At a recent dinner party, finding out my predilection for the written word, my host (also a reader and collector) asked what book has most influenced me. Without having to think long I replied unabashedly that it had to be The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes because my interest in Holmes led, perforce, to my desire to know more about the Victorian era in which he moved. In addition to that broad topic I realized, as I read the stories in the other books in the Canon, that I also wanted to know more about the several military conflicts mentioned by Conan Doyle (viz. Maiwand, Marengo, Malplaquet). The notes in W.S. Baring-Gould’s two-volume Annotated Sherlock Holmes were useful in providing some background and even more so was Jack Tracy’s indispensable Encyclopaedia Sherlockiana, but the entries therein were still too brief. I sought more information from books on British kings and queens and military histories, tales of criminals and Tyburn Tree, diverse surveys of nineteenth century medicine or travel. In time I acquired the ninth and eleventh editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, giving me reference material more contemporary with the Victorian era.
To pursue the many historical references found in the entire Canon, one would need to study the Napoleonic wars, the Thirty Years War, the Hundred Years War, kings and queens of England, astronomy, nineteenth century inventions (e.g., the Dunlop pneumatic tire, Edison’s electric light, the Gramophone), chemistry, ancient British barrows, notorious criminal doctors, prisons, the transportation of criminals to Australia, the Indian Mutiny, the siege of Khartoum, the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, the Crystal Palace, Abraham Lincoln, the American Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan (a name to be whispered!), slavery, yellow fever epidemics in the American South, the English Civil War and the Commonwealth, the Boer War, Rhodesia, Shakespeare, religious skepticism (e.g., Reade, Richter, Carlyle), and mayhap a hundred other topics.
This lengthy peroration on the autodidactic benefits of reading the Canon is all fine and good and I am content to assert that the single most influential book on me remains The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. But I cannot name the “most influential” book without mentioning the one that led me to seek out Sherlock Holmes in the first place. It was not the quaint Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce movies of the 1940s that motivated me to purchase the Berkley paperback edition (for sixty cents) of The Adventures in my local bookstore on that long-ago day in 1974. Before I discovered the literary Holmes, I was a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books. The catalyst that propelled me into the Holmesian camp was a thesis advanced by science-fiction author Philip José Farmer in a ‘definitive’ biography of the lord of the jungle called Tarzan Alive (1972). To a 19-year-old former comic book geek, the amount of research and plausible ‘fact’ undertaken by Farmer was beyond anything I’d encountered. Goodness! All this effort for a fictional character? I didn’t know such stuff existed! (I was, at the time, unaware of the Writings about the Writings and had yet to read a Sherlock Holmes story.)
But what has Sherlock Holmes, the apotheosis of the civilized English gentleman, to do with Tarzan, the savage, yet noble, Ape Man? Okay, sure, one could make a comparison by saying that Holmes seeks criminal prey of the urban jungle while Tarzan hunts his in darkest Africa. What else is there? The aforementioned thesis of Farmer’s that was to affect me so forcefully does not appear in his biography of Lord Greystoke until late in the book. Addendum 2, to be exact. After having described “what probably did happen” to Tarzan and providing the background of all twenty-four Tarzan books, Farmer dropped a bombshell of astounding literary fabrication. He posited that the many heroic individuals of literature were not so individual at all, but were, in fact, related. By blood. Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Allan Quatermain, Bulldog Drummond, Lord Peter Wimsey, Doc Savage, Nero Wolfe (even Fu Manchu!) were kith and kin. A later generation included James Bond and Travis McGee. They were cousins, sometimes sons or uncles. This explained neatly why so many of the literary heroes of the late nineteenth century/early twentieth century are English or Anglo-American.
The germ of Farmer’s thesis, he tells us, was contained in an essay (reprinted by him as Addendum 1) written by H.W. Starr that had appeared in the Baker Street Journal in 1960 associating John Clayton, the cabman in The Hound of the Baskervilles (chap. 5), with John Clayton, the fifth Duke of Greystoke, Tarzan’s grandfather. (Tarzan, by the way, is the eighth duke.) This association led Farmer to devise a theory that explained the development of so many amazing, physical and intellectual specimens in the nineteenth century. In the East Riding of Yorkshire near the village of Wold Newton, five married couples witnessed the nearby landing of a meteor (an actual, honest-to-goodness, historical event in December 1795). As Farmer describes it:
The bright light and heat and thunderous roar of the meteorite blinded and terrified the passengers, coachmen, and horses. But they recovered quickly, thanking God that they were unharmed by the near-hit. They never guessed, being ignorant of ionization, that the fallen star had affected them and their unborn.
Radiation from the meteor caused a genetic mutation in those present endowing their descendants with superior mental and physical powers, in essence making them super heroes. Again, I cannot do better than Farmer, who calls the meteor strike “the single cause of this nova of genetic splendor, this outburst of great detectives, scientists, and explorers of exotic worlds, this last efflorescence of true heroes in an otherwise degenerate age.”
So that’s why they all (except Doc Savage) have grey eyes!
Farmer elaborated on this blood connection in Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life and even brings in a further Sherlockian connection. The amazing Man of Bronze of the pulps, he claims, is the son of James Wilder, the illegitimate son of the sixth duke of Holdernesse, whom we meet in “The Adventure of the Priory School.” At the age of 14, I became aware of Doc Savage and The Shadow (via Bantam paperback reprints) and was introduced to authentic ‘pulp fiction’ of the 1930s and 1940s a year later (by means of the first chapter of Jim Steranko’s splendid, though unfinished, History of Comics). In this way, my juvenile interest in comic books led me to pulps, their slam-bang, fast-action predecessors. [For the sake of keeping this essay of manageable length I must pass quickly over the influence of old movies. Johnny Weissmuller and Basil Rathbone and Warner Oland all contributed to my ‘pulp’-minded development. I can no more disregard the attraction those old black-and-white films held for me than I can dismiss the daily strips of Dick Tracy or The Phantom in the long-gone Buffalo Courier-Express.] In the paperback editions of Farmer’s two biographies I learned about and subsequently sought out the adventures of other modern literary heroes and villains: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Bulldog Drummond by H.C. ‘Sapper’ McNeile, Allan Quatermain by H. Rider Haggard….
For seventy-five years, devotees of Sherlock Holmes have regarded him as a real person. It’s called playing the game. Sherlockians were the first (I believe) to devise elaborate, book-length chronologies for a literary character. The best-known and most accessible are W.S. Baring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street and The Annotated Sherlock Holmes. He also had fun with the idea that the corpulent detective Nero Wolfe was the issue of a brief tryst between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler in 1891. (See his posthumously published Nero Wolfe of West 35th Street.)
Farmer took a page from Sherlockian scholarship and came up with two full books about Tarzan and Doc Savage and created single-handedly a remarkable theory for the existence of our favorite heroes. I cannot, however, figure how genetics can also imbue extraordinary luck, but these heroes have it. They also experience — especially in the works of Sax Rohmer and Edgar Rice Burroughs — uncanny amounts of outrageous coincidence.
When dating Holmes, Farmer depended initially on Baring-Gould’s oft-quoted chronology. He presumed, for instance, since the “Adventure of the Priory School” occurred in May 1901, that James Wilder’s golden-eyed super son could not have been born before then. Now, almost four decades later, there exist online chronologies for the above-mentioned heroes and many more. Sherlock Holmes pastiches have no monopoly on what are called “crossovers,” wherein the great detective encounters other contemporary characters, both real and imaginary (e.g., Oscar Wilde, Teddy Roosevelt, Dracula, Mr. Hyde). Since Farmer’s initial thesis, other scholars/fans have expanded the Wold Newton family to include scores of heroes.
One last thought, if I may. If you take another look at the first quote above, you will see that, in addition to the passengers, the ‘coachmen and horses’ also were dosed by radiation. This also accounts for the existence of those members of the servant class who are superlative in their own right, e.g., Bertie Wooster’s inimitable butler Jeeves or Lord Peter’s loyal batman Bunter. And one needs look no further among equines than the Lone Ranger’s Silver (or that champion of the turf who has spawned several annual races among Sherlockians, Silver Blaze).
And so, what does it all mean? This essay was written to demonstrate how H.W. Starr’s and W.S. Baring-Gould’s love of Sherlock Holmes inspired P.J. Farmer to ponder in likewise fashion about other heroes and opened up a new way to look at heroic and fantastic literature. This lifelong journey has taken me beyond one man’s quest to know more to another man’s presumption that (nearly) every hero is related (or at least six degrees of separation from, say, Henry Baker). In this meander down memory’s mews, I could easily have missed the point to which I originally set out to reach. I hope to have made clear during this nostalgic ramble that the enthusiasm engendered by the study of Sherlock Holmes can transform everything it touches. Who knows what may come of it!
• The title of this essay is a parody of the reply made by Watson to Holmes’ query regarding Jean-Paul Richter in The Sign of the Four, chap. 7.
• Maiwand, in Afghanistan, was where Watson received his wound in 1880; Marengo was the scene in 1800 of a near-defeat by Napoleon’s army and the Austrians; and Malplaquet was the bloodiest battle of the War of the Spanish Succession (1709), fought (principally) by England and Holland against the French.
• The ninth edition of the EB was published 1875-1889 and the eleventh edition was published in 1910-1911. Here, also, there is a Sherlockian connection. Joseph M. Stoddart, managing editor of Lippincott’s Magazine who persuaded Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde to write for his magazine, also successfully sold a pirated edition of the EB. At the time there was no international copyright.
• To see what Farmer’s successors have contributed to the Wold Newton Family, visit the informative webpage produced by Win Eckert.
Baring-Gould, William S. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes. Clarkson N. Potter, 1967.
Baring-Gould, William S. Nero Wolfe of West 35th Street. Clarkson N. Potter, 1969.
Baring-Gould, William S. Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: A Biography of the World’s First Consulting Detective. Clarkson N. Potter, 1962.
Farmer, Philip José. Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. Bantam Books, 1975. Originally published by Doubleday, 1973.
Farmer, Philip José. Tarzan Alive. Paperback Library, n.d.  Originally published by Doubleday, 1972.
Starr, H.W. “A Case of Identity, or the Adventure of the Seven Claytons.” The Baker Street Journal, New Series X, i, January 1960.
Steranko, Jim. History of Comics. Supergraphics, 1970.
Tracy, Jack. The Encyclopaedia Sherlockiana. Doubleday, 1977.
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Copyright © Carl William Thiel 2008