One weekend in late January, a group of 300 mystery enthusiasts known as The Baker Street Irregulars visited New York City for an annual celebration of all things Sherlock Holmes. Part of their weekend escapade included an investigation of The Mysterious Bookshop, a niche crime store and member of Zola’s indiepledge. Who are these Irregulars, and what draws them here? Perfect questions for Kevin Zych, investigator extraordinaire.
Scene of the Crime
I approached Mysterious Bookshop with the skepticism and suspicion of Holmes himself (primarily because I acutely noticed that “mysterious,” “crime,” and “murder” were written all over the walls). However, after a short search, I was pleased to find that the store was not only safe, but also a great place to find a new favorite read.
Since its opening 34 years ago, Mysterious has been a go-to source for mystery lovers. Today, it’s one of the few, if not only, niche booksellers left in New York City. Located on Warren Street, it boasts a massive collection of both modern and classic titles, author biographies, parodies, and pastiches. Whether you’re new to the scene or a veteran detective, the knowledgeable staff can help you navigate the shelves to uncover that perfect book.
In the back of Mysterious is where I located my persons of interest for this investigation: The Baker Street Irregulars, standing before an entire wall devoted to Conan Doyle and the enormous amount of canon fanfiction he inspired.
Some of the Baker Street Irregulars appear to be hidden in plain sight. They wear jeans and sweatshirts, and pause from their shopping to check cell phone messages. Others appear more… Sherlockian. They have the Victorian-era suit, the duster coat, the hat, the mustache, even the legal pad and pen where they jot down observations. All of the BSI members, however, are united by their search for their desired book—whether that’s a reprint of an old Sherlock Holmes story or an obscure fanfiction series loosely tied to Conan Doyle’s biography. Their mixture of scholarship and shameless fandom is comical, inspiring, and intimidating—all at the same time.
I approached my first suspect, a man named Phillip Cunningham (alias: Abe Slaney), to inquire more about the society. It was founded in 1934 by Doubleday editor, Christopher Morley, and over time transformed from a 15-person roundtable to an international organization with hundreds of investitures, each of whom has his or her own Sherlockian name (like Mr. Slaney).
But, he explains, this is no ordinary fan club. Admission to the BSI is notoriously difficult: “To get in is really a mystery,” Cunningham says. “The head of the BSI is like the Pope; he’s accountable to no one and he chooses who becomes an Irregular.” Generally, the way to get noticed is to join another Sherlock Holmes club—one with less rigorous admissions standards—and, over time, establish yourself as an authoritative voice on Arthur Conan Doyle literature.
Every year, a lucky batch of new inductees are invited to a dinner where they receive, according to Cunningham, “the thrill of their Sherlockian lifetime.” But asking for admission, Cunningham notes, “is a death sentence” of never earning admission.
As an inquiring detective myself, I had to ask: Does that seriousness take away from the fun and joy of reading Sherlock Holmes? Cunningham says no: “It’s all tongue-in-cheek. It’s very silly. To play the game is to act and write as if Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were real people, and Arthur Conan Doyle was Dr. Watson’s literary agent. So you have to be serious about it…. But that’s the fun. It’s like being a kid.”
Other BSI members agree. “Most of us pretend he’s real,” says Tom Francis of Boston, who has read Sherlock Holmes adventures his whole life. “But by doing that, you then take the stories as if they were all fact, and then there are inconsistencies and you can write an interesting paper.”
“It’s a very fun time,” says Don Hobbs (alias: Inspector Lestrade), who flew in from Dallas, TX just for the weekend. “It’s like the world’s best fraternity…People from all walks of life, from garbage collectors to senators to corporate CEOs. Everybody is on an even playing field because of the love for Sherlock Holmes.”
There are dedicated societies for Jane Austen, Tolkien, Harry Potter, and others, but what is it about the man with the pipe that makes BSI members tick more so than any other character?
The answer varies as much as the membership. For some it is the writing, others the depth given to even minor characters, and many enjoy the historical setting.
“The Victorian period was the last time that man really believed they were going to solve all of their problems,” former electrical engineer and BSI veteran (35 years and running) Donald Norvosky (below) notes. He adds, “I like the scientific method that Sherlock Holmes used so well, which is what I ended up using in my profession.”
For Hobbs/Lestrade, it’s about the deduction: “I’ve always enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes approach to problems and seeing things: being smart, being able to figure out the minutia, and putting it all into the big picture.”
Fleeing the Scene
The BSI members began slipping away to McSorleys—apparently their devotion to the Victorian Era extends to their choice of brew—and I took a moment to speak with Mysterious staff member Ian Kern about whether Sherlock Holmes will maintain his presence in popular readership. “It’s never going away,” he said. “Even after the television show ends, a decade later, someone will find some other spin on it.”
All photos © Kevin Zych