Friday, February 25, 2011

Some Thoughts on Setting: All Roads Lead to Baker Street

"There it was, a sign above a shop that said 221B BAKER STREET. My mouth hung open. I looked around at the ordinary street and the white-painted buildings, looking clean in the morning rain. Where were the fog, the streetlights, the gray atmosphere? The horses pulling carriages, bringing troubled clients to Watson and Holmes? I had to admit I had been impressed with Big Ben and all, but for a kid who had devoured the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, this was really something. I was on Baker Street, driving by the rooms of Holmes and Watson! I sort of wished it were all in black and white and gray, like in the movies." (“Billy Boyle: A World War II Mystery,” James R. Benn)
As most of you are probably aware, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” ran two Sherlock Holmes-themed episodes—“Elementary, Dear Data” and “Ship in a Bottle”—which featured the android Lieutenant Commander Data, and Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge, as Holmes and Watson, respectively.  Both episodes pit the pair against a computer replication of Professor Moriarty (played by Daniel Davis), while in a “holodeck” simulation of Victorian London and the world of Sherlock Holmes.
I was largely unfamiliar with Star Trek (and all things related) when I first saw Data and Geordi ensconced in the sitting room of 221B Baker Street.  I will readily admit that I had no idea what a holodeck was, though my husband was more than happy to oblige me in explaining (it’s so rare that our interests collide, after all). My imagination was immediately peaked by the concept, and before I could stop myself, I blurted out, “If I could find a computer program that could recreate Baker Street for me, I would never leave.”  My husband looked equal parts embarrassed, concerned, and affectionately amused.
To be perfectly clear, it’s not that I imagine myself sitting in 221B across from Holmes and Watson, engaged in some kind of clever conversation, as if I could manage it.  Heaven forbid.  Those who know me, and are familiar with my tendency to babble when intimidated, would find the notion both amusing and horrifying.  It’s more to the point that there is something satisfying about a place that does not change, no matter how much time passes.  Of course, it's comforting, but it's also beyond that—it’s about knowledge, a sense of time and place, and a sense of purpose.  It’s like having your own private joke, or well-kept secret, knowing how to get someplace that most other people do not. 
Baker Street creates an anchor point for the reader—a beacon in the turbulent harbor of crime and mystery.  In a manner of speaking, people in trouble flock to Baker Street “like birds to a light-house (TWIS).”  Not every story may start there, or end there, but eventually all roads will lead to Baker Street, and when they do, the effect is almost immediately equalizing. 
For instance, in the passage above, when Billy Boyle arrives in London, fresh from the United States and officers’ training school, to assist his “Uncle Ike” in the war effort, he is lost and confused, and a little bit heartsick, even if the Boston detective won’t admit it to himself.  But he sees Baker Street, and he is instantly grounded.  He knows this place.  He knows how it has been and how it should be, and most importantly, what it represents, and that is reassuring.  It’s a crucial moment for Lieutenant Boyle, and you can also hear the sound of Billy practically anchoring himself to 221B.  He knows nothing else about London—the city itself is barely recognizable due to the Blitz—but he knows Baker Street. 
Ask any Sherlockian, and they will be able to tell you where Holmes keeps his unread mail (under the jackknife, attached to the mantelpiece), where he hides his tobacco (in the Persian slipper), which chair is his (the one to the right of the fireplace), along with countless other details about the architecture of Baker Street.  Detailed replicas of this famous address can be found at the Sherlock Holmes Museum and the Sherlock Holmes Pub, in London. 
And it’s those details that fascinate, right?  Basil Rathbone’s wartime-era Baker Street remains Victorian in its interior details, even as the world around him changes violently (as one perceptive reader pointed out a few weeks back).  And Benedict Cumberbatch’s 21st century living room has some distinctly turn-of-the-century touches (the wallpaper and carpets, for instance), while the furniture is most definitely ‘80s (though in this instance I mean more 1980s, than 1880s).  Even Basil, the Great Mouse Detective, had his own personal 221 (and one half) Baker Street (a residence in the cellar of 221B).

Sherlock Holmes was obviously quite attached to Baker Street, and in “The Dying Detective,” Watson tells us: “…his [rent] payments were princely.  I have no doubt that the house might have been purchased at the price which Holmes paid for his rooms during the years that I was with him.”  Holmes resides almost exclusively at Baker Street (barring a three year hiatus) from 1881 until he retires to Sussex Downs in 1903.  At a certain point, he was a man of, if not unlimited, but at least substantial means.  He could have purchased his own home at any point, but didn’t.  He chose to stay, and rent, a moderately-sized flat.  It’s curious.  It makes you wonder.

Baker Street is, for all intents and purposes, an ordinary building on an ordinary street.  But there’s a soul to the place.  221B Baker Street is a character in the stories just like either Holmes or Watson.  We know just as much about it.  From the bullet-scarred walls, to the flight of seventeen steps that lead up to the flat, it has all been as carefully documented and debated as the location of Watson’s war wound.  Potential floor plans have been studied and theorized over in the same way as the possible names of Holmes’s parents (I favor “Siger” and “Violet” for a preference).  If Holmes and Watson are alive, then so is Baker Street.  It lives and breathes as much as anything else in the canon.  Likewise, it can never die.  We need to know that all roads still lead back to Baker Street, even if the scenery changes over the years.
Need a little mood music?  May I make a suggestion?


  1. Conan Doyle was magnificent with setting, picking out the crucial details and giving a sense of mood and place, without over-telling. (I think of the beginning of "Devil's Foot" for instance.) I think you define the specific magic of Baker Street when you write "Baker Street creates an anchor point for the reader—a beacon in the turbulent harbor of crime and mystery." It serves as an anchor for Holmes and Watson too, a consistent friend, a refuge from chaos -- even if chaos occasionally intrudes. It is as much a character in the stories as any of the people.

  2. I am currently enjoying THE SIGN OF THE FOUR. I read a couple of Sherlock Holmes stories in junior high and high school, and I'm fairly certain that didn't really appreciate them. I have to say that your enthusiasm for these characters and stories have inspired me to give them another shot (watching the new BBC series helped a bit too).
    I just had one thing to add to this particular post. I don't know if you watch the tv series HOUSE, but it is quite clearly a medical version of Sherlock Holmes. Drs. House and Wilson...really? To finally drive this point home, I noticed on Monday's episode that House lives at 221 Baker St. Apartment B. I now look forward to seeing how his apartment parallels that of Holmes.
    -Your Roomie-in-law :)

  3. @2000irises: You keep inspiring me with ideas for future blog posts! As soon as you said, "The Devil's Foot," I thought, "Oh yes, I have to do a post about Cornwall. Setting isn't much more compelling than that." Brilliant, as always!

    @Roomie-in-Law: "The Sign of Four" is a personal favorite, so I do hope you like it. Actually, I just finished a wonderful graphic novel rendition that you might like as well. And the BBC series was pretty spectacular, so we'll have to chat more about it when you and Roomie visit next (March?). The second season starts filming in May (I believe), and so far it looks like we'll be seeing bits of "A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Hound of the Baskervilles," "The Final Problem," and "Silver Blaze," if you're interested in some reading. :-)

    And I'll be honest that I haven't really watched "House" since about season three, but I had heard that there were Holmes parallels: the address (as you pointed out); Holmes and his violin, House and his piano; Holmes and his cocaine, House and his Vicodin... let me know if you pick up on others!

  4. Wonderful photo essay. The juxtaposition of the two matching views of Holmes and Watson at home, across a table, is a treasure in itself, but I wouldn't want to miss your commentary which is full of subtle observation and warm enthusiasm--as usual. I especially like the theme of Baker Street as the pivot of the crime detecting world, the eye of the storm, the oasis of intellect and rationality to which all roads lead back.

    Your prolific blog is certainly off and running--I must be alert to keep up with new posts! :)


  5. @Lucy: That is a wonderful image, isn't it? I wish I could take credit, as I found it during a random search and it very much inspired this post. I am maniacally searching for the source so I can give proper credit (no luck so far, but the search continues).

    Thank you so much for staying with my blog so far. Your support is much appreciated. I plan on updating once a week until real life intervenes or someone begs me to stop. I'm enjoying myself immensely, which is all I really wanted out of the project when I started. :-)