The Jan WHIMSEY Award (Whimsical Humour
is My Speciality, Enjoy Yourself!)
In 2007, Al Gregory, BSI, ASH, established The Jan WHIMSEY Award in memory of his wife, Jan Stauber, ASH. Each January the Muse author who has written the most whimsical piece published during the preceding Muse volume year (i.e., from the December to September issues) is announced and honored. The award, a handsome certificate and a check for $221.17, is presented at the William Gillette Luncheon and the winner’s name is published in the special “Birthday Edition” of the Muse distributed during the birthday weekend in New York City.
To quote Al: “Articles are to be judged solely on the basis of whimsicality. Scholarship, erudition, logical argumentation, historical discoveries, clever puzzles, etc., are irrelevant. ASH-ness and BSI-ness are irrelevant.” All articles, verse, etc., appearing in the Muse will be eligible for the award except the entries in the annual Birthday Challenge. In addition to the Muse editorial staff of Susan Diamond, Evelyn Herzog, and Marilynne McKay, Jan’s dear friends Francine Kitts and Sue Vizoskie also serve as judges. Judges, of course, are not eligible to win. Many, many thanks go to Al for establishing and funding this award!
2016 Winner (Article published 2014, announced in Jan 2016)
Steve Mason for the radio play “When Death Comes A’ Callin.’” The Serpentine Muse, Vol. 31 No. 1, 2014, pp 8-13.
WHEN DEATH COMES A’ CALLIN’
(a radio play with thanks and apologies to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Woody Allen)
HOLMES: Lestrade, I congratulate you on the successful completion of a most interesting case.
LESTRADE: While I will take the official and public credit, I must admit you are the only reason we were able to capture Maxwell.
HOLMES: Fair enough.
LESTRADE: Holmes, one point still confuses me. Why did you keep referring to the different lengths the candles had burned?
HOLMES: To keep everyone confused.
LESTRADE: Simply brilliant.
WATSON: (under his breath) Starting to get tired of that phrase…
There’s a knock on the door.
HOLMES: Who could that be at this late hour and in such hellish weather?
WATSON: Are you expecting a client?
HOLMES: No, but it would not surprise me if it is some lost soul who has lost his cat or a wronged woman seeking revenge.
HOLMES: Halloa, please enter.
ENTER a caped figure, wearing a robe and black hood
HOLMES: Pray, who comes to our door on such a bleak night?
DEATH: Death. May I please take a chair? It was not the smoothest hansom ride here. Not a lot of padding on my backside to smooth out the cobblestones.
LESTRADE: I’m sorry. I must have misunderstood. Who did you say you were?
DEATH: Death. D-E-A-T-H. No Christian name, no given name, just DEATH!!
LESTRADE: Death? What type of name is that?
DEATH: What’s wrong with you three? Do you not recognize the black costume and whitened face, as well as the bony fingers?
WATSON: How do we know you aren’t an imposter?
DEATH: Is it All Hallows Eve? Does this look like a cheap costume?
DEATH: Then I’m Death, and I’m here for Dr. Watson.
WATSON: Are you injured? Is that why you came?
DEATH: Sorry. I came for you, not to you.
WATSON: Is this some practical joke?
DEATH: Someone would have a sick sense of humor. Let’s see…Dr. James (or John) Hamish Watson, 221b Baker Street. Unless headquarters messed up the run sheet, which is highly unlikely, you’re it.
WATSON: ME!!! What do you want with me?
DEATH: You’re a little on the slow side, aren’t you? What do you think I want?
WATSON: But I am in perfect health. I walk every day…
DEATH: …and you smoke like a chimney, drink like a fish, and treat every meal as if it’s your last.
LESTRADE: What if he is not ready to go?
DEATH: He doesn’t get a choice. I have a schedule. This is my first job; I don’t want to mess it up.
WATSON: I haven’t finished reading the latest Clark Russell story.
DEATH: Trust me; the ending isn’t that exciting. You ready to go?
WATSON: Go where?
DEATH: The other side. To the white light. Take your choice.
LESTRADE: How do we know you are who you say you are?
DEATH: Who do I look like, Jack the Ripper or Prince Edward? Sorry to disappoint you.
LESTRADE: Based on the pictures in books, I would have assumed you would be a little taller.
DEATH: I’m average height for my weight. I watch what I eat.
LESTRADE: Strange, you look a little like Watson.
DEATH: Who should I look like? I am his death.
WATSON: Any chance we could work out something where I don’t have to go? At least give me a day or two.
DEATH: I don’t think so. The newspapers are predicting sunshine tomorrow. I can’t work in that weather.
HOLMES: Would you get extra points if you brought in two or three for the price of one?
DEATH: What do you mean?
HOLMES: Just this…I propose a small game between you and me. If I win, you leave with no one and do not darken our doorstep for a period of at least twenty years.
DEATH: And if I win?
HOLMES: Watson, Lestrade, and I will voluntarily accompany you.
DEATH: And what will we play? I’m a chess champion and play a mean game of gin.
LESTRADE: Can we back up a second? How did I get involved?
HOLMES: Not now, Lestrade. I suggest we have a simple game of riddles. The first one who cannot appropriately answer the other’s question loses.
DEATH: I shouldn’t agree to this.
HOLMES: You won’t regret it.
DEATH: I already do.
LESTRADE: Can we put a little money on this? Just to make it interesting?
WATSON: I would say it’s interesting enough already.
DEATH: Let’s get started. Since I agreed to this farce, I should be allowed to ask the first riddle.
HOLMES: By all means.
DEATH: Brothers and sisters I have none, but this man’s father is my father’s son. Who is the man?
HOLMES: This is a simple one. The man is my son. My turn.
HOLMES: The poor have it, the rich need it, and if you eat it, you die.
DEATH: Nothing. Time to make it a little more difficult?
WATSON: So where do we go when it is all over with?
DEATH: We? You just fall down onto the ground. Lights out. End of story.
WATSON: Does it hurt?
DEATH: Nope. Over in a snap of the fingers. Which creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?
WATSON: I think I know the answer to this one.
DEATH: No fair. This is just between Mr. Holmes and myself.
HOLMES: Watson, do not fear. It is man. He crawls on all fours as an infant, walks on two feet as an adult, and then walks with a cane when he is aged.
LESTRADE: Does Watson have to fall onto the floor? Can he lie on a sofa or his bed when it happens?
DEATH: No. His script states he is to fall onto the floor. Quit trying to distract me. I’m trying to concentrate.
HOLMES: Let’s speed this up. What can circumvent the globe while staying in a corner?
DEATH: A stamp. What gets wetter and wetter the more it dries?
HOLMES: A towel. What kind of room has no doors, windows or any other type of exit?
DEATH: A mushroom. Which word in the dictionary is always spelled incorrectly?
HOLMES: The word “incorrectly.”
WATSON: Why must it be on the floor? I would like to go in my bed.
DEATH: Can’t promise. I’ll see what I can do.
HOLMES: If you have me, you want to share me. If you share me, you haven’t got me.
DEATH: A secret. What gets broken without being held?
HOLMES: A promise. Feed me and I live; give me a drink and I die.
LESTRADE: What did you mean this is your first job?
DEATH: What does it sound like?
WATSON: Are you saying that nobody ever went before?
DEATH: Sure. But I didn’t take them. Whose turn is it?
DEATH: Take off my skin. I won’t cry, but you will!
HOLMES: An onion. What has one eye but cannot see?
DEATH: A needle. What is always coming but never arrives?
HOLMES: Tomorrow. I fear this is going to go on for a long time.
LESTRADE: You know you’re not as scary-looking as I pictured.
DEATH: Why would I want to be? One look, a scream, there goes the ticker—not much sport in that.
(To Holmes) Let’s each throw out our hardest riddle. That should end this battle. I will go first again.
WATSON: That hardly seems fair.
DEATH: Don’t make me mad. You would not like an angry death.
LESTRADE: Touchy, aren’t you?
DEATH: You question my height, my reason to be here, not scary enough, and then say I’m touchy?
DEATH: Apology accepted. When the day after tomorrow is yesterday, then today will be as far from Sunday as that day was which was today when the day before yesterday was tomorrow.
HOLMES: The day is Sunday, where you started.
LESTRADE: Good job, Holmes. See here…ask him what’s in your pocket.
HOLMES: That sounds vaguely familiar. It’s been done before.
DEATH: If you win, what I will do for the next twenty years?
WATSON: Take an extended holiday, get a hobby, entertain at children’s parties; not my worry.
HOLMES: Mary’s mum has four children. The first child is named Winter. The second Summer. The third Autumn. What is the name of the fourth child?
DEATH: The simple answer is Spring. This must be a trick question.
WATSON: Your time is just about up.
DEATH: Don’t rush me; I almost have it. Could it be the number of letters in the name? Or have to do with the months?
LESTRADE: Give up; you’re not going to get it.
(Sound of Death banging his head on the wall)
DEATH: I give up…it makes no sense to me. I’m going with Spring.
WATSON: Is the answer August?
LESTRADE: Or maybe December?
HOLMES: As always, all of you heard but did not observe. Did you not hear the first line of the riddle, “Mary’s mum has four children”? The other three were named after seasons. The fourth child was Mary.
DEATH: That’s too easy.
WATSON: Find another catchphrase.
HOLMES: Please close the door on your way out. We’ll see you in twenty years. I’ll have some bees for you to meet then.
2015 Winner (Articles published in Vol 30, 2014, announced in Jan 2015)
Jenn Eaker: “My Version of Events.” The Serpentine Muse Vol. 30, No. 3, 2014, pp 15-16.
MY VERSION OF EVENTS
My name is Slim. I’m a “swamp adder.” My master, Dr. Grimesby Roylott, brought me to England from my native India to be his companion. This is the version of events as I remember it.
It all started with the mysterious death of my master’s stepdaughter, Julia. One day I heard her complaining to her twin sister Helen of being awakened on a regular basis during the night by whistling. I don’t know what Julia was talking about because I’m right next door and slept just fine. Then BAM! One night Julia screamed bloody murder, stumbled into her sister in the hallway, shrieked, “It was the band! The speckled band!” And dropped dead.
Next thing I know, my master starts remodeling the house—which, to be honest, seemed a bit weird—and moved Helen into her deceased sister’s bedroom. Again, weird, but I didn’t put much thought into his motives. All I hoped was Helen would be a heavier sleeper than her sister, as I was right next door and didn’t like to be disturbed from my slumber. A snake needs his sleep, dammit!
Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Not two days after moving into the new bedroom, Helen awakened with a start and spent the rest of the night pacing and muttering to herself. All she could talk about was how she was going to get to London on the earliest train and ask Sherlock Holmes for help. I had heard about this fellow Holmes before, having read some of his adventures as written by his companion, Dr. John Watson. But I had no clue what he could do for her and, frankly, I didn’t care. I wanted to sleep, and Helen was keeping me awake with her disturbances!
I finally drifting back asleep when my master woke me up hurrying around the room! He was shouting about how he couldn’t trust Helen and needed to follow wherever she was going. Between that horrid cheetah, that stupid baboon, my new neighbor, and my master, I was NEVER going to get a good night’s sleep.
Anyway, when Helen returned later that day, I had decided an afternoon nap would be the best cure to my poor night’s sleep. But before I could settle into my nest, I heard two unfamiliar voices moving about the house, inside and out. So I tucked myself away hoping everyone would just leave me alone. Naturally my master’s bedroom turned into Waterloo Station. I remained hidden, trying to sleep through the racket of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson rifling through my master’s room. Normally I would have protested at the intrusion, but I was just too tired to care.
Then there was finally silence. Wonderful peace! I blissfully fell into a slumber, dreaming about my homeland. I was basking in the warm sun of my memories when all of a sudden I was awakened by a swift whack on my head. What the hell?! I woke up with a start to find a mysterious object being swung at me. I quickly moved in the only direction I saw, up along a rope. How did I get out of my nest? Why was I slithering up a rope? Why was I being hit?
It took a moment for all the pieces to fall into place. I wasn’t in my master’s room any more. I was in the bedroom next door, but I didn’t know how I got there. But I was now very awake and very angry due to the abuse I was having thrown at me. I moved as fast as I could up the rope and was relieved to find at the end a vent that miraculously led back to my master’s room.
As I crawled through the vent, in a moment of what can only be described as pure clarity, it dawned on me: I was the speckled band Julia screamed about! I must have sleep-slithered into her room and bit her. I had killed her!
With that realization, I immediately knew who the true villain was. I flew through the vent into my master’s room and took my frustrations out on him! But before I could enjoy my moment of victory against evil, a leash was swiftly put around my head, by someone whom I could only assume was Sherlock Holmes, and I was put back in my home until the authorities came to take me away.
But I swear I didn’t know what I was doing! My master was the one who made me commit the terrible murder. He tricked me into that bedroom knowing full well I sleep-slithered. I was used, USED, I TELL YOU! And if it wasn’t for that pesky, meddling consulting detective, I wouldn’t be here in snake pit prison. I should be rewarded for killing the real villain!
Cursssssssssssssse Sherlock Holmes!!
2014 Winner (Articles published in Vol 29, 2013, announced in Jan 2014)
Mickey Fromkin and Susan Rice for “The Day of Reichenbach I and II.” The Serpentine Muse, Vol. 29, No. 3, 2013, pp 14-15.
THE DAY OF REICHENBACH I
To quote the great Dr. Muffy,
“Hooray, hooray, the first of May!
Outdoor f**king starts today!”
But that was three days ago, so never mind. Here’s another rhyme instead:
Sherlockians are in a quandary,
Between a hard place and a rock:
On every fourth of May
Uncertain if to say,
“This is the day of Reichenbock.”
For in locations more Germanic,
Or Yiddish, or near Scottish loch,
On this the fourth of May,
We’d hear the natives say,
“This is the day of Reichenboch.”
How did our Holmes survive destruction?
Of theories we have no lack.
But on this fourth of May
Not many people say,
“This is the day of Reichenback.”
And while we laud the great portrayals
Of Rathbone, Brett, and Cumberbatch,
On ANY fourth of May
Not one of us would say,
“This is the day of Reichenbatch.”
I stood upon a narrow ledge,
More fit by far for hawk than man.
The Falls roared opposite the edge;
At last the stand-off grim began.
I knew the message from the Hof
Was false, planned just to make some room
For schemes of the accursed Prof,
Whose hope it was to seal my doom.
He gave me just a moment’s grace
To tell good Watson of my plight.
I left the note beneath my case,
Before we squared off for our fight.
Moriarty whirled, his hands were claws,
His sneering face was cold and hard.
‘Twas time to test Baritsu’s laws –
At once I crouched and raised my guard.
I see the whites of his wild eyes,
Then just before his rush he cries,
“The fourth of May! The fourth of May!
Outdoor dunking starts today!”
2013 Winner (Articles published in Vol 28, 2012, announced in Jan 2013)
Melinda Caric, ASH for “An Open Apology to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.” The Serpentine Muse Vol. 28, No 3, 2012, pp 14-15.
AN OPEN APOLOGY TO SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
First, I’d like to apologize on behalf of all of your fans, going as far back as Sidney Paget, for making Holmes so damn good looking, thereby guaranteeing his continued popularity despite your intentions to the contrary. I know you had a different, less attractive, and much dorkier hero in mind, and we’re all so very ashamed of ourselves for hiring artists and actors who gave us someone nice to look at.
I’m sorry for the derivative fiction, both good and bad, furthering the adventures of two men of whom you have long since grown weary. We honestly couldn’t help ourselves. We took your characters to places and put them in situations where you no longer had any semblance of control over them. Fighting Nazis, escaping velociraptors, and being humiliated at the end of a dominatrix’s whip are all things you probably didn’t imagine we could come up with, but we’re a pretty resourceful group. To say nothing of the more risqué pieces of fan fiction out there (of which I have only heard rumors as I would never read such things myself).
I’m sorry that in 2009, 7-Eleven used the images of an ex-drug addict and a noted philanderer, costumed as your most beloved characters, to promote their 99-cent special on what they called “Go-Go Taquitos.”
I’m sorry your literary genius ultimately became an iPhone app wherein players can manipulate the bodies of your immortal creations with a simple swipe of their Dorito-stained fingertips.
I’m sorry that little more than one hundred years after the fact, your eye for detail and rather eloquent description of period dress trickled down into deerstalkers and curved pipes, eventually winding up in that cesspool known as Halloween Costume for Women, where it came to be sold online under the name “Sexy Detective.”
I’m sorry that I never read The White Company. I know it would make you really happy if I did, and I meant to, but I just kept re-reading The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans instead. I don’t know why.
I’m so sorry about the Taquitos.
Last but not least, I need to apologize for the fact that it seems that there are those who feel that Undershaw would be better if it were developed, divided, and destroyed. I want to assure you that despite the changes your characters have endured by our hands, we also recognize that some things are best preserved exactly as they are.
Please join me in raising your glass to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. My apologies, as you may have guessed, are insincere ones at best, since Holmes and Watson have proven themselves targets far too delicious to resist. To take a crack at two of the most beloved icons of literature is a temptation few have been able to withstand. It is a continuing testament to the storytelling mastery of Arthur Conan Doyle that they are still very much men of the present, and as relevant now as they were in 1895.
2012 Winner (Articles published in Vol 27, 2011, announced in Jan 2012)
Karen Murdock for “Do You Write Like Arthur Conan Doyle?” The Serpentine Muse Vol. 27, No 4, 2011, pp 16-17.
DO YOU WRITE LIKE ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE?
It’s a bad combination—the seduction of new technology and the warm inner glow of egotism. Taken together, they can make the common sense you were born with get up and leave the room.
Take the hot new internet website, “I Write Like” (IWL.me). Please. It’s alluringly simple. You cut and paste a few paragraphs of English prose—any prose will do but egotism demands that it be yours—into the analyzer box and click the “Analyze” button. Without a moment’s hesitation, “I Write Like” processes your prose and tells you “which famous writer you write like.”
The site is the work of a young Russian software programmer named Dmitry Chestnykh. The program he wrote breaks prose down into simple computer code, analyzing word and sentence length to make its instant—and invariably flattering—assessment. Chestnykh, who apparently couples an appealing desire to please with entirely too much time on his hands, uploaded works from fifty of history’s greatest English writers to produce the IWL site.
You cannot lose with this program. IWL will never tell you that you write like a semi-literate sheepherder or like a roomful of students in the second week of an English as a Second Language class. No, you are a literary genius every time. No wonder the site is so popular.
It is irresistible, and the moment I heard about IWL, I surfed over to the site. Just as a test, I plugged in the first paragraph of the last article I published in The Serpentine Muse. I clicked “Analyze.” The all-wise, all-knowing website instantly rendered its judgment. It told me I write like Arthur Conan Doyle.
My little Sherlockian heart went pit-a-pat. My native common sense leaped up from the sofa and dived out the window. Showers of glittering confetti rained down upon my ego. For a moment—okay, maybe three or four moments—I actually felt that I could and did write like my literary hero.
Then my native common sense returned, a bit battered and covered with dead leaves and dirty snow. It was in a surly mood and simply growled two words—“Sez who??”—before collapsing on the sofa, eyeing me askance, and falling asleep.
So I decided to put the algorithms of IWL to a test. I plugged in pages from five other randomly-selected Sherlockian articles I have published. IWL told me, consecutively, that I write like: Charles Dickens, Vladimir Nabokov, David Foster Wallace, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Ursula K. LeGuin.
My Cloyingly-Insincere-Flattery Detector began to hum, then to ring, then to shriek. My native common sense woke up and smirked at me knowingly.
I plugged in two paragraphs from Moby Dick. IWL said that Herman Melville wrote like Daniel Defoe. Two paragraphs from Moll Flanders revealed that Defoe wrote like Jonathan Swift.
I took some more modern examples. Two paragraphs from Virginia Wolff’s To the Lighthouse revealed that Wolff wrote like James Joyce. Two paragraphs from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man produced the conclusion that Joyce actually wrote like Vladimir Nabokov. When I plugged in paragraphs from Tender is the Night, IWL told me that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote like either Vladimir Nabokov or David Foster Wallace or Mary Shelley, depending upon which paragraphs one used—and these were successive paragraphs, mind you.
My native common sense, who had been standing behind me watching all this, patted me on the shoulder, not unsympathetically, I thought. I logged off “I Write Like” and began to type this article.
A large percentage of the readers of this journal have probably not read my article—scintillating and thought-provoking though it undoubtedly is, and downright Nabokovian in its wit and sophistication—even this far. They are all over on IWL.me seeking flattering assessments of their literary efforts.
So, dear readers, do I write like Arthur Conan Doyle? As Edgar Allan Poe once wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” Or maybe that was James Fenimore Cooper.
2011 Winners (Articles published in Vol 26, 2010, announced in Jan 2011)
Elaine and Joseph Coppola for “The Fayetteville Fairies.” The Serpentine Muse Vol. 26, No 2, 2011, pp 18-19.
THE FAYETTEVILLE FAIRIES
Joseph and Elaine Coppola
“Should the incidents here narrated, and the photographs attached, hold their own against the criticism which they will excite, it is no exaggeration to say that they will mark an epoch in human
thought. I put them and all the evidence before the public for examination and judgment.”
So wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for the December 1920 issue of the Strand magazine, and yet the statement is very apropos for our story.
Perhaps it was the windstorm, in late June with winds coming from the West, the general direction of that great Spiritualist capital Lily Dale in western New York State. Perhaps it was the hospitality of the new bird feeder that we had put out that very month. Or perhaps it was the low-frequency electronic demonstration that Joe was preparing in our basement for his students. Perhaps it was a combination of these factors. Maybe the time was just right…
Joe first saw them flittering around the bird feeder on gossamer wings. He had just come up from his lab in the basement and, after his eyes took a moment to adjust to the light, they were there. The goldfinches and blue jays seemed at home with them, the scene was idyllic, a pastoral remembrance of a faraway time. He ran for his camera, but they were gone when he returned.
The following day Joe was ready for them and snapped Photo 1 (above). He called Elaine, and both marveled at the grace and beauty of the creatures. They were at ease in flight as well as when perched and communing with their feathered friends. Joe kept his camera close to him at all times after that. For a month, Elaine and Joe watched them come and go, feeling fortunate to have experienced this remarkable Theosophic event, never expecting what was to come…
It was on a Tuesday evening, as Elaine and Joe sat reading the latest Steve Hockensmith novel to each other, that Joe noticed a flicker, a shadow in the light. Lo and behold, hovering over Elaine’s shoulder was one of the creatures. Joe grabbed his camera and snapped Photo 2 (above, right). The flash did not disturb the winged intruder as it continued to peer rudely over Elaine’s shoulder.
As the days went on, more and more of them appeared in our home. We could not determine how they were
getting in. They took liberties—our liquor stock diminished; yesterday’s deviled eggs disappeared from the refrigerator! Books and knickknacks fell from shelves as fairy-sized landing areas were cleared. The unexpected buzzing around our heads was like oversized mosquitoes! And there was continual singing in high-pitched fairy voices, along with lively dancing—do fairies never sleep??
The crisis came to a head as Joe was preparing dinner late in the summer. As he was buzzed and taken by surprise, he grabbed the nearest object, a frying pan, and went into pursuit! This ectoplasmic escapee from a higher plane had sampled the soup just once too often. Fortunately, Elaine arrived home from work at that moment, and cooler heads prevailed. Photo 3 (above, left) was taken by one of our uninvited visitors, with Joe’s camera!!!
A parley was arranged—Photo 4 (right). Ground rules were established that resulted in considerations and a certain sharing of resources in order to make our dwelling comfortable to all. We lived with the fairies for the remainder of the summer and through the fall. As the cold weather set in, their appearances became more infrequent, and we have not seen them for some days now. Perhaps they migrate or hibernate? We do not know but, when spring comes, we will look for them. The house seems emptier this winter. As we walk around the house thinking about these events, we are struck by the wonder of it all, and the more pragmatic question: Did Doyle ever write anything about how to remove fairy droppings?
2010 Winner (Articles published in Vol 25, 2009, announced in Jan 2010)
Philip Shreffler, “Toast to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.” The Serpentine Muse Vol. 25, No 4, 2010, pp 22-23.
A TOAST TO SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
Philip A. Shreffler
This year, 2009, is held to be remarkable because it is the sesquicentennial of the birth of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—although they really didn’t call him “sir” when he was born, unless they were awfully deferential in the midwifery racket in those days. Now it is commonly believed that to celebrate the births of great men and women is to commemorate their lives and accomplishments, and I suppose there’s some sense in it. After all, had Sir Arthur not been born, someone else would have had to write the Sherlock Holmes stories—say, Dr. Watson or somebody. But as far as being born is concerned, that’s not such an august accomplishment. I’ve done it myself.
No, what we celebrate here tonight is Sir Arthur’s involvement in the life of the Master of Baker Street—whether the former were creator of the latter or amanuensis of another who chronicled the latter’s adventures. And considering things from that perspective, the mathematics are a bit more complex than simply subtracting 1859 from 2009 (though that was challenging enough that I had to do it on a scrap of paper just to make sure I got 150 and that the word “sesquicentennial,” which I also looked up for safety’s sake, was correct).
You see, what makes better sense is what Sherlockians spend a lot of their time doing when looking for something to celebrate. That is to consider significant dates and events regarding Sherlock Holmes (and we can do so here with the assumption that Sir Arthur tagged along for the ride). Now chronologists seem to agree that Holmes and Watson met and investigated their first case together in 1881. 2009 minus 1881 (I’ve gone to a calculator now; it’s simpler) equals 128, which is certainly the multiple of something, but doesn’t even have a respectable whole-number square root. That adventure, STUD, was published in 1887, which date, subtracted from 2009, yields 122, provocative because it is 221 in reverse. But do remember that Holmes’s address is 221B. Assigning the number 2 for the letter B, as one naturally would, results in 2,212, not very useful even if we reverse it again to read 2,122, and it’s giving me a headache just to read this. Now if Sherlock Holmes had died in 1976, assuming that he was born in 1854, then he would have been exactly 122. But he didn’t, and this isn’t 1976 anyway.
The most logical course to pursue, then, is to consider what Holmes adventure was published in 1909 and see if we can squeeze at least a centennial out of all this. However, this results in the curious incident of the author who did nothing during writing-time. BRUC was published in The Strand in December of 1908, followed by DEVI in December of 1910. Follow me closely here, ladies and gentlemen: No Holmes story was published in 1909.
And I’ll tell you why. This is clearly a part of the sinister and convoluted Da Doyle Code, a plot so fiendishly clever that Sherlockians have been utterly unaware of it—until now. Sir Arthur built into the publication dates of the Holmes stories absolute inevitabilities that would have unprincipled even Heisenberg. By giving 1909 a miss, Sir Arthur deliberately left us with nothing to mark with alarums and flourishes in 2009 except the sesquicentennial of his birth, drawing our attention quite away from Sherlock Holmes—as was always his wish before he and his ectoplasm oozed off to the spirit world.
And so, Sir Arthur, you’ve got us. A toast to you at 150!
THE ADVENTURE OF HOLMES’ SHORTEST CASE
I have mentioned before how Mr. Sherlock Holmes had decorated our rooms in Baker Street by shooting a patriotic “V.R.” into the wall with his revolver. Early one morning in the April of ’91, he had just started inventing a new design for the wall by the entry to our chambers when the door burst open and a florid, red-faced man rushed in shouting, “Mr. Holmes! I am accused of…”
This was all he said, however, for as he entered he ran directly into the path of the first bullet from Holmes’s hair-trigger revolver and fell to the floor dead.
There was a clatter of feet upon the stairs, and soon Inspector Lestrade had entered our rooms, followed by two constables. He quickly took in the scene and knelt down to examine the body lying face down on the floor.
Holmes started to speak, but Lestrade interrupted him when he turned the body over. “Mr. Holmes! This is amazing! I came to ask you for help in locating Selby, of the Notting Hill murder case, and you’ve got him already.” As he rose, Holmes again started to speak, but Lestrade held up his hand. “No need to tell me; it was self-defense, of course. Selby must have attacked you when he found out you were on to him. He knew there was no hope for him then. Well, we’ll take him away,” he said, indicating to the two constables that they should pick up the body, “but I don’t know how you do it, sir, I swear I don’t. You’ve never done anything better. We’d only just started after him ourselves.”
We could hear him talking to the constables as he went down the stairs. “The man’s a wonder. He solved the case before we even told him a word about it. I hope Dr. Watson writes up this one. I’d like to find out how he knew. . .” His voice faded away.
Holmes and I looked at each other. “I suppose, Watson,” Holmes said, “it is possible the man was guilty. Our police force is not always incorrect.” He thought for a moment. “Still, perhaps it would be just as well if you did not give your public the details of this case.”
“A VISIT TO 104 BERKELEY SQUARE “
(With apologies to Vincent Starrett)*
Vi! who never lived ‘neath Bertie’s iron grip.
How very hard she seemed to transmogrify
That age before the Baron’s acid trip.
But still the game is love for her, demure,
Attuned to overlook his checkered past;
Bertie is Bertie, yet she’ll make him pure,
But those things her heart accepts leave all aghast.
A yellow fog swirls past unbelieving eyes
As pages turn, she reads his leather book.
An innocent splashing through his alibis,
The ghastly litanies fail her second look.
Here, though a heart is broke, these two survive.
May Vi find love ′afore she reaches ninety-five.
A Canonical Number Conundrum
Unaccustomed as I am to writing of poems,
It tickled my fancy this time
To honor the great Mr. Sherlock Holmes
By playing “the game” in rhyme.
It’s a number game, you’ll realize,
With a rhythmical, whimsical bent;
And I hope an enjoyable exercise
As the clues I begin to present.
Of the various numbers the Canon contains,
One number stands out in my mind.
Remove the impossible, whatever remains;
You know the rest of the line.
As Sherlock would say in his masterly voice,
“You know my methods; apply them.”
Focus on details to make the right choice.
The rest of this poem will supply them.
It’s the minutes remaining upon the old clock
At Victoria Station that day;
The number of spatters of mud on her frock
That gave Stoner’s dogcart away.
Old Frankland had lawsuits; the number of which
Were the same as the number of guys
Birdy Edwards amazed when he finished his switch
And the number of Drebber’s young wives.
The years Ronder lived at Mrs. Merrilow’s house
And wouldn’t reveal her face;
The years Mr. Rucastle spent with his spouse
At their Copper Beeches place.
Sherlock had this many different schemes
For viewing a telegram;
Stuffed in his pocket, or so it seems,
Cadogan had this many plans.
The foolscap sheets Jabez took to write
Numbered as many as these.
His carelessness led to his oversight;
He should have examined Clay’s knees.
At Briarbrae Hall, it’s the number of rooms;
Mr. Shafter charged this much in rent.
It’s the depth of the pit that formed Brunton’s tomb,
It’s the cocaine solution percent.
It’s the number plus ten of steps going aloft
To their sitting room cozy and warm.
It’s the number of years between Holmes and Mycroft,
His brother of corpulent form.
Surely, by now, you’ve made a guess,
Though it’s a shocking habit truly.
What number appears to you out of this mess?
You’ve had ample clues, unduly.
If you think it’s number nine, you blunder,
Neither six, nor eight, nor ten;
If you haven’t got it yet, I wonder,
If you’re really a Sherlockian.
I’ll tell you this; it’s not eleven,
Nor five, nor four, nor two;
Of course, you’ve got it—number seven!
My deerstalker’s off to you!