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For Sherlockians, the Fun Is in the Details

By Ryan Thornburg Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 1997


Peter Blau at home. Red Circle Society organizer Peter Blau, with some of his Sherlock Holmes books and treasures.
By Reginald A. Pearman Jr. --

Among the myths circulated in Washington is one told—only half jokingly—by members of the nefariously named Red Circle Society: Sherlock Holmes lives.

"That's what's called playing the game," said society member Mary Burke, of Alexandria. "You talk as if Sherlock Holmes is still alive and raising bees out in Sussex."

Nevermind that Sherlockians estimate the British detective's age at somewhere around 143 years.

Holmes has interested Washington literati and political types at least since his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, toured the city in 1894. Franklin Roosevelt housed his Secret Service agents at the Maryland presidential retreat, Shangri-La, in a cabin named for Holmes's London address: 221B Baker Street. But it is to the Truman era that The Red Circle Society traces its roots.

In 1950, Karen [Kruse] Anderson, a D.C. high school student and Holmes enthusiast, founded The Red Circle Society with the help of three other Washingtonians. She said they took its name from the title of a story in the Conan Doyle book, "His Last Bow." The name also was intended to show defiance against the anti-communist baiters of the time, Anderson said.

The club took a hiatus in 1955 when Anderson moved to California. But in 1970 it was resuscitated by Peter Blau, a recent arrival to the capital. Blau had been obsessed with the tales since he was 14, when his father's book-dealer friend introduced him to "The Baker Street Journal," a periodical dedicated to all things Sherlockian.

"Washington was too big of a city not to have a Sherlockian society," said Blau, 65, now the chief organizer of the District-based society. Anderson, now a science fiction writer, remains the ceremonial president.

The D.C. Sherlockians come from all walks of life, but they are primarily well-traveled, well-read, white-collar workers like Blau, who is a free-lance journalist and geological consultant. Their society is one of 400 local clubs operating under the auspices of an international organization, The Baker Street Irregulars.

"We meet people from all over the world who have an interest in Sherlock," said Burke, 52, a research survey analyst at the National Science Foundation.

Scientists and mail clerks alike gather about four times a year to escape to Victorian England. At the society meetings, the members' diverse backgrounds become relevant only in the way they inform their unique interpretations of the world's most famous detective. There is no assigned reading for the dinners. Any topic is fair game.

"It's not Sherlock Holmes that's fun, it's the Sherlockians," Blau said. "Of 100 people you meet in the world, maybe five will be interesting. When you walk into a room of Sherlockians, you're unlucky if you find one that is uninteresting."

About the Red Circle Society
To join: Show up at one of the group's events.
Membership fee: None. Quarterly newsletter costs $2.35 a year.
Membership requirements: None.
For more information: Contact Peter Blau at 202/338-1808,, or 3900 Tunlaw Rd. NW, Apt. 119, Washington, D.C. 20007-4830

Today, the local club's mailing list has more than 150 names. Twenty to 40 of them show up at the group's quarterly meetings, annual dinner and special horse race at Pimlico Race Course, The Running of the Silver Blaze.

Silver Blaze, of course, is the name of a story about a missing racehorse in Conan Doyle's 1893 book, "The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes."

The club's membership is dominated by men, and to have a woman as its co-founder is a bit of an anomaly. It was not until 1991 that women were allowed to be participating members of The Baker Street Irregulars. That may seem a little misogynistic, but then again, many would argue that Holmes himself had a deep-seated mistrust of women. Holmes's thoughts about—or involvement with—women are often the topic of discussion at the meetings of the Red Circle Society.

"Was he, or was he not, a virgin?" Blau said, in a recent interview.

There is plenty to debate about the life of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlockians will argue about the intelligence of Holmes's sidekick, Dr. Watson. They will note that the deerstalker caps worn by actors portraying Holmes would never have been worn by city-dwellers of Victorian England. For them, Conan Doyle's stories are as much a study in social science as literature.

"[There are] so many facets to both Sherlock Holmes and Victorian life," Burke said. "So people can interpret it in different ways."

Just because Sherlockians enjoy examining the broad social commentary of Holmes does not mean they are afraid to show off their knowledge of the details. After all, it was his powers of observation that made Holmes great.

Sitting in his apartment in Northwest Washington, surrounded by Holmes "art" ranging from the homemade knitted pillows to Disney animation cells, Blau is happy to relate that the only reference to Washington in Conan Doyle's stories is a mistake. When a character in "The Valley of Fear" inspects counterfeit U.S. silver dollars, he says, "These dollars never saw the mint in Washington." Even Watson would know that no coins have ever been minted in Washington.

It's the minutiae that bring Holmes aficionados together. Every December at Blau's apartment, Sherlockians gather to solve the puzzle posed by Blau's all-Sherlock Christmas tree. The 4-foot artificial tree stays up year-round and is decorated with 60 ornaments, each relating to one of Conan Doyle's 60 Holmes stories. The ornaments, made by Blau's sister-in-law, are taken off the tree each December and laid on the table. Blau's guests then prove their knowledge of "the canon" by guessing which story each ornament is associated with. Each correct guess means another ornament goes back on the tree.

But the tree is just one of hundreds of thousands of Sherlockian artifacts found in Blau's home/shrine. When he bought the apartment he now lives in, Blau's building was being converted from rental units to co-ops. That gave Blau the perfect opportunity to acquire two adjoining apartments and have them joined—one to live in and one to house his collection of books, dolls, paintings and other items relating to the resident of 221B Baker Street.

"Sherlock Holmes is part of our cultural literacy," he said. "Everyone knows who Sherlock Holmes is in some way."

Peter Blau at home. Peter Blau at home.
By Reginald A. Pearman Jr. --

So many people believe that Holmes is still alive that Abbey National Bank in London, the current recipient of mail addressed to 221B Baker Street, has a full-time "Holmes" to answer all the letters people write to him.

The closest thing Washington has to a full-time Holmes is Blau. Letters about the detective come to him in stacks every day. Many of them get a response, especially if they include $2.35 for a year's subscription to the society's newsletter.

That's all it takes to become a member of the Red Circle Society, but Burke said it takes even less to form a new club.

"You need a copy of the canon, two Sherlockians and a bottle of booze," she said. "In an emergency, you can dispense with one of the Sherlockians."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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