A Sherlock Holmes Mystery at the Grolier Club

It has the makings of a detective story with hints of history: why did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sign a pirate edition of “The Sign of the Four”, the second of four Sherlock Holmes novels? Conan Doyle hated Pirate Editions. He was also famous for exposing pirate publishers as they were infamous for publishing cheap editions – and not paying royalties to authors like him.

Consider the plot possibilities here. Did someone force Conan Doyle to write words above his name that he couldn’t mean, “Regards, to you”?

Sherlock Holmes and Watson are not available to tackle this one, but Glen S. Miranker is on the case. He acquired the proof years ago.

Miranker is a former Apple executive who collects Holmesiana – articles on Holmes, Watson and Conan Doyle. He owns more than 7,000 books, illustrations and letters. He distilled them for “Sherlock Holmes in 221 Objects”, an exhibition that opens January 12 at the Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street in Manhattan. The club claims this is the first comprehensive Sherlock Holmes exhibition in New York in more than 50 years.

It follows the strategy of ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’, the BBC’s program of ten years ago, or ‘The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects’, published in 2013. Issue 221 is a play about Holmes’ speech, 221B Baker Street in London, the fictional home of the world’s most famous “consulting detective” – ​​still rational, unprecedented popular and incredibly capable of averting death from the pen of its creator. And whose fans have included everyone from TS Eliot to Isaac Asimov to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

“Sherlock Holmes in 221 Objects” is an excursion into the mind of a collector. It has been evident for centuries that art is worth collecting, but collectors collect anything and everything: pianos, stamps, books, furniture, unique items. Showing what they assembled can explain why they did it – why they spent so much time tracking down the small items they like; why they spent so much money to acquire them if the items were, in fact, expensive; why locating them was so exciting; and why, after all this, they still consider the important items.

Miranker “has the collection mania in its most acute form – and particularly on this subject,” wrote Leslie S. Klinger, editor of “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” in a preface to the exhibition catalog. , applying a line from “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes”. Illustrious customer. But not once in a recent hour-long conversation did Miranker pronounce a snap of Holmes as “elementary” or “the little things are infinitely the most important.”

Miranker confessed to reveling in “the quest for Sherlockian things”.

“I am not in the collection per se,” he said. “It’s the adventure, the emotional excitement of the hunt that I relish – and the chance to form a special relationship with a book, author, manuscript or illustration. It really allows me to viscerally enter the lives of Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Ah, yes, Holmes. Miranker called him “brilliant and so on”, but also “a misogynistic and unsympathetic misanthropist” with a friend all over the world.

“And yet he spends his life helping people,” Miranker said. “He is motivated by the pursuit of justice, its kind of justice. It is about something that we would like to see in ourselves, perhaps without worrying about our place, but worrying about doing the right thing. “

Miranker’s enthusiasm for Holmes and Conan Doyle, reflected in the exhibit, ranges from the pages of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” to the manuscripts of four short stories to the handwritten letters of Conan Doyle.

There are a few little things in the exhibit, like a Christmas card from actor William Gillette, who adapted Holmes for the theater. “Did you ever imagine that Sherlock would send his compliments to his maker?” Gillette wrote on the card to Conan Doyle, sent in 1901.

There is an “idea book” in which Conan Doyle wrote “Killed Holmes” on the December 1893 calendar. There is also a handwritten speech, never posted before, in which he explained why he did it: killing this gentleman to death, but I consider that it was not a murder but a justifiable homicide in self-defense because if I had not killed, he would certainly have killed me.

Conan Doyle did it. He wrote a story for the house of Holmes, The Strand Magazine, in which he made Holmes. Some 20,000 readers were so upset that they canceled their subscriptions. Conan Doyle brought him back a few years later.

By this time, Holmes was so famous that he was featured on books that were not about Holmes. One of them was “Escaped From Sing Sing”, with the image of a pipe-smoking man on the cover. Conan Doyle visited Sing Sing in 1914 and was briefly locked in a cell, “to see how it felt,” Miranker wrote in the catalog. Conan Doyle said it was “the most relaxing time I have had since arriving in New York, because it was the only chance I had to get away from reporters.”

Miranker rediscovered Holmes as an undergrad in the 1970s, when he was moping in his dorm and his roommate “grabbed that big volume and tossed it to me and said, ‘Here, read that will cheer you up. a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories he had read when he was young. Miranker relished them, so much so that he refused to read the last three or four years for several years. He didn’t want to come to the end of it.

A few years later, then married and graduating, he was brooding and anxious about his doctoral thesis. His wife went out for several hours and came back with a first American edition of “The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes,” the collected short stories published in the 1920s. “I opened the book and had an epiphany,” said he declared. “I said, ‘You don’t have to be JP Morgan to collect books?’ I said, ‘Where did you get this?’ “

She said she walked around an antique book fair. “I said, ‘Is it open tomorrow?

After graduation, Miranker worked at IBM, a few Silicon Valley start-ups, and NeXT, an IT company started by Steve Jobs after his ouster from Apple in the mid-1980s. Returning to Apple in the 1990s, Jobs brought in Miranker, a move that made it easier to buy Holmesiana. “I don’t dispute the sighting,” he said, adding that he had “put together a pretty respectable collection before he had any money.” It was less complicated then because, he said, “25 years ago there were a lot more good things that were just expensive, rather than ridiculous.”

Among them were pirated books, “possibly the largest assemblage in my collection.” He relishes the story because it deals with how technological change has reshaped society. The rotary press sped up book publishing and, with cheap pulp paper, ultimately lowered the price of a hardcover volume. “It meant people could buy a book for an hour’s pay instead of a week or month’s pay,” he said. “The authors didn’t give their permission and didn’t get a dime,” but the pirate publishers “have done this country a great service. They got books to 25 cents and gave people what they wanted to read.

Let’s go back to the story of Conan Doyle’s signing – the one under the words “Sincerely”.

The clues are confusing. The book he signed was a copy of “The Sign of the Four”, with its blue cover. The back says it was published by Lovell, Coryell & Company. But the publisher listed on the title page was the United States Book Company. Two different editors? The plot thickens. (Except Miranker said no. The United States Book Company was a conglomerate founded by James W. Lovell that served as the parent company of subsidiaries like Lovell, Coryell & Company.)

Another clue: inside the cover is another signature, that of HN Higinbotham, president of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and president of the Field Columbian Museum from 1898 to 1908. He dotted I in his name. He crossed the T with a horizontal line that stretched from the first H to the last st.

Higinbotham also wrote down the date – October 12, 1894, the day he hosted a dinner party for Conan Doyle, who was in Chicago on a speaking tour.

“These are the facts,” Miranker said. “Now we enter into the hypothesis. He quickly ran out, bought the first Conan Doyle book he could find, put it under his nose, and asked him to sign it.

It looks like a closed case.

Not quite, says Miranker.

Conan Doyle “signed on the title page, which the publisher was on, so unless his eyes were closed,” he would have noticed that this was a pirate edition. “But there is no smoking gun, no letter that says ‘I even signed a pirated copy for my host because I was kind.’ “

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