Holmes fans descend on Bennington campus

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BENNINGTON -- Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective is known for his deerstalker hat and meerschaum pipe. But for attendees of this weekend’s conference at Bennington College, the world and works of Sherlock Holmes take on a much greater significance.

"Sherlock Holmes: The Man and His Worlds" ran from June 24-27 and was organized by the Baker Street Breakfast Club, a local Sherlock society. This was the BSBC’s second such conference, coming 16 years after the first, and in celebration of the group’s 20th anniversary.

"I’m sorry they only do this every 16 years," said Peter Blau, up from Washington, D.C. and a member of the international Baker Street Irregulars society since 1959. Blau made that first BSBC conference in 1994, as did many other participants, both local and those who traveled some distance. And travel they did, some from as far away as Louisiana and Ireland. "It’s fascinating how far Sherlockians will come for a Sherlock Holmes conference," says Sally Sugarman, principal organizer of the conference and founding BSBC member.

The breadth of available events was part of the draw. Speakers, exhibits, films, music, and mysteries ensured something for each of the estimated 90 attendees. Some local residents were drawn in after participating in the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce’s ongoing Season of Mystery series. With more than 200 Sherlock films released through the years, film buffs got their wish, with movies rolling till 2:30 a.m.

"What the committee wanted with the conference would be a variety of things, that it would not only be papers," says Sugarman. "You know when you go to an academic conference, and you listen to papers all day, or skip out? What we decided was we’re going to have a lot of interesting papers, and the papers have been fantastic, but we’re going to give people breaks to do other things that are related to mystery and Sherlock Holmes."

Sugarman also wanted to make the conference affordable. The registration fee covering most events was $60.

Several associated events took place around town, allowing the chance to explore the surrounding area. These included tea and croquet at the Park-McCullough House and an evening play at Oldcastle Theatre. The Case of the Missing Moose gave community members and conference participants a mystery to uncover.

The panels took a more scholarly turn. Scholarship is a cornerstone of Sherlockian society, according to head of the Baker Street Irregulars Michael Whelan.

"What you have to understand about Sherlock Holmes scholarship is that it’s real scholarship," adds Julia Rosenblatt, attending from Indiana with her husband. "But it’s almost always done with a light touch, a little sense of humor." Topics ranged from discussion of Holmes’ era to how he might function in our own. Pastiches were examined and the universality of Holmes explored.

His place as one of the most recognizable literary figures is established and similar events occur regularly around the country. Blau has several more on his schedule for this year. But what explains the draw of Sherlock Holmes? Rosenblatt concedes some escapism.

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"His popularity seems to shine brighter when there’s a lot of trouble in the world," says Steven Doyle, publisher of the quarterly Baker Street Journal, author of "Sherlock Holmes for Dummies," and no relation to Arthur Conan Doyle.

"Now with all the problems in the world and the economy, Holmes is very popular again. I think it’s because Holmes is reassuring. Here is somebody who seems to be able to fix our problems. Cut through the chaos and make sense of things."

Of course, Sherlock Holmes is most popular with fans of mystery. Whelan calls Arthur Conan Doyle a genius, saying that while he didn’t create the detective story, "he made it what it is today."

The BSBC gathers monthly with one story from the canon up for discussion. Sugarman says they’re on their third read-through. "Every time you read through them, you get something new," she says. "Everyone brings a dish and questions about the story. And nobody can have dessert until after we’ve discussed the story and had our questions. We’ve been doing this now for 20 years and we keep reading through these 60 stories and they keep being so intriguing, even more intriguing the more you read them and that’s pretty powerful."

For many participants, the fellow Sherlockians are the real draw. Joseph Cutshall-King from Greenwich, N.Y., enjoyed the discussions and loved the art exhibits, which he called idiosyncratic. "And that’s the whole thing about people who follow Holmes stories. We’re a group of people who dance to the beat of a different drum. And in this case, we found a common drum."

"It began with Sherlock Holmes, but it’s now about friendship," says Rosenblatt.

Blau’s sentiments are similar. "When people ask me what is it I like about Sherlock Holmes, my stock answer is ‘nothing.’ Sherlock Holmes was insufferable. You have a great deal of sympathy for Watson."

"What I like is the Sherlockians."

And for their part, the Sherlockians liked Bennington. Sugarman tells of a participant from Tennessee who stood up to speak on Saturday. It was his first visit to the area, and he discovered how hospitality is not just a characteristic of the South. "Everybody in Bennington, not only in the conference but in town, has been so friendly, so hospitable."

All according to plan, says Sugarman. "These people who came to this conference are also finding that Bennington is interested in history, that there are things you can do in Bennington that are a lot of fun. And that was the kind of thing we had in mind when designing the conference."

More information on the Season of Mystery series, which runs through October, can be found on the Chamber’s website at www.bennington.com. If the BSBC sounds like something of interest, their website is www.bakerstreetbreakfastclub.com. Membership requirements listed on the website include outstanding culinary skills, a sense of humor, and devotion to "the best and wisest man whom I have ever known." A deerstalker is not mandatory.


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