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

by C.T. Scott
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?”
A daily newsletter with the best of our journalism
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?
“When we talk of him we invariably fall into the fancy of his existence”
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.
It’s easy to adapt Conan Doyle’s stories partly because his famous protagonist is so relatable, a mash-up of flaws and gifts. Holmes may be brilliant enough to suss out the identity of a petitioner who tramped up the stairs at 221b Baker Street based solely on his cane, but he can be allergic to people in the flesh – consumed with his work to the exclusion of all else – and uses cocaine and morphine as an “escape”. He even fails occasionally, most famously when he’s outwitted by the woman, Irene Adler, in “A Scandal in Bohemia”.
It’s as if the 72-year-old Bazlinton has hoarded old love letters
In 56 stories and four novels Conan Doyle paints a world that is almost tangible. His “lair” is depicted in lavish detail, says Robert Macfarlane, a writer, with “the ‘criminal relics’ he keeps near his bed, the framed picture of Gordon of Khartoum, the hypo­dermic syringes that lie gleaming in a bureau drawer, the wax replica of his own head that gazes down from the summit of a bookshelf”.
This complexity of character, combined with the bristling specificity of his milieu, may in part account for what his secretary Bazlinton both encountered and perpetuated – and what T.S. Eliot deemed the greatest Sherlock Holmes mystery of all: “That when we talk of him we invariably fall into the fancy of his existence.”
Just as the fictional hero has lived many lives since his original incarnation, so too have the missives written to him. What happened to all those letters addressed to Holmes, I ask Bazlinton when I visit him in the small, chocolate-box village of Farnham in Essex? “I brought them home,” he tells me, gesturing to the corner of the room where half-a-dozen old Abbey National carrier bags with faded logos are overflowing with envelopes and papers. “I kept them, I think, because a lot of them were personal to me. I was involved in somebody’s life in a very, very small way.”
It’s as if the 72-year-old Bazlinton has hoarded old love letters. Though he has a wife, daughter and adored grandchild (unlike Sherlock, he doesn’t privilege “true cold reason” over love), when it comes to the job Bazlinton left 39 years ago, he’s like an actor who landed the role of a lifetime and refuses to let go.
With Bazlinton’s permission, I leaf through the correspondence and he rises from his armchair to join me. The postmarks are from Japan, Poland, New Zealand – everywhere but North Korea, he jokes – and during his tenure he was on the Rolodex of journalists from across the globe. The Pravda correspondent was such a “nice guy” that he’d translate Russian letters for Bazlinton over drinks, cold war notwithstanding. (Less nice, but also a Holmes junkie, was Russia’s ambassador to the UN in 2018, who slagged off the British government’s investigation into the poisoning of Sergei Skripal by invoking Holmes’s blundering Scotland Yard colleague, Inspector Lestrade.)
Many Holmesians (or Sherlockians, as they’re also called) cite their man’s quintessential Britishness for his international appeal. He reads the Daily Telegraph, takes target practice by shooting Queen Victoria’s initials into his wall on Baker Street and remains almost absurdly unflappable in the face of devil hounds, hacked-off thumbs and venomous snakes. Bazlinton reckons about half the letters were from the truest Anglophiles – Americans.
One such letter asked Holmes’s help solving the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. The mystery, wrote the correspondent, remains “the spectre that will not be stilled”.
Another entreaty, from a man in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1970s, could as easily have been written in our own age. Could Holmes, it asked, “solve the puzzle of why your American cousins cannot dredge up a candidate for president who can use the old beano, or as the gentleman detective, Monsieur Poirot, would say, use his grey cells”?
Holmes studied cigar ash, footprints and various particles before his real-life counterparts
It’s striking how many writers mimic the formality of Sherlock Holmes’s diction and the set-up of the stories, as if they’re imagining themselves in his gaslit rooms on a gloomy London evening. “Close to three days ago, we had a bad storm. As I came to the front of the house to close the windows there was a hard knock at the door,” reads one. “I opened it and there stood two men, drenched and cold. Without knowing their names, I showed them to the guest room.”
The possibly overly hospitable correspondent wrote that he heard the men arguing that night and the next morning discovered that one of them had absconded – the other was dead in his bed. Could Holmes help? Bazlinton had to write and explain that the detective was “rather busy at the moment”.
In addition to cases of international intrigue – “The Bermuda Triangle came up a lot” – there were missing sailboats and dogs and grandmothers. Bazlinton shows me a letter with a grainy image attached: “This is a recent murder that took place in Clarkston, Michigan…I saw two boys attack another and stab him to death. I was very nervous, but I took this picture. The police gave up on the case, but I knew I could depend on you to solve the crime.”
“Not sure it shows a lot, really,” Bazlinton says, as dry as his fictional employer. “But, of course, Sherlock was brilliant, so maybe there’s something I’m missing that he would pick up.”
Which brings us back to what Holmes might have called a “four-pipe problem” – our stubborn tendency to talk as though Conan Doyle’s invention really did stalk the Earth. Nearly 60% of respondents to a poll for UKTV Gold in 2008 thought that the detective was a living person (a quarter thought Winston Churchill was fictional). In other surveys more than a fifth of Britons said they believed Holmes was real.
The letters mimic the formality of Sherlock Holmes’s diction as if they’re imagining themselves in his gaslit rooms on a gloomy London evening
Perhaps this isn’t surprising. A huge number of books and films these days purport to be “based on a true story”. And despite their Victorian origins, Conan Doyle’s stories are written in that vein: Watson is always taking notes on the pair’s adventures and narrates the tales as a series of reminiscences. They read like the memoir of a number two writing about his revered number one.
Sherlock Holmes was one of the earliest literary detectives, the prototype for countless others: he studied cigar ash, footprints and various particles before his real-life counterparts. When the first forensic science lab was opened in France in 1910, its founder, Edmond Locard, named Holmes as a muse. He even paraphrased one of Holmes’s regular lines, which watchers of TV police-procedurals will recognise: “Every contact leaves a trace.”
We want Sherlock Holmes to be real because we like to think that there’s more to existence than atoms and molecules. Conan Doyle famously believed in fairies. The detective brought solidity and truth out of smoky confusion. He assembled the mysteries of our lives into some kind of coherent whole.
Holmes obsessives brook no doubt about the corporeality of their hero. When a guest at a meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars, the most prominent of the super-sleuth’s fan clubs in America, referred to Conan Doyle as Holmes’s creator, a member reportedly grew outraged: “Holmes is a man!” he cried. “Holmes is a great man!”
The position of secretary to Sherlock Holmes was retired when Abbey National moved out of its Baker Street property nearly two decades ago. Today the Sherlock Holmes museum occupies 221b Baker Street. During the pandemic, staff at the tourist attraction stopped answering any letters addressed to the detective.
After examining hundreds of Bazlinton’s relics, I suggest that they’d find a good home in one of the library collections dedicated to Holmes – the Mayfair Library, Westminster, has one, another is at the University of Minnesota – but Bazlinton worries about exploiting the correspondents. He is similarly vexed when I ask if he was ever tempted to tackle any of the cases that crossed his desk.
We want Sherlock Holmes to be real because we like to think that there’s more to existence than atoms and molecules
“No, no, no.” He shakes his head vigorously. “It wasn’t my place to do that. That was Sherlock Holmes’s place.”
Before I go, Bazlinton finds what he calls his “favourite letter of all time”, from a girl in Oxon Hill, Maryland. He adjusts his glasses and pulls from his lap a white envelope bordered in pink, yellow and blue.
Dear Mr Holmes,
You sure are a good detective. I know a man who is a detective in my town. He doesn’t do all the neat stuff you do and he dresses in regular everyday clothes. He’s nice, though. I read all of your books. I get one or two every time we go to the public library.
My mom says you’re not really a person but that Mr Doyle made you up. I told her that Mr D is your friend and he writes your books because you’re too busy.
Say hi to Dr Watson for me. I hope you get Professor Moriarty.
Write back.
Lynn Smith
P.S. Sorry my mom has dumb paper like this. My thoughts drift off like clouds across the miles to you.”
“In this case, I would have given her a special reply, saying how much I enjoyed receiving her letter,” the 73-year-old Bazlinton tells me, his eyes glistening. “And to say hi to her mum for me.”
In the late 1970s Bazlinton appeared on a BBC talk show, a man of his time in a black leather jacket, a fat tie and shaggy hair covering his ears. Near the end of the interview the host asked him whether Holmes was fact or fiction. Bazlinton replied without pause: “Well, do you know any other fictional characters who’ve got a secretary?”
C.T. Scott is a podcast producer for Sky News
ILLUSTRATIONS: NOMA BAR
A daily newsletter with the best of our journalism
Published since September 1843 to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”
Copyright © The Economist Newspaper Limited 2021. All rights reserved.

source

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *