The View from Sherlock Peoria
Peoria’s Proto-fanboy Heads Upriver
As a novelist, he made The New York Times best-seller list. As a science fiction writer, he won the Hugo award. And yet, even with those achievements, Philip Jose Farmer will always be the Obiwan Kenobi of fanboys to me. If that sounds a little flip or disrespectful of a great writer, blame my limits -- my Star Wars corrupted mind can offer no higher tribute. But bear with me.
Phil Farmer passed away in his sleep this past Wednesday. He was Peoria’s best known writer for decades, as well as our first true Sherlockian. He founded our local scion society and could have been one of the great Baker Street Irregulars had he so chosen, but our little hobby was much too small to contain Phil’s fanboy nature. He didn’t just love Sherlock Holmes. He loved Tarzan . . . and Doc Savage . . . and the Scarlet Pimpernel and . . . well, the list goes on and on.
Phil enjoyed the Sherlockian world, but rather than content himself to work inside it, he took the best part of Sherlockiana – studying Sherlock Holmes as if he were a real person – and applied it to other heroes of fiction, writing thick biographies of Tarzan and Doc Savage. Holmes always seemed to appear somewhere in the lives of Phil’s subjects. His fiction included Holmes too on occasion, but Phil Farmer was no mere pasticheur. He loved gathering characters from across classic fiction and history for his writings. From Jesus Christ to the Scarecrow of Oz to Mark Twain, one never knew who would be in the next book Phil wrote. He was a fan of so many things.
Philip Jose Farmer took that role we know today as the fanboy and raised it to a true master’s level. And maybe that’s just what a good writer does: write about what he loves and love a whole lot of things. Even what you thought of as Phil’s original fiction couldn’t help but betray his fascination with people, places, and things. Riverboats. Biplanes. Cavemen. Phil seemed just be having a wondeful time writing about all those things he loved best.
And even though he didn’t focus on Sherlock Holmes as much as Tarzan, Phil Farmer’s impact on the Sherlockian community was still felt. It was felt in more obvious ways, like founding a Sherlockian society in his hometown or writing The Adventure of the Peerless Peer, a pastiche bringing Holmes and Tarzan (or Mowgli, depending upon which edition of the story you read) together for the first time. And it was also felt in less obvious ways.
In 1973, Phil’s wonderful novel The Other Log of Phileas Fogg told the untold tale of alien involvement in Jules Verne’s classic Around the World in Eighty Days. It was dedicated “This is for Professor H.W. Starr, a Sherlogician who makes Voyages Extraordinaires of the mind.” In the back of that novel, Phil reprinted a piece of Sherlockian scholarship by H.W. Starr as an addendum. That article was probably the first Sherlockian scholarship I ever read, and if you give any credence to “butterfly effect” ripples, you might even say that this entire website owes its existence to Phil Farmer, due to that inclusion.
Philip Jose Farmer was not a guy with a one-track mind. Trying to put him in any box, like “science fiction author” or “Sherlockian” never served to define him very well. He enjoyed literature, from both the writing and reading sides, yes, but he also enjoyed people. Phil was always getting visitors and enjoyed good company. Even John Bennett Shaw, one of the grandest Sherlockians of the last century, had to stop and have dinner with Phil when crossing the country . . . and Shaw knew good company. Phil was not only the founder of Peoria’s Sherlock Holmes club, but also one of the most entertaining members. Every memory I have of him at those meetings seems to have him laughing or grinning a wide Farmer grin. At least one of the tracks in his multi-layered mind was always amused.
At his memorial service today, Phil’s grandson looked about the church and said, “I wonder what my grandfather would think of all this.” As Farmer’s best-known work was about all of humanity (including the big “J”) being resurrected from the dead on an alien planet, one couldn’t help but wonder. And if you’re at all familiar with the Riverworld series, you know that if God has any sense of humor at all he let Phil wake up naked on the bank of a great river, a grail strapped to his wrist and a large mushroom-shaped grailstone nearby. I think he’d get a good laugh out of that, but then maybe that’s just the fanboy in me.
And that fanboy will always be a little in awe of Phil.
Your humble correspondent,
Philip Jose Farmer at the Peoria's Ivy Club
Past 2009 Columns