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The game is afoot at the Vincent House

Doctor shares his interest in Sherlock Holmes

April 14, 2008
By DAWN THOMPSON, Messenger staff writer

Messenger staff writer

Even Sherlock Holmes might be hard pressed to explain the source of continued appeal of the crime-solving tales written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in which he is featured.

Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps it’s “elementary, my dear Watson.”

Dr. Richard Caplan, from Iowa City, has been researching Holmes for many years. A retired physician and educator, he shared his conclusions about the Victorian-era character with the nearly two dozen people assembled for ‘‘An Afternoon with Sherlock Holmes’’ Sunday at the Vincent House, 824 Third Ave. S.

‘‘These characters and stories just captured British fancy in an amazing way, including Queen Victoria,’’ Caplan said.

Fascination with the super astute sleuth continues today and has spread across the world, he said. The Holmes stories have been translated into more than 60 languages. Anthologies continue to be released, and variations of the stories continue to be fashioned by popular authors, movie makers and television series.

‘‘It keeps going on and on,’’ Caplan said. ‘‘The imagery of Sherlock Holmes is amazingly present in our world.’’

Show folks a picture of a man wearing a double-billed hat and cape while carrying a magnifying glass and smoking a pipe, he said, and most people will immediately recognize the picture as Holmes, even if they’ve never read a Holmes story.

Caplan first read the stories featuring the lean eccentric detective himself when he was in his early 20s. He and his wife had joined a book-of-the-month club and received two volumes containing the complete collection of Holmes short stories. Caplan read them then put them on the shelf where they stayed for several years.

It wasn’t until a friend invited him to a Sherlockian Society meeting where they quizzed one another with Holmes trivia that his interest was rekindled.

‘‘I had fun,’’ Caplan said. ‘‘It was just a delightful session. It made me go back and get out my books again.’’

Around 300 Sherlockian Societies are in the United States, he said, and another 100 have been established around the world. Two societies are active in Iowa, one in Iowa City and another in Marshalltown.

‘‘What is it that has kept alive the mystic or interest?’’ Caplan asked. ‘‘We don’t have fan clubs for Hamlet.’’

It’s certainly not the plots, he said. Many of them were weak and contrived.

With the stories set mostly in the 1870s through the 1890s, Holmes’ adventures offer a glimpse into Victorian ways, Caplan said, which shaped the world during this time of expansion by the British empire.

‘‘Really though, what’s of special interest in the stories is the personality and behavior of the character Sherlock Holmes,’’ Caplan said. ‘‘It’s the relationship between Holmes and Watson.’’

Caplan’s own interest in Holmes ultimately led him to write a book based on a minor character in the first Holmes novel by Doyle.

In ‘‘A Study in Scarlet,’’ Young Stanford is the person who introduces Watson and Holmes to one another, but, Caplan said, Stanford is never heard from again after chapter three. This made Caplan wonder what happened to the young physician, so he started to imagine the possibilities then put them down in letter format as if Stanford were writing to his wife.

Caplan is also the founder of the Young Standfords Sherlockian Society of Iowa City, and he is a member of the Baker Street Irregulars of New York.

The last story by Doyle featuring Holmes was published in 1927. The first was in 1887, that’s 40 years of stories, Caplan said, and since Doyle didn’t have a master plan for the development of Holmes, inconsistencies and contradictions often pop up in the tales.

‘‘Whole bodies of scholarship have been created to pick up on these discrepancies and rationalize them,’’ Caplan said. ‘‘It’s part of what intrigues people and continues to draw them to the Sherlock Holmes stories.’’

The presentation was sponsored by The Friends of the Vincent House, a volunteer group with the purpose of preserving and maintaining the historic home.

Contact Dawn Thompson at (515) 573-2141 or

Article Photos

Dr. Richard Caplan, of Iowa City, shows a reproduction of the first story written by Sir Authur Conan Doyle featuring Sherlock Holmes, “A Study in Scarlet,” during his presentation on the Victorian-era literary character Sunday afternoon.



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