March 11, 2020

Sherlock Holmes Comes to the Bryn Mawr Wellesley Book Sale

By Stuart Mitchner

“Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.”

Reading the opening paragraph of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four you don’t need a 7 percent solution of anything, be it cocaine, morphine, or the adrenaline of anticipation, to appreciate the twin themes of addiction and deduction at the heart of the impending Bryn Mawr Wellesley Book Sale. Along with a first chapter titled “The Science of Deduction,” you’ve got the simultaneously calming and compelling bedside manner of Sir Arthur’s prose, as he slows you down with phrasing that puts the everyday world on pause for “some little time.” And anyone addicted to the rare book mystique has felt something like the “mental exaltation” so “transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind” that Holmes cites in defense of his habit when Watson warns of the “pathological and morbid process” of a drug that may “leave a permanent weakness.”

For Holmesian book sleuths who know their stuff without relying on smartphones or scanners, the quest for printed gold requires the deduction of clues in the form of those deceptively trivial details that can make thousands of dollars worth of difference in value. For the first issue of the first edition of The Sign of Four (not its occasional variant The Sign of The Four), the broken numeral “138” on the contents page appears as “13,” and the misprint “w shed” for “wished” is found on page 56, line 16. A copy with those flaws goes for as much as $8500, and might fetch thousands more without the bookseller’s minutely detailed admission of evidence such as “neat repairs at spine ends and corners; corners and board edges slightly bumped; hinges repaired; endpapers blistered in places,” areas of “slight discoloration” on the covers, “gilt a little dulled, especially on spine.” And of course it’s necessary to disclose additional and more exotic clues  (move that magnifying glass closer, Holmes), namely the two “faint red stains on the slightly chipped and curled edge of the contents page.”

Mainlining History

For contrast, there’s the purely “sentimental value” of the copy of The Sign of Four that I found in my late teens in a Charing Cross Road shop. Both front and back covers have since become, to put it gently, detached, as has the faded, frayed-at-the-edges title page featuring a small etching of the Strand — one of those London place names bathed in reflected Holmesian glory — as seen from the corner of Southampton Street, the location of the publisher, George Newnes Limited. Call it what you will, Watson, there’s nothing morbid or pathological about the “mental exaltation” I feel when mainlining a hypothetical hypo of this 120-year-old solution of sweet disorder and charismatic decrepitude. Nor is any mere monetary value equal to the sensation of being in intimate contact with an object that shared the same portion of recorded literary history with Holmes, Watson, and their creator Sir Arthur, who has Watson staying “for some time at a private hotel in the Strand” before moving in with Holmes at 221b Baker Street.

There being no date on the title page of my copy of The Sign of Four (the bookseller pencilled in “Early omnibus” when pricing it at 7 shillings), I had to look for clues in the advertisements, one of the points online dealers use to distinguish between different editions. On the back of the title page is a large black letter B for Bile Beans, a “Sure Cure for Anemia, Impure or Bad Blood,” not to mention “Bad Breath,” with a coupon for a free sample dated 1901: just add a penny stamp for return postage and send post haste to The Bile Bean Manufacturing Co., 119 & 120 London Wall, London E.C.  By the time you get to the ad for Hall’s Wine at the back of the book, it’s too late to get your free bottle of “the World’s Greatest Remedy for Sleeplessness, Neuralgia, Nervous Debility, and Prostration.” Too bad, “the offer will expire on March 31st, 1899.”

Holmes the Author

Given the range of the massive collection of Holmesiana displayed at the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley sale, some true believers searching the tables will be hoping to find one of the monographs that Holmes boasts of having authored during an awkward exchange in the opening chapter of Sign of Four. After Watson modestly confesses to publishing his account of the Jefferson Hope case in “a small brochure with the somewhat fantastic title of ‘A Study in Scarlet,’” Holmes says he’s “glanced over it” and is unhappy with its “tinge of romanticism,” which, he complains, “produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.” It’s at this point that Holmes mentions his monograph “Upon the Distinction between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos,” in which he enumerates “a hundred and forty forms of cigar-, cigarette-, and pipe-tobacco, with coloured plates illustrating the difference in the ash.”

Jeremy Brett

Notable among the Holmes volumes at Bryn Mawr is Bending the Willow: Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes by David Stewart Davies, with contributions from Edward Hardwicke and David Burke, the actors who played Watson to Brett’s incomparable Holmes. In a 2008 DVD review of the Granada series, I noted that Brett plays the part as if his life depended on it. His Holmes prefers to leap over chairs rather than walk around them, and unlike the cold, analytical mastermind embodied by Basil Rathbone, Brett’s is passionately, warmly alive.

Another title that caught my eye was Holy Clues: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes by Stephen Kendrick, who recieved his B.A. from Princeton, and whose book, according to Jonathan Kirsch of the Los Angeles Times, “makes a convincing case for the proposition that a mystery story is always and inevitably a kind of morality tale.”

There are books for younger readers like The Adventure of the Speckled Band and for the kitchen, Dining with Sherlock Holmes: A Baker Street Cookbook. Some others include,  Subcutaneously My Dear Watson: Sherlock Holmes and the Cocaine Habit; Sherlock Holmes Among the Pirates, and Sherlock Holmes: My Life and Crimes by Michael Hardwick (pictured here).

My Father’s Holmes 

I don’t know if William S. Baring-Gould’s boxed two-volume The Annotated Sherlock Holmes published in 1970 by Clarkson Potter will show up at the sale. I still have my father’s copy. Ask him what he wanted for Christmas or on his birthday and he’d say, “Anything to do with Sherlock Holmes,” and any time I want to commune with him, all I have to do is browse through his pencilled notes. In “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” I found a “Yes” lightly written in the margin next to the following paragraph:

“It was a cold morning of the early spring, and we sat after breakfast on either side of a cheery fire in the old room at Baker Street. A thick fog rolled down between the lines of dun-colored houses, and the opposing windows loomed like dark, shapeless blurs through the heavy yellow wreaths. Our gas was lit and shone on the white cloth and glimmer of china and metal, for the table had not been cleared yet. Sherlock Holmes had been silent all the morning, dipping continuously into the advertisement columns of a succession of papers until at last, having apparently given up his search, he had emerged in no very sweet temper to lecture me upon my literary shortcomings.”

That’s a remarkable “Yes,” being the closest thing to a superlative my austere father permitted himself in the whole 1500-plus pages of the two-volume tome. So why this “Yes” for a paragraph where nothing remarkable appears to happen? I deduce that this is, in fact, a clue — my father’s way of signaling that here is the essence of his scholary attraction to these stories, though he would never have been so forthcoming “in real life.” It’s all there, the cheery morning, the thick fog, the ominous presence of “dark, shapeless blurs through the heavy yellow wreaths,” the gaslight, Holmes’s silence, his scouring of the papers, and his interest in “literary shortcomings.” That’s what it’s all about, the mood, the ambient essence, that makes you sink back into the velvet-lined arm-chair at 221b Baker Street with a “long sigh of satisfaction.”