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Sherlock On Masterpiece

A Baker Street Irregular Talks ‘Sherlock’ With KCTS 9

An interview with Jon Lellenberg, Sherlock scholar

December 5, 2016

Jon Lellenberg is the historian of the Baker Street Irregulars, a literary society founded in 1934 that is dedicated to the study of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Victorian world. He is a premier scholar and expert on both Arthur Conan Doyle and Holmes and the co-author of Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters with Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley. Lellenberg is also the U.S. agent for the Conan Doyle Estate. Recently, we had the chance to ask him about his lifelong fascination with Sherlock Holmes.


What initially sparked your interest in Sherlock Holmes? Can you recall your first encounter with the detective?

Jon Lellenberg:

I was eight years old when a Sherlock Holmes series starring Ronald Howard came on TV in 1954–1955.  I was fascinated by it, so I got my parents to get me The Complete Sherlock Holmes.  For the next eight years — once a year — I’d take it off the bookshelf, go through it again cover-to-cover, like a threshing machine, and then put it back on the bookshelf for another year.  
I fell out of that habit in college until one day, while in graduate school in Los Angeles, I was at the splendid Pickwick Bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard and saw on a table the oversized two-volume Annotated Sherlock Holmes edited by William S. Baring-Gould.  It was the first time I knew of The Baker Street Irregulars, the club founded in New York in 1934, and its mock-scholarship about the Sherlock Holmes stories — and it rekindled my love for them all over again.
An illustration from “The Adventure of the Final Problem” in The Strand Magazine, December 1893, showing Sherlock and his nemesis Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls.

Sherlock is a character that keeps being reinvented. Why do you think that is? What is it about Sherlock that withstands the test of time?

I think three things enable the Sherlock Holmes stories to transcend the passage of time since first published, and to appeal across national boundaries and cultures.  
First is the basic storytelling quality behind them.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a master storyteller. Second is the sense of justice in them, justice as a product of reason, not force, and by someone prompted to pursue justice as a private individual, as we might in our own lives. The third is the theme of friendship behind the stories: the friendship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson is the greatest one in English literature, perhaps world literature. So those three things in particular, plus people wanting to have Sherlock Holmes in their own world.  Who wouldn’t?

What role do you play in keeping Conan Doyle’s and Sherlock’s legacies alive?

I became a member of The Baker Street Irregulars, and over the years have contributed a good deal to its mock-scholarship about the Sherlock Holmes stories, both as a writer and as an editor and also about Conan Doyle’s life and career in a serious way.  It led to my becoming acquainted in the 1970s with Conan Doyle’s daughter, the late Dame Jean Conan Doyle, and then in the 1980s becoming her representative in the United States when changes in U.S. copyright law extended her father’s subsisting U.S. copyrights and empowered her to recapture them.  I continued to represent the estate and family after her death in 1997.

You’ve written a number of books on Conan Doyle and Sherlock. Do you ever uncover new facts or learn anything new when taking on projects like this?

All the time.  In 2006–2007 I did Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters with Daniel Stashower, the best of Conan Doyle’s living biographers, and we thought that between the two of us, there wasn’t much about Conan Doyle we didn’t already know.  Then we started digging into more than 50 years of letters to members of his family, and we found ourselves learning something new about him every day.  At the International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes, I learned new aspects of what he got as a medical student, from Dr. Joseph Bell of Edinburgh, and how that went into Sherlock Holmes as a character, from documents lent to the Exhibition by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle runs through Jan. 8, 2017.

What have been some of your favorite adaptations of Sherlock?

I grew up watching the 1939–1946 movies starring Basil Rathbone on TV, and he’s still Sherlock Holmes in my mind’s eye, though there have been others that I’ve liked a great deal.  But Rathbone’s Watson, Nigel Bruce, was not at all my (or Conan Doyle’s) idea of Dr. Watson.  So, I was glad when movies began to abandon Bruce’s Boobus Britannicus approach in the late 1950s.  I was so-so about Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes in his TV series (1984–1994), but liked both his Watsons, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke, very much. I think Jude Law in the current Warner Bros. movies may be the best movie Watson of all time, so far.  
Actor Basil Rathbone played Sherlock Holmes in 14 Hollywood films made between 1939 and 1946.


More Info

The International Exhibit of Sherlock Holmes at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle runs from Oct. 15, 2016 through Jan. 8, 2017.  For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Pacific Science Center website.
On Jan. 1, 2017, be sure to tune in to KCTS 9 for the premiere of a brand-new season of Sherlock on Masterpiece. This season promises laughter, tears shocks, surprises and extraordinary adventures.
Watch a preview: 



KCTS 9 staff consists of experienced journalists and videographers, producing local stories on the issues that shape the greater Seattle area. More stories by KCTS 9