This book is one I have had lying around for a while so a train journey to London gave me the motivation to finally give it a read. Its premise is a rather simple but intriguing one. from very early on readers of the Holmes’ stories have written letters to this sleuth and in the 1950s when the Abbey National Building Society began to run their business from 221B Baker Street, they decided to set up a secretary for Holmes to answer all the mail. At the time of publication they were receiving 700 letters a year. This book contains an impressive catalogue of some of these letters. By and large they are ones which came to the building society but they’ve also included some earlier epistles. Whilst on the whole the letters are rather hilarious in their random bizarreness, it was also touching to read some letters from writers who were going through some hard times and felt Holmes was their only source of help.
Initially the letters don’t seem too odd. For instance in 1904 someone wrote to offer to show Holmes the ropes in beekeeping, whilst another offered him housekeeping services. There is also the first signs of the demanding letter writer, as one girl wanted Holmes to send her his stories, as they were too expensive to buy in her home country, Russia. Requests for help come quick on the heels of these letters with someone asking for his help in uncovering some lost Indian jewels in Africa in 1950, whilst another requested his assistance in a murder trial in Warsaw.
School children in America and the UK make up a certain percentage of the letter writers. Some want Holmes’ help in solving a case, such as stolen items from a locker, whilst others want to know whether he is real or still alive (see below). One particular letter though struck my fancy. In 1967 a child from Surrey asked for advice on how to deal with a particularly annoying and strict old teacher who was always reading Holmes stories to them: ‘We started off having your book on Monday, but now we have it all week, and she goes round in a dream all the time, swooning and always has a picture of you.’ The final letter of the line is priceless: ‘sorry about the speling [sic], but we don’t do English, we do you instead.’
Some children though want a little more than advice, as one letter from the Gold Coast suggests: ‘If anybody writes you, do not give him or her reply because I want to take you only as my best friend in the world.’ Further demands follow for presents and gifts.
It also seems that Holmes has had to face some tough questions from his correspondents: ‘How much is love the root of crimes?’, How do I get a boyfriend? or How do I become a better citizen? Some of course are a little easier to answer:
‘If you are not living, would you kindly let me know? The rest of my English class is anxiously awaiting your letter.’
‘I would like to know if you’re the real Sherlock Holmes who was made up in the eighteen hundreds? Or were you the second to live? You know, like Lassie and Tarzan?’
‘What time do you go to bed?’
Do you have one bathroom or two?
His opinion are also sought after on the issues of UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle and the Loch Ness monster.
There are also those letters which purport to be from Watson himself such as one which reads: ‘Glad to have case – your assumptions were right – jewels gone – statue gone – formula stolen – police incapable – prof. Dr Hans Meier kidnapped – me too! – what shall I do?’ It also surprised me how many of these letters were ransom notes demanding money in exchange for returning Watson.
Two requests which were particularly memorable for me in the letters were firstly a man in Brazil wanting a photograph of Holmes to ward off burglars and then a man from London who writes that:
‘I have been collecting drawings of pigs by famous characters for some time and have recently been advised that you might be willing to furnish me with a pig drawn by your good self. If this is the case, I would be most grateful if you could oblige me by closing your eyes whilst drawing the pig and re-opening them to sign it.’
Well everyone needs a hobby I guess…
My favourite letter requesting him to speak at a school has to be the one where the little boy offers to let Holmes bunk in his bedroom and Watson in his parents. Not sure what his parents would have to say about that…
Lots of different criminal case requests come up, even from private detectives and official attorneys. There were a number of letters requesting assistance in kidnapping cases, disappearances in cities, woods, at sea, in lifts and even support to help resolve the Watergate scandal. There was also a man who disappeared whilst doing a magic show and a retired man from America, whose ball of aluminium tin foil which was so big that it had to go in the garage, has disappeared. One does wonder which of these letters are tongue in cheek and which are sincerely meant. Lost dentures, hair and even minds also get a mention. Animals are not missed out either as one person writes from West Germany asking for help with a sick lion, whilst another person wants help in tracking down a kidnapped tarantula.
Letters from Japan are also very frequent and in one of them two Japanese girls mention a Doctor Watson and Mr Sherlock Holmes song. Does anyone know which one they might mean? The letter will have been sent between 1967 and 1985.
So are you can see this has been a very fun read and there are lots more entertaining letters to read in this collection, so if you see a copy of this in a second hand book shop near you I would definitely recommend buying it. It would also be cool to know if anyone reading this post has written a letter to Holmes?