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Collecting Sherlock Holmes

Books about the world's first consulting detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes have been a consistently popular collecting genre since the appearance of A SCANDAL IN BOHEMIA in the Strand Magazine number for July 1891. Although two of Mr. Holmes's cases were published earlier as short novels (A STUDY IN SCARLET in 1887/88 and THE SIGN OF FOUR in 1890, it was in the short story format that his life and career captured the imagination of the reading public.
Published on 14 Dec. 2009

Phillip Gold


Books about the world’s first consulting detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes have been a consistently popular collecting genre since the appearance of A SCANDAL IN BOHEMIA in the Strand Magazine number for July 1891. Although two of Mr. Holmes’s cases were published earlier as short novels (A STUDY IN SCARLET in 1887/88 and THE SIGN OF FOUR in 1890, it was in the short story format that his life and career captured the imagination of the reading public.

Almost immediately, the names of Sherlock Holmes, and his friend and colleague, Dr. John H. Watson, achieved an almost universal recognition. It has been said that Sherlock Holmes is the most generally recognized name in literature, with the possible exception of Mickey Mouse. I shall refrain from offering any comment on the literary significance of Mr. Mouse, except to note that he has portrayed a Holmes-like character on numerous occasions. I am not aware of any instance in which Mr. Sherlock Holmes assumed the identity of Mickey Mouse, despite his well-known abilities in the art of disguise.

A conservative estimate is that over 40,000 works relating to Sherlock Holmes (books, essays, parodies, etc.) have been published. Would-be completist collectors are advised to consider the words of Otto Penzler: “To amass them requires only three things; fabulous wealth, infinite patience, and divine intervention.” While it is true that much of the work carries a hefty price tag, there is no shortage of suitable material upon which to base a collection, which can be had at quite reasonable prices.

It is doubtful that anyone will ever again approach the sheer size of the collection amassed by the late John Bennett Shaw. Like Professor Moriarty, Shaw sat at the center of a vast web whose vibrations seemed to sense the appearance of anything new in the Sherlockian firmament. Shaw had his minions everywhere, and very little escaped him. But times change. The Sherlockian world has grown to such gigantic proportions that no one collector will ever again so dominate the field.

Book collecting, like philately, has resolved the dilemma by focusing on specialization. Few stamp collectors consider themselves to be completists, and bibliophiles likewise have discovered that specialization is the key to forming a satisfying and unique library. It was once possible to be a collector of mysteries-all mysteries. John Bennett Shaw came as close to being a collector of everything Sherlockian as anyone ever will again.

So, choosing a focus for your collection of Sherlockiana is one way to give it individuality. Are you interested in sports? Travel? Music? The cinema? Children’s literature? Bees? Computers? Chemistry?…You get the picture! Any one of a hundred other topics may serve to provide a focus for your collection.

But what about the classics? Surely there must be some titles essential to any collection. Of course there are the original novels and short stories (known as The Canon) but don’t count on getting all in first editions. You could opt for facsimiles, and some of the reprint editions are of very high quality, but don’t count on firsts. Scholars suggest that if you could have only one edition of The Canon, it should be either William S. Baring- Gould’s THE ANNOTATED SHERLOCK HOLMES, or THE NEW ANNOTATED SHERLOCK HOLMES by Leslie S. Klinger. Both are readily available.

Beyond that, an excellent place to start is with Shaw’s THE BASIC HOLMESIAN LIBRARY, Baker Street Journal (BSI), Vol. 43, No. 4 (New Series), December 1993. This list is known as the BASIC 100 and could be the basis of a superb collection. This list has been updated by Catherine Cooke in COLLECTING SHERLOCKIANA John Bennett Shaw’s Basic Holmesian Library, Rupert Books, Cambridge, 1998. You might also try Otto Penzler’s list of 100 “Indispensibles” found in MURDER INK-THE MYSTERY READER’S COMPANION by Dilys Winn.

Serious collectors will also want THE UNIVERSAL SHERLOCK HOLMES, Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library, Toronto, 1994, by Ronald B. De Waal (4 volumes) as well as A BIBLIOGRAPHY OF A. CONAN DOYLE, Hudson House, Boston, 2000. New Revised Edition.
By Richard Lancelyn Green and John Michael Gibson.

Assembling a collection of cornerstone titles will be a challenging, and perhaps a lifelong endeavor. But don’t fail to inject some of your own interests and perspectives into the process. That’s the secret to assembling a unique and significant collection. But be careful, once you start it will be difficult to stop.

John Bennett Shaw: “Please remember that while I have listed but one hundred, I have not listed several thousand. Good reading and good hunting.”

The article was first published in Sheppard’s Confidential (“Insights”), and is presented here by permission of the Phillip Gold. Thank you very much.

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