Baker Street Irregular by Jon Lellenberg

Review by Chris Redmond

Sherlockians have heard the story so often that it seems legendary: young literary men working and drinking in the New York of the 1930s, discovering now and then that they had a shared enjoyment of the Sherlock Holmes tales, eventually forming a light-hearted club ostensibly to promote that interest, but more importantly to cement their personal friendships and their shared convictions about literature, life and (sometimes) politics. That was the Baker Street Irregulars, which linked Christopher Morley, Elmer Davis, Bob Leavitt and Woody Hazelbaker — wait, who?

Hazelbaker is the central figure in this novel by Jon Lellenberg, author of several chronicles of the BSI's early decades, and about the only character in it who the reader can feel confident is fictional. He falls among the Irregulars, finds that he shares their political leanings as well as their literary and social tastes, and ends up playing a not totally insignificant role in the American intelligence apparatus during the Second World War. It is no coincidence that the author, a prominent Sherlockian with (like Hazelbaker) origins in Kansas City, worked close to (though not, he likes to stress, actually in) military intelligence a generation later, and has always hinted that he has tales to tell.

He tells this one extraordinarily well. Sherlockians are sadly habituated to reading “pastiches” written by enthusiastic amateurs whose mastery of grammar, punctuation and narrative technique is shaky at best. Further, such books are often privately published or put out by one of the not-quite-amateur Sherlockian publishing houses whose staff do not include professional editors. (This one comes from the historic little press Arkham House, lately under new management.) Lellenberg has an editor's qualifications himself, and the narration is impeccable.

More than one early reader has reported starting this book, intending to amble through it at leisure, and being forced to read far into the night because it was impossible to put down. It's not a short volume, either, running more than 400 pages, with a nice mixture of narrative and dialogue, character and action, the personal and the political. It deserves to be read and shelved next to the other classic novel that tells a story not of Sherlock Holmes himself, but of the Sherlockians who enjoy him, Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, published more than half a century ago. And that, for a Sherlockian book from the present loquacious era, is (and is meant to be) a very high compliment.