Private Life Chapter 12: Pinnacle’s 1975 paperback
I was a sophomore journalism student at West Virginia University and a budding Sherlock Holmes nut. Before going to college, I had read Vincent Starrett’s book, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes at my community library, back in Pennsylvania. There was a chapter about the Baker Street Irregulars, a witty band of Holmes fans who laughed and drank their way through meetings dedicated to Sherlock Holmes. It was my fantasy come to life, and while it was outside my reach, I enjoyed knowing there were those who held the same passion as I.
Back to WVU and 1975. I was walking through the University Bookstore. (Morgantown, W.Va., had two new book bookstores and three used and rare bookshops at the time. Talk about a fantasy come to life!) On a shelf marked “Biography” I saw a new paperback with a familiar title: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. I couldn't believe it. Could it be? I picked it up and flipped through it. The author’s name was right, and some of it was familiar, but some of the chapters were new to me.
Then my eyes caught a chapter I had never read before: “The Private Life of Vincent Starrett” by Michael Murphy. I knew almost nothing about Starrett and this was the opportunity to change all that. I scrounged through the pocket of my jeans, came up with two bucks and headed for the register.
And that is how in 1975 I purchased my first copy of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Now, some 43 years later, I have what I believe to be a copy of every major edition of Private Life, 14 by my count. But this one, this paperback is special. It was the first I ever owned.
The copy I purchased more than 40 years ago is long gone. I literally read it to pieces. I own another (well, a couple) and I still pull it off the shelf every once in a while to relive that memorable day. What strikes me today is the fact that other editions of Private Life were written for those in the public who likes to read the Sherlock Holmes stories or watch/listen to the various adaptations. This edition is different. It was edited for Sherlockians.
There’s a lot more to say, but first, let’s look at the book.
The Pinnacle Paperback: A Description
Pinnacle Books, New York City. First printing, August 1975, stated. 208 pages. Decorated wrappers.
Cover: The/Private Life/of/Sherlock Holmes/ by Vincent Starrett/Introduction by Michael Murphy
“The greatest book/about Sherlock Holmes/that has ever been written.”/ —Dr. Julian Wolff/The Baker Street Irregulars
FIRST PUBLICATION IN PAPERBACK!
revised, enlarged illustrated edition.
Cover illustration shows Holmes in deerstalker and cape holding an umbrella while standing underneath a gas lamp and looking across to a line of three-story row homes at twilight.
Spine: “Pinnacle Books/biography” at head; “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes Starrett” horizontal on spine; “ISBN 0-523-00695-0 195” at tail.
Blurbs and a “Note” on back.
Description of Contents
This is a truly “revised, enlarged and illustrated edition,” and in many ways makes good on the unfulfilled promise of the 1960 edition.
All of the essays and material from the 1960 edition are here. But there is also so much more:
A new 4-page Introduction by Michael Murphy, Starrett’s friend. Murphy idolized Starrett and clearly saw this as an opportunity to promote the dean of Chicago Sherlockian’s work to a new generation.
New photographs, including one of the Sherlock Holmes Pub on Northumberland, with an inside shot of three playbills of Sherlockian plays; the famous Paget illustration showing Holmes and Watson in a train car, with a promotional photo from the 1943 film “Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” showing parallels between the two; a signed photo of Rathbone as Holmes; and three photos of William Gillette as Holmes.
There’s also a bonus photo: a shot of Starrett from his time as a war correspondent in Mexico.
Granted a few of the photos from the 1960 edition are missing, but the goal here is clearly to illustrate the points Starrett is making in his essays, hence the emphasis on Paget, Gillette and Rathbone.
But the real treat started on page 181, in an essay delightfully titled, “The Private Life of Vincent Starrett.” Murphy wrote this too. In fact, he wrote it after Starrett’s 1974 death for a privately printed pamphlet produced by Luther Norris and his Pontine Press. In 16 pages, Murphy solidifies the Starrett legend as only a true acolyte can.
Murphy borrows Starrett’s own words at the end, saying that like the house on Baker Street:
“Vincent Starrett, the biographer of Sherlock Holmes, will continue to be remembered as long as books are written and read.”
This is followed by another piece by Murphy, an “Epilogue.” Murphy offers what can only be called gossip and it’s delightful: For example, he says Starrett intended to rewrite his famous pastiche, “The Unique Hamlet” so he could make “certain changes of a scholarly nature as well as syntactical refinements.”
Starrett wanted to also update his essays with newer thoughts that often were discussed in correspondence with other Sherlockians. But Starrett was prevented from pursuing these discussions too far because “there were times when he had little money for the postage to carry his response back to the inquiring party.”
Then we get a final gift: a new essay titled “Selective Reading List of Writings on Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.” In the 1933 edition, Starrett offered a bibliography, literally a catalogue of the best items from his personal Holmes collection. Edgar Smith, among others, used this list as a guide to their own collecting. The books in Starrett’s original list were, by 1974, priced out of reach for younger Sherlockians.
Now, for a newer generation, Murphy suggested a series of books, periodicals and criticism.
For years, I tried to get the books on Murphy’s list. It would remain my guide until John Bennett Shaw issued his own list of the 100 volumes necessary for the “basic” Holmes collection.
Thoughts on the Pinnacle edition
I can’t tell how you exciting it was to open up this book for the first time. For example, on the first page, the front free endpaper, the was a three paragraph note that began with, “THE SACRED WRITINGS.” While not signed, the note has the flavor of other parts of the book written by Michael Murphy.
“Though not intended to be a scholarly treatise, this work contains a great deal of valuable information about Conan Doyle and the Holmes stories — “The Sacred Writings,” as the Baker Street Irregulars refer to them.”
Murphy was talking to me. Thoughts raced through my head:
The Baker Street Irregulars refer to the 60 Holmes adventures as “The Sacred Writings.”
I want to be an Irregular someday.
Therefore, I’m going to start calling them “The Sacred Writings.”
Looking back, I have come to realize that for some of us, this wasn’t just a series of essays on Holmes. It was a training manual for the next generation of American Sherlockians on how to become Irregulars.
I’ve talked with others who have been influenced by this book at a particular point in their Holmes affiliation, and they agree: We didn’t just read this book. We internalized it and started to emulate the descriptions found there. It became our primer with Starrett as the professor, and Murphy as the TA.
I’ve been asked in recent months which copy of Private Life I would recommend newcomers pursue. While the romance of the 1933 is not equaled in later editions, the new material in the Pinnacle edition makes it a cornerstone Starrett work. And the added bonus is that while used copies of the Pinnacle paperback can’t be picked up for the original $1.95, there are many for sale at very reasonable prices.
Get one. I hope you find the same pleasure in it that I did four decades ago.
Final thought: People have asked me why I am spending so much time and energy on one book. The reason is simple: I hope that just one person stumbles across this blog, finds a copy of Private Life and has the same reaction I did. Then it would all be worthwhile.