A cold rain dashing against the side of the house… bare trees shuddering with every gust… the barometer as downcast as a bad disposition…. What better time than winter to curl up in front of the fireplace and crack open a book? On everybody’s reading list this season is the brand new volume About Sixty: Why Every Sherlock Holmes Story is the Best, edited by Christopher Redmond, JHWS “Buster”, and published by Wildside Press in October.
It’s a singular achievement. Sixty writers – including a few members of the John H Watson Society – were asked to tackle one each of the sixty tales that comprise the Sherlock Holmes Canon, making a concise case why that particular story belongs at the top of the heap. The essayists are a diverse blend of experienced Sherlockian commentators and recent converts who bring a fresh perspective. Whether you’re familiar only with the better-known titles, like The Hound of the Baskervilles, or you know your way around more obscure stories such as “The Missing Three-Quarter”, the results are both erudite and entertaining. This book will have you reaching for the Canon time and again to reacquaint yourself with that world where “it is always 1895.”
Sherlockian author Sonia Fetherston, JHWS “Gypsy”, was one who contributed to About Sixty, with her chapter on “A Case of Identity.” She recently asked Chris to join her for a Q&A concerning not just the book and its contributors, but a bit about the eminent editor himself:
SF: Can you give me sixty reasons why people should buy this book?
CR: Bookworm, humanizing, desire, scam, maidens, perfect, tragic, relevant, quotable, serpent, hysterical, pomposity, maxim, terror, iconic, unreliable, psyche, impetuous, hubris, joy, methods, fauna, foul, hamstrung, naked, heroic, embodiment, villain, logic, puzzles, terribly, juvenile, convoluted, loathing, smile, trifles, texture, twinkle, lying, confront, nuances, monster, mellower, confidential, barb, dialect, motive, obituary, silly, tension, prank, comedy, exotic, treasure, experiment, morality, delicious, ponder, grief, wallpaper. One word from each of the sixty essays — in order!
SF: Okay, maybe two or three reasons, fleshed out a bit?
CR: Because it presents insights into Sherlock Holmes not from one well-informed Sherlockian mind but from sixty different minds, hearts and viewpoints. Because it is anchored in the Canon itself and won’t easily go out of fashion. Because it contemplates every part of the Canon in proportion, not just a few favoured stories or topics.
SF: Who is your target audience: readers of the Holmes Canon, or prospective readers of the Holmes Canon?
CR: The book is certainly for people who have read the stories — there are spoilers in almost every essay. It would be heart-warming, though, to think of a first-timer using this book: reading each canonical story in turn, and then turning to the corresponding essay.
SF: In 1927 Arthur Conan Doyle developed his own list of the twelve Sherlockian stories he thought were the best, among them “The Speckled Band” and “The Red-Headed League.” Did his list play any role in prompting this project? How did you get the idea for your book?
CR: The Introduction to About Sixty tells a little about the origins of the idea, going all the way back to a daydream many years ago of writing sixty essays myself. Such a book would have been monotonous, I think, but involving sixty authors with sixty different voices brought it to vibrant life. A few of the authors mention ACD’s list, but I’ve never taken it very seriously. For one thing, it was done before he had written the last dozen or so of the stories, and for another, he was famously bad at judging the quality of his own work. Also, of course, this book doesn’t try to list stories that are in second, third, and subsequent places — it makes it clear that all sixty tales are in a tie for first!
SF: Many people would agree with Conan Doyle that a tale like “The Speckled Band” is highly ranked. But what are some Sherlockian stories you reckon are most difficult to defend… most difficult to think of as being “the best?”
CR: I think everybody would agree that “The Mazarin Stone” is awkward and wooden, possibly because it was first written as a play and should have stayed that way. Many people dislike “The Three Gables” because of its descent — offensive, but typical for its time — into racist cartoons, and also because its plot depends on sleazy sexual intrigue. Still, both of these stories also have their strengths, as authors in About Sixty demonstrate. My favourite example of a rehabilitated story, though, is “The Veiled Lodger”, which is often scorned because it doesn’t call on Sherlock Holmes to be much of a detective. In About Sixty, Jaime Mahoney does a brilliant job of rehabilitating it, pointing out that it’s (these are my words, not hers) a haunting human story of love, hate, joy, sorrow, patience and courage.
SF: Your essayists are an eclectic mix of veterans and newcomers to the Sherlockian fold. How did you go about choosing these people to participate?
CR: I started by asking my immediate circle of friends, then reached further to various parts of the Sherlockian world, always to people I could contact by e-mail. I tried not to call on well-known people who were already busy with other projects, but in a few cases I wavered, and was glad to have their reputations helping to bolster the project’s reputation. A few of the authors I didn’t know at all, but came recommended by people I had already enlisted. In a few cases I’m sure I was taking a risk with people who really hadn’t written much in the past, but there was nobody who didn’t meet the standard, and some of the lesser-known authors came up with particularly interesting and thought-provoking essays.
SF: Marshaling sixty busy writers, not to mention sixty creative egos, must have been a challenge.
CR: People were astonishingly willing to write, hardly anybody had trouble meeting the deadline, most of the essays took only very modest editing, and hardly anybody was anything but cooperative and grateful for any suggestions. The book was a lot of work, certainly, but it came together as if it truly was meant to be.
SF: You have a reputation for being a lifelong Holmes enthusiast. Tell me about your own introduction to Sherlock Holmes. What was the Sherlockian story that hooked you, and kept you coming back for more?
CR: I gobbled up all the stories when I was a young teenager — that’s what people did in those days. The story I chiefly remember reading was The Hound of the Baskervilles, probably because it was so creepy. In some cases I probably was too young to appreciate the stories properly, and one of the real benefits of working on About Sixty has been that I needed to return to each story with a mature eye and absorb what a perceptive Sherlockian was saying about it… insights that in some cases I should have experienced decades ago.
SF: You’re planning a dinner party for six characters from the Canon. Who will be sitting around your table, and why those particular characters?
CR: Not Sherlock Holmes, I think; I don’t want the risk of criminal relics in the butter-dish. But Watson, certainly, the doctor with the gifts of friendship and congeniality, and with an endless stock of stories to retell from his Reminiscences. Where there is Watson, there must be women, starting with his charming wife Mary Morstan. She’s a blonde, and somehow I imagine Watson arriving with a redhead and a brunette as well, perhaps Violet Hunter and Beryl Stapleton, who both have their own tales to repeat. But there needs to be a balance of men and women, so let’s add Arthur Cadogan West (solid and decent and good-hearted, but he needs to get out more) and Nathan Garrideb (he definitely needs to get out more).
SF: Quick! Tell me which books are on your bedside table right now? Aside from your well-known love of Conan Doyle’s creations, what else are you reading?
CR: I am embarrassed to say that in the past year or two I haven’t done much serious reading at all. I spend far too much time online! I have almost given up reading nonfiction, although the last book I finished was Thinking It Over by Hesketh Pearson, the autobiography of a London actor and author of the prewar era (one of his books was a biography of Arthur Conan Doyle). I gobble up Sherlockian pastiches, while rolling my eyes at how bad most of them are. It’s a pleasure just now to be reading Denis O. Smith’s Lost Chronicles of Sherlock Holmes — he really captures the style and flavour of the originals, as few other authors manage to do. I have a half-formed plan to give up reading new books for a year or two, and rediscover some classics that I loved as an undergraduate, particularly Renaissance poetry and drama. I might follow that up with the collected novels of Anthony Trollope.
SF: What other Redmond projects are on tap for 2017….and beyond?
CR: I hope to be making an announcement soon about another anthology, every bit as eclectic as About Sixty and with some of the same authors. Beyond that, there are always lots of ideas, but I don’t know which of them will catch fire. My long-term hope is to write a book, provisionally called Reading Sherlock Holmes, that elaborates my ideas about what can be found in the Canon and how to discover and enjoy it; but I don’t quite know when that’s going to happen!
Ah! That sounds like something we’ll be reading next winter, when the wind is sobbing “like a child in the chimney,” as Dr Watson would say!
(Note from Selena Buttons: the original posting omitted Sonia Fetherston’s Society Moniker of “Gypsy”. That has been corrected. Apologies, Gypsy!)