Certain Rites, and Also Certain Duties by Jon Lellenberg

Review by Chris Redmond

I wish I had reviewed Jon Lellenberg's Certain Rites, and Also Certain Duties: Unsuspected Sources of Baker Street Irregularity earlier — when it was new (privately published 2009) and while Lellenberg was a less controversial figure in the Sherlockian world. He is now well known as the North American representative of the Conan Doyle Estate, which was involved in bitter litigation about the Sherlock Holmes copyright, and it was announced a year or so ago that he "is no longer a member" of the Baker Street Irregulars — a sad moment of rupture.

For all of that, he continues to be a perceptive historian, and the only productive historian, of the Baker Street Irregulars and its antecedents. This thin folio papeback is volume 7 of his BSI Archival Histories, and makes frequent references to material that appeared in the earlier, more official volumes, which took the Irregulars from its ragtag beginnings to the late 1940s. (Rumours continue that someone else will be writing official histories of the BSI in the Edgar W. Smith and Julian Wolff eras, and may that day come soon, but it appears that it is not going to be Jon Lellenberg.)

The previous volumes, though organized more or less chronologically, were much more milk train than express. Lellenberg was inclined to pause for a biography, and an anecdote or two, about anybody whose name surfaced in the story — inclined, too, to reproduce documents at length, on the excellent grounds that the reader probably hadn't seen them before (or not lately, anyway) and might not conveniently find them anywhere else. This volume abandons narrative and destination entirely, in favour of anecdote, nostalgia, and some obsessively close investigation of documents. To say the least, that's not intended to be a criticism.

Certain Rites — the title is quotation from a passage about the Scowrers in The Valley of Fear — has 11 chapters, dealing with such topics as Christ Cella's New York speakeasy (in which the Baker Street Irregulars came to be formed), the strange variations in the BSI's absurd Constitution and Buy-Laws as they have been quoted from time to time, the bizarre episode of Adrian Conan Doyle's 1959 Centenary Edition tribute to his father and how Doubleday came to be trying to market it, and the educational records of Edgar W. Smith, who may not have been the greatest Sherlockian of all time (though he's right up there) but was certainly the greatest Sherlockian organizer of all time. On all these matters, and others, Lellenberg finds and weighs the minutest evidence, forms opinions, and asserts them in unwavering terms. He also has quite a knack for the felicitious phrase.

(We knew already that Jon Lellenberg could write. He is the author of Baker Street Irregular, possibly the best piece of fiction ever written about Sherlockians. It's good to see him demonstrate versatility, though much less self-discipline, in this non-fiction environment, which frequently wanders into the exact milieu in which his novel is set, namely the US intelligence community before and during World War II. There were a lot of Sherlockians in those parts.)

Few Sherlockians today have so much as heard of Basil Davenport or Ronald Mansbridge. Lellenberg gives them both their due in sections of this scattershot collection. Those who have heard of Edgar W. Smith, and Christopher Morley, and Elmer Davis, and Vincent Starrett will be rewarded by reading it as well.

The book ends with an essay in which Lellenberg assesses the state (as of 2009) of the Baker Street Irregulars, the distance it has come — not for the better, he clearly believes — from its raffish origins, and the likely effect of internationalization on its future. I am sure there are other points of view on these issues that would be worth hearing, and I regret that such topics are not regularly raised and discussed in public. Quite possibly, what Lellenberg has to say about them will be dismissed because — well, because he is Lellenberg. But that doesn't mean he is wrong.