May Day on the road

In 1887, an ill-employed medical doctor sat in his empty office and wrote a story as he waited for patients to come. The lights he wrote by were jets of burning gas coming out of the wall with a sconce set on top; the methods of transportation available to him were horse, train, bicycle, or foot; he wrote with an ink pen, and read texts set in hard type. He and everyone else wore multiple layers of wool and covered their heads with hats. Queen Victoria had decades yet to rule her empire, upon which the sun never set.

Into this world, Sherlock Holmes was born. A clever, restless mind casting about for a way to make his mark upon the world, a means of pitting himself against what was wrong with society and set it aright. Lonely, until he is introduced to a potential flat-mate, an injured ex-Army physician.

122 years after that first story was printed, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, that restless mind is still drawing people after him into the battle for justice. Sherlock Holmes is the best-known fictional character ever born, instantly recognized in Seattle and Shanghai and the Sepik River.

122 years after the Christmas Annual, two people wait in an airport in New York, working on their laptop computers and talking to friends on tiny scraps of machinery. They are headed for Chicago and a meeting of men and women drawn together by a fascination for that same restless and impatient mind. Les Klinger, long-time scholar of the Sherlockian canon, author of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes and a number of other scrupulously detailed works of commentary, and Laurie King, who for 15 years has been the author of a series of books that uses that same character as a jumping-off place for her own stories, sit and drink coffee and wait for their flight to be called. In Chicago, they will sit on a pair of stools in front of a roomful of attentive readers of the century-old stories, and play the game of talking about Holmes as if he had been a real person.

Dead humbling, that, to think of an out-of-work doctor’s pen, scratching in his empty waiting room, shaping a world that remains intensely real, 122 years later.

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