The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Vincent Starrett’s intro to The Adventures of Solar Pons

The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Vincent Starrett’s intro to The Adventures of Solar Pons

Pons_StarrettAdventuresI received my DVD of Ian McKellan’s Mr. Holmes in the mail and anxiously popped it into the player, with the expectation that I would be writing about it for this week’s post. I fell asleep during the first try. Hey: I’m 48 years old and by the time my son is asleep and I settle down in front of the television, I’m near my own bedtime. It happens.

It took two further sessions to complete the film. It was such a disappointment that I’m not going to do a review. At least, not for a while. It’s a fair British melodrama, but as to the elements I look for in a Holmes movie, sadly lacking. I’ll note that most of my Holmes friends really liked it, so I’m in the minority. But that’s how I saw it.

Which left me with a hole in the schedule. An overview of Otto Penzler’s Sherlock Holmes Library (a nine-book collection of some classic Holmes writings from yesteryear) is high on my list. But I’ve still got some re-reading to do before that’s a go.

So, glancing over my shelves, my eyes, of course, wandered towards Solar Pons. Noted Sherlockian Vincent Starrett wrote the introduction to the first Pons short story collection, In Re: Sherlock Holmes – The Adventures of Solar Pons. I talked about the Doyle sons’ attempt to stop publication of that book in a prior post.

Starrett was a staunch supporter of Derlth and Pons. He was even tapped to write another introduction: this time for The Casebook of Solar Pons. I consider his intro to The Adventures to be one of the finest ever written. It is a masterful work that is jam-packed with information about Derleth and Pons. If you knew nothing about Pons before reading this intro, you would come away with a more than basic knowledge level. And it’s a fun read!

It is my hope to one day annotate this introduction (as I did for the Pons story, “The Adventure of the Unique Dickensians”). It is that good in the Pons world. So, without any more rambling from me, I give you Vincent Starrett’s excellent introduction to The Adventures of Solar Pons.

AS A BOY, August Derleth couldn’t get enough Sherlock Holmes stories; there were not enough of them in the world to satisfy his craving for the society of the fascinating disentangler of Upper Baker Street. When he had read them all, many times over, and being then nineteen years of age, he wrote to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle setting forth his reasonable complaint. Are you, or are you not, he courteously asked the great storyteller, going to write any more stories about Sherlock Holmes?

Sir Arthur made no promises in his good-humored reply; so there and then young Mr. Derleth determined to carry on the tradition himself. A desk calendar stood at his elbow; he stabbed a finger into its pages at random and scribbled a note to himself: “In re-Sherlock Holmes.” On that day, when it should have arrived, he told himself, he would write a story in imitation of the Master.

The precise date of this impatient episode is lost to literary chronicle with the memorandum; but Derleth was attending the University of Wisconsin at the time, and when the day came he did actually sit down and write The Adventure of the Black Narcissus, which you find in this book. I don’t know how he hit on the name Solar Pons – probably he considered a lot of names before he found one that pleased him.

The story was sold immediately, however, to Harold Hersey, and published in The Dragnet magazine, a development that inspired the youthful author to new feats of imitation. There followed in rapid succession the adventures of “The Missing Tenants,” “The Broken Chessman,” “The Late Mr. Faversham,” “The Limping Man” and “The Black Cardinal.” On one red-letter day, a day of gilt and glory, the young man dashed off three Solar Pons adventures at a sitting and two of them survive in this collection, “The Norcross Riddle” and “The Three Red Dwarfs.”

That is the true story of the birth of Solar Pons; he was – as it were – an ectoplasmic emanation of his great prototype, and his adventures are pure pastiche. As such we acknowledge them gratefully. By we, I mean those frantic and incurable Sherlockians who, with August Derleth, deplore the paucity of Canonical entertainments and view without alarm the mounting uproar of our hero’s triumph, which already had called forth so garrulous a stream of apocryphal recollections.

It is impossible not to wonder about those many untold tales half-promised by the exasperating Watson; and it is the obvious duty of writers with information concerning them, or with other adventures to relate, to give them to the world. No doubt we should rather have more of the great originals, but we accept the imitations, faute de mieux, to satisfy a normal appetite. And we accept them with enthusiasm.

They are the work of affectionate minds and hands. There is no intention to deceive. These stories, and others in their field, are intended only to please. They are nostalgic reminders of vanished days and nights in Baker Street.

The scheme of Derleth’s “sequels” is more than just a little reminiscent; it is frankly borrowed. Dr. Lyndon Parker returns to London just in time for this book to become possible. Solar Pons, the “Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street,” is even then looking about him for some amiable fellow to act as his Watson; he loses no time in persuading the doctor to share the Pontine lodgings. Their meting is right out of A Study in Scarlet:

“Fine color,” says Pons crisply, coming to a stand beside the doctor’s restaurant table. “Not long back from Africa, I see.” “Two days.” “Your scarab pin suggests Egypt, and, if I am not mistaken, the envelope on which you have been writing is one of Shepheard’s.”

He is not mistaken, you may be sure; and almost immediately the game is afoot. One comes upon the rest of the cast, from time to time, without surprise. Mrs. Johnson is their estimable and “long-suffering” landlady, and Baron Ennesfred Kroll, that “archcriminal” whose hand Pons does not fail to recognize in several adventures, makes an admirable Professor Moriarty. The “Baker Street Irregulars” too, are in at least one of the tales (not the Morleian conversation club, but the original gamins), and so is the collection of scrapbooks, whose indexing still goes forward. One is happily moved by some of the reminiscent story-openings; for example, this one:

“When I look over my notes on the cases that engaged Solar Pons’ attention during the decade begun in 1919, I find many amazing adventures whose details ought to be placed before the public.”

And there is some of Watson’s effective and annoying trick of mentioning “other cases” unrecorded in the volume at hand. These include “the perplexing affair of the Mumbles, known to the public for many months as the Swansea Mystery,” and “that unbelievable conspiracy which threatened to undermine the Papacy and overthrow half the governments of Europe.”

Perhaps Derleth intends to tell us more about these little matters some other time – although that “unbelievable conspiracy” sounds a bit like what the war correspondents have been telling us for a number of months.

One likes the author’s trick of using the exact words and phrases of the original saga, when it suits his purpose, and greets with a smile of pleasure such familiar lines as:

“Dark waters, Parker, dark waters!”

“Come Parker! The game is afoot.”

“Elementary,’ I said.” (A nice touch, that, to hand the familiar word to Parker.)

As to the stories Derleth has imagined, some are better than others, which was true also, I seem to recall, of the stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. My own favorite is “The Adventure of The Late Mr. Faversham,” largely, I think, because it is a satisfying telling of one of the tales Watson once promised to tell and never told. I had often wondered profoundly about the incredible mystery of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never seen in this world,” one of Watson’s most provocative hints.

Ellery Queen had a go at this problem too, as readers of The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes are aware; so now we have two versions of the incident, and I hope everybody is happy. The “deduction” involved in this episode in the career of Mr. Solar Pons seems to me in best tradition; but, indeed, there is a lot of quite plausible deduction in all these tales. Note particularly that in the first part of “The Adventure of the Norcross Riddle.”

Although these stories by August Derleth are frankly and seriously intentioned pastiches, I wonder if I am right in thinking I find in them a hint – just a mild flavor – of burlesque. Or is something of the sort inevitable in any imitation? Just the faintest suggestion of a tongue in the auctorial cheek is all I am supposing, and perhaps I am imagining it. But I hope not, and I don’t think so, for it seems to me the best pastiches must have just hat remote savor of affectionate spoofing.

Solar Pons is not a caricature of Sherlock Holmes. He is, rather, a clever impersonator, with a twinkle in his eye, which tells us that he knows he is not Sherlock Holmes, and knows that we know it, but that he hopes we will like him anyway for what he symbolizes.

Now THAT is a book intro! Notables such as Ellery Queen and Edgar Smith would kick off other Pons collections, but Starrett’s is the standard all aspire to.

Other Solar Pons posts here at Black Gate:

Meet Solar Pons
The Science Fictional Solar Pons
Why Solar Pons?
The Dorak Affair
Who Needs a Hard-Boiled Detective?
The Case of the Copyrighted Detective
The Solar Pons – Fu Manchu Connection by William Patrick Maynard

You can read Bob Byrne’s ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column here at Black Gate every Monday morning.

He founded, the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’ and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.

His “The Adventure of the Parson’s Son” is included in the largest collection of new Sherlock Holmes stories ever published

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Violette Malan

Thanks for another great post, Bob, and very timely for me. I’ve just bought Otto Penzler’s Big Book of Sherlock Holmes, and only yesterday read the Solar Pons story that’s included. I immediately thought of you.

Violette Malan

I neglected to mention that I haven’t seen Mr. Holmes, and actually don’t have any plans to do so. I understand it’s based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, and I wasn’t a big fan.

Nick Ozment

That is quite a good introduction! I’m glad I read this post, too, because I’ve seen Solar Pons mentioned here and there and always passed it over, not having been familiar with the character — and I must confess that I assumed from the name that it was something to do with pulp science fiction: either the name of a sci-fi character, a sci-fi world, or perhaps a spaceship.

R.K. Robinson

I am fortunate enough to have the 1982 Arkham House THE SOLAR PONS OMNIBUS in 2 volumes, slipcased. There are a total of 36 stories In Volume 1 and 33 in Volume 2. I’m of the impression these are all of Derleth’s Pons stories. Is that correct?

I also have several paperback collections of Basil Copper’s Pons stories.

R.K. Robinson

Thank you, Bob. You say the changes are minor, so should I still consider the contents canonical? Or is the Omnibus tainted?

R.K. Robinson

Having now read that issue of the Gazette, I see what a mixed thing a list of “complete” Pons is. My goodness. I’ll say the Bookseller’s Clerk seemed like a short story to me, but I’m no expert. When I totted up the count in the earlier comment, I counted the section titled from the Notebooks as a story. I read the first volume of the omnibus years ago not long after I bought the set, and have never gotten back to read the second one. Now I think I’d best read the whole thing. Thanks again for you splendid posts.

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