Grab a drink, put fresh logs on the fire, pick a comfortable chair and settle in. This is going to be a bit longer than usual.
And you might want to pour a double, because it's not going to be pretty.
When The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was first published in 1933, the critical reaction was generally positive. The idea that someone would write an entire book of essays about Holmes, his creator and his popular image was new in the United States, and Starrett's amiable style of writing, coupled with his clear love for the subject matter, made for an easy read. Most reviewers welcomed it.
But not everyone was enthusiastic, especially those hard core Holmes fans who had yet to band together. And one of the most caustic reviews came from the most prominent voice in mystery and detective literature and a self proclaimed "old fuss-budget about Sherlock Holmes": Ellery Queen.
Queen's extensive review (this was no blurb, clocking in at approximately 1,600 words!) appeared in what is today an extremely rare magazine called Mystery League. The review itself has been lost in the pulp dustbin, and so far as I can tell has never been reprinted or reported.
Before we get to the review, let's look at the magazine in which it was published.
Before there was an Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, there was Mystery League magazine, with "Ellery Queen" as its editor. The year was 1933 and mysteries were bigger sellers than ever, despite the deepening Depression. For Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, the cousins who worked under the Queen name, Mystery League represented another opportunity to do what we would today call, "expand the Ellery Queen brand."
By setting themselves up as the vehicle for great mystery stories and thoughtful criticism, Dannay and Lee sought to make "Ellery Queen" synonymous with "quality mystery and detection writing."
Unlike the digest sized Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine we have today, Mystery League was bigger, a full 8.5 X 11.5. Although the size was different, the mix of new mysteries and commentary would be familiar to today's EQMM reader. Mystery League even featured those delightful incidental illustrations that populate EQMM. I've reproduced several in this posting.
There were only four issues of Mystery League, published by a small house that went belly up. Dannay and Lee were the whole staff, according to them.
The last issue is the one we're interested in, the one that appeared in January 1934, a few months after The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was published.
As you can see, my copy is pretty badly damaged. If you want to see some better copies, you can go here.
I'm going to start out by making a guess, and say that it was the Dannay side of Ellery Queen that wrote the review of TPLOSH. I base this on the recognition that when it came to Christopher Morley and the early years of the BSI, it was usually Danny who was far more interested in Holmes. And as you'll see, the TPLOSH reviewer has a strong handle on things Holmesian. Whichever half of the writing duo did the honors, it appeared in a column called "To The Queen's Taste."
Perhaps recognizing that the sometimes stinging nature of the review will raise eyebrows, Queen establishes his bona fides for writing a four-page (that's right, four-page) book review.
"There has never been a more rabid, intolerant, and jealous tribe than the Loyal Order of Sherlock Holmes Enthusiasts. And, more than that, so hypercritical. I say this because I am a member of that order, and because, being a member of that order, I am dissatisfied with Mr. Starrett's earnest work. Neither Mr. Starrett nor anyone, I suppose, could ever do a job on Holmes which would completely, whole-heartedly, and unconditionally bring cheers to the lips of the Loyal Order. And this despite the fact that in Mr. Starrett's book you may find the answers to so many of those knotty, fascinating and obscure points of Doyle-Holmes lore which the true Holmesian delights in hugging to his breast."
Queen then gives Starrett his due for covering a broad range of Holmes-related topics, from Doyle's inspiration for the stories to the actors and artists who created the visual iconography, to the missing cases Watson never gave us. But after the pat on the back ("All of these really cosmic questions, some elementary and some advanced, are answered by Mr. Starrett; and many, many more.") Queen stands back and draws his knife.
"But the fact remains that The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes—an honest, authoritative work; a labor, most obviously, of love—leaves much to be desired to the Holmes fanatic. Precisely what is wrong with Mr. Starrett's book is a difficult question to answer. Most of the important things are there. Let me see if, with malice toward none—least of all to Mr. Starrett—I cannot mark the crucial inadequacies."
And mark them out he does. While he claims not to hold malice against Starrett, it's clear Queen believes the book is a lazy man's cut and paste job and that if he, Ellery Queen, had done such a work, it would have been much better.
I'll outline Queen's case against TPLOSH, with this note: In one way, he's not far from the mark. Indeed, while I love TPLOSH for the way in which it introduced me to the world of Sherlock Holmes, the book is NOT a biography. As Queen points out with painful clarity, he could have done better, much better.
At the same time, Starrett's goal was never to do a narrative biography, but a primer on Holmes, his inspiration and his world. (He would later claim that the title was not his but his publisher's idea.)
And, after all, if Queen could do a better job, why didn't he?
Here’s how Queen starts the critical element:
"One of the first post-impressions resulting from a a devouring of the work is that of lack of cohesion. The book was not well-planned. In effect, it remains a series of barely connected essays on various phases of Holmesana (the publisher's word, not mine; I much prefer "Holmesiana." )
Queen notes five essays were reprinted from earlier magazine appearances.
"When it is considered that the book contains only eleven chapters, and that the five essays referred to were written at presumably widely different times, since they appeared in various magazines between 1930 and 1933 and therefore probably were not planned to be integral units of a definitive work on Holmes, it will be seen that the criticism of lack of cohesion is not unwarranted."
It gets worse.
"Now all of this may seem very like carping and not especially interesting criticism; but to me, who derives a livelihood from exploiting the modern development of the Sherlock Holmes literary tradition, who moreover now as in the past bears an affection closely akin to reverence for the genius and memory of that great man, those objections are of weighty importance, as they must be to anyone who picks up the volume in the anticipation of a night's delicious reading, of reading the last word in Holmes lore, I charge Mr. Starrett not with lack to enthusiasm but with lack of imagination."
"For it seems to me that Mr. Starrett's unhappiest error was his approach. He has entitled his book The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, an exciting and inspired title. And yet he has given us everything but the private life of Sherlock Holmes. If anything, he has given us the private life of Doyle, of Watson, of Dr. Bell, of William Gillette. One has a right to expect, reading that title, that this will be a biography of Holmes. It is not.”
Queen then explains how he could have done it better.
“Had I had Mr. Starrett’s inspiration to write a book entitled The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, I should have forgotten Doyle. I should have forgotten Bell and Gillette and the illustrators and the imitators and the parodists. I should have written, simply, a life of Holmes, treating him tacitly and without apology as a living man, as a man who lived and lives, forgetting altogether that he is merely a character in a series of books.” He then fills in numerous areas where he would have spent time and effort in extensive analysis and investigation, all of it dealing with Holmes’ life.
“This should have been my approach, and I submit that this should have been Mr. Starrett’s approach. Yes, to do what I suggest would have been a difficult task; much more difficult than to do what Mr. Starrett has done. But by the same token it would have produced a much more interesting result. More important, a much more comprehensive result.”
Queen then adds a list of all the questions and gaps he would have pursued. To have done this work “I say, would have been to give the hosts of Holmes admirers something delightful to chew on, a refreshing and original fare.”
Then, as if realizing he has gone too far, Queen draws back a bit. Indeed, having withdrawn the knife, he now layers on the honey and offers the greatest compliment to Starrett that anyone who writes about Holmes could ever hope to receive.
“But then," Queen says, "I am an old fuss-budget about Sherlock Holmes, and undoubtedly I have been appallingly unfair to Mr. Starrett. I recommend his book most cordially to all lovers of Holmes as very required reading. (Ray's note: That last sentence could have been a great dust jacket blurb.) Those poor souls who have not read Holmes or who, having read him, inexplicably brought away no lasting memories should read Mr. Starrett’s book also: for it cannot fail to whet even the dullest appetite. The proof of the pudding is that, having read The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, I was at once seized with the irresistible desire to re-read all the Sherlock Holmes tales; which I am proceeding forthwith to do. If Mr. Starrett had accomplished nothing more than this, he has justified his earnest endeavors.”
What writer could ask for more? To inspire someone to re-read the Holmes stories, to study them and seek out the company of others who share this passion, is the greatest joy any Holmes writer could seek.
And that’s what I wish for each of you as we close out 2016. I hope your holiday season is filled with good books and the company of like-minded readers.
There is a bit more to say about this essay, but that will have to wait for the new year.