What is it we love about '221B'?

Chapter 10: 'Only those things the heart believes are true.'

The headstone for Rachel and Vincent Starrett in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago. The stone has been refurbished since this photo was taken three years ago, but it still retains the last phrase from “221B”: “And it is always 1895.” The sonnet and Starrett will be forever linked. (Photo taken by the author.)

‘With ears attuned’

At the beginning of this trifling monograph, I said I would offer some thoughts on why “221B” has remained so popular and what its adoption by so many in the Holmes movement, says about us as Sherlockians.

Here are three thoughts.


From the 1998 dinner of the Hounds of the Baskerville (sic).

For Vincent Starrett and his contemporaries, the world of 1895 was a period they lived through as children.

Gaslamps and horse-drawn cabs were parts of everyday existence and as they were replaced by more modern conveniences, the desire for a simpler, more innocent way of life touched many.

That longing for a bygone era was no doubt one reason why the Holmes stories drew so many fans in the early and middle decades of the last century. Starrett’s sonnet taps deeply into that desire for a lost time. Even for those of us who came along after the gaslight era, '“221B” creates a longing for a time we never knew, but have romanticized into being.

There’s something else here too that is related to a nostalgia for the past.

Starrett wrote this sonnet for adults, but like most of his fellow Sherlockians, he was writing to men who had read the Holmes stories first as boys, when the desire to erase the boundaries between fiction and reality is strongest. Most adults grow out of this, or perhaps they channel this fantasy into more acceptable forms.

But some of retain that belief that we can still touch the reality that comes through literature. It’s the talent that Starrett calls having “ears attuned to catch the distant view-halloo.”


Those who contributed to the creation of the John Bennett Shaw Library Memorial Fund back in the 1980s received this lovely memento in return.

Those who contributed to the creation of the John Bennett Shaw Library Memorial Fund back in the 1980s received this lovely memento in return.

“221B” was written as World War II still raged. We know how that conflict ends, but for the men and women enduring the bombings and shortages, the loss of loved ones and the dramatic changes in life, there was no certainty that England would continue to exist.

Starrett’s simple declaration that “England is England yet, for all our fears” was certainly a bit of bravado in 1942. And while England survived, each succeeding generation has had its own moments when we’ve wondered if the world we knew was being swept away by forces beyond our control.

For example, in the months following 9/11, I found myself re-reading “221B” and for the first time think I felt a little of what it must have been like for those who did not know what was coming next.

And most of all, friendship

Starrett’s sonnet is not solely a tribute to Sherlock Holmes, but to Holmes and Watson.

They are the “two men of note,” and “the Great Companions” as he wrote to Edgar Smith. The Holmes stories are built on the master detective’s unique abilities, but Conan Doyle’s use of Dr. Watson as narrator is the thread that binds the tales into the canon we know today.

For Starrett, and many others, it is this relationship that makes the stories worth returning to, time and again. And Starrett paid particular tribute to this idea when he wrote “221B”, dedicating it one of his great companions, Edgar W. Smith.

When we recite “221B” at a Sherlock Holmes event, we are not only paying tribute to Holmes and Watson, but to all the friends we have made through our shared devotion.

From Autolycus in Limbo, Starrett’s slim book of poetry. The manuscript page for this volume is below.

It’s really remarkable, when you think about it, that this little sonnet has been adopted by so many groups around the globe without the least bit of coordination. Let’s face it: The Sherlock Holmes world is so disjointed, so decentralized, and occasionally so concussive, that if anyone tried to force the use of a single statement like “221B” on its members, they would shrug it off and head for the bar.

While introducing this trifling monograph, I noted that no vote was ever taken to adopt “221B” as an official element of our movement, but that’s not entirely true. We’ve voted with our hearts. Simply put, “221B” feels right to those romantic and sentimental folks playful enough to read the Holmes canon time and again.

That’s because Starrett lays out for us in these 14 lines the reason why we continue to enjoy the Sherlock Holmes stories long after others have set them aside.


For the last few years, I have had the honor of traveling around the country to talk about Vincent Starrett and Sherlock Holmes. At many of these events, I’ve concluded with a little story from late in Starrett’s life.

To those who have heard this once, I apologize for the repetition, but it seems an especially apt way to conclude this monograph on “221B”.

In 1970, Starrett was invited to the Chicago premiere of Billy Wilder’s film, which shared a title — and nothing else — with Starrett’s great book, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

Starrett was disappointed by Wilder’s interpretation of Holmes, as he writes in an essay published in Late, Later and Possibly Last: Essays by Vincent Starrett. Rathbone was the Last Bookman’s concept of how Holmes was to be portrayed and, even though he had seen Gillette perform as a young man, the elder Starrett preferred his Holmes with Basil.

Is this the “single sheet of paper” that Starrett used when reciting “221B” to his late friend Rathbone as he described in the essay printed in Late, Later and Possibly Last? The romantic in me likes to think so.

When he returned home from the movie theater, Starrett went into his little room of books and took up a single sheet of paper. The paper was worn and brittle and the printing showed broken type and uneven leading. It was an old copy of his sonnet, “221B.”

Starrett says that he sat down and read it aloud, trying to match the way his old friend, Basil Rathbone, would read it. Rathbone had died three years earlier, yet Starrett still felt a connection with the actor. Recalling the moment later, Starrett wrote:

“I read it strongly because I wanted (Rathbone) to hear it again, if he could.”

When I think of Vincent Starrett, that’s how I imagine him: surrounded by his beloved books, his sonnet in his hand, believing that he could read a poem with enough passion to pierce the veil between life and death, between fiction and reality.

And why not? After all,

“Only those things the heart believes are true.”

I know that feels like the end, but we have some business yet to conduct in Chapter 11.

‘221B’ Chapter Index

Chapter 1:       Introduction and Prologue: ‘Where it is always 1895’
Chapter 2:       'So they still live for all that love them well'
Chapter 3:       ‘Some of the most dramatic months… of contemporary history’
Chapter 4:       ‘Here dwell together still’
Chapter 5:       ‘He has done many little things for me’
Chapter 6:       ‘A wider circulation’
Chapter 7:       ‘Part of a slim volume’
Chapter 8:       ‘This poem by my good friend’
Chapter 9:       ‘Something remains of London in 1895’
Chapter 10:     What is it we love about ‘221B’?
Chapter 11:     Afterthoughts and Acknowledgments

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