The View from Sherlock Peoria (296)
February 3, 2008
My Private Life With The Private Life
Certain first meetings one holds in memory for a lifetime. A breathtaking member of the opposite sex. A plate of something wonderfully alien that becomes a favorite with one bite. And a book, the likes of which one never thought he would see, the kind of book that tells you immediately that you are not alone in your passions. To me, the prime example of that last encounter was at a paperback book rack in a Walgreen’s drug store in the now-defunct Pekin Mall.
Across from the Alladin’s Castle arcade, around the corner from the Pekin Cinema (a two-plex!), it was not the sort of place an eighteen-year-old went for his first choice in entertainment, but books are books. And at that Walgreen’s book rack, in heart of the 1970s, I first met The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes by Vincent Starrett. We had a moment, that book and I.
Flash-forward about thirty years to this very week. I’ve just come home from the Lakeview Museum book sale with two bags of books (bargains, as it was 75% off day) and a Little Caesar’s five-dollar pizza. There’s a package on the dining room table from Wessex Press that I wasn’t expecting. After divesting myself of books and pizza, I pull open the end of the package to find what? The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes by Vincent Starrett. As Trevor Senior once observed, the ghosts of our old loves are always hardest to shake.
But this copy of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was not the trim Pinnacle paperback that I first encountered back in the 1970s. No, this was a mature, fleshed-out hardcover, a 75 th Anniversary Edition edited by Ray Betzner.
The accompanyin g letter told of Private Life’s merits, and how this was a facsimile of the rare, original 1933 first edition. “To open the cover is to experience the landmark vlume the way those first Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts did three-quarters of a century ago.” Having had my own history with the old girl, I didn’t know if I was quite ready to see how others had found her, but leaving all my other book-finds of the night behind, I dove between the covers . . . and found myself in a museum.
The 75 th Anniversary Edition puts The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes on display like a good exhibition. Following the acknowledgements is a short bio of Vincent Starrett by Chicago’s Bob Mangler. Ray Betzner follows this with an introduction that is a history of the book itself. Then comes the main attraction, the original Starrett book reproduced with painstaking care. After it all comes a bibliography of all previous editions of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which really gives you a sense of the respect the publishers and editor have for the book. How many other works actually list their competition in the back?
But truly, with all the previous editions of The Private Life out there, the 75 th anniversary edition has no peer and, to my mind, is the one version for any Sherlockian from this point forward. Why?
The title alone tells you: It’s been 75 years since Starrett’s book first saw print. At that time it was a miracle, and many a Sherlockian has raved about it since then. But, truth be told, Private Life is like any pioneer: those who came after have gone further, explored deeper, and found more. A modern Sherlockian reader is likely to find the work a bit basic, and if he or she is well-read, a bit “been there, done that.” After the seventy-five years of active Sherlockiana that came after this work’s original publication, we need the framework that Ray Betzner’s introduction and the rest provides to set the stage. Any modern who steps into Private Life cold isn't likely to have the same experience of those readers from three quarters of a century ago. We aren’t those people any more.
And that’s what makes this edition worth picking up. It takes us back to Starrett with a much-needed guide. Should you buy it? I think so. It’s a cornerstone work that will be a fine addition to any Sherlockian colllection. But here’s a few disclaimers to give you the fullest perspective.
a.) The publishers are friends of mine. Yes, that makes me a bit biased. Of course, I’m somewhat picky about who I call “friend,” so that in itself should be a recommendation.
b.) When I originally saw The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, I thought it had something to day with the Billy Wilder film, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which is one of the reasons I’m a Holmes fan today. Hence I was a little more excited than I might have been when I first saw the book's title on that drug store book rack.
c.) The second chapter “The Methods of Mr. Sherlock Holmes” was one of the biggest disappointments of my Sherlockian life, ranking right up there with the climax of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (C’mon, two geniuses battling and the best we get is kicking the gun out of the bad guy’s hand ? Every adventure story I wrote in junior high had that climax!) After failing to find a satistying enough treatise on Holmes’s methods in Private Life, I was compelled to write my own book on the subject, The Elementary Methods of Sherlock Holmes, just to get what I wanted. So I owe Starrett and am a little peeved at him, both at the same time.
You can find the book, along with a lot of other good things, at www.wessexpress.com .
Your humble correspondent,
Brad Keefauver, ASH/BSI