I am approaching my goal at the front of a long queue for the bar in the library room of the Yale Club, surrounded by leather-spined books with gilt lettering and by a certain rare species of literary enthusiast. Celebrants decked in tuxedos and satin and beadwork and kilts surround me, giddy smiles on our faces and bourbons deftly in hand. An occasion requiring equal parts passion and restraint, this cold January evening’s revelry — an enterprise not to be taken lightly. A long series of toasts must be made tonight, all other business being left to our monthly meetings; and our Buy-Laws (sic) dictate in absolute terms that “There shall be no monthly meeting.”
Who are these moustachioed gentlemen and stiletto-heeled ladies, you may wonder? We all of us have contracted the collection mania in its most acute form — especially on the subject of Mr. Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. We are the Baker Street Irregulars, and our special study is that of the best and wisest man John Watson ever knew.
It would perhaps be overly frivolous to suggest that Christopher Morley founded the Baker Street Irregulars in 1934 as an excuse to chat about his favorite Bohemian superhero whilst drinking adult beverages with his mates into the wee hours, but there you have the gist of it — its inaugural meeting was a cocktail party held at the Hotel Duane shortly after the repeal of that wickedest of sinister laws, Prohibition, and White Rock is mentioned in the BSI constitution.
A group of literary types, writers and thinkers and gustatory enthusiasts, the Baker Street Irregulars were conceived as a gentleman’s club devoted to the “Sacred Writings” (anything penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle regarding that skinny, pale fellow with the pipe and the hawklike nose). Its doings were rather irregular until Edgar W. Smith codified the shenanigans in 1940, but the society — co-ed since 1991, to my deep satisfaction and personal benefit — has been going strong ever since.
The Baker Street Irregulars present a mysterious face to outsiders, wreathed in gaslit fog and draped in the obscuring mists of the moors, due to the fact that Sherlock Holmes has literally millions of fans worldwide and the Irregulars are an invitation-only concern. There is no guide to joining, no set criteria for membership etched in stone tablets. There is only the Society, and the Enthusiast, holding up a dinted cardboard sign outside the posh hotel dining room with I LUV SHERLOCK 4EVER NO JOKE HATERS TO THE LEFT scrawled in sharpie and pressed against the glass. Metaphorically speaking. So I used to wonder, as a rabidly slavering little Sherlockian with my head stuffed full of trivia and pastiches pouring out of my fingers, what arcane rituals do the BSI practice? What magical alchemies do they employ to turn deerstalkers to gold and magnifying glasses to philosopher’s stones?
They do neither, it turns out. But it’s a cracking good time nevertheless.
I was an invested member of the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes long before being bestowed an Irregular Shilling and accompanying canonical alias. (My title is “Kitty Winter,” who distinguished herself in the story “The Illustrious Client” by throwing vitriol in the face of the cad who’d done her wrong by dropping trou indiscriminately but with detailed scrapbooking.) The Adventuresses are not a “scion” of the BSI, or “a subgroup of likeminded merry fanatics under the BSI umbrella,” but rather the inevitable result of the fact that if you said no to women in the 1960s, they’d build their own clubhouse and invent their own secret handshake, thank you very much.
(After picketing your dinner party in the dead of winter wielding signs that read BSI UNFAIR TO WOMEN and LET US IN OUT OF THE COLD as the snow filled their shoes. But I digress.)
I wasn’t a complete virgin, therefore, having had plenty of practice with my fellow ASH hunkering down over a dry martini and talking Sherlock, the main topic heavily spiced with Wodehouse, House, M.D., and other house-related concerns, and occasionally trilling the odd Sondheim ditty. Unwritten criteria for joining ASH are as follows:
- Knowledge of the Sherlockian canon. (A close friend and one of the most respected members of ASH, upon first spying my eager twenty-something self, has confessed she was on the very verge of telling me that this clearly wasn’t the private dining room I was looking for.)
- Liquor skills.
- Enthusiasm for all things Sherlock, from Gillette to Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century to that one tumblr blog with all the misty effects added to wistful Jeremy Brett pictures.
- Attendance. The last item might sound like a joke, but — like all Sherlockian societies — ASH is about fellowship. When I was first invited to BSI meetings, I was able to put skills at which I already excelled to good use.
Here follow the unwritten criteria by which I personally scored a BSI Dinner invitation, though techniques vary widely according to one’s respective talents:
- Knowledge of the Sherlockian canon. (Holmes was descended from Vernet, the French artist; a thug named Matthews once knocked out his left canine in the waiting room at Charing Cross; I find people who don’t know how many steps led from Holmes’s front hall to his sitting room odd.)
- Liquor skills.
- Enthusiasm for all things Sherlock, to the point I seem to have accidentally written a novel about him.
- Attendance tinged with bright-eyed starry wonderment of the spangled unicorn variety.
Let us telescope, meanwhile, to the events of the 2012 Birthday Weekend. Sherlock Holmes, as most folk likely to be invited to the BSI Dinner know, was real and was born on January 6th (read The Valley of Fear and see for yourself). And thus we gather in the titty-freezing wintertide in New York City, frozen trash mingling with the snirt (snow/dirt) at the sides of the road, watching the Californians of our number shiver miserably as frostbite looms and quietly laughing to ourselves.
We are here to play the Game. We are here to speak of the Great Detective, meet friends old and new, and learn a thing or three about our mutual obsession.
Not while sober. That would be a real shame.
Briefly stated, the BSI or “Birthday” Weekend is a series of events only a small percentage of which are invitation only — it’s a carnival of sorts, all comers welcome if they feel like forking over the cheddar for a plane ticket to Manhattan the week after New Year’s. Festivities kick off with a pub dinner hosted by ASH, and end about ten events later at a brunch I host as a personal bet that I will survive all those early mornings when I discover myself at O’Lunney’s still shooting tequila in the interim.
But the BSI Dinner itself! Its mystique may be particular, but its delights are myriad. Here I am at the Yale Club, now having procured a neat Maker’s Mark, as doubtless the founders would have approved. To my right is a Pulitzer Prize winner — to my left a World Fantasy/Bram Stoker/Nebula/Hugo/Eisner/Carnegie/Newberry/I’m Not Done But Let’s Leave It There for the Sake of Word Count winner — and before me a New York Times bestseller/Edgar Award winner. All three make for brilliant conversation, derailing your perceptions slightly once you realize just how kind they are.
The first is Michael Dirda, author of On Conan Doyle and Classics for Pleasure. Of the BSI Weekend, he recently said in an article for the New York Review of Books, “People sometimes wonder why I belong to The Baker Street Irregulars. The answer, of course, is elementary: friendship, collegiality, fellowship. For a few days, all that matters is one’s devotion to the great detective and his world.” The second is Neil Gaiman, author of most of the good bits including two fabulous short stories featuring Holmes. And the third is Laurie R. King, whose protagonist Mary Russell succeeds to the extent that she rivals Holmes himself for brainy glory.
We drink. We nibble. We hail old friends and are introduced to new ones from all over the world, while outside the lights of midtown Manhattan glimmer in the chill winter’s darkness.
Later in the evening, I shall deliver the toast to Mrs. Hudson and absently wonder as I approach the podium why I wore six-inch heels in electric pink. Later still and throughout the Weekend, I will mingle with other delightful folk — including but never limited to the Baker Street Babes, the Curious Collectors of Baker Street, the Bootmakers of Toronto, co-contributors to the soon-to-be-published Transmedia Adventures of Sherlock, madmen, lunatics, grifters, and (as my namesake Kitty Winter was so admirably termed) “hell-cats” and “she-devils” of the very best sort.
But for now, at the Yale Club, I will revel in the delight of listening to specialists in my chosen field. I’ll rejoice that the wine flows, the salmon is tenderly prepared, and that I can recite “The Musgrave Ritual” (a treasure-hunting call-and-answer we hold dear) without reading the words on my hand. I’ll thrill at the notion that Otto Penzler is delivering an address mainly to do with the love of a good book, and I am there. I’ll reflect with considerable sadness as we “stand upon the terrace” and mourn the fallen of the previous year that I’ve not met nearly enough Sherlockians, and that I’d have been honored to meet many of those who were present before I was around to lower the tone.
And then I consider the tone Christopher Morley set — that of wanting nothing better than hearty friendship, ample libations, and a long evening with Holmes. And I am content.
Though admittedly, even before the BSI Dinner is entirely over, I cannot wait for January of 2013.