The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars

By Mike Sutton

It is always a joy to meet an American, Mr. Moulton, for I am one of those who believe that the folly of a monarch and the blundering of a minister in far-gone years will not prevent our children from being some day citizens of the same world-wide country under a flag which shall be a quartering of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes.

[The Noble Bachelor]

In several of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Sherlock Holmes expresses admiration for the USA and its people. For many years, this admiration has been reciprocated. Doyle’s books have sold well there, and American authors have written numerous sequels and critical studies. Meanwhile American actors, from William Gillette to Robert Downey Junior, have impersonated the great detective on stage and screen.

A remarkable illustration of this transatlantic regard for Doyle’s immortal character is a flourishing network of convivial societies, whose members celebrate (and re-enact) the adventures of their hero and his adversaries and allies. At the centre of this network is a New York group, named after the troop of street urchins employed by Holmes as auxiliaries – The Baker Street Irregulars.

There’s more work to be got out of one of these little beggars than out of a dozen of the force” Holmes remarked. “The mere sight of an official looking person seals men’s lips. These youngsters, however, go everywhere and hear everything. They are as sharp as needles too; all they want is organisation.

[A Study in Scarlet]

America’s Baker Street Irregulars were organised in 1934 by Christopher Morley – a former Rhodes Scholar and prominent New York journalist, editor, and novelist. Admission is by invitation only. The list of distinguished Irregulars includes US Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the mathematician Banesh Hoffman and many prominent authors. Affiliated societies, named after significant characters or objects in Doyle’s stories, include the Sons of the Copper Beeches in Philadelphia, The Diogenes Club of Dallas, and The Giant Rats of Sumatra in Memphis. (A number of similar societies are based in Canadian cities.) Their members convene regularly for lectures, seminars, theatrical performances and general socialising.

Why do these enthusiasts idolise Holmes, rather than an American detective hero like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow? Is it mere snobbery, fostered by ex-Ivy Leaguers and their would-be emulators? Or does something in Doyle’s stories resonate with more widely held American aspirations? It seems probable that this question would repay further investigation.

One Holmesian characteristic which American readers may well admire is his dismissive attitude towards social hierarchies. He shows no deference to aristocrats, especially if they behave shabbily, and in “A Scandal in Bohemia” he delivers a crushing put-down to a contemptible king who is too insensitive to perceive its ironic meaning. Yet in “The Copper Beeches” he pursues an apparently trivial case brought to him by a frightened governess with the same commitment that he gives to the recovery of stolen Foreign Office documents in “The Naval Treaty”.

Holmes’ dealings with law-breakers are equally revealing. While confessing his respect for the villain’s intelligence and courage he pursues the master-criminal Moriarty to the death. But he allows a first offender to evade punishment, remarking to Dr Watson:

I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again. He is too terribly frightened. Send him to gaol now and you make a gaolbird of him for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness.

[The Blue Carbuncle]

All in all, Holmes seems more of a meritocrat than an egalitarian. Like such archetypal American heroes as Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Edison, he has built a distinguished career on innate talent and hard work. To men or women who follow a similar path (and remain honest) he shows courtesy and compassion, whatever their status.

Holmes also believes firmly in another central pillar of the American dream – the importance of education. On a train journey near Clapham Junction he remarks to Watson:

Look at those big, isolated clumps of buildings rising up above the slates, like brick islands in a lead-coloured sea.

The Board schools.

Lighthouses, my boy! Beacons of the future! Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England of the future.

[The Naval Treaty]

This remark has a special significance for me, because one of those “brick islands” near Clapham Junction was where my own education began in the nineteen-forties. But its wider significance is clear enough. Holmes believes that compulsory schooling can convert unwashed and illiterate street children into worthy citizens – for their own benefit, and for the good of society. (This might have seemed a dismal prospect to Huckleberry Finn, but Tom Sawyer would certainly have profited from it.)

The liberating power of education has been particularly emphasised by African-American activists from Booker T Washington onwards, and hence school desegregation in the 1950s was a critical point in the civil rights struggle. That struggle was already under way when the Holmes stories first appeared in print, and one of them addresses a particularly sensitive aspect of the racial question.

It concerns a British merchant, Grant Munroe of Norbury, who has recently married the young widow of a successful American lawyer. He seeks Holmes’ assistance because his wife lives in fear of something relating to her past, about which she refuses to confide in him. Several other Holmes adventures involve sinister transatlantic connections – for example with the Mafia (“The Red Circle”), the Ku Klux Klan (“The Five Dried Orange Pips”) and the Chicago Mob (“The Dancing Men”). In this case, however, the story is very different.

The lady’s first husband was an African-American. Fearing to tell her second husband this, or to reveal the existence of her dark-skinned daughter, she has installed the child with a nursemaid in a nearby cottage, and is visiting her secretly. When Holmes, Watson and Munroe enter this cottage – expecting to discover a blackmailer, if not something worse – the truth is exposed.

And now tonight you at last know all, and I ask you what is to become of us, my child and me? She clasped her hands, and waited for an answer.

It was a long two minutes before Grant Munroe broke the silence, and when his answer came, it was one of which I love to think. He lifted the little child, kissed her, and then, still carrying her, he held out his other hand to his wife, and turned towards the door.

We can talk it over more comfortably at home”, said he. “I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being.

Holmes and I followed them down to the lane, and my friend plucked at my sleeve as we came out. “I think”, said he,” that we shall be of more use in London than in Norbury.

[The Yellow Face]

Holmes often reminds us that it is profitless to speculate without evidence. And yet one is tempted to think that it would have gladdened his heart to learn that one day another child of a black father and a white mother would occupy the Oval Office.