Category Archives: Non-fiction

Crowe, Michael J., ed. Ronald Knox and Sherlock Holmes: The Origin of Sherlockian Studies. Indianapolis: Gasogene Books, 2011.

Msgr. Ronald Knox (2/17/88-8/24/57) was a prolific author whose other work included detective fiction, religious works, satire, and a translation of the Vulgate.

When I look at my Sherlockian bookshelf, that sacred space in the “dining” room, upon which all are forbidden to place toys, Pokemon cards, MTG decks, Lovecraft volumes or–horrors! cups–I see several books I will never be clever enough to review. There’s the one with Sherlock Holmes and chess, another one with logic,¹ and yet another on Victorian detective novels and the “nature of evidence” which is not, as I assumed, about police procedure.² At some point, I will order Umberto Eco and Thomas Sebeok’s book, The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce (Advances in Semiotics) because I used to work with Peirce’s writings, but I wont be able to get beyond names I know in the acknowledgements and appreciating the hard work it took to make all of those equations and diagrams.³ Today’s review book fits into this category as well, and not only because it’s smart. Instead, I find it daunting because it’s written by Msgr. Ronald Knox.⁴ As I tried to explain to my husband, being asked to review something by Ronald Knox feels akin to being asked to review, oh, I dunno….The Gospel According to John (God, post-33 AD). In the immortal words of gobsmacked people on Twitter, “I can’t even.” But I can tell you all about it, and that’s better.

If you’ve been a Holmes fan for very long at all, you’re undoubtedly aware of “The Game.” Players work under the (true) assumption that Holmes, Watson, and Co. are real people,⁵ and that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was simply Dr. Watson’s literary agent. They then use whatever information they can gather from the canon to divine all sorts of facts about such mysteries as Holmes’ childhood, Watson’s love life (and vice versa), or the true identity of Irene Adler *koff!*Lillie Langtry*koff!*. They puzzle out chronologies, actual places, true crimes…whatever strikes their fancy, and it’s all fine as long as one can produce the evidence. That Dr. Watson was, for whatever reason, not the most detail-oriented of Boswells meshes perfectly with what seems to have been, from the beginning, a detail-oriented fandom.

According to editor Michael J. Crowe’s excellent introductory essay, Knox began playing The Game very early, when he and his three older brothers  actually wrote to Sir Arthur  pointing out some problems with the bicycle tire deductions in “The Adventure of the Priory School.” His seminal Holmesian⁶ work, however, is the essay, “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,”  written to fulfill Oxford’s requirement that its dons read papers of their own composition to their colleges’ undergraduate societies. Originally meant as a satirical look at contemporary developments in Biblical scholarship and their impact on religious teachings, the paper proved very popular among both theological and secular groups and was eventually published several times, first in the 1912 Oxford Blue Book. It is this essay scholars consider the foundation of The Game and all of the Holmesian/Sherlockian scholarship that came after, making Ronald Knox the founder, in 1911, of the world we’ve now enjoyed for a century.

Crowe tells us Knox wrote “Studies” at a time in which he and others were struggling with the direction Biblical textual criticism was heading. What had seemed a fresh, intellectual, even scientific approach some thirty years ago had led to a widespread questioning of essential doctrine which many, including Knox, found disturbing. If, like me, you are of a religious bent, you’ll find this section of the introduction fascinating. Nothing changes. Old soldiers give way to new, but the battles are the same.

Knox’s views eventually led him to Roman Catholicism. But at this point, the figuring-out stage, he attacked those serious questions with wit. After all, what better way to point out the flaws in your opponents’ approaches than to make them ridiculous? And applying textual criticism to popular detective fiction–how much sillier can you get? Thus we are treated to “proto” and “deutero” Watson, the eleven “distinct parts” of a Sherlock Holmes tale, and questions of chronology, legitimacy, and influence. There are Greek words. There is a “true Holmes.” There is a death and a questionable return. Even without knowing which scholars Knox skewers so relentlessly, I could feel the flames under the spit. And should one choose to look at the piece as simply an exercise in The Game, well…. Here is one (marvellous) example for your perusal:

Although the Study in Scarlet is, in a certain sense, the type and ideal of a Holmes story, it is also to some extent a primitive type, of which elements were later discarded. The Exegesis κατα τον ϕευγοντα⁷ is told for the most part, not in the words of the criminal, but as a separate story in the mouth of the narrator; it also occupies a disproportionate amount of the total space. This shows directly the influence of Gaboriau: his Detective’s Dilemma is one volume, containing an account of the tracing of the crime back to its author, who is of course a duke; the second volume, the Detective’s Triumph, is almost entirely a retailing of the duke’s family history, dating back to the Revolution, and we only rejoin LeCoq, the detective, in the last chapter. Of course, this method of telling the story was found long and cumbrous, but the French school has not yet seen through it….⁸

Yes, the entire essay is like this. You’ll learn why Knox believes Watson’s stories vary so much in quality, what Holmes has in common with Socrates, and the role of the Greek chorus in the canon. The bowler hat is examined in great detail, much as a certain “hard felt hat” was in BLUE. Holmes’ humanity is considered, as are his methods. He would be gratified to know that LeCoq is always depicted as his inferior. “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” is at once so tongue-in-cheek and so serious that it’s mesmerizing, and it’s easy to see how others were inspired to apply these same methods to their own investigations.

“Studies” is the longest piece in the book, but it’s not the only one. Next we have Knox’s “Introduction,” written for The Best Detective Stories of the Year 1928, in which he delineates the ten “specialized rules” for this genre. As he writes:

And the detective author, alone among authors, cannot even in this libertine age afford to break the rules. The moderns will attempt to write poetry without rhyme or metre, novels without plot, prose without sense; they may be right or wrong, but such liberties must not be taken in the field of which we are speaking. You cannot write a Gertrude Stein detective story.”⁹

After discussing the analytical nature of the genre and its need to provide answers, he then posits it as a game in which the author must play fairly. This means, among other things, no twins, no ghosts, and no secret passages unless they have a reason to be there. As for chemistry, technology, medicine, etc., he reminds readers of Dr. Thorndyke, who requires readers “to go through a long science lecture at the end of the story in order to understand how clever the mystery was.” * It’s a very witty examination; his observations ring just as true today as they did in 1928. Fortunately, however, writers are clever (or readers tolerant) enough that his prediction that the genre’s possibilities will be exhausted has not yet come to pass.

“A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose….” Apparently you can write “a Gertrude Stein detective story.”

The third essay is entitled “The Mathematics of Mrs Watson.” The title is a bit misleading: this is a double book review, rather than an investigation of just how many women Watson met at the altar. Knox reviews works by two prominent colleagues in canon: H.W. (Harold Wilmerding) Bell’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes, Fact or Fiction, by Thomas Blakeney. All right, he doesn’t so much review them as he combs them for inaccurate details and errors in reasoning. I must say that, after reading this, I didn’t feel like such a pedant. Are his conclusions correct? Definitely, in the whole number-of-pearls question. As to the others? You can judge–or dispute. After all, as Knox quotes faux-scholar Sauwosch, “Watson has this genius, that, however deeply we probe his work, he always has fresh inconsistencies to reveal, which will be the basis of fresh theories.”**

If you’re going to argue, be sure to choose your “disputatious” pipe.

“Studies in the Literature” is a remarkable effort. But I have to say that the next essay in the book is my favorite, for three reasons. It’s incredibly clever; it takes everything you think you know and turns it on its head; and, finally, it takes a theory I once dismissed out of hand and convinces me that it may well be true. Thanks to Granada, myriad pastiches, and now, BBC Sherlock, we’re accustomed to think of Mycroft Holmes as a brilliant spymaster, but nonetheless a decent man who cares (advantage or no) for his younger brother. Knox doesn’t disabuse us of this. Not…exactly. But what if everything you thought you knew about Mycroft were slightly, well, skewed? And what if the evidence for this could be found in the canon itself? If “Studies” introduced The Game, “The Mystery of Mycroft” shows us how it can be played by a true master, without even a hint of the ridiculous. To share is to spoil in this instance, but after reading this, I felt both a strong desire for jam, and awe at the fictional possibilities waiting behind this particular curtain.

I felt like this, actually. (from Baker Street Bijou)

Msgr. Knox was a prolific author who tried his hand at detective fiction, including Holmesian pastiche. The collection ends with a story which appeared in the February, 1947 issue of The Strand with the descriptive title “The Apocryphal Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the First Class Carriage.” It’s very short, and doesn’t contain every element listed in “Studies,” but it has an excellent “Watson voice,” and no one ventures the slightest bit out of character. Holmes solves the problem quickly, but early on, Knox presents a tell which, if you catch it (as I did), will pretty much give you the whole story. Believing in fair play as he did, I have to believe the good monsignor provided this intentionally.

Up until now, I’ve only briefly referred to Professor Crowe’s “Introduction,” but it’s an essential and fascinating part of the book. Rather than providing a straight biography, Dr. Crowe shows how Knox’s life and theology are interwoven with his forays into the Holmesian world and, further, how the seeds he unwittingly planted in 1911 came to full flower (by 1934) and continue to propagate, even now. Chances are excellent that, if Ronald Knox hadn’t written “Studies,” or hadn’t written it in such a brilliant, meaningful way, everything we love about Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t exist. Or, rather, it would, but perhaps only to a very small group of enthusiasts–like, say, the current fans of Carnacki the Ghost Hunter.*** Whether or not you care for The Game, its infinite possibilities keep the Great Detective and his Boswell as active as any royal jelly ever could.  It’s painful, then, to read that Knox observed, “it is so depressing that my one permanent achievement is to have started a bad joke.”† For one thing, given Knox’s influence as a priest and scholar, that’s probably not true. And even if it were, so what? Most of us probably think, at some point, that we should be doing something with a little more gravitas. We’re aware that the jobs we work at every day are not going to make us any more than cogs in the great machine of life and we’ll be forgotten, just as we’ve forgotten the names of our great-great grandparents and must therefore pay a subscription to learn them. But while we’re here, we can enlighten and, better yet, lighten the burdens, of those around us, using the talents we’re given. So a flower arrangement will wither, but while it flourishes, it cheers or comforts or makes one feel loved. A batch of cookies does the same. The person whose gas cap you replaced at a stop light will always remember you, your red ball cap, and your old Ford truck. And the men and women who must get up and spend their days serving coffee or looking for IEDs, teaching preschool or performing CPR, delivering TPS reports or mopping floors–if those people can go home and rest their minds awhile in 1895 or one of its many versions, and afterwards feel able to go out the next day and do it all again cheerfully…. Well, then, that isn’t a joke. It isn’t a joke at all.

It’s the best kind of legacy.

Ronald Knox and Sherlock Holmes: The Origin of Sherlockian Studies  is currently only available from Wessex Press (of which Gasogene is an imprint). Follow this link to order:

Star Rating: 5 out of 5 “This is a wonderful book which gets it right.”


¹These are: Raymond Smullyan’s The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes (Dover Recreational Math, 2012) and Colin Bruce’s Conned Again, Watson: Cautionary Tales of Math, Logic, and Probability (Basic Books, 2002). Both are available on Amazon for you geniuses out there.

²Lawrence Frank, Victorian Detective Fiction and the Nature of Evidence: The Scientific Investigations of Poe, Dickens, and Doyle (Macmillan/Palgrave, 2003). According to the back blurb, the book “engages in a form of intellectual paleontology, tracing the genealogy of a genre through a model based on the Origin of Species read as a form of postmodern historiography,” and  “investigates [detective fiction] as a genre promoting a secular worldview in a time of competing visions of the universe and human situation.” Which is a fascinating, multi-disciplinary approach…but be warned, it’s a trifle jargon-heavy.

³Tons. Those little symbols slide everywhere.

⁴Not to be confused with the shinigami, Ronald Knox, of Kuroshitsuji manga tales. Which I learned about in an image search.

⁵There is also a very strong (accurate) belief that Holmes, Watson (and often Mycroft and Mrs. Hudson) are still alive, Baring-Gould, Mitch Cullin and other presumptious writers notwithstanding. The reason for this belief is typically that none of these obviously prominent individuals have had an obituary in the Times (London), so they must be with us yet. And really, if an obituary showed up tomorrow, would you believe it? Not after EMPT I wouldn’t.

⁶Although nowadays people often use “Holmesian” to mean canon Holmes, and “Sherlockian” to refer to the BBC version, I try to hew to the traditional meanings: “Sherlockian” is an American enthusiast, while “Holmesian” designates the British variety.

⁷This is story element nine, “the criminal’s confession.” The Greek words, translated, mean “at the fleeing” and should have accurate diacritical marks, only I couldn’t figure out how to do that on WordPress.

⁸ See p. 42. Knox is, of course, referring to the whole Mormon digression in STUD. For a look at how this aspect of the story is still bemusing readers, see:

⁹ “Introduction,” pp 62-3

*”Introduction,” p.65

**”The Mathematics of Mrs. Watson,” p. 83.

***Not to disparage him unduly. The guy is creepy as heck. And we’ll be discussing him shortly.

†Introduction, p.28


Filed under Collection (Stories by the same author), Five-star reviews, Gasogene Books, Michael J. Crowe, Msgr. Ronald Knox, Non-fiction, Satire, Sherlockian Beginnings, Sherlockian Studies, The Game

Ten Questions with Kathleen Kaska

Actually, I would never had thought of doing author interviews if it hadn’t been for Ms. Kaska; frankly, I would not have had the courage to approach anyone and ask! But when she e-mailed me to let me know that a revised, updated version of The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book  was in the works, she also offered herself for an interview, for which I’m very grateful, and I hope you are, too.

“It’s this ‘7 down,’ Watson. It should have been ‘aspidistra.’ ‘Ficustrees’ has put them all off.”

The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book was originally published in 2000, and has now been reissued by LL-Publications, along with its companions, The Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie Triviography and Quiz Books. It’s safe to assume, then, that you’re a mystery fan! What draws you to this particular genre? 

I’m an avid mystery fan. I began reading Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes when I was a child. I felt that I was not just reading a story, I was involved in solving a puzzle; what child doesn’t enjoy playing an adventurous game, trying to be the first to find the solution or the prize? I loved that Holmes had his magnifying glass and his very own laboratory set up in his flat on Baker Street. No wonder I pursued a career in science.

Why did you choose these particular mystery icons? 

These three creative geniuses have always been my favorites. I had the entire Christie and Holmes collection on my bookshelf, so it seemed like a great place to begin and I knew Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, would fit right in. I spent an entire summer watching his films in chronological order. Talk about an education; I saw how his talent evolved over his sixty-year career as a filmmaker. Studying these three icons helped immensely when I began writing my own mysteries.

Can you describe your first encounter with the Great Detective?

That’s an easy question to answer. It was when I read The Hound of the Baskervilles. I don’t remember how old I was, probably early teens, and I will never forget how the setting drew me in even before Holmes impressed me with his deductive reasoning. The eeriness of the moors and the terrifying idea that a bloodthirsty hound was stalking the Baskervilles seemed the most frightening thing I’d ever read.

Which is your favorite canon story, and why? Do you have a least favorite, and if so, why that story in particular?

Besides the Baskervilles, I really like “Silver Blaze,” which gave us the line about the “curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.” I’ll say no more as not to spoil the ending. “The Musgrave Ritual” is another favorite because of the riddle Holmes had to solve, and then of course, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” where the woman, Irene Adler, beats Holmes at this own game.

My least favorites are the two which were written in 3rd person and not narrated by Dr. Watson, “The Last Bow,” a spy story rather an a mystery, and “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,” written from an adaptation of the stage play, “The Crown Diamond.” It’s not the same when dear Dr. Watson is not telling the story.

In one of your blog entries, you make a marvelous comparison between Holmes’ and Watson’s ways of dealing with the world that you call “show vs. tell,” which underlines Conan Doyle’s characterization skills. What do you like best about Doyle as a writer?

I used that comparison when I teach my writing class. We all know that showing rather than telling brings the reader into the story, puts them into the action, and paints a vivid picture. However, in Dr. Watson’s narratives, Conan Doyle so eloquently blends the two methods and gives us some of the best character descriptions I’ve ever read. For example, here’s a description of Violet Hunter in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches:”

She was plainly but neatly dressed, with a bright, quick face, freckled like a plover’s egg and with the brisk manner of a woman who has had her own way to make in the world.

In one simple sentence, we know Violet, what she looks like, we know she is a straightforward, levelheaded woman who is about to present Holmes with a challenging problem. I included several of these character descriptions in a quiz entitled “Characters According to Watson.”

“And my hair. Let’s not forget my hair.”

Do you read Sherlockian pastiche? If so, do you have a favorite author, book, or story, and why that one in particular?

I’ve read several and I enjoy the ones that stick close to the Conan Doyle traditional style of writing Holmes. Recently, I read one of the best ones ever. It is a short story written by a fellow Sherlockian Dan Andriacco. The title is “The Peculiar Persecution of John Vincent Harden.” Had I not known its origin, I would have believed it was written by Conan Doyle.

I also enjoy Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series in which Holmes has retired to the country to keep bees. He meets a young woman whom he later marries. She’s the motivation he needs and they soon resume “the game.”

You also write your own mystery series, featuring reporter Sydney Lockhart. Would you like to tell us a little more about her and her adventures?

I have so much fun with Sydney. She does and says things I would never have the nerve to say or do. She’s a tall redhead with a sassy mouth. This series, set in the early 1950s, has often been called the “hotel murder mystery” series because each one takes place in a different historic hotel. Sydney’s a reporter who can’t seem to stay out of trouble. The stories are light and humorous, but with a noir feel to them. Think of Janet Evanovich meets Raymond Chandler.

Birds are another of your passions, and you have a book coming out this fall with the Univ. of Florida Press about Robert Porter Allen’s work to save the whooping crane (called, well, The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane). How did writing non-fiction differ from your fiction work? Do you prefer one over the other?

The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane: The Robert Porter Allen Story was the most difficult book I’d ever written, but it was a labor of love. My passion for this glorious, but severely endangered bird, and learning of Bob Allen’s tireless efforts to save the species from extinction, inspired me to turn a couple of articles on the subject into a book. The reason it was so difficult is because I was writing about a real person whom I’d never met. I wanted to paint an accurate picture, not just of an ornithologist, but of a husband and a father, too. Fortunately, during my research, I located his only daughter and she was wealth of information. Bob Allen’s life full of adventures, successes, failures, but his tenacity and determination never faltered. Few people knew of his accomplishments and contributions to saving birds. I felt his story deserved to be told.

I really love the trivia bits in your book. What was the most surprising fact you uncovered? The most interesting?

The most interesting fact was a link between Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. It involved her disappearance in 1926 when she drove off one evening and vanished. Her car was found abandoned in a ditch with the motor running. The entire country was on the lookout for the missing writer. Conan Doyle was called in on the case as a consultant. He visited a medium who told him that Christie was alive and would surface the following Wednesday. The prediction came true. The odd thing was that the Christie case was similar to a Sherlock Holmes story, Conan Doyle had written a few years earlier. All that was lacking was a Hitchcock movie about this odd Christie/Conan Doyle connection.

Was it difficult to come up with all of the questions in the Sherlock Holmes quizzes? Did your background in teaching science to middle-schoolers come in handy? Speaking of which…were your tests hard?

My Sherlock Holmes trivia book was my third one and by this time, I knew how I wanted to structure and organize the book, so it wasn’t that difficult. As I reread the stories, I jotted down questions in a notebook. When I finished the quizzes, I researched information about Conan Doyle’s writing of each story so I could get a clearer understanding of the inspiration behind them. This was how I discovered many of the trivia bits you mention.

I wouldn’t use the word difficult; my science tests were challenging. With many different learning levels in one classroom, I had to design questions for all the various leaning styles and levels. My GT students knew what I expect of them. They had additional questions, many were essay, and they knew that a few words would not be enough to get them a good grade. I love this grade level. If you give them expectations, make them accountable, give them phrase and encouragement, they will shine.

Kathleen Kaska is the author of The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book, (reviewed in this blog on 6/23/12), as well as its companion volumes, featuring Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock. Her books area available in both print and e-pub editions from your favorite booksellers. You can find her blog (which features a special Friday section on small presses) at


Filed under Interview, Kathleen Kaska, Non-fiction

Kaska, Kathleen. The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book, 2nd edition. Hurlford: LL Publications, 2012

“Really, old fellow, you need to accept that you are just not the type who can do them in ink.”

When I first started writing book reviews, lo these hardly-any-months ago, I thought it would be as simple as deciding whether or not I liked a book, babbling on about why or why not, checking off some stars, and hitting “publish.” It didn’t take me long to realize that it’s not that simple.*

Why? Because a reviewer isn’t just writing a book report. He or she is communicating with people who don’t care whether or not a reviewer liked the book, as much as they do whether or not they will like it. So I’m very aware, every time I pull up WordPress, that I owe you the information you need to make an informed decision. That way, if you don’t like Holmes/Dracula crossovers in which Holmes gets married, Watson is a puppy who dies in the end, no less than eighty Actual Historical Personages make cameos, and Mrs. Hudson is The Ripper, you’ll feel duly warned…or ecstatic.  And still I worry that I’ll get it wrong.

Not this time.

Kathleen Kaska’s The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book is that rare book which really delivers on the promise “something for everyone.”   Originally published in 2000, it’s been revised, updated, and provided with a more attractive cover and vastly more legible layout.

Ms. Kaska divides the book into two parts. First, of course, come the actual quizzes and bits of trivia. Here, the author’s twenty-five years as a teacher come into play.  Unlike some quiz masters, whose primary aim is to pick the most esoteric bits of information imaginable in order to stump as many people as possible and impress us all with their cleverness, she chooses questions that lead you through the major points of the story–checking both your eye for detail, and your comprehension. And like any good teacher, she uses different types of questions, probably to weed out those of us who are experts in the art of “using the test to take a test.”  There are multiple choice questions**, true/false, and then, the bane of all who have not studied–short answer.  Each story gets ten questions, and each novel receives thirty. Ms. Kaska also covers Holmes in television (updated for Sherlock), movies, radio, pastiche, and includes a special section on Arthur Conan Doyle. My favorite quizzes, however, are those built around quotes. Readers are asked to identify the sources for opening lines, coded messages, and Holmes’ views on everything from religion to women. Most revealing are the two quizzes in which we must guess whom the Great Detective and his Boswell are describing. Holmes’ quiz, 15 questions, takes up one page, front and back, including the introduction; Watson’s, on the other hand, is 3/4 of a page longer, presumably because he is incapable of  cutting “the poetry.”† Finally, for those who don’t feel sufficiently challenged, there are five crossword puzzles. I would advise copying them before you start working…or at least that you use a pencil. The answers? They’re all in the back, in the second section. You get full explanations, and don’t forget to keep score because, at the end of each chapter, you can use your tally to determine your rank, from “Deductive Genius” to “Moriarty’s Victim.”

“Come now, Holmes, you can’t be a “Deductive Genius” every time.”

Come for the quizzes and puzzles–stay for the information! At the beginning of each chapter, and at the start of each quiz, Ms. Kaska provides well-written background material, both on the story/subject matter, and occasionally on what may have inspired it. Before trying our hand at “The Five Orange Pips,” for example, we learn that it may have been inspired by a terrible incident in New Orleans in  which eleven Italians were hung by a mob in the throes of anti-Mafia hysteria. The trivia included in each section is also well-chosen. You may already know one or two, but chances are excellent you won’t have heard them all. One of my favorites involves the Cairo police.†† Finally, after you’ve either emerged triumphant or gone over the Falls, you can look through the useful appendices (covering chronologies, “lists,” and scion societies, among other topics), a brief reading list, and a shopping list–er, bibliography.

The day you opened a book (or turned on the television) and woke up to find yourself on Baker Street, you entered a world where, sure, people discuss the “big” questions–the origin of human evil, the nature of true justice, how much Canon matters, and what happened during the Great Hiatus. However, it’s also a place where  they care very deeply about which hand Holmes used to write that letter to Watson, the fate of dogs in the Canon, why a Stradivarius could be bought so cheaply, and whether it was April or October. Quotes fly fast and furious between friends like secret handshakes, and virtually every scion society meeting includes a quiz. We care about the philosophy but, let’s face it, we’re in love with trifles. We cannot make too much of them.  Which is why I can say, with certainty, that The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book  will definitely fill up that gap on your second shelf.

The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book  is available from major online booksellers, and can also be purchased in e-format for both Kindle and Nook. Kathleen Kaska is also the author of two other trivia/quiz books (Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie), as well as a mystery series set in the 1950’s featuring reporter/amateur sleuth Sydney Lockhart. Her next book, published by the Univ. of Florida Press, is a nonfiction work on Robert Porter Allen’s efforts to save the whooping crane from extinction. You can catch up with her on

Star Rating: 5 out of 5– “This is a wonderful book which gets it right.”


*One reason for that being that I cannot figure out how to make actual “stars.”

**All of the choices are plausible, too. Unlike, say, those on the tests the really hot student teacher gave us in sophomore World History, back before you were born.

† From “The Retired Colourman.”

†† Nope. Not telling. You’ll have to look it up.

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Filed under Five-star reviews, Holmes in Film, Kathleen Kaska, Non-fiction, Real Historical Personages

Duncan, Alistair. An Entirely New Country: Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw, and the Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes. London: MX, 2011

The Conan Doyle children, Mary and Kingsley, at Undershaw, c.1900

In late 1893, Sherlock Holmes’ legions of fans received a terrible shock. Unbeknownst to them, their hero had perished at Reichenbach Falls nearly three years previously.  It took time, and the scurrilous insinuations published by Colonel James Moriarty, the Professor’s brother, to persuade his grieving Boswell to write an account of May 4, 1891, but write it he did, effectively blasting the expectations of readers who had become accustomed to following Holmes and Watson on their adventures,  to the point that many actually believed the two men to be real. Still, after a few bad moments or vacant days (for the most obsessed), those readers went back to their normal lives. There were, after all, other detectives.*

While young City men reportedly wore black armbands for someone who never lived, his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, was reeling from horrible news of his own. That October, his wife Louise (affectionately known to her family as “Touie”) had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. Her case was advanced, and it was terminal. Whatever future they had envisioned for themselves and their young family was now irrevocably changed. There would not be, after all, another Louise.

One common 19th century treatment sought by tubercular patients who could afford it was a move to higher altitude, in the belief that the lower air pressure would allow the heart to work more effectively and therefore help to clear the lungs.** Following this line of thought, Conan Doyle spent the next few years moving his family to Switzerland and Egypt in hopes of improving his wife’s health. While it seemed to bring results, all of the moving and living in hotels was expensive and disruptive to the couple’s children, Mary and Kinglsey. Fortunately, in 1895, a family friend and tuberculosis sufferer, Grant Allen, told Conan Doyle that Hindhead, in Surrey, was elevated enough to have a beneficial climate. Never a man to waste time, the author bought a piece of land and in October of 1897, the family moved into their new home, Undershaw.

Alistair Duncan, who has previously described Conan Doyle’s years in Norwood and traced his (and Holmes’) connections to places in London, now turns his knack for painstaking research to  Undershaw. He combines great events with small to give the reader a detailed picture of the author’s life over the next decade, one of tremendous change for him, both personally and professionally.

One of the most important events in Conan Doyle’s life, and that of his family, occurred while Undershaw was still being built. On March 15th of 1897, he met 23 year-old Jean Leckie. Although still married, he fell hard for the aspiring opera singer and began an intense platonic relationship (a courtship, really) with her that would last throughout his time at Undershaw and would ultimately be the cause of his leaving it.

Professionally, Conan Doyle still found himself tied to the man who had given him a career. Holmes may have been gone, but he was definitely not forgotten. Shortly after the family moved, the Sherlock Holmes play which had consisted solely of rumors became reality. Duncan details the negotiations, pitfalls (including a rewrite necessitated when the only copy was destroyed in a hotel fire), and the play’s ultimate success–provided that the audience could actually hear the actors. It was this project that lead Conan Doyle to write the frustrated exclamation beloved and used by pastiche writers everywhere, “You may marry or murder or do what you like with him!”*** Interestingly enough, he wasn’t quite serious about this; Duncan writes that one issue Conan Doyle particularly wanted to discuss with Gillette when they met in May of 1899 was the actor/writer’s plan to give Holmes a romantic interest. We know he did, of course, but apparently there were boundaries to the character that his creator was not willing to cross.

Never one to hide away in his study, Conan Doyle was quick to get involved in local, national, and international affairs. His concern with British politics led him to write letters, articles, and occasionally run for office. It also led him to serve in the 2nd Boer War as a medical officer. In February 1900 he sailed to South Africa, where he served as Secretary/Registrar for the Langman Military Hospital in Blomfontein. He wasn’t there long, but by the time he left, in July of that year, he had written articles, a decent portion of his definitive book on the war and, on the steam ship home, met a young journalist, Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who would, although he didn’t realize it, be instrumental in bringing Sherlock Holmes up out of that chasm and making him eternal.

I have always admired people who set out to write biography. When you write fiction, you’re in charge. Of course you write what you see, what you know, what your characters tell you to write…but ultimately, your book is yours to make up as you go along. Historians have to deal with facts (or at least they should), but typically they have a multitude of events, people, and sources to work with. Don’t have the material for one angle? Choose another. Do the Boston Massacre witness accounts conflict?✝  That’s all right–you have room, and you can even make that your thesis. A biographer, however, is limited to the facts that exist about one person in particular. If the source material isn’t there, it’s just not. He can’t make up the facts. He can’t make the person into someone he wasn’t. And when the biographer chooses a limited time in his subject’s life to examine, it can be difficult to piece all of the events from that briefer period together into a cohesive whole, particularly when some years are more eventful than others.

In An Entirely New Country, Duncan achieves this admirably, and the result is a valuable resource, or a nice introduction for anyone who has yet to read a complete biography of Arthur Conan Doyle.  We get a full view of Conan Doyle’s Undershaw years, almost as if we were his nosy next-door neighbor. He’s playing golf again–when will that Hindhead Golf Club be successful? Is that a new car? He surely is a speed-demon. Did you read about his first-class wicket against W.G. Grace? The Rifle Club’s shooting at the range over at Undershaw, perhaps you should join. Who’s that with him now–is it that woman? I wonder what Louise thinks about her. Is it true he’s writing about Sherlock Holmes again? This time, however, the nosy neighbors have plenty of photographs, a bibliography, helpful footnotes and supplemental information about the people in Conan Doyle’s life, such as Charles Frohman and George Edalji. Particularly enjoyable are Duncan’s own, often wry, observations. He looks at his subject with a clear eye. When Conan Doyle comments on a fellow medical officer’s weight (he appears to have disliked the man), for example, Duncan points out that in photographs, the gentleman looks to have had the same type build as Conan Doyle himself.  He provides interesting speculations on individuals’ feelings, motives, and events, and is careful to identify them as such.✝✝ What, for instance, did Strand editor Herbert Greenhough Smith think when he realized that Collier’s Norman Hapgood managed to get the stories he’d been angling for for years? Was it printable?  Duncan also doesn’t succumb to the biographer’s temptation to take his subject’s side in every matter. Everyone can acknowledge that it had to have been very difficult to live with the changes tuberculosis forced upon his family life, but not all of Conan Doyle’s coping strategies were beyond reproach and, as Duncan points out, some of his actions caused pain (to which he seemed oblivious) for both his immediate and extended family. Duncan is also perceptive in pointing out that, while Doyle’s marriage to Miss Leckie, after the period of mourning for his wife had been fulfilled, brought him happiness and a new beginning, it did not do the same for his children. Because life, after all, is not a story, and we don’t get an Empty House.

Don’t faint again, Watson, but Undershaw is in danger, and we’ll need more than brandy!

That being said, An Entirely New Country was written with a resurrection in mind. As most of you no doubt know, Undershaw, now the only extant home of Conan Doyle, has fallen into a state of terrible disrepair and is now in danger of being broken up into flats. The Undershaw Preservation Trust has been working tirelessly to prevent this, and to find a way to preserve Undershaw as a single dwelling. For more information on the Trust, its goals, the legal battle it faces against development, and ways in which you can support its efforts, please see  Alistair Duncan has also pledged that 50% of the net royalties of An Entirely New Country should go to the efforts to save Undershaw.

In my own efforts to support the UPT and fill your bookshelves, I’ll send a copy of An Entirely New Country to the first two commenters. Already have a copy? You can have your choice of one of Duncan’s other books, or an item from the UPT shop of equivalent value. An Entirely New Country is available on the Baker Street Babes and MX websites, the Save Undershaw shop (on the Trust’s website) and, of course, your usual online booksellers.

Star Rating: 5 out of 5 “This is a wonderful book that gets it right.” 


*As we mentioned in the last review, Sherlock Holmes had quite a few imitators, and some predecessors. Fans could get their deduction fixes from Poe’s Dupin, Gaboriau’s Lecoq, Barr’s Eugene Valmont, Grant Allen’s Miss Cayley, and many, many others.

**First promoted by German physician Hermann Brehmer in mid-century. The family’s efforts to prolong Louise’s life were successful; however, she eventually succumbed to the disease on July 4, 1906.

***Honestly, some of us should have that embroidered on a pillow and displayed prominently in our sitting rooms.

✝Ohhhh, they do. To an insane degree.

✝✝One thing he does not speculate on is some kind of murder conspiracy or any ill-will between Conan Doyle and Bertram Fletcher Robinson. Duncan’s evidence that the men remained on good terms throughout their friendship is conclusive.


Filed under Alistair Duncan, Bertram Fletcher Robinson, Boer War, Doyle Family, Five-star reviews, Holmes in Theatre, MX Publishing, Non-fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Spiritualism, The Great War, Undershaw