Dad Talks: Richard Zulkey on Sherlockian societies

February 27, 2012

A little while ago I started a little segment on this site I'm calling Dad Talks, wherein I share interesting or unique stories and theories courtesy of the dads in the world. You can check out the previous conversations here.

Today I chat with my uncle about his interest in the world of all things Sherlock Holmes. (Side note: As an interviewer, I don’t believe I’ve ever had someone provide such a full and complete answer to the first question out of the box that I barely required any follow-ups.)

Tell me about your interest in Sherlock Holmes.
I was always interested in Sherlock Holmes but then I met some friends in another venue, The Gentleman Sportsman’s Squash League, which was a silly club that met once a month in the late ‘80’s or so. We talked about Holmes and this one guy in the club knew more about the organizational aspects. I learned there were all kinds of associations you could become associated with, like on the topic of the writing of Charles Dickens. Another person of great interest is Edgar Allen Poe; a lot of these people have followings.

So I discovered that there are all kinds of levels that you could become involved in the Sherlockian hobby and the highest is to become a member of the Baker St. Irregulars. They have an annual meeting on January 6, which is when Sherlock Holmes’ birthday is supposed to be. To be a member you have to really be involved--my friend is, but I have no desire to proceed along. Most of these fellas get involved with writing and are really active promoting activities. I just like the hobby.

I have an association with another group called the STUDS Society, which is an acronym for Study in Scarlet. These activities have some sort of activity with the cases. For example, off the top of my head, at one meeting we had, a lady who had a tea shack was invited to speak about tea, tea being the big drink of England historically for hundreds of years now. She talked about how it evolved and became a cultural thing throughout Britain. There was a racing activity since there’s a racehorse scene in the one of the books. This is a hobby that can be a catalyst for having fun; there was one in Door County called the annual Sherlockian Canonical Convocation and Caper and different clubs throughout the Midwest would come and they’d have quizzes and scavenger hunts.

As [my wife] Liane and I went on these trips, I learned this too: That in the course of this hobby, people write like crazy.

People write pastiches that are sometimes new Sherlock Holmes cases, sometimes satirical-- a lot of different things. There’s a total of 60 cases referred to as the canon, and there were four novels and 56 short stories. In this context, there are these research books that are humongous volumes of all kinds of footnotes trying to align the references made in the cases by Doyle or try to correct the mistakes that are made and you have these encyclopediatic publications. There’s a plethora of writings that I’m sure other hobbies foster this type of research as well, but honest to god, some of these people are pretty smart, but they also have these contests and quizzes.

The fun of the hobby goes from A to Z in terms of what you want to do. The meetings are on the 27th of the month, four times a year plus some other events. One day we went to Graceland Cemetery; a guy named Vincent Starrett was buried there. He promoted the Basil Street Irregulars and a book reviewer and was also a Sherlock Holmes fan. He wrote a poem called 221b; Sherlock Holmes meetings often end with a recitation of the poem.

Also, as we’re chatting about this, Doyle himself was an interesting guy. He was a doctor and his Sherlock Holmes stories are, I’ve heard, are only 7% or .7% of his writings. Holmes represents an exceedingly small number of his writings. For instance, they say Lost World is a precursor of King Kong.

He was also knighted for defending the South African involvement in the Boer War. He was so sick of Sherlock Holmes that Doyle got rid of him in "The Final Problem" where he and Dr. Moriarty are in the Alps. But by popular demand he resurrected Holmes and got him back going. He made his fortune with Holmes: I believe today there is still a Doyle estate that is financed by the involvement of the Holmes legacy.

Doyle was a little nuts: He was Scotch-Catholic, Jesuit-educated and he lost his son in World War I and got involved with spiritual stuff. Also, he communicated with Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson. He and Oscar Wilde had the same publisher and from what I gather he and Bram Stoker were also buddies.

I think the greatest thing too, is that with the Sherlock stories, we’re not dealing with computers or telephone. We’re getting around on trains and horses and wagons and it’s an interesting time. I like to pick up a book once in awhile and go mentally into the conversation of Watson and Holmes in their room with the fire on a night in their rooms in 221 b Baker Street, and it’s a nice relaxing setting.

It’s a little romantic...
Some people try to imply that there was a sexual thing between Holmes and Watson, but I don’t think so. Holmes was supposed to be a genius and not interested in women but there were avenues of interest in terms of [Irene] Adler. People tried to attach a romantic relationship in this case but she went off on her own and was a brilliant woman who married a lawyer and went on her way. And Watson was married a couple of times and was widowed twice.

A couple of funny things is that there are some errors in the cases. Why? Because Doyle was not that interested in having consistency, just interested in writing stories. It’s generally deemed that in one of the cases Mrs. Watson refers to him as James even though his name was John.

A lot of Doyle is folded into spiritualism; for a while he was buddies with Harry Houdini, but while Houdini exposed charlatans of spiritualism, Doyle tried to pursue it and make attempts to reach people from beyond the grave. A embarrassing thing is that in the beginnings of photography, there was a picture taken and Doyle thought these little sparkling lights fairies: how fanatically he had wanted to believe.

The other side of the coin is that he pursued events. A couple of occasions, he tried to seek some people wrongly convicted and he defended them and was able to overturn their cases, so he was a pretty interesting guy. But at one point Doyle wanted to get rid of Holmes at Reichenbach Falls against Moriarty and then there’s a great reunion. Empty House--it’s a good novel about evil Colonel Moran.

One time, [my oldest son and Afghan war veteran] Joe was home, and a medical doctor in our group gave a talk who was in the Afghan war. Watson was wounded in the war and had a pension and he had a fever and other things like that. I guess that the war they refer to is the only war the Brits lost, the Afghan war, in 1885 or something. Watson meets his buddy at this bar, Watson is complaining about spending too much money, he liked to gamble, and the guy says “I know a guy who’s a little weird who hangs out around the lab at he hospital who does crazy experiments” and he introduces Watson and Holmes. Watson says “I just saw this flat that’s available,” and Holmes tells Watson that he has some weird habits, and anyway, they form their relationship and they move in.

Have you seen the PBS series Sherlock?
I’ve seen them all.

Did you see the recent movies with Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock?
I liked Robert Downey Jr., too, but they’re different characters.  I’ve never seen one I didn’t like, to be honest with you. I liked the British actor, the guy who played him on Channel 11 before. He was pretty cool. They’re all different, they all have little twists. I consider it a great triumph to be switching the channels around and I see a Sherlock Holmes show on and second to that I love the Thin Man stories. They’re so much fun to watch.

I think the beginning of my interest was freshman year of high school, the literature book, there was Canterbury Tales and The Hounds of the Baskervilles was in there.

It’s a harmless hobby that requires nothing. We go to the meetings and they’re usually around some restaurant or some drink. [My younger son] David’s gone. One time, the topic was the labyrinth--there’s one of these at BC campus, maybe one at Northwestern--we get off on some weird tangents. One time, bourbon was the topic and we had a tasting, so for the avenues of our meetings and discussion, some are boring and then there are pretty good ones. Then I had a police officer friend of mine who spoke.

What’s your favorite Sherlock Holmes case?
I like the "Sign of Four," the one about the treasure and the guy with one leg and I like "The Study in Scarlet." I like them all; it depends on the mood I’m in.

What do you like about him as a character?
He’s a smart guy. I think he’s a masculine guy; if you read the cases, Watson notes, he plays the violin but he’s also a fighter. In this one scene in the "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist," some guy gets smart with him and he bashes the guy. He doesn’t take any crap from anybody. His mind is like a computer; he talks about how unnecessary knowledge is just a waste of space. It’s kind of cool that he refers to his brother Mycroft, a British official who appears in two cases, as a computer. All the information crossed before him he could synthesize it and put together. Holmes refers to Mycroft as being smarter than him but Mycroft didn’t want to move around too much.

I think Doyle died around 1930 and still today there are those who read the tales who believe that Holmes lives in Essex county.

Have you ever been to England to find any of the sites from the stories?
I have an acquaintance who has tried to find the locations referred to in the canon. When Liane and I went last time, two years ago, we tried a little bit. I remember being in Jerusalem many years ago and you can get all wrapped up in the places where Jesus did this or that--forget it. You just have to get into the spirit of being there. The Holmes sites are in all different cities but you do have Parliament and certain churches. Simpsons on the Strand is where Doyle and Oscar Wilde had a dinner there with agent, whoever the hell it was, and that was real life. In the canon, Holmes has gone there several times, so Liane and I had dinner there. It was a fun place to have that kind of connection, in terms of its presence being fictional and real.

My mom told me once that you were going to write and article defending Inspector Lestrade.
Lestrade and Holmes, if you read the cases, had a strange respect for one another and Holmes always gave credit to the police. Different thoughts have come and gone, but I’m a little too lazy, too much of a procrastinator.

What’s the significance of the meetings taking place on the 27th?
In the “Adventure of the Blue Carbunkle,” Watson visits Holmes on the 27th to wish him the compliment of the season. There’s a bowler hat that’s there that Lestrade had dropped off and they found the hat and so he comes to a bunch of conclusions and they put an article in the paper and the guy comes to claim the hat. So anyway, Watson visits Holmes on the 27th and that case commenced.