Holmes Is Where the Heart Is

Long before Jerry Garcia picked up his first banjo or Spock was a glint in Gene Roddenberry's eye, there were Sherlockians--or Holmesians, as they prefer to be called in England. A cultist's cult dedicated to good, if somewhat macabre, clean fun, the fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective Sherlock Holmes are as disparate as they are dedicated.

"I've tried to figure out if there's a thread that ties everyone together, but there isn't--unless it's just the interest in mysteries," says Dennis Hogarth, "Chief Surgeon" of Dr. Watson's Neglected Patients--known to the lay world as the Sherlock Holmes Society of Denver. "At our dinners, you have no idea what the occupation is of the person sitting across from you. And it's a really friendly group--which is surprising for a literary society."

The Denver group's title is borne of necessity--Hogarth says no one outside the flock would have any idea what the Neglected Patients were all about. Those in the know, however, are overseen by a body called the Medical Board, which includes a Chief Surgeon, Staff Surgeon, Transcriber, Bursar and Interns in the governing roles. But that's all in fun.

By definition, a Sherlockian is someone "interested in the life and times of Sherlock Holmes and the 56 short stories and four books Conan Doyle wrote about him--we call it the canon," Hogarth says. "True scholars know Sherlock Holmes backwards and frontwards," he adds, but it's not a prerequisite. To be a member, you don't have to know what Holmes kept in his weskit pocket or what color handkerchief Watson used to blow his blustery nose. You don't have to know anything about Conan Doyle's deductive detective, though it helps if you have a desire to learn.

Not that the society doesn't count any serious Sherlockian pundits among its fold. Not only does membership boast a local fellow who curates his own collection of 20,000 Holmes-related items, an internationally known Holmes bibliographer and a late member who willed the society a Sherlockian library of out-of-print treasures, radio scripts and other reference materials, but it also includes scientists, prosecutors, doctors and attorneys within its well-educated legions, about 150 strong.

Hogarth is proud that the society, a nonprofit, is one of the largest and most active of its kind in the country. Essential to its popularity, he says, is its educational aspect. Several public lectures on subjects ranging from secret codes to criminology are scheduled by the group each year. "We may have the only program of this kind in the country," Hogarth enthuses. "I'm not sure about Japan. Don't laugh--they're nuts about Sherlock Holmes in Japan. We don't know if they have an educational program like ours, but there's nothing in England, Canada or the U.S."

Seven members also moonlight with another nostalgic Denver fraternity, the Radio Historical Society of Colorado. As a result of that connection, the two groups have already staged one radio play of a Holmes mystery, The Final Solution, using amateur actors combined with both taped and live sound effects. The result was a small but pleasing success. Thursday, they'll stage a reprise performance for the public.

"You can go and shut your eyes and use your imagination to take you into the story," says Linda Rex, a novice society member and co-director of the play. She supervises the actors and reading of the script; JoAnn Bantin of RHSC coordinates the technical crew, a job more complicated than you'd think. The actors sit in two rows of chairs, getting up and walking to a microphone during speaking parts, while the effects machines and mixers are lined up on tables to either side. Hogarth, who helps with sound, says, "It requires more concentration than a regular theater production. Our first rehearsal with live sound effects was hysterical--things happened out of order. We had to learn how to choreograph things." Eventually, though, the waterfall whooshed and the steam train chugged exactly when they were supposed to.

The venerable role of Sherlock Holmes went to DWNP Staff Surgeon Mark Langston, by day a bookseller at the Tattered Cover. Langston is matter-of-fact about his portrayal and says he had no problem getting into such a noble character. His rationale? Perhaps it's the root of why Holmes has such an enduring literary presence across the decades. "It's his style of reasoning, his deductive ability," Langston says. "He's a wise and compassionate man, a force on the side of good against evil."

That's a character with staying power--a bigger-than-life character tailor-made for the melodramatic style of old-time radio. And, as Rex points out, "It's free, and it's a different type of entertainment that might take people back to when they were younger. A lot of people in my age group listened to The Lone Ranger and a lot of those shows before they could see them on TV. It's fun to go back and remember things from when we were kids."

--Susan Froyd

The Final Solution, live radio play, 7:30 p.m. March 19, Church of the Master, 5152 East 17th Avenue, free.

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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd