The critics take their turn

Private Life Chapter 4: Most are kind, but Queen is not amused

A few pages from Vincent Starrett's scrapbook of articles and book reviews.

Perhaps the greatest treasure on my shelves is a large, heavy scrapbook of newspaper and magazine articles. Vincent Starrett’s scrapbook has 50 or so thick pages with yellowed clippings pasted or taped in. The earliest is from 1925 and the latest dates to 1943. Some are about mysteries and the works of other mystery writers, but most are about Sherlock Holmes and many are reviews of his own works, including The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

John Selby's review ran in newspapers from mid- to late October, 1933.

It’s easy to understand why Starrett would want to keep these pieces. After all, the vast majority of them are laudatory reviews that confirmed his hopes for the book. Most critics loved Private Life, if only for the opportunity to once again luxuriate in the exploits of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and the entire Baker Street cast.

Take the opinion of John Selby, long-time arts editor of the Associated Press, whose widely syndicated column, “The Literary Guidepost” was featured in newspapers from Ithaca, New York to Manhattan, Kansas to Butte, Montana in October 1933:

“To a devotee of the Baker Street sleuth, Mr. Starrett’s book is indispensable; to Mr. Starrett it must have been a labor of love, for he is a writer of mystery pieces himself, a fellow craftsman of the late A. Conan Doyle’s, as it were."

"To Mr. Starrett, Sherlock Holmes is a good deal more alive today than many practicing detectives, which accounts for the fact that he treats him and his collaborator as persons, and presents his story of their lives in that spirit.”

That's exactly the spirit Starrett was hoping would be inspired by his book.

Closer to home, Starrett received fulsome praise from Chicago colleagues like James Weber Linn in his Chicago Times column:

“The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, by Vincent Starrett, president of the Society of Midland Authors, is the best biography I have seen this year. … It should be the ‘book of the month.’ “

Another Chicago Times columnist, Gail Borden, gave over her entire column on Oct. 25, 1933 for a letter from D.E. Hobelman (a columnist for the Chicago Evening Post writing as “Gimmick”) who plucks oddments from the book to tantalize the prospective buyer. He concludes thus:

“I don’t know anyone better qualified to write such a book, and I don’t know anyone I could sit up all night and listen to (as I have more than once with Vincent), whether he talked of Holmes, Ambrose Bierce, Mexico, pipes, kings, cabbages or sealing wax. I dare say The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is the best addition to the ever increasing literature on detectives that we shall see in many a moon.”

From the Feb. 3, 1934 issue of the Vancouver Sun.

Starrett must have been especially pleased by the Feb. 4, 1934 review in the Vancouver Sun. As a native Canadian, you can imagine his glee over the opening that gushed:

“Sherlock Holmes lives again in this cleverly written book by Mr. Vincent Starrett.”


“This book is fascinating, in its whimsical humor, and its joys in giving away the many slight discrepancies in Watson’s dates and accounts of some of their adventures.”

and finally,

“Mr. Starrett is to be warmly congratulated. The name of Sherlock Holmes echoes round the world from time to time, but he, the author of this book, has brought home to us all, a living picture of the great detective and his friend Watson. And so they live on, ‘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.’ ”

It is intriguing to note that while “organized” Sherlockian criticism had yet to gain hold, some were disappointed by Private Life. Over at The Washington Post, for example, Theodore Hall lamented the lack of “new” discoveries about the Baker Street detective. But he quickly rebounds by relishing Starrett’s sentiment in his Nov. 23, 1933 review.

“Here, then is the one book for the Sherlock Holmes fan. All may be found within it. … Unless I miss my guess, you will lay down the book with the utter belief that Mr. Sherlock Holmes is still keeping bees in his quiet Sussex retreat.”

The one review I expected to find in the scrapbook isn’t here: Elmer Davis’ Dec. 2, 1933 extended analysis for The Saturday Review of Literature, Christopher Morley’s home turf. Davis uses his space as an excuse to write his own trifling monograph on the Holmes canon, and to assert an opinion held by others:

"Mr. Starrett … has some illuminating comments, yet it is to be regretted that he did not dig deeper into the private life itself. His book is a miscellany of valuable and entertaining essays most of which, inevitably, deal with Holmes's public life and the public appreciation of his services."

Davis' essay deserves to be read in full form. It's a valuable insight into the mind of the man who is best remembered today for the Constitution and Buy-Laws of the Baker Street Irregulars. (Faithful reader Charles Prepolec offers this link to Davis’ full essay. It is worth reading.)

The New York Times ran Isaac Andersen's review on October 29, 1933.

The reviewer for The New York Times, Isaac Anderson, felt Starrett failed to deliver on his title.

“The lack of a flesh-and-blood existence and of authentic records to prove it constitutes something of a handicap for the biographer. And this, no doubt, is why Mr. Starrett’s book, despite its title, might better be described as a Holmes miscellany into which are gathered bits of information concerning the origin of Conan Doyle’s famous tales, the scenes in which they are set, their various stage and screen adaptations, and other matters of interest including a bibliography of the Sherlock Homes stories that never were written and another of the writings of Holmes himself.”

and then says (take a deep breath)

“That there is not much that is new to the memoirs is freely admitted by the author when he quotes, as he often does, what others have written about the greatest detective in all fiction, but the material, gathered from many sources, is presented in a way to make a most fascinating story of what the private life of Sherlock Holmes might have been had he had any life at all except in the brain of his creator and in the hearts of his countless readers.”

Mystery League ran its book reviews under a column heading known as "To The Queen's Taste."

In the last pages of the scrapbook is the most detailed, and critical of all the reviews, taken from Mystery League magazine, the precursor to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I have discussed the review at length elsewhere, so will summarize my observations below.

"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.

A rare and badly chewed copy of Mystery League magazine for January 1934 from my collection.

Here’s how Queen starts the critical element:

"One of the first post-impressions resulting from 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 the five essays that 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.”

Having thus drawn the blade and plunged it in, Queen offers a binding poultice for the wound.

“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. 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.”

Well, that’s enough. Needless to say, the critics were largely pleased, the first printing was followed by a second and, by Great Depression standards, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes did quite well, I think.

Next time: A mid-week bonus article that lets me show off a bit.