Private Life Chapter 2: before the book
Vincent Starrett was a master of the Sunday “string of pearls” feature story.
He started by compulsively clipping news stories on topics he enjoyed: imaginary islands, Lincoln lore or his hero Arthur Machen. He would file them into folders.
Then, as his bank balance or fancy dictated, he would pull out a folder and take a few nuggets or “pearls” of information from each, string them together into a leisurely feature story and ship it off to a friendly editor.
Thus the name, a “string of pearls” feature story.
In the days when feature stories could run to several thousand words, it was a quick way to make a few bucks without ever having to do a single interview or even leave the comfort of his home office.
In the 1930s, as he thought about a format for the book that became The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Starrett expanded on the idea. Instead of one “string of pearls” feature, why not create nearly a dozen feature stories centered around various aspects of the Baker Street detective?
There were advantages to this idea. Each chapter could be self-contained and could focus on a specific aspect of the Holmes world, such as the creation of the character or the location and nature of 221B Baker Street.
Even better, the conceit would allow him the freedom to shift back and forth between treating Holmes as a creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, or as a living, breathing human, in the manner that would later be called "Playing The Game."
Would it work? Could he sell the idea to a publisher? Would people buy it? This was a risky concept. It had never been done before in the United States, but Starrett believed the popularity of the Holmes stories would intrigue publishers and a buyer.
There was one other advantage to this concept: Since each chapter was independent of the others, he could sell them to magazine publishers and have them appear before the book appeared. The chapters would then publicize and help promote sales of the book.
And he would get paid twice for doing the work once.
Not a bad job if you could do it.
This is how the magazine publication went:
The Atlantic Monthly, “Enter Mr. Sherlock Holmes” (Chapter 1 of the book).
Real Detective, “Mr. Holmes of Baker Street,” retitled “No. 221-B Baker Street” (Chapter 4).
The Golden Book and Reader's Digest, “The Real Sherlock Holmes” (Chapter 8).
The Bookman, “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” (Chapter 5).
The Bookman, “Sherlock Holmes: Notes for a Biography”, retitled “Ave Sherlock Morituri et Cetera” (Chapter 7).
Of the 11 full chapters of the book, five appeared independently. Critics would cite this as one reason why the book didn’t deliver on its promise, but we’ll get to that later.
Here is how they looked:
"Enter Mr. Sherlock Holmes."
The Atlantic Monthly, July 1932, pages 81-87.
Founded as a literary magazine in 1857, The Atlantic in 1932 had become a more varied, if a bit stodgy, monthly magazine. For 40 cents, readers got a sprinkling of fiction scattered among articles as high brow as an insider’s look at President Herbert Hoover to a Cornell ornithologist’s consideration of those “Quaint Folk, the Eskimos.”
Starrett’s article dealt with the history of how Doyle combined the acumen of his former surgery professor at the University of Edinburgh, Joe Bell, with Edgar Alan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin to create Sherlock Holmes, “the most familiar figure in modern English fiction; a name that has become a permanent part of the English language.”
He traces Conan Doyle's plans for his hero, first called Sherrinford Holmes and his friend, initially Ormond Sacker, from conception through to first appearance in Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887.
"That lurid paper-back of Christmas 1887 is today one of the rarest books of modern times—a keystone sought by discriminating collectors in every part of the earth."
If memory serves, Starrett owned three different copies during various times of his life!
"Mr. Holmes of Baker Street"
Real Detective, December 1932, pages 50-53+
If Atlantic Monthly was the high brow outlet for Starrett’s Holmesian explorations, Real Detective was the opposite: a pulp magazine that specialized in racy covers, raucous revelations of sex and drugs, and an almost inexhaustible supply of exclamation marks. (“14 Hours in Hell!” and “Riot and Terror in a Flaming Prison!” are just a few from the cover of the December issue).
The magazine had gone through several name changes and editorial transformations over the years. Originally an outlet for fictional mystery and detective stories, Real Detective had become by the early 1930s a scandal sheet, with the occasional fictional tale still mixed in.
“Mr. Holmes of Baker Street,” was an odd bit to include here and feels sedate and quaint bumping shoulders with “The Scandals of Hollywood,” and “I Am a ‘Slave’: The Tragic Confession of a Girl who ‘Went Wrong.' ” Starrett's article however would become one of the most beloved of those in Private Life, bringing together his nostalgic affection for the late Victorian era and the research of Dr. Gray Chandler Briggs, a fellow Holmes enthusiast.
"Thus, then, one sees the rooms in Baker Street, and somewhere on the premises a dressing gown. … And Watson, too, is there within the rooms, as much a fixture as the detective himself. That solid, English figure …must be forever the second figure in the immemorial tableau…"
"Thus they lived — and the old building is there, says Dr. Briggs, to prove it. Sherlock Holmes and Baker Street!"
You can find out more about Starrett and Real Detective in this article published in the Autumn 2007 issue of The Baker Street Journal.
And you can see more of the great covers from Real Detective here.
“The Real Sherlock Holmes”
The Golden Book, December 1930, pages 81-84; Reader’s Digest, January 1931, pages 823-827.
We talked about this article’s appearance in The Golden Book last time. So let’s say a few words about Reader’s Digest.
“The Real Sherlock Holmes” was the first time Starrett’s work appeared in this stalwart magazine of the 20th century, a favorite of doctor office waiting rooms and grandma’s purses.
Founded in 1922, Reader's Digest offered abbreviated versions of articles found in other magazines. Wholesome and conservative, the magazine had an impressive circulation of 300,000 by the time Starrett’s piece was published in 1931. Reader’s Digest was staple-bound in those days, with the table of contents on its cover. The digest size made it easy to slip into a commuter’s suitcoat pocket.
The fact that Reader’s Digest wanted Starrett's story on Holmes’ creator was another indication that a book of articles like this would be a popular seller.
Starrett would have a second Reader’s Digest appearance 33 years later (November 1964) with a chapter from the revised edition of Private Life.
“The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes”
The Bookman, December 1932, pages 812-118.
It is wholly appropriate for the title chapter, “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” to be published in The Bookman. As Les Klinger and Susan Dahlinger have chronicled in their book, Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle and The Bookman (published in 2010 by Gasogene Books, Indianapolis), before there was a Baker Street Journal, the friends of Sherlock Holmes found a home in The Bookman.
Although headed into its final months of publication, The Bookman had a few Sherlockian delights left to offer, and the first was the most lyrical of Starrett’s essays from Private Life. The namesake chapter is purely in “The Game,” with Starrett giving us his view of what life in Baker Street was like for the great detective and his trusted companion. The essay is a tribute to their friendship, which spanned decades and death, marriage and Moriarty.
Most memorably, it is also the essay that ends with Starrett the essayist giving way to Starrett the prose poet. He would rework these thoughts during the dark days of World War II into his famous sonnet "221B", but for now, this was his tribute to the loyal companions.
“But there can be no grave for Sherlock Holmes or Watson. … Shall they not always live in Baker Street? Are they not here this instant, as one writes? … Outside, the hansoms rattle through the rain, and Moriarty plans his latest devilry. Within, the sea-coal flames upon the hearth, and Holmes and Watson take their well-won ease. … So they still live for all that love them well: in a romantic chamber of the heart: in a nostalgic country of the mind: where it is always 1895.”
This essay gained some attention on its own. For example, Folger McKinsey, writing in the Baltimore Sun newspaper for January 5, 1933, called the essay, "One of the most delightful magazine essays that has appeared for a long time." He gushes on:
"Starrett takes us into the intimate hours of the daily life of Holmes and Dr. Watson, as the details have been gathered from a close study and note taking of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and it all goes to show what intimate characters Conan Doyle made these two creatures of his fancy, how much in his own life he must have lived with them on terms of closest intimacy, making them a sure part of the London scene."
“Sherlock Holmes: Notes for a Biography”
The Bookman, February 1933, pages 166-171.
Nearing the end of its run, The Bookman served up one more essay on Sherlock from Starrett, this one completely in line with the magazine’s traditional, if fanciful, offerings. For a magazine devoted to books and writers, Starrett offered a delightfully detailed catalogue featuring the works of Sherlock Holmes, mater detective and occasional author.
“Sherlock Holmes: Notes for a Biography”, gives the collector the best possible hints at what to look for in the dusty shelves of forgotten dealers. For example, who among us would not want to add Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos, or On the Surface Anatomy of the Human Ear to his shelf? After listing them all, the old bookman gives us a shove out the door and down the street:
“Look well, then, for all these rare and difficult titles, Bookmen, for your own shelves and for the records of all the future.”