The curious incident of Sherlock Holmes’s real-life secretary

From The Economist:

On a brisk spring morning in March 1975, Chris Bazlinton, a tall, fair-haired, bespectacled 27-year-old, arrived at Baker Street station in central London. He’d travelled from his home in Essex in the hope of getting a job at Abbey National, a British building society. The interview went well: he was offered the public-relations role on the spot. “Oh, one more little thing,” the general manager said. “You will also have to act as secretary to Sherlock Holmes, answering the mail that comes in for him.” He paused, with a slight smile: “How do you feel about that?”

Bazlinton thought his new boss might be joking, but grinned back. “I’d be happy to,” he said.

As Bazlinton would soon discover, the peculiar position of Sherlock Holmes’s secretary had been created more than four decades earlier, in 1932, when Abbey opened its grand, white-marbled headquarters on Baker Street. The art-deco building was so large that it had been assigned ten street numbers, from 219 to 229. Overnight, one of the most famous literary addresses in history – 221b Baker Street, home of Holmes and his partner, John H. Watson – became a real place for the first time.

Ever since Sherlock Holmes made his debut in 1887 in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet”, fans had been writing to him from all over the world, believing that the fictional detective was an actual person. At that time Baker Street didn’t go beyond number 85, so the mail went undelivered. Now Abbey was inundated with letters. Rather than ask the post office to stop bringing the correspondence, the company decided it wouldn’t be a bad bit of pr to be aligned with the brilliant sleuth.

Bazlinton was the seventh secretary to Holmes, serving until 1982. Over the course of seven years, Bazlinton estimates that he received nearly 6,000 pieces of mail and replied to each one. I tracked him down out of sheer curiosity: who would be a real-life secretary to a fictional detective?

To the many who wrote simply to praise the character’s remarkable powers of deduction, Bazlinton sent a standardised thank you, though he was careful to dispatch different versions when a whole class of children wrote to him. To people requesting photos of their idol he’d reply: “We couldn’t possibly send a picture of Sherlock Holmes, because that might cause him problems if he were recognised in the street. As a detective, he obviously has to remain anonymous.”

The volume of letters could be overwhelming, Bazlinton says, but he crafted a more tailored reply to the more “interesting” ones, punching them out on his manual Adler typewriter. When I asked him why he was such an assiduous correspondent on behalf of an imaginary person, he looked incredulous, almost like Holmes amazed that his dear Watson had yet again failed to detect the elementary: “Somebody had to answer.”

. . . .

In 1893 Holmes and his arch-nemesis Moriarty fell off a cliff and perished in “The Adventures of the Final Problem”. (“I must save my mind for better things,” Conan Doyle opined to his mother.) Unlike most of us, however, the detective rose from the dead eight years later when, badgered by black-armband-wearing fans and the lure of lucrative publishing contracts, Conan Doyle resurrected his creation.

Holmes mania has barely waned in the ensuing century and a quarter. Around the world, enthusiasts pore over the fictional detective’s cases as if they really happened, playing the Great Game “as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord’s”, crime writer Dorothy Sayers once observed.

Sherlock Holmes has been adapted for television and film more times than any other literary protagonist, leaving Emma in the Highbury dust. In the bbc’s “Sherlock”, Benedict Cumberbatch trades a pipe for a nicotine patch and investigates terrorism in London rather than murder on the moors. Across reams of fan-fiction, the genius gumshoe has occupied different galaxies and space-time continuums. He’s switched genders and gender-identities. He’s sung and danced in a psychedelic Russian musical and been a dog, a mouse, a gnome and a deerstalker-clad cucumber (the latter in the Christian-themed animated kids show, “VeggieTales”). He’s also picked up family members, as in last summer’s Netflix film “Enola Holmes”, itself based on a series of young-adult novels that tell the tale of Sherlock’s little sister who joins the family business and strikes a blow against the patriarchy. A sequel is in the works.

Link to the rest at The Economist

1 thought on “The curious incident of Sherlock Holmes’s real-life secretary”

  1. Just south of the small town where I grew up was an even smaller mining town named “Christmas.” (So called because the first claim was staked on Christmas Day 1902.)

    One of the assumed duties of the postmaster there, for the three decades there was a post office, was answering letters from children around the world.

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