Toronto has never been a place for erecting plaques on the former homes of the writers and artist who've lived there (much to the dismay of people like Greg Gatenby, the literary director of Harbourfront Centre, who is talking of taking up this very cause with the municipal authorities). Onlookers may therefore be surprised when, next June, a family physician from Shelburne, Ont., Dr. Vanderburgh, affixes one of his own to the front of 47 Oxford Street, a modest Victorian structure in the middle of Toronto's Kensington Market. The tablet will commemorate the fact that Vincent Starrett was born there on October 26th, 1886, above what is now a shoe store but was then an ecclesiastical bookshop run by Starrett's grandfather. "But who was Vincent Starrett?" people are bound to demand. This is a question Dr. Vanderburgh (and I) have been expecting.
Starrett was the author of one still-famous book, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (in print more or less continuously since 1933). With his friend and fellow literary gadfly Christopher Morley, he was also the founder, in the 1920s, of the Baker Street Irregulars, the Sherlock Holmes society with branches around the world.
Now in my view people who obsess on Sherlock Holmes are not really students of Victorian life and letters at all, just folks with too much time on their hands. In the same way that Reader's Digest appears to stunt rather than stimulate the reading habits of its subscribers, so the Holmes stories never seem to lead the grown-up fanatics of them to pick up anything more serious. These Holmesians, as they sometimes call themselves, like to act as though Conan Doyle's characters were real people. What's more, they enjoy pretending to conduct "research" in what they call "the canon". They seem to believe that they are thus satirizing literary research; in fact, they're sending up literary research as it existed about three generations ago. They really don't know the difference.
Starrett may be remembered mostly by the Holmesians but his appeal should go far beyond the Holmes cult for whose creation he must share blame. Starrett was a mystery writer himself, notably of novels such as Murder on B Deck and short stories such as those involving his fictional detective Jimmie Lavender. He left Canada when he was ten, moving to Chicago. But he had vivid memories of the late Victorian city whose social life was dominated by the 48th Highlanders and the Queen's Own Rifles. He wrote one detective story with a Toronto locale. It's entitled "The Tattooed Man" and is set in the now rough Parkdale section; it can be found in David Skene-Melvin's new anthology, Bloody York: Tales of Mayhem, Murder and Mystery in Toronto (Dundurn, $17.99 paper). But though Starrett's Canadian associations are of interest (and though he remained a distinct Anglo-Canadian voice in the cacophony of American writing), it's what he did elsewhere that matters.
What he did was to become a newspaper reporter in Chicago, during the golden age (well, the tarnished-brass age anyway) immortalized by his friends Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur in their play The Front Page. He also had a role in the Chicago Renaissance, a literary and visual arts movement of the early 1920s that was an important bridge between the European and the American avant-gardes. He was also a Chicago Daily News war correspondent in Mexico, a prolific author of everything, including verse, and for some years between the wars he lived in Japan and China, where he pursued antiquarian research. Most importantly of all, he was a key maker of literary taste among the Midwestern middle class. Some of his final decades (he lived until 1974) were spent presiding, with an effortless distinction, over the book section of the Chicago Tribune each Sunday, though he showed much the same charm and easy learning in national forums as well. He humbly called himself a mere "bookman".
You might suppose that, coming into his own in the 1920s as he did, when people like Dashiell Hammett changed the mystery genre forever, Starrett would have fit easily into this new mould, especially given his training as a rough-and-tumble Chicago reporter. But no. His heart was always in Britain (in Canada too, I suppose). Although he made a few concessions to the realities of the market (in the Jimmie Lavender stories, the real hero is Chicago), he was still living in the genteel age of the wealthy amateur sleuth, with his trusty sidekick-amanuensis. Now, sixty or seventy years later, his thrillers-like old thrillers in general-have assumed additional meaning for the light they cast on the popular culture of the time, a world of hip-flasks and flivvers on the one hand and old money (mahogany-panelled) on the other. In all, Starrett's books are thought to have totalled about 2.2 million words. This is where Dr. Vanderburgh comes back into the picture.
The former Canadian Forces surgeon, who set up in family practice in Shelburne in the 1970s after retiring from the military, was bitten by the Sherlock Holmes bug and began publishing Conan Doyle's works-including the historical romances and the books on spiritualism-in electronic form. The result is a series of hypertext editions on 3.5-inch disks, runnable on Windows-some six millions words in all. Dr. Vanderburgh calls his publishing company the Battered Silicon Dispatch Box. Holmes fans will catch the reference immediately. Dr. Watson, you see, kept the manuscripts of his friend's adventures in a "battered tin despatch box" in the vaults of a private London bank.
With the Conan Doyle project out of the way, Dr. Vanderburgh is launched on a campaign to republish all of Vincent Starrett. The ninth volume had just appeared from the bindery when we spoke. There are to be twenty-two in all, fifteen of them actual printed books, designed to make available again the stories and essays that are either long out of print or previously uncollected; all carry new introductions by Peter Ruber, the leading Starrettist. Another seven volumes-numbers 16 through 22-are for sale on disks, as the material in them is already in book form. In whichever format, there is ample evidence of Starrett's wide knowledge and attractive style. Randomly opening one of the books-it's called Memorable Meals, a collection of columns he wrote for Gourmet magazine-I find the following sentence: "The only time I ever saw Colonel [Buffalo Bill] Cody at breakfast he was hugely enjoying a large platter of ham and eggs, that typical American dish which was so popular with the Egyptians of 1500 B.C."
Dr. Vanderburgh's next venture? It's to be a similar megaproject: collecting the published and unpublished works of August Derleth (1909-1971), the author of an endless number of rather stifling regional realist novels about his native Wisconsin.
As the Battered Silicon Dispatch Box is, to be kind, a small press, one not listed in the Canadian Publishers' Directory, it seems only fair to give the address here: P.O. Box 204, Shelburne, Ontario L0N 1S0. The fax number is (519) 925-3482. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Douglas Fetherling's most recent book is Way Down Deep in the Belly of the Beast (Lester). He is close to finishing his biography of George Woodcock, which will be published by Douglas & McIntyre.