building proclaimed, “Science Will Win.”

You’re done with it all. You head for the hills. What books do you bring?

This year, socializing got underway on Thursday afternoon at the Grolier Club, the country’s leading society for bibliophiles. Opening that week, and running till April 16, was “Sherlock Holmes in 221 Objects,” an exhibition drawn from the fabled collection of Glen S. Miranker. Fabled? As I once wrote, “If the Great Agra Treasure — from ‘The Sign of Four’ — contained rare Sherlockian books and manuscripts instead of priceless gems, it would resemble Glen Miranker’s library.”

In display cases below a huge banner depicting Holmes in his signature dressing gown, one could see the only known copy in its dust jacket of the first edition of “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” with original artwork by Sidney Paget and Frederic Dorr Steele, handwritten drafts of four major stories, and even Conan Doyle’s work ledger containing the December 1893 memorandum, “Killed Holmes.” This refers to “The Final Problem,” which ends with the great detective and his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, both falling to their deaths, or so it seemed, at the Reichenbach Falls.

As Miranker notes in the show’s sumptuous and witty catalogue (co-authored with his wife, Cathy), his manuscript for “The Dancing Men” aptly combines his own “two consuming interests, cryptography and Sherlock Holmes.” A former chief technology officer of Apple, Miranker also collects World War II “Enigma” coding machines.

A little after 6 on Friday evening, decked out in my thrift-store tuxedo, I hurried to the Yale Club for the weekend’s main event — the cocktail party and banquet. Hollywood’s go-to ornament and jewelry designer Maggie Schpak, whose pieces can be seen in “Star Trek,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” pinned on my badge and then showed me the tiara she had created for the next day’s raffle. Near the bar I chatted briefly with Otto Penzler, the dapper owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca, and award-winning Washington playwright Ken Ludwig (“Lend Me a Tenor,” “The Game’s Afoot”). In the swirl, I noticed several other friends: actor Curtis Armstrong, who first gained fame as Tom Cruise’s worldly-wise buddy in “Risky Business,” mystery novelist (and my Oberlin College classmate) SJ Rozan, and the effervescent Nancy Holder, best-selling horror writer and author of numerous Buffy the Vampire Slayer tie-ins.

The enduring fascination with Sherlock Holmes: It’s elementary.

Despite my initial worries, the evening went exceptionally well. All the talks were splendid, notably Andy Solberg’s clever roast of Mycroft Holmes, Ray Betzner’s appreciation of Sherlockian bookman Vincent Starrett, and Ira Matetsky’s account of the aftershocks from Rex Stout’s notorious 1941 presentation, “Watson Was a Woman.” In my own toast, I first mourned the loss in 2021 of Michael Whelan, the BSI’s longtime head (always referred to as “Wiggins”), then pointed to Sherlock Holmes as “an emblematic avatar of reason in this, our age of unreason.” Among those memorialized in Marsha Pollak’s “Stand With Me Here Upon the Terrace” — honoring Irregulars who died in 2021 — were two longtime Washingtonians: Philip Brogdon, the BSI’s first Black member, and Jon Lellenberg, the society’s disputatious historian and a mentor to me and many others. To close the evening, Michael Kean, our new “Wiggins,” invested 14 new Irregulars, seven men and seven women, the latter including Laurence Deloison from the Cercle Holmesien de Paris.

Sherlockians are collectors. Each banquet attendee receives a packet of souvenir items — postcards, pamphlets, pins, pens and the Sherlock Holmes issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine — as well as a handsome program illustrated by Frank Cho, the celebrated comic-book artist. On Saturday morning in the “Merchants’s Room,” Cho was signing copies of this and his other work, while numerous dealers purveyed their wares. I bought “A Masterpiece of Villainy,” which reproduces, with scholarly commentary, Conan Doyle’s holograph of “The Norwood Builder.” This latest installment of the BSI’s “Manuscript Series” is edited by Ross E. Davies, yet another Washingtonian, as well as a driving force in the new Arthur Conan Doyle Society.

While saying hello to Steven Doyle of Gasogene Books — the field’s leading publisher — I learned that he had just revived the Sherlock Holmes Review. In its star-studded inaugural issue, Nicholas Meyer recounts his author tour for “The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols” and Les Klinger interviews Robert Doherty, creator of “Elementary.” Yet another Gasogene title might have been designed expressly for me: “The Finest Assorted Collection: Essays on Collecting Sherlock Holmes,” edited by Peter Eckrich and Rob Nunn. In it, Donald Pollock explains why he has acquired hundreds of English-language editions of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” Charles Prepolec talks about collecting the Strand magazine, Barbara Rusch discusses Victorian ephemera, and Timothy Johnson describes his work as curator of the University of Minnesota’s Sherlock Holmes Collections.

Sigh. I’ve run out of space and haven’t even gotten to the Saturday lunch and auction — at which a 1945 limited edition of S.C. Roberts’s Holmesian pastiche, “The Megatherium Thefts” brought $800 — or that evening’s riotous assembly of the Pondicherry Lodgers at Darbar Indian restaurant, where I caught up with Berkeley film historian Russell Merritt, or Sunday’s brunch organized by the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes. No matter. You can learn more about the entrancing and sometimes exhausting Baker Street universe at meetings of the various BSI “scion” societies. If you live in the D.C. area, start by checking out the websites of The Red Circle, Watson’s Tin Box and the Six Napoleons of Baltimore.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday. He will be away in February; his column will resume March 3.

Sherlock Holmes Celebration

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