The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Solar Pons – The Complete Basil Copper
I’ve posted a few times about Solar Pons, whom Vincent Starrett called, “The best substitute to Sherlock Holmes known.” Since I created www.SolarPons.com and founded The Solar Pons Gazette, it’s fair to say I’m a big fan of the ˜Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street.’
August Derleth wrote seventy-something stories about his creation before passing away in 1971. Derleth’s Arkham House publishing company had printed some works by British horror author Basil Copper and Arkham editor James Turner, in response to a Pons-related letter from Copper, suggested that the British writer compile the entire Pons collection into a two-volume Omnibus. Copper did so, making some 2,000 edits to Derleth’s originals to ‘correct errors.’ Copper referred to this Omnibus as “a veritable feast for Pontine enthusiasts.”
Sure. Except that there was a major outcry from said enthusiasts at Copper’s hubris in rewriting the master’s work (reminds me of L. Sprague de Camp ‘revising’ Robert E. Howard’s original Conan writings). It seems to me that the split was never healed. Meanwhile, Turner asked Copper to continue the Pons saga. Copper wrote four collections of stories and one partially completed novel over the next few years (he would go on to release two more collections of originals and complete the novel).
Whereas Derleth had written Doyle-like short stories, Copper went with a more Rex-Stoutish (you know, that Nero Wolfe guy) novella format. The stories are longer and Copper is definitely a slower-paced writer. I like both approaches, though some of my fellow Ponsians do not like Copper’s wordiness. Here’s the opening to chapter eight of “The Adventure of the Crawling Horror”:
“Within some twenty minutes the landscape had again subtly changed: if anything, it had become even more bleak and somber than that surrounding Grimstone Manor. Though the sun still shone, the slimy ooze ever deepened about us as, the warmth melted the ice which lingered in the hollows and a clammy vapor hovered thickly over the surface.”
The typical Derleth story is about 20 to 28 pages in the Pinnacle paperbacks. The Pinnacle Coppers, using a slightly smaller font, resulting in more words per page, generally run between 40 and 70 pages. One certainly does have a different reading experience with Copper than with Derleth, though both work for me.
Baker Street fans certainly remember the beginning of “The Adventure of The Norwood Builder,” with the unhappy John Hector McFarlane bursting into Holmes’ rooms. That scene takes up the first few pages of the story, with Inspector Lestrade then arriving to arrest McFarlane. Copper uses a similar opening, with the unhappy Eustace Fernchurch interrupting Pons and Parker at breakfast. Inspector Jamison arrives to arrest Pons’ new client. Copper’s introduction covers eleven pages and two chapters! That example can be validly applied to how Copper and Derleth approached Pons.
Copper was unhappy with edits made to his stories by Pinnacle (that’s kind of ironic, eh?) and after that imprint collapsed financially, the Derleth Estate did not continue with any of the already completed Copper stories, nor the unfinished Solar Pons and the Devil’s Claw: neither through Mycroft and Moran or Arkham House.
Copper retained the rights to all of his Pons stories and would release two new collections through Minnesota’s Fedogan and Bremer. The finally-completed Devil’s Claw and Solar Pons: The Final Cases would be issued in very limited runs by Sarob Press. The Final Cases contained several of his previously published stories without the edits he sneeringly decried as “crass and stupid alterations.” Also, “editorial clown” was not used as a term of endearment by Copper in regards to the person at Pinnacle editing his texts. There was more vitriol in his letters to Turner.
Just as Derleth’s Pons stories have been out of print for decades now, Copper’s Pons tales can be a bit difficult to run down, though the Fedogan and Bremer paperbacks can be found online. But the two Sarob Press books are rare and in the case of the latter, ridiculously expensive.
Which brings us to PS Publishing’s two-volume, The Complete Adventures of Solar Pons, autographed and slip cased, in a limited run, 100 copy hardbacked edition (I have #34). I previewed this set here at Black Gate back in January. But now I have my copy. And it is as excellent as it is expensive (about $200).
The front and back inside cover of Volume I is Les Edward’s wonderful illustration for The Final Adventures (above: notice a bit of Peter Cushing, with some Christopher Lee hair?). This volume is autographed by Copper and editor Stephen Jones.
Volume II includes Edward’s marvelous painting for The Devil’s Claw (below: Pons definitely resembles Peter Cushing!). That volume is autographed by the six living artists who contributed to the project (sadly, Ben Stahl, who drew those marvelous Pinnacle covers, died in 1987). I’ve featured both Edwards paintings in The Solar Pons Gazette and they are simply outstanding.
I like the colorful yet shadowy front and back cover art by Thomas Gianni, though it’s a mix of a couple different scenes. The spine of Volume II is an excerpt from the cover of Volume I. And the spine of Volume I is an excerpt from the back cover of Volume II. It seems a bit strange to me. Still – neat stuff!
Gianni, Allen Koszowski, Bob Eggleton, Les Edwards and Randy Broecker provide what little interior art there is: four drawings in Volume I and two in Volume II. But it’s the stories that make this collection worth buying.
Volume I opens with “Once A Pons a Time,” a twenty-three page essay by editor Jones.
THE STORIES – VOLUME I
Then follows four of the Copper collections, with eighteen stories covering over six-hundred fifty pages of Pons!
The Dossier of Solar Pons was the first Copper collection, published by Pinnacle in 1979. The largest of the bunch, it included six stories (four would be the norm) and an Explanation by Dr. Parker at the front. “The Adventure of the Six Gold Doubloons” is one of my favorite Pons stories by Copper. This collection includes the intriguingly titled “The Adventure of the Hammer of Hate.”
“The Sealed Spire Mystery” is one of only three Copper short stories to not follow the standard “The Adventure of…” naming convention.
The Further Adventures of Solar Pons (also a 1979 Pinnacle release) follows. I like “The Adventure of the Shaft of Death,” and “The Adventure of the Missing Student” has a definite Sherlock Holmes feel to it. “The Adventure of the Baffled Baron” was Copper’s original version of “The Defeated Doctor” and is included here. James Turner had suggested swapping out Baron Kroll for the unidentified Doctor Fu Manchu and Copper agreed. It was “The Defeated Doctor” that appeared in the Pinnacle paperback and is included later in Volume II.
A third release (and #10 in the Pinnacle Pons series) was yet another 1979 publication, The Secret Files of Solar Pons, with four more stories, making 14 new Copper tales for the year. It was a good year for fans of the Praed Street Detective. “The Adventure of the Crawling Horror” introduces miserly, moldy Silas Grimstone, one of my favorite clients in the entire Pontine Canon. You want to talk about a guy who could stretch a pence! James Turner said “Silas Grimstone is one of the best-delineated secondary characters in any of the ninety-odd Pons adventures written thus far.” The story clearly drew on the end of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
1980 saw four more stories in The Uncollected Cases of Solar Pons, with “Murder at the Zoo” being the second tale to drop “The Adventure of…” from the title. “The Adventure of the Singular Sandwich” was an certainly an oddly named mystery.
Pons went on hiatus, which leads us to:
THE STORIES – VOLUME II
Minnesota’s Fedogan and Bremer published The Exploits of Solar Pons in 1993, ending a thirteen-year Pons drought. It included four new stories.
Two years later, Fedogan and Bremer followed up with The Recollections of Solar Pons in 1995, featuring three new stories and “The Adventure of the Singular Sandwich.” This version contained Copper’s original text, which had apparently been “much bowdlerized and altered” for the prior paperback publication.
Solar Pons & the Devil’s Claw is included with The Recollections in Volume II, though it was issued in a standalone edition by Sarob Press.
A mishmash of Ponsiana follows under the title The Solar Pons Companion. It includes a foreword written by Copper but never used; a summary of the plots of the Copper stories, an index of characters, and some quotes by Pons. There are also some plot and dialogue notes, with facsimiles of Copper’s papers. This is followed by “The Adventure of the Northleach Stocks.” James Turner had sent Copper copies of two documents that Derleth had filed for future use in a Pons story. Finally, there is some info on Ben Stahl, with black and white reproductions of his four Pinnacle Covers for the Copper collections.
The Final Cases rounds out the book. As mentioned previously, “The Adventure of the Defeated Doctor” had appeared in the Pinnacle release of The Further Adventures, but was switched out in Volume I for its original version, “The Baffled Baron.” “Doctor” is included in this section.
“The Adventure of the Anguished Actor,” from The Secret Files of Solar Pons (Volume I) was originally “The Adventure of the Agonised Actor,” and the latter version is found here.
The collection closes out with Copper’s Holmes tale, “The Adventure of the Persecuted Painter.” No Pons connection, other than the similarity between the two detectives.
Over 1,350 pages of Basil Copper’s Solar Pons, all in one place. While the collector’s price tag for the limited run of 100 signed editions was prohibitive for most Pons, PS plans on issuing paperback editions of Copper’s stories, though not in the two-volume Collection format. The original plan was for an unsigned (and presumably less expensive) edition of the Collection, but that was abandoned.
August Derleth was the creator of Solar Pons and the best writer of the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’ we can ever expect to see. However, Basil Copper was a worthy successor and did an admirable job of carrying on the Pontine Canon. There is no doubt the stories take longer to read and are slower paced, but they do not feel out of place to me.
This Fall, David Marcum’s new collection, The Final Papers of Solar Pons (including an introduction from yours truly), will be published and we can compare his new tales to those of Basil Copper.
UPDAT E 9/13/17 – You can now go to the PS Publishing website and order the Copper stories in paperback! The stories, with some extras, are spread across seven books. You can search ‘Solar Pons’ at their website to call all of them up. Here’s a link to the first volume.
Other Solar Pons posts at Black Gate:
A New Solar Pons Omnibus
Meet Solar Pons
The Science Fictional Solar Pons
Solar Pons & Cthulhu
Solar Pons & The Dead Fishmonger
Solar Pons & The Dorak Affair
The Solar Pons – Fu Manchu Connection (by William Patrick Maynard)
Solar Pons: Who Needs a Hardboiled Detective?
Vincent Starrett’s Intro to ‘The Adventures of Solar Pons’
Why Solar Pons?
Bob Byrne’s ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March 10, 2014 through March 20, 2017. He also organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com, the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’ and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV and V and VI and will be in IX if he quits having fun writing Black Gate posts and works on a story!
Bob, in your opinion, do you think Copper is a good writer? The reason I ask is that whenever one of his stories appears in an anthology (usually a horror anthology), I find that his story is one of the worst there. Admittedly I’ve only read 2-3 of his horror short stories. But since anthologies usually represent the “best of” certain writers, I’m not encouraged to go on and read any of his other writings.
James – I haven’t read any of his horror. And I do think he’s pretty wordy with the Pons stories (I myself am a lot more compact, like Derleth was). But I do enjoy reading his Pons tales, so I would say he’s a good Pons pastiche writer. I do think that the shorter, Derleth-length story is better for Pons and Copper would have fared better with fans if he’d chosen that style, instead of the longer mini-novella.
It takes a couple sittings to read a Copper pastiche, as opposed to the quick read of a Derleth story, and that does detract a little bit for me. But it’s not a deal breaker. I know someone who has a very different opinion on Copper’s writings and I’ll see if I can get him to comment here.
I’ve only read a couple of his horror short stories, but they were, I thought, quite good. “The House by the Tarn” was a traditional ghost story that was very effective, and “Amber Print” (or “Tint” – I can’t remember) is about a cursed print of the film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It reminded me of M.R. James.
Of course, if these are the two that James read and thought were so weak…
One of the cooler features of modern word processors, just a notch or two under “Spell Check” is the “Find/Replace” feature.
Why not do a Find/Replace and call it “The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”? The people feeding off Mr Doyle’s casket got their arses handed to them in court recently over their abuse of trademark to try to extend CopyWRONG…
Gestalt – I can’t quite tell how much of your post is entirely sarcasm. Derleth did more than just create a carbon copy of Holmes, as I wrote about in the first issue of the Solar Pons Gazette.
And Copper built on that.
I didn’t mean any sarcasm. Just a bit outraged at the need for any pretense…
I haven’t read Solar Pons, but I’d assumed it was just Sherlock Holmes without having to pay royalties to the people claiming some far past any sane limit CopyWRONG right to extort money for the use of the name/likeness. And, again noting they got their rears handed to them in court recently. That was mentioned here, I remember.
So, again, why not make it “Sherlock Holmes” by Dereleth then? I mean, look at that cover – it’s Sherlock Holmes… And nothing wrong with that, it should be totally OK to do Mr. Holmes, along with Robin Hood, King Arthur, Varney the Vampire, Spring-Heeled-Jack…
Frankly put, we need a “Conan Unbound” project where writers take the Conan that Robert E Howard made – and published – carefully using the easily searchable REH public domain infodump. The “Trademark” abuse also is bunk – there was a Conan book (with CONAN on the cover both in words and art) published for the bargain books bin, in Barnes and Noble, still on Amazon… There was no challenge, successful or otherwise, to the ‘trademark’ and it had stories openly on Wikisource since clearly in Public domain.
But, perhaps I was wrong – was he – legit – just trying to make his own “Genre” character? Just ended up being so close he got sued? (Did he face legal action?)
Gestalt – Derleth was a college student who wrote Arthur Conan Doyle, right after the last collection of Holmes stories came out (The Casebook), asking if there would be more. Doyle curtly wrote back, “No.” So Derelth set out to continue the series in his own way, with his own Holmes-like character.
But Pons is a variation on Holmes -he’s not a carbon copy, which I talk about in my “Meet Solar Pons” post, linked above.
And yes, the Doyle sons (who were freeloading asses) threatened to sue Derleth to stop the first Pons collection, which was to come out nearly two decades after the first story.
But while the Doyle sons bullied Ellery Queen over The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, they met their match in Derleth, who went ahead and put out ‘The Adventures of Solar Pons. The Doyles gave up.
I wrote about both those events at Black Gate as well.
Doyle didn’t like Holmes. Derleth did like Pons. I think it shows. And many of the Pons stories are better than some of Doyle’s 60 Holmes tales. Derleth wasn’t writing Pons to fund the bank account, which Doyle certainly was the last decade or two.