Man of mystery's fans


Seated around a long, rectangular table at a restaurant in Columbia last week, about 15 members of Howard County's Sherlock Holmes society each toasted an animal (or animals) from the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.

The members raised their glasses to two dogs named Carlo (in The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire and The Adventure of the Copper Beeches), a trained cormorant mentioned only as part of a previous (and unwritten) case in The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger, and the titular Hound of the Baskervilles.

The combination toast and memory test is a regular practice for members of Watson's Tin Box, which offers lively conversation, literary insight and good-humored quizzing of Sherlockian knowledge for casual readers and the Holmes-obsessed.

"We have our little rituals," said Steve Clarkson, a founding member, noting that some activities are modeled after practices of the best-known Sherlock Holmes society, the Baker Street Irregulars in New York.

But, he said, the Ellicott City-based group "is basically laid back. The whole idea is let's have fun, and we do."

Sherlockian societies operate all over the world. One Holmes-oriented Web site lists more than 400 active societies, most with names derived from Holmes titles, characters or locations.

The Howard County group took its name from the "travel-worn and battered tin dispatch-box" mentioned in the story The Problem of Thor Bridge. It is said to be in the vault of a bank at Charing Cross in London and to contain the notes John Watson kept on Holmes' cases.

Members meet on the last Monday of every month a good distance from Charing Cross - at Bertucci's restaurant in Columbia's Snowden Square Shopping Center.

The group sponsors outreach events, including an annual "Saturday with Sherlock Holmes" at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. That event, celebrating its 25th year in November, includes two Baltimore-based Sherlockian groups, the Carlton Club and the Six Napoleons. Last month, March Watson's Tin Box gave its first presentation at the Miller Branch Library in celebration of Holmes' 150th birthday.

Since the first stories were published, "they clicked with the public and still do," said member Andrew Solberg.

A dedicated fan of the stories, Solberg said he was glad to find Watson's Tin Box.

"This is the most relaxed, welcoming, informal Sherlockian group you're going to find," he said. "It includes people who are longtime Sherlockians and also people who are reading [the stories] for the first time."

Marjie Leonard agrees. She, who like many members first read the stories as a child, was drawn into the group after meeting co-founder Paul Churchill.

"It's cool to talk about Holmes and Watson like they are real people," she said - although club members note they do so strictly tongue-in-cheek.

Every meeting begins with a toast to adventuress and opera singer Irene Adler, who bested Holmes in Scandal in Bohemia and was thereafter referred to by the detective as "the woman." Then there are toasts based on some category within "the canon," as the 60 Holmes stories are called. The club's president, called the gasogene, chooses the subject.

There are announcements of Sherlockian interest and presentations on such topics as mathematics in the Holmes stories or an element of Victorian English culture.

Toward the end of the evening, the group discusses one story chosen for the month.

Clarkson, the group's trivia expert, usually wraps up the evening with a quiz.

"The more you know about this kind of stuff, the more you enjoy it," Clarkson said.

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