According To Hoyt

Stephanie Osborn’s Time Displaced Detectives

Ladies, Gentlemen, Fireflies, Dragons and Life Forms Not In Compliance with The ATH bi-annual Commenting Life Form Survey, kindly give a warm According To Hoyt welcome to Stephanie Osborn.

The Displaced Detective series, which Twilight Times Books debuted in late 2011, involves bringing Sherlock Holmes from an alternate reality (supported by judicious use of M theory) into “our” modern world. (In actuality, even the spacetime continuum depicted in the books isn’t really ours, but it’s close enough to hardly tell the difference. The only way one can tell this is in knowing Colorado Springs, CO and environs, especially the geology, which I studied intensively during my trips there some years back.) This was my way of bringing my two favorite genres, SF and mystery, together, and using my favorite detective into the bargain. But it wasn’t a simple task.


The first thing I had to do was to determine if Holmes was in the public domain. There’s a long story there in itself. It seems that the initial copyright on all of the stories expired 75 years after Doyle’s death as per normal, and then was, through much legal wrangling, pulled back under copyright again by the estate, but THOSE copyrights have now expired entirely in the UK, and all except for the Casebook collection has expired in the US. So Holmes was in the clear for me to use as a character, despite much controversy on the subject.


I’ve read Holmes since I was young, and I’m so familiar with the stories that I can beat the average person hands down in a trivia contest. (Another Holmes aficionado, maybe not quite so readily, but I can make it a good horse race.) I’ve also read a lot of the aficionado studies, and much of that stuck in my memory too. But I wanted to make sure I got the character right, so throughout the writing of the books, I’ve periodically immersed myself in the original Conan Doyle stories. I’ve joined the Nashville branch of the Baker Street Irregulars (The Scholars of the Three-Pipe Problem) under the name “Boswell,” and I participate in their activities whenever possible, which adds to the ability to study and get more perspective.


But that’s hardly all I’ve done.


I acquired several broken-in pipes, ranging from a long-stemmed pipe to a half-bend pipe, in everything from apple-wood to briar-wood to clay. (Contrary to popular belief, Meerschaums are not the pipes that Holmes actually smoked, in all likelihood; they were introduced by stage actor William Gillette, because that type is well balanced for hanging from the mouth while he delivered his lines.) And I learned to smoke them. It turns out that there is a distinct talent to smoking a pipe; it is not easy, and it almost always requires lighting twice. The first time seems to heat the tobacco, and goes out quickly; the second time actually lights the pipe properly so it will stay lit – if properly seen-to. A pipe ignored for more than a minute or so will go out entirely and require the whole double lighting protocol all over again. Tobacco is an interesting substance; the smoke is very soothing to the smoker, and aids in putting aside things that one does not desire to think about, and I can see why it would have helped Holmes concentrate. Unlike most, however, I was fortunate not to find myself becoming addicted to the stuff.


As brandy is one of the more commonly mentioned liquors in the Holmes stories, I also researched the brandies in existence at the time. Now, brandy is the common English term for cognac, and it was developed by distilling wine. Given the long periods of time required to transport kegs of wine via ship, often the wine spoiled, or turned into vinegar, by the time it arrived. Transporting bottles was a poor idea; should the ship encounter high seas, the bottles would break. Converting the wine to brandy was a way to keep the liquor from spoiling, and proved to be tasty in and of itself.


Myself, I thought Holmes might be a bit of an Anglophile, and so I selected Hennessy as the brand I would drink with my pipe; my research demonstrated that it existed in Holmes’ time, and was easily obtainable now. (Interestingly, Glenlivet, a popular old single malt Scotch, was a relatively new label back then.) However, as Holmes was related to the French painter Horace Vernet (a real person in our own timeline) via his grandmother being Vernet’s sister, it is entirely possible he might have favored French cognac. Watson referenced brandy, however, not cognac. And so I felt my selection was reasonable for my research.


Unfortunately one night I discovered the reason why so many Victorian gentlemen retired to the study after dinner for a smoke and a drink. Firstly, you should know that I emphatically do not like the sensation of being drunk, on the few times it has ever happened by accident, and so I stop when I feel the buzz hitting, if not before. But it seems that tobacco “potentiates” (multiplies) the effects of any drug with which it is used. I later found that this is the reason that hookahs using a blend of opium and tobacco were used in opium dens; it provided a bigger high for less quantity of drug. In my case, the tobacco rendered the alcohol in the brandy much more potent than I had expected. It is the first, last, and only time I have ever been so drunk I threw up. I immediately decided at that point that I had more than enough knowledge of pipe smoking to write Holmes effectively, and while I still continue to collect pipes as an eclectic hobby, I no longer smoke them. Brandy, not so much either.


As mentioned, Holmes and Watson were both smokers – pipes, cigars, and cigarettes. But the cigarettes were hand-rolled, and all were lit with either matches or hot coals, or possibly at the jet of a gas lamp. The fusee, a type of flare or flintlock, was the first kind of automatic lighter, and was not particularly safe, especially, I gathered, for men with facial hair.


There are other things that I had to take into consideration, such as the items of everyday existence. When Holmes was introduced to the modern day, he discovered that simple things like personal hygiene had changed considerably. Whereas we take the modern disposable razor for granted, as well as shaving foam or gel, Holmes would have used a straight razor, shaving soap, and brush, and would periodically have visited his barber for a beard touch-up. The beginning of what would become our modern razor was developed about that time, and was termed a “safety razor,” because the blade was contained within the head and it was more difficult to produce a serious wound with it. (No Sweeney Todd types with that.) Toothbrushes looked much the same, but were made of different, more natural, materials – when they were used at all. There was no such thing as toothpaste, per se. Various tooth powders were used, ranging from baking soda to literal powdered stone, e.g. pumice – which often eroded the tooth enamel, undermining their purpose. Deodorants existed; one of the first that was introduced (as “Mum”) later became the brand “Ban.” But they were typically pastes or creams applied with the fingers. After-shaves, while in use, would have been basic preparations of alcohol or witch hazel, possibly lightly fragranced, blended and provided by the local apothecary, or as known in London, “chemist.” Likewise any personal fragrances, colognes, etc.


Then there was the matter of furniture. Holmes’ flat at 221b Baker Street contained an item of furniture known as a tantalus. My research indicates that the tantalus still exists today, but we know it by different names: the wet bar, or liquor cabinet. That liquor cabinet would contain multiple decanters, likely of crystal, and probably with a metal sign hanging around the neck of each, denoting its contents. The cabinet also would have contained a “gasogene,” the early form of a seltzer bottle. It consisted of two bottles held together with wicker or wire, one containing tartaric acid and sodium bicarbonate which reacted to produce carbon dioxide, and the other containing water. When the handle was depressed, carbonated water emerged for mixing into drinks – when the thing didn’t explode from pressure, that is.


A proper gentleman such as Holmes, would be attired from the skin up as follows: vest and pants (these today would be called boxers and undershirt – NOT a t-shirt, but a tank top style), stockings (socks), a shirt with replaceable collar (ring around the collar? Throw it away and get another), button-up trousers (modern pants, trousers, or slacks, but with a button fly) held up by braces (suspenders), a double-pocketed waistcoat (“WES-kət,” now known as a vest), and if in public or with visitors, a suit-coat of various styles, and a tie of some sort, approximating the modern bow or regular tie, or something even fancier. The tie was often referred to as a cravat. Shoes were leather, usually ankle height, and buttoned up. Note also that some men of the era wore corsets, although there is no evidence that Holmes or Watson did so.


Accessories would include cufflinks and a pocket-watch. The watch was properly placed in one waistcoat pocket; the chain was threaded through a buttonhole in the waistcoat and over to the other pocket. On the other end of the chain would be some necessary trinket such as a pipe tool (for cleaning and/or tamping one’s pipe) or a jack-knife (pocket knife), and this would be tucked into the waistcoat pocket opposite the pocket-watch. In addition, when going out, no London gentleman would be caught dead without his cane (young or old, handicapped or no), kid leather gloves, and silk hat (top hat). Optional accessories included studs instead of shirt buttons, a stick pin for the cravat, spats (to protect expensive leather shoes from the mud on the streets and in the gutters, which not infrequently still contained the contents of chamber pots, at least in certain parts of London), watch fobs, and overcoats and wool scarves in winter.


The only skin which showed on a Victorian male or female in public – if they were of any station at all – was the skin of the face and upper neck.


So imagine Holmes’ surprise to be in our modern society: women in trousers and jeans, short sleeves on everyone, low necklines, sport coats, shorts, and so forth. Hats are rarely seen except for cowboy hats in some circles, and baseball caps in others; top hats are only stage props. Canes are for the elderly or injured; t-shirts are worn as outerwear – and let us not even mention swimwear! To quote Dr. Skye Chadwick, Holmes’ foil and the other protagonist of the series, a Brazilian string bikini would “make your Victorian sensibilities run away screaming, if not outrightly curl up and die.” Holmes actually finds the military uniform much more comfortable mentally, as they are styled more along the lines to which he is accustomed, and uses them freely (under the government’s sponsorship) in his disguises.


As the series progresses, I’m finding myself delving into other historical aspects, such as the differences in dialects just within the city of London during Holmes’ time. How many people, outside of dialecticians, could tell the difference – or even know there was one – between an East End and a Cockney dialect? (Not many.) What do rural Englishmen sound like? (Not so different from redneck Southerners, but with a slight twist.) What exists in London today where 221b should be? (A bank headquarters.) Did 221b ever exist in our reality? (No, it didn’t. Upper Baker Street, where Holmes’ flat would have existed, didn’t get numbers until 1932. The street numbers only went to 100 at the time Conan Doyle wrote the stories.) Did the Baker Street Irregulars really exist? (Yes, they did, but not as street urchins. In WWII the headquarters of the Special Operations Executive, an espionage, reconnaissance and surveillance organization that eventually merged into MI6, was located in Lower Baker Street, and took on the nickname, which is not to be confused with the international fan organization of the same name.) Is there an Underground station nearby that Holmes and Watson could have used? (Yes, the Baker Street Station, one of the world’s oldest.)


It’s been a fun ride so far, and I’ve no doubt it will continue to be!


~~Stephanie Osborn

Stephanie’s Website