221b, or Not 221b, That is the Question

Article published on December 5, 2012.

‘I have my eye on a suite in Baker Street…’ A Study in Scarlet

Thus a legend was born. The granddaddy of all literary addresses, 221b is as iconic a feature of the Sherlock Holmes myth as the great detective’s Stradivarius violin, his seven percent solution of cocaine, and a certain demonic Devonian dog. It is a place I visited often in my youth, imagining myself curled up in a third armchair while the good doctor read aloud the latest chronicle of their adventures to his dismissive friend. I saw it all: the thick veins of smoke issuing from the master’s old clay pipe, his hair-trigger and his Boxer cartridges, the jack-knife pinning his correspondence to the mantelpiece, the coal scuttle full of cigars, the portrait of General Gordon, the decanter of brandy from which Dr Thorneycroft Huxtable was revived, the old tin box containing the ‘pretty little problem’ of The Musgrave Ritual, Watson’s soon-to-be-forgotten bull pup slumbering by the fire, chemical equipment and criminal relics in the butter dish, even the portrait of ‘the woman’, which he kept locked in his drawer, together with the spendthrift Watson’s chequebook. It was a suite of rooms that fired my imagination and, I believe, led to my own tales of the grotesque (‘some underlying suggestion of the tragic and the terrible,’ as Holmes defines that most Doylean of words in The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge).

The exact location of Holmes and Watson’s flat-share has been open to fierce debate, due in no small part to the fact that, during the run of the original stories, the numbers of that famous thoroughfare only went up to 100. When the street was later extended, the Abbey National building society sited its headquarters between 215-229, and for several decades hired a permanent secretary to deal with any correspondence addressed to ‘Mr Sherlock Holmes Esq’. The fact that the workload was immense, that letters continued to arrive long after the centenary of 1854 (the date that the best canonical scholars have put on Holmes’ birth), and that a volume of the most unusual and entertaining letters was later published, is surely testament to the fact that both Holmes and his Georgian domicile have become something more than mere fiction.

In the late 1980s, while I was a young and terribly geeky Holmes buff (much to the embarrassment of my friends and the amusement of my primary school teachers, I often donned my own non-canonical deerstalker and Inverness cape whenever there was a non-uniform day), I visited the Marylebone Library, which still houses a remarkable collection of Sherlock Holmes material, from serious literary studies to fan pamphlets and pastiches, joke and puzzle books, and an extensive section on Holmes in film and television. To the best of my recollection, this treasure trove was located in a large second-floor room, the books and memorabilia locked securely in a long line of handsome glass-fronted display cases. I remember the curator, Catherine Cooke, being very patient with the over-excited ten-year-old who badgered her with questions and requests.

While at the library, I chanced to meet a very knowledgeable Sherlockian – an author, academic and renowned member of The Baker Street Irregulars (an American society of devotees whose membership has included Rex Stout (of Nero Wolfe fame), August Derleth (the gifted writer, publisher and christener (if such a word is apt in this context!) of the Cthulhu Mythos), Neil Gaiman (whose excellent A Study in Emerald links Holmes to the aforementioned universe of HP Lovecraft), and both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S Truman). This Holmes luminary shared with me a gobsmacking titbit: had the mythical address ever existed it certainly would not have had the legend ‘221b’ either over or on the door. All those movies and TV adaptations, from Granada’s celebrated series with Jeremy Brett to the wonderful modern update with Benedict Cumberbatch, have got it dead wrong. You see, according to my friend of yesteryear, 221 was the entire house while ‘b’ referred only the second level, occupied by the socially awkward sleuth and his long-suffering friend.

I’m not sure if the learned Irregular was correct in his theory, but it hardly matters. The exact location, the numbering over the door: all these details are lost in the fog, for with its patriotic ‘VR’ done in bullet holes, its tobacco-stuffed Persian slipper hanging from the mantel, and its perpetual parade of clients swooning on the bearskin hearthrug, 221b Baker Street is as tangible now as Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament or the 02.  The fact that it is a place of great sacredness is attested to by the constant stream of pilgrims disgorged from the Baker Street underground. Their almost religious fervour is somewhat soothed by the museum that now claims the address, and by the statue of their idol that stands as a shrine outside the tube, but look into their eyes and you will see disappointment that Doyle’s ageless hero and his comfortable quarters remain tantalizingly out of reach. But are these true believers also a little relieved? For if 221b is never found it can never be destroyed. Moriarty’s gang once tried to burn it down, but those tobacco-stained walls endure for, as Vincent Starrett observed in his poem ‘221b’:

A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane

As night descends upon this fabled street:

A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,

The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.

Here, though the world explode, these two survive,

And it is always eighteen ninety-five

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