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Excursions

By Michael Dirda

Sunday, February 6, 2000; Page X15

"The game is afoot" as our intrepid reporter encounters the Baker Street Irregulars, meets admirers of Irene Adler, "of dubious and questionable memory," and learns a story for which the world may not yet be prepared.

The death threat really made the weekend. It was printed in block letters on stationery from the Algonquin Hotel: "Mr. Dirda: You are more clever than I thought. You have uncovered the secret mission of the BSI. You will have to be eliminated." The note was signed with a single initial, M -- Prof. James Moriarty, I presumed, though it just might be his chief lieutenant, Col. Sebastian Moran, the best heavy-game shot that the Eastern British Empire ever produced. So either the Napoleon of Crime himself was after me, or "the second most dangerous man in London," a sharpshooter who currently favored the almost noiseless air-gun, an elegant weapon designed by the blind German mechanic, Von Herder. Clearly I would have to stay away from lighted windows and hope that my slight knowledge of baritsu, the Japanese system of wrestling, would be as useful to me as it had been to Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls.

The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI) was established in 1934 by literary journalist Christopher Morley as a sodality devoted to honoring the greatest of all consulting detectives, Sherlock Holmes of 221-B Baker Street. The group takes its name from the ragamuffin street urchins who occasionally assist the detective; as Holmes says, they can "go everywhere, see everything, overhear everyone." In particular, the Baker Street Irregulars and various local "scion societies" -- the Copper Beeches of Philadelphia, the Red Circle of Washington -- have for decades been bringing together businessmen, physicians, attorneys, writers and teachers, among others, to play a peculiar, if addictive game: Sherlock Holmes really lived, and Dr. John H. Watson recorded his investigations. (Arthur Conan Doyle merely served as Watson's literary agent, and contrived to take more credit than he deserved.) Alas, the good doctor was prone to romanticize his friend, misremember details and make mistakes in chronology, thus leaving room for considerable speculation about Holmes's family background, early career, his three-year disappearance in the 1890s (the Great Hiatus), and his eventual retirement to the Sussex Downs. There, you will recall, this precise thinking machine devoted himself to keeping bees and completing his masterwork, "The Whole Art of Detection."

How, you may ask, does one make a game of all this? By filling in the gaps in Watson's narrative and by deliberate, clever misreading -- the deconstructionists have nothing on the Irregulars when it comes to finding latent, suppressed meanings hidden in "endless minutiae." For instance, could that mysterious government official Mycroft Holmes -- Sherlock's older, extremely indolent and perhaps smarter brother -- be the original M of British Intelligence? Or might "this central exchange, this clearing house" be the guardian of a computer (or even himself an anthropomorphic computer) created by Charles Babbage?

Of course, the pleasure in such speculations derives from the researcher's ability to build a convincing, seemingly airtight case: Rex Stout once attempted to prove, with logic and chutzpah, that Watson was in fact a woman; Manly Wade Wellman that Sherlock Holmes was the father of P.G. Wodehouse's all-knowing valet, Jeeves.

Is all this clear so far? As H.W. Bell observed long ago, "the subject is vastly complicated and correspondingly amusing."

Besides these narrative gaps into which a scholar can read deeply (or even plunge to his doom), the Canon -- as the 56 stories and four novels are called -- offers many actual mysteries of its own: How many times did Dr. Watson marry? (Evidence suggests at least three wives, not surprising for a man of hearty appetites whose knowledge of women "extended over many nations and three separate continents.") What kind of snake was "The Speckled Band"? Just establishing the proper chronology for Holmes's various "adventures" can be the work of a lifetime: There have been at least 15 separate attempts to bring order to Watson's self-proclaimed "incoherencies."

These days, even though the BSI accepts Doyleans -- people who regard the Holmes exploits as stories written by the author of The Lost World -- it still doesn't encourage this heretical approach. But why was I being invited by the affable yet deeply shrewd Michael Whelan -- the current "Wiggins" as the leader of the Irregulars is termed -- to address the society in the new millennium? As a professional journalist, I had been circumspect in my own investigations into the group's activities, but doubtless some inadvertent slip on my part or some weak-minded source had revealed how close I was to the shocking truth. No doubt, local BSI member Jon Lellenberg, author of the archival history of the organization (five volumes so far: up to 1950), had been employed to gain my trust so that I might confide in him about my research. Ha! thought I, two can play at that game -- and so I smilingly accepted the honor of being this year's "Distinguished Speaker."

Need I add that everybody in the BSI was wonderfully genial, welcoming and kind? Considering my suspicions, I would have expected nothing less. The long New York weekend of January 13-15 was hectic with social and professional events. A breakfast meeting of the advisory board for the Sherlock Holmes Collection housed at the University of Minnesota (Check their Web site at http://www. lib.umn.edu/special/rare/rare. html). The William Gillette Luncheon, named after the actor who played Holmes on the stage for 40 years. A superb performance by Roger Llewellyn in David Stuart Davies's almost too wrenching one-man play, "Sherlock Holmes -- The Last Act." As expected, the dealer's room offered Sherlockian pins, tote bags, ties, magnets, watches, calendars, CDs, playbills, cookie tins, statuettes, deerstalkers and books (including The Sign of Four written out in Pitman shorthand and a first edition of the Memoirs for $675). Saturday afternoon the Wodehousean subgroup, the Clients of Adrian Mulliner, even presented a dramatization of a "Shlock Homes" misadventure about the disappearance of the pig "Empress of Bloatings." Late that same night I sat up -- until the canonical hour of 2:21 a.m. -- paying homage to science fiction eminence Poul Anderson, accepting a drink from Andy Solberg of Columbia, chatting with members of ASH, the legendary Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes.

Certainly, the actual BSI dinner -- restricted to 200 or so invested members and selected friends -- was replete with wit, nostalgia and affection. Beforehand, we toasted Eleanor O'Connor as "The Woman," this year's living avatar of Irene Adler ("To Sherlock Holmes she is always The Woman") and the latest in a series that started with Gypsy Rose Lee. We recited the responses to the Musgrave Ritual: "Whose was it? His who is gone. Who shall have it? He who will come . . . " We even belted out the naughty BSI anthem, "We Never Mention Aunt Clara":

She used to sing hymns in the old village choir.

She used to teach Sunday School class.

Of playing the organ she never would tire,

Those dear days are over, alas!

At church on the organ she'd practice and play,

The Preacher would pump up and down,

His wife caught them back of the organ one day,

And that's why Aunt Clara left town . . .

Later, we ate a meal replicating the first 1934 dinner, starting with Oysters Dying Detective and ending with Cafe Black Peter. After the banquet we listened to a panel of doctors discuss the sexual elements in "The Creeping Man" ("Come at once" has lost its boyish innocence), the Canon's poisons, and the possiblity that Prof. Moriarty might have suffered from Parkinson's Disease. Two rash upstarts actually outlined a millennial revision of the constitution's Buy-Laws, so spelled (and based on the need to keep the drink flowing) and rightly celebrated for its final clause: "All other business shall be left for the monthly meeting. There shall be no monthly meeting." To prevent bodily harm to the pair, Michael Whelan reassured a frenzied crowd that "by executive decree we'll ignore what they were talking about."

At the end of "His Last Bow" Holmes turns to Watson and says, "Stand with me here upon the terrace, for it may be the last quiet talk that we shall ever have." To stand upon the terrace has, over the years, grown synonymous with the somber portion of the dinner, the honoring of those members of the BSI who have "passed beyond the Reichenbach." The leisurely evening -- it was nearly midnight -- concluded with the "birthday honours list" at which Whelan announced the BSI's new members, each being given an investiture name. These are typically a title, phrase or character from the Sacred Writings, chosen to harmonize with the honoree's profession or personality. For instance, the Sherlockian actor Douglas Wilmer was invested as "The Lyceum Theater"; Dr. Fred Kittle, owner of much Doyle family material (including the original manuscript of The White Company) was granted the investiture name of Jack Stapleton, collector and murderer (via a certain Hound).

My actual talk opened innocently enough: a discussion of Watson's narrative style and the Canon's "atmospheric emanations" segued into a reminiscence of my boyhood reading of The Hound of the Baskervilles while alone in my parent's home on a stormy November night. This led in turn to some reflections on the pervasive literary influence of the early Irregulars . . . And then I sprang my surprise.

It has long been remarked that many of Sherlock Holmes's enemies possess names starting with M -- for example, Moriarty, Moran, the blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton, "the worst man in London." Critics have also noticed the Canon's various trios: the Three Students, the Three Garridebs, the three Mrs. Watsons, the three Moriarty brothers. Oddly suggestive, isn't it? For there is one other notable Sherlockian trio associated with a name in M: Christopher, Frank and Felix Morley, of course, the founders of the Baker Street Irregulars.

Suppose, I reasoned, the Morley brothers were in fact the Moriartys. Doubtless the professor had traveled to the East where he'd learned the secret of life extension from the monks of Shangri-La. This would explain Holmes's own journey to Tibet during the Great Hiatus. Certainly, a spider-king like Moriarty would instantly realize that the best possible cover for a newly revivified crime syndicate would be an organization ostensibly devoted to . . . honoring his greatest enemy.

This, alas, is not the forum in which to present all the evidence for the "Secret History" of the Baker Street Irregulars. And naturally some readers may regard this kind of speculation as madness, an obvious improbability. But is it? Remember, as a certain sage once asserted: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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