Private Life Chapter 14: Two paperback editions.
It was the 1988, and the Sherlock Holmes world was expanding. The previous year brought the 100th anniversary of the first Holmes tale, A Study in Scarlet. The Sherlockian movement in the United States got a nice jolt of enthusiasm and multiple opportunities to celebrate.
News stories from CNN to the Smithsonian put the spotlight on Holmes devotees and their rituals. John Bennett Shaw, the movement’s Johnny Appleseed, was in full force holding two conferences a year, each drawing a couple of hundred people from all over North America and leaving a trail of scion societies in his considerable wake. Robert Thomalen’s “Autumn in Baker Street” was going strong in the Northeast. Chicago, Starrett’s home town, seemed to have a scion on every corner The West Coast was undergoing its own renaissance of Sherlockian affection.
In New York, the Baker Street Irregulars had a relatively new leader in Tom Stix Jr., who was getting ready to shake things up a bit by admitting women to full membership in the BSI as the 80s became the 90s.
What better time to bring back an old Sherlockian chestnut like The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes?
And who better to reprint it than Otto Penzler, whose Mysterious Bookshop on West 56th Street was a fixture of midtown Manhattan and a “must see” stop on any Baker Street Irregulars weekend? (Otto has since moved his shop to Tribeca, but the Mysterious Bookshop retains its role as a vital part of the January weekend.) (But I miss the spiral staircase.)
In 1988 and 1993 respectively, Otto would oversee two editions of Private Life. Each was issued as part of a larger series of books.
I recently asked him: Why Private Life?
“It’s a very well written book, because Starrett is a very good writer,” said Otto. “The 1933 edition is a classic, the first full-fledged biography of Sherlock Holmes. It has great historical significance.”
Let’s look at the books.
The “Mysterious Library” Edition: A Description
The Mysterious Press, 129 West 56th Street, New York, NY.
First Warner trade paperback printing August 1988, stated.
5.25 X 8 inches, 206 pages, plus three pages of advertisements, listing other books in the Mysterious Library series.
Original price: $8.95 in the U.S., $11.95 in Canada.
Otto Penzler’s Sherlock Holmes Library Edition: A Description
Otto Penzler Books, 129 W. 56th Street New York, NY.
In association with Macmillan Publishing Company, 866 Third Avenue, New York, NY. 1993.
A “pocket paperback” it measures 7 X 4 1/8 inches, 214 pages.
Original price: $7.95 in U.S., $9.95 in Canada.
1. The Mysterious Library (1988)
This edition is part of the Mysterious Library series of 21 books published as trade paperbacks in the late 1980s. The intention was to offer “enduring works of reference, biography and fiction covering the entire spectrum of crime and suspense literature,” from Eric Ambler to Colin Wilson.
Private Life was the only purely Sherlockian entry in the series, although the run did include Julian Symons’ Conan Doyle: Portrait of an Artist. Symons’ book is a “concise and readable introduction” to Conan Doyle’s life. More comprehensive autobiographies have since been published.
The cover has a lot going on and it’s hard to figure out where your eye should land. From the Holmes silhouette in the little circle at the top to the hard to read blurb (“Remarkable … a compendium of Sherlockiana.”) to spreading out Starrett’s name along the entire bottom of the page, it’s a typographer’s nightmare, made more complicated by the big pipe in the lower left.
Unlike the front cover, the sentiments on the back cover show the touch of someone who respects and admired the contents. “This private life is the first comprehensive biography (published in 1933) of the world’s greatest detective, written by the greatest of all Sherlockian scholars.” Could not have said it better myself.
2. Otto Penzler’s Sherlock Holmes Library (1993)
It’s fitting that Private Life is once again in the hands of Macmillan, publisher of the 1933 original.
The cover has the very handsome illustration of Holmes as by Frederic Dorr Steele, with a heavy influence from William Gillette. It is not one of the illustrations from the book, but knowing Starrett’s affection for Gillette and Steele, it feels right.
The books are very well made and have held up remarkably well over the last 20 years or more. The pages remain white and crisp and the covers can handle a fair amount of battering around. I find copies for resale all the time and have been impressed with their durability.
When Macmillan published the original, it classified the book as a biography, So did Pinnacle in the first pocket paperback edition. This time out, the book is listed as “crime fiction.”
Take a look at the back cover and notice the blurbs from Carl Sandburg and Christopher Morley, plus the endorsement of Julian Wolff. This isn’t the first time those quotes were used, and it won’t be the last.
See that stylized three-story building at the base of the book’s spine. That’s a rendering of Otto’s shop on West 56th Street.
Note that Starrett had a second book in this series, 221B: Studies in Sherlock Holmes, a set of essays by other writers.
The books in this series are foundational works. A young Sherlockian could do a lot worse than hunt down and read each of these.
Final thought: It’s clear Otto has great respect for the original. Both of these editions were reasonably priced and good quality. While they don’t have new material, they did make the original 1933 edition available for a new generation of readers.
That’s always worthwhile.