A dark, cold night in March, circa 1890. Dr. John H. Watson rides through London in a hansom cab. Watson is a married man, a working medico weary from a busy day on the rounds. Truth be told, he’s bored out of his skull. He peeks out of the cab’s porthole, up at the second-floor window of a familiar house. In the window above he sees a skinny, hawk-nosed shadow pace behind a brilliantly illuminated blind. He orders his cab to stop, and he steps onto the gaslit pavement outside 221B Baker Street.
Arthur Conan Doyle wrote fifty-six short stories and four novels set in the world of Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective, and John H. Watson, his best friend and indefatigable chronicler. As Dr. Watson climbs the stairs to 221B, he sets in motion the first of the short stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which appeared in the Strand Magazine’s issue for July 1891. In the months that followed, one Sherlock Holmes adventure after another hit the bookstalls of Victorian Britain. The stories’ young author, just barely in his thirties and working a desultory day job as an eye specialist, had used these two intriguing characters — a beaky superdetective and his pal, an ex–army doctor with underappreciated storytelling gifts — in a couple of earlier novels, with mixed commercial results. With “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Conan Doyle truly (but accidentally) launched Sherlock Holmes and Watson into the literary cosmos.
Watson opens the door to the Baker Street sitting room. The chamber is bright but shadowed in the corners, where the gaslight and coal fire’s glare dies away amid the startling array of detritus Sherlock Holmes accumulates in his adventures. Every corner overflows with crumpled newspapers, obscure and frightening books, strange chemical implements, and stray weapons. Sherlock is no mere cop grinding away in an office, but rather an exquisite self-creation who operates against the criminals that plague the world’s most powerful city. Well, let’s say he defends his own version of Victorian London — one besieged not by run-of-the-mill grifters and garden-variety psychopaths but by demented math professors, conspiracies of redheaded men, and cunning blackmailers who skulk about wearing astrakhan, whatever that is. Holmes doesn’t live in our reality. He lives in a more interesting (if sinister) dimension.
Watson finds Holmes rampaging around the room, exuding his own personal, lurid atmosphere of tobacco funk and global intrigue. The good Watson has already warned his readers, in the second paragraph of “Scandal,” about Holmes, his “Bohemian soul” and irregular habits. Sherlock has been off in Odessa dealing with a murderous (or maybe murdered) Trepoff. He’s pondered a “singular tragedy” in Trincomalee (that’s in Sri Lanka), and sorted out some nasty business involving the Dutch royal family. The detective gives his old pal a cigar. Drinks in hand (at Baker Street, a glass is never far away), Holmes produces a letter, lately delivered, written in broken English on thick pink stationery. The letter informs the detective that a man will call at a quarter to eight. The visitor will wear a mask. Holmes and Watson deduce, based on the writing paper’s watermark and quick reference to a handy “European gazetteer,” that this missive comes from “Bohemia.” (That’s in the Czech Republic these days. Victorian readers would have known it as one swatch in the crazy quilt of the Dual Monarchy, Austria-Hungary.) The mystery guest then sashays across the threshold.
The masked man is six feet six inches tall. As for the rest, we must defer to Watson:
"Heavy bands of astrakhan were slashed across the sleeves and fronts of his double-breasted coat, while the deep blue cloak which was thrown over his shoulders was lined with a flame-coloured silk and secured at the neck with a brooch which consisted of a single flaming beryl. Boots which extended halfway up his calves, and which were trimmed at the tops with rich brown fur, completed the impression of barbaric opulence . . . he wore across the upper part of his face, extending down past the cheekbones, a black vizard mask . . ."
Good Lord, is it the Marquis de Sade?
I discovered a thick, brick-red-covered, dog-eared book in my school library in Montana one suitably frigid winter’s day when I was about eleven years old. The volume bore some pre-gender-equity title like The Boys’ Sherlock Holmes. It smelled faintly of mold and many small hands. I opened to the first story, spied the exotic, very adult title “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and tumbled in. In some sense, I suppose, I was never seen again.
I had heard of Holmes, of course, though the character was better known among my mid-’80s peers for the phrase “no shit, Sherlock” than as “the most energetic criminal agent in Europe.” But I proved more susceptible to old Arthur Conan Doyle than most boys and girls. Raised by a pair of avid readers, grandson of a librarian, offshoot of a clan full of writers and English teachers (I have often wondered why my lineage didn’t tend toward stock brokerage, electrical engineering, medicine, cobbling, or, really, anything more lucrative than literature), I read rather boldly for my age, as doting relatives and mildly alarmed teachers never ceased to remind me. I read the encyclopedia for fun. Furthermore, I was fascinated by the foreign — which in Missoula, at that time, meant just about anything with an accent — and the old-fashioned, which in the ’80s meant anything not dyed hot pink. “A Scandal in Bohemia” met all requirements.
I sat, rapt, on the fraying shag carpet of the bedroom I shared with my younger brother, my spine riveted to the edge of our bunk beds, the Rocky Mountain winter in full howl outside a window insulated with a thick plastic sheet. I devoured one story after another: the Bohemian adventure, The Sign of the Four, “Silver Blaze.” In retrospect, I can’t say that I quite caught everything — and, in fact, I would soon discover that some 1950s bowdlerizer had weeded The Boys’ Sherlock Holmes (or whatever it was) of Holmes’s edgier moments. This caring editor had expunged the cocaine, toned down some bludgeonings. But that black mask! The astrakhan! The “flame-coloured” silk! The weird Victorian regalia, the secret worlds suggested by Baker Street’s riotous mess of newspapers and urgent letters on pink stationery — all inflamed my boyhood mind. People often describe the Sherlock Holmes stories as “cozy,” and I can see what they mean. It does feel snug there by the Baker Street coal fire. But I primarily think of these stories as exuberantly, beautifully strange artifacts — startling jewels set in gnarled brass, lit with the glow of a lost time. From the beginning, the Sherlockian saga has served me as an escape hatch into an intricately constructed alternate dimension.