The Adventure of the Sherlock Holmes Aficionado

Thanks to the thousands of readers of my Dakota Stevens mysteries, in the past 18 months I’ve been able to fulfill two lifelong dreams.

The first was going to Paris, spending two solid weeks exploring every inch of that gorgeous city, and walking in the footsteps of my literary idols—including Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Flaubert and Maupassant. (You can read about that trip here.)

The second, which I fulfilled only two months ago, was driving through all of England and Scotland, seeing the castles of my ancestors in the Scottish Highlands, and visiting the iconic locations associated with my favorite works of English literature: the Chatsworth estate (the basis for Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice), Stratford-upon-Avon (the birthplace of Shakespeare), and 221B Baker Street in London.

 

In front of the ruins of one of my family's ancestral castles in Scotland.

In front of the ruins of one of my family’s ancestral castles in Scotland. 

A famous vista at Chatsworth.

A famous vista at Chatsworth. 

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The River Avon. Photo © by Chris Orcutt.

In front of Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.

In front of Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The plaque designating 221B Baker Street in London.

The plaque designating 221B Baker Street in London.

 

This last location, of course, is the residence of the most famous detective ever—Sherlock Holmes. A detective so famous that some people don’t realize that he and his partner, Dr. John Watson, were entirely fictional—the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, a medical doctor himself.

From the time I was 10 years old, well into my late teens, I was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. I read all 56 short stories and four novels multiple times. I collected Sherlock Holmes encyclopedias and books about Victorian London. I read biographies of Doyle. I read textbooks about criminalistics and forensic science (this was many years before the CSI TV shows). And I went to college to study forensic science, with the original intent of graduating and working at the FBI crime lab.

 

One of the original illustrations from a Sherlock Holmes story.

One of the original illustrations from a Sherlock Holmes story.

 

My plan to get a degree in forensics and work for the FBI lasted two semesters. Through one of my courses—Criminalistics and Crime Scene Investigation—I met a forensic scientist from the state crime laboratory and shadowed him. I visited his lab, interned for a few hours a week, and accompanied him when he testified in court. Doing these things, I began to realize that I wasn’t cut out for the largely tedious work involved in forensic testing, nor would I enjoy being grilled on the witness stand by needling lawyers second-guessing every test I performed.

By then I knew that I didn’t want to become a forensic scientist, and I had decided that the sciences were boring; ultimately the answers (or at least some of them) were in the back of the book. Besides, I had discovered that I was more interested in questions than answers, and I enjoyed literature and storytelling too much to give it up for what I perceived would be a humdrum life of science. So I changed my major to philosophy, expanded my reading of the classics, and began doing seriously something that I had done since I was 11 years old—writing stories.

But it all went back to Sherlock Holmes. Even though I didn’t write a mystery of my own for many years, the richness of the Holmes character, and the verisimilitude of his world (as described by Watson) had made a deep impression on me. I knew that whatever the subject or genre, my goal was to write stories as entertaining and compelling as Doyle’s, with characters that were equally strong and larger-than-life.

As I believe I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when I was creating the Dakota Stevens series, Sherlock Holmes and Watson couldn’t help but be literary touchstones for me. I wanted a Holmes–Watson dynamic, but I wanted such a duo to reflect modern sensibilities, and I knew that I wanted the counterpoint, the yin and yang, of having my “Watson” be a woman. And so I asked myself, “What would the dynamic of a modern Holmes and Watson—a man and woman detective team—look like?”

And that’s where Dakota Stevens and his “Watson”—the brilliant and beautiful Svetlana Krüsh—came from.

I didn’t get a chance to visit 221B Baker Street until the morning of my last day in the UK. Alexas and I had specifically chosen our hotel because it was in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London, relatively close to Holmes’s address, and when we exited the hotel early that Sunday morning, we were unsure whether to try and walk there, or take the Underground.

 

The black London cab that whisked me to 221B Baker Street.

The black London cab that whisked me to 221B Baker Street.

 

We were fumbling with the map when I glanced down the sidewalk and saw a cabbie buffing his freshly-washed black cab. One of my other, smaller, dreams was to ride in a London black cab, and so I got the idea of fulfilling two dreams at once. I would take a London black cab to 221B Baker Street.

I asked the cabbie if he was taking passengers yet (it was barely seven-thirty), and when he replied, “Absolutely,” Alexas and I climbed eagerly in.

“To 221B Baker Street, my good man,” I said. “And hurry!”

Even though it was early on a Sunday morning, there was considerable traffic on the streets, and it took a good fifteen minutes to reach 221B. During the ride, the cabbie asked me why I wanted to go there, and I gave him an abridged version of everything you’ve read so far. I also told him some of the history of Sherlock Holmes, and how Doyle had based the character in part on a medical school professor, Dr. Joseph Bell. I mentioned that I was a mystery novelist from the States (“Not famous—yet,” I added), and the cabbie said he would buy my books on Kindle (Dakota Stevens #1 & #2). Finally he dropped us off, and I gave him an extravagant tip. I wanted him to remember me as generous so he’d be more likely to buy my books and tell others about them.

 

221B (left) and a Sherlock Holmes museum/shop (right). Holmes's apartment is on the 2nd floor.

221B (left) and a Sherlock Holmes museum/shop (right). Holmes’s apartment is on the 2nd floor.

 

With the exception of a few construction workers gathering in front of a building a few doors down, Baker Street was empty and quiet. A single door, marked 221B, sat next to a closed Sherlock Holmes collectibles store. I knew from my reading ahead of time that Holmes and Watson’s apartment on the second floor was decorated and staged as though they still lived there and had just stepped out. I also knew that admission to the apartment was ridiculously expensive, and was sure to be a disappointment—what with having to share the experience with a mob of people who were merely going there so they could check one more item off of a “bucket list.” It was unlikely that the true Holmes lovers, the serious aficionados, would be part of any tour group. They’d all know it was a Barnum sideshow.

Besides, the building, with a Victorian façade on it, didn’t fit with the other buildings on the street. Not only were the other buildings of more modern architecture, the building numbers were out of sync. It was clear that 221B used to be farther down the street, but that building had been torn down and rebuilt, so they created a new 221B Baker Street (in Victorian style) and wedged it in a few doors down.

But it wasn’t about the actual, physical address anyway. It’s not as though Holmes and Watson had really lived, and I was seeing the exact building and apartment where they’d resided. No, it was about the idea of 221B Baker Street. It was about what 221B represented.

As I stared up at the windows, the stories came flooding back to me: “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (a great TV version here). “The Bruce-Partington Plans.” “The Final Problem.” “The Musgrave Ritual.” “A Scandal in Bohemia.” A Study in Scarlet. The Hound of the Baskervilles.

It was about all of the pleasure these stories had given me since I was a boy, and how Sherlock Holmes had been a constant companion to me through my difficult and awkward teenage years. It was about how these stories had launched me in a certain direction in life, and how they had inspired me to write the best detective novels I possibly could.

 

At last, in front of 221B Baker Street in London.

At last, in front of 221B Baker Street in London.

 

Alexas took some photos of me standing proudly in front of 221B Baker Street, and then we took a few of a young Japanese woman who knew that 221B was famous for something, but famous for what, she had no idea.

So often in life, the moment of actually realizing a goal, fulfilling a dream, is a letdown compared to how we imagine it will be. But not this time. Not for me. Seeing 221B Baker Street—the home of my childhood hero—affected me much more deeply than I thought it would. As I stared at it for the last time, I realized then how much I had dreamed of being there, how important the place was to me. And I told Alexas so, and began to cry.

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By Chris Orcutt

Writer — The Dakota Stevens Mystery Series, Short fiction, Plays — Editor & Speechwriter for Hire — Avid Golfer, Chess Player & Awesome Wood-Splitter — Twitter: @chrisorcutt

Comments (2)

  1. textfilesdotcom December 6, 2013 at 3:52 pm

    Oh man, I’d seriously forgotten about the forensic science bit. I remember it now, because I was so impressed with the path you’d laid ahead. It had a program that would eventually lead to Scotland Yard. But as we both know, it’s just as important to know when to deviate from the plan as when to stick to it, and you made better choices from an informed position.

    • Chris Orcutt December 6, 2013 at 4:24 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Jay. Yeah, I know I made the right decision. My disposition wasn’t cut out for the extremely logical, left-brain focus of forensic science. During my brief internship, I quickly discovered that real forensic science work can be very tedious. Besides, deep down I knew that I really wanted to be a writer. All of the forensic science stuff was a means of staying in touch with Sherlock Holmes, and ultimately I think it was the romance of that world and those stories that appealed to me the most.