August Derleth

Cover by Jean Pierre Cagnat

Black Cloth Hard Cover with Dustjacket, 200 pp.
ISBN 1-55246-012-6 @ $32.00

Introduction by Peter Ruber

August Derleth was a college freshman in 1928, when he wrote to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle expressing his disappointment that the creator of the Sherlock Holmes had given his solemn promise that he would write no further adventures about the world's most famous detective. The highly imaginative young man, who grew up reading the Sherlock Holmes stories and such hair-raising pulp magazines as Secret Service, was also a budding writer. Derleth had been writing prolifically since his early 'teens, and had his first story accepted for publication when he was sixteen. He also expressed a keen desire to write some adventures of the world-famous consulting detective himself, if Sir Arthur did not object. He explained that he would not presume to use the character of Sherlock Holmes and his literary chronicler Dr. John H. Watson; he had developed his own detective-impersonator called Solar Pons. Sir Arthur's reply was encouraging.
    Although this brief correspondence was soon lost in the young writer's growing paper jungle, I recently discovered in a sizable cache of papers and manuscripts in the Derleth family home, with evidence to support the existence of Sir Arthur's letter. The following note penciled on the back of the last page of a manuscript entitled "The Adventure of Gresham Old Place," known to have been written in 1928: "Doyle's reply — go ahead etc creation of Solar Pons."
    Over the next forty years Derleth would write more than 70 Solar Pons short stories and one novel, creating one of the most enduring fictional sleuths in American letters. Many well-known writers and amateur scribblers have written new adventures about the great consulting detective during the past one hundred years, but few have had the charm and flavor of the original stories. Solar Pons, as many critics have acknowledged, is not merely one of the endless imitators of Sherlock Holmes, but one worthy to be called his "successor."
    The world of Solar Pons did not replicate gaslit Victorian London of the 1890s. His was the post-WWI decade of the 1920s, a slice in time where most of Derleth's fiction was set, whether it was regional Americana or the fog-filled streets of Solar Pons' London. Unlike Holmes, who shunned the tools and contraptions of the on-coming age of science, Solar Pons took full advantage of such modern conveniences as taxi cabs, electric lights, telephones, and aeroplanes. And as we learn in Terror Over London, Pons had what might be considered the first "hotline" to Scotland Yard — a phone line so secret that it could not be tapped into by London's underworld.
    August Derleth had many traits in common with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Both were consummate storytellers; but they were equally at home writing historical novels, histories, biographies, poetry, and belle-lettres, as they were writing detective fiction and ghost stories — and they were prolific. Some of us believe that taken as a whole, the adventures of Solar Pons are almost as good as those written by Sir Arthur himself. Not all were flawless gems; but then, Sir Arthur ground out an occasional stinker, too. But he got away with it because the stories had charm and atmosphere.
    The majority of the Solar Pons stories were plotted more carefully than the Sherlock Holmes stories. Sir Arthur viewed his creation as a monster that distracted the reading public from his more serious efforts. Derleth never had such delusions; he took a genuine pleasure, even late in life, hatching new plots for the sage of number 7b Praed Street. To critics who proclaimed Derleth should be devoting his talents to serious fiction and history, he often replied, "I would rather be a living hack than a dead genius."
    For someone who never traveled abroad, and rarely ever left his native village of Sauk City, Wisconsin, Derleth's descriptive narrative of the locales and streets where Pons and his associate Dr. Lyndon Parker pursued their cases, were surprising authentic in detail.
In one of the late author's several library rooms, which have been preserved the way they were during his lifetime, there is an entire section is devoted to turn-of-the-century books about London, the countryside of England, local histories and customs, maps, and even railway guides. They provided an endless source of background material for the Pontine canon, as the series was dubbed in later years. In his file folders I have enjoyed reading fragile newspaper clippings of baffling crimes and bizarre murders, which Derleth retained as possible source material for future stories.
    For many years, British writer John Metcalf read over early drafts of dozens of Solar Pons stories and contributed comments and insight to authenticate them even further. He often made suggestions about changing Dr. Parker's quaint blend of American colloquialism and Anglo-Saxon English. This Derleth was loath to modify, explaining once in a letter to fan Robert Pattrick, who created a chronology of the adventures, that if the stories were written to conform rigidly with accepted British usage, they would instantly be rejected by American magazine editors.
    In the early 1980s, when Arkham House planned the publication of a two-volume Solar Pons Omnibus, British novelist Basil Copper, persuaded editor James Turner to let him touch up the many inaccuracies that had crept into the Pontine canon. The loyal band of Solar Pons devotees known as The Praed Street Irregulars, complained bitterly, and the planned corrections were considerably scaled down. Even the minor changes that were done were not justified, and were apparently performed by someone on an ego trip.

The History

Solar Pons of 7b Praed Street made his first appearance in the June, 1929, issue of The Dragnet, in a story called "The Adventure of the Missing Tenants." "The Adventure of the Broken Chessman" followed in the September issue, and "The Adventure of the Late Mr. Faversham" in December. That was the last issue of The Dragnet, one of many pulp magazines that suffered a hasty demise during the October stock market crash that launched the dark years of the Great Depression.
    Knowing the end was near, the editor of The Dragnet returned to the author several other Solar Pons he had accepted — "The Adventure of the Limping Man" and "The Adventure of the Black Cardinal," which Derleth immediately placed elsewhere. They appeared in the December 1929 Detective Trails and the March 1930 Gangster Stories, respectively.
    At the time, Derleth had already conceived a master plan for an extended series of Solar Pons stories. In a bound volume of early Solar Pons manuscripts recently discovered at "Place of Hawks," the Derleth family home, a typed insert lists 37 possible story titles for the continuation of the series. On this list are such tantalizing titles as "The Adventure of —"

    "the Paris Opera"
    "the Pope's Guardsman"
    "the Wax Bismark"
    "the Bohemian Artist"
    "the Black Powder"
    "the Purple Stain"
    "the Third Corpse"
    "the Bronze Buddha"
    "the Imperial Crown"
    "the Strange Orchid"
    "the Ming Saucer"
    "the Deuce of Clubs" ... and many others.

    Some of the titles on this list were eventually used in stories Derleth was to write in later decades. A few others were written but never published.
    All the Solar Pons stories germinated with a title. As far as I can tell from reading thousands of his letters, Derleth would not write a story until he had a satisfactory and intriguing working title. He liked the cerebral challenge of writing a story around a title, rather than adding a title to one he had already written. After the publication of "In Re Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of Solar Pons," Derleth planned future collections by first making a list of titles. Then he would work on them leisurely over a period of a half-dozen years, when he could steal time from his other contractual writing obligations, and rewrite them until they were as perfect as he could make them.
    In spite of Derleth's ambitious Solar Pons story list, he wrote no more after the publication of "The Adventure of the Black Cardinal," and his fictional progeny drifted into obscurity.
Solar Pons was mentioned in only a few letters during the decade of the 1930s. On June 4, 1934, Derleth wrote to his literary mentor H. P. Lovecraft, "My publishers [Loring & Mussey], anxious to keep me entirely on their list, are promising to bring out FOUR books by me a year, two Judge Peck novels under my name, and any serious novel under my own name extra, and two Solar Pons novels under a pseudonym."
    Plans for publishing the Solar Pons novels did not materialize for unknown reasons. In fact, I have been unable to find any corroborating evidence that such a discussion between author and publisher ever took place. Possibly this letter or letters did not survive; but it is more likely that the young author was being overly optimistic about selling a series of Solar Pons novels to L&M. The publisher did bring out two Judge Peck mystery novels and Place of Hawks, Derleth's first book in the Sac Prairie Saga, before the publisher wound up in financial difficulties and filed for bankruptcy in 1936. At that point, Derleth moved over to Chas. Scribners Sons, who were to publish his most important regional novels and several additional Judge Peck mysteries over the next decade.
    Derleth's fictional detective was effectively dead for almost fifteen years following his introduction in the pages of The Dragnet. And he might have remained in obscurity were it not for Frederic Dannay. Dannay, better known to the public as one half of the Ellery Queen mystery writing team, coaxed Solar Pons back to life. Dannay was collecting an anthology of Sherlock Holmes pastiches and parodies in the early 1940s, which he planned to call The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, and asked Derleth if he could recommend possible stories. Derleth responded by sending Dannay several of the Solar Pons stories he had written fifteen years earlier.
    Dannay was a shrewd editor and recognized the potential the Solar Pons stories might have, and he encouraged Derleth to write enough stories to fill a book. Derleth set to this task by writing "The Adventure of the Norcross Riddle" for Dannay's The Misadventures of Sherlock Homes [Little, Brown & Co., 1944], which was duly folded into the first of five Solar Pons collections published during the author's lifetime.
    Over the next two years he wrote at least a dozen new Solar Pons stories for his first collection. Only two of his original five appeared in the book — "The Adventure of the Late Mr. Faversham" and "The Adventure of the Limping Man." The remaining three were rewritten for later collections. Despite the enthusiastic support of Fred Dannay, Vincent Starrett, Anthony Boucher and other noted mystery critics, In Re Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of Solar Pons failed to find a publisher. "This I expected," he wrote to Starrett in the fall of 1944.
    Although several publishers like Ziff Davis Co. were enthusiastic about the book, they turned it down reluctantly. Earlier that year the sons and heirs to the Estate of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wielded their considerable legal power and forced Little, Brown & Co. to withdraw The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes from distribution, just as it was gaining momentum in the bookstores.
    Brothers Dennis and Adrian Conan Doyle were living high on the hog off their father's literary heritage, and would not bend an inch if they could not somehow profit from any Sherlock Holmes spin-off. But Derleth was undaunted by his failure to find a publisher. He decided to publish the book himself. He already had an established publishing company called Arkham House, then six years old, which published the writings of some of the best American and English practitioners of the macabre and the supernatural. He also thought it was time to create a new imprint.
    With his typical flair for tongue-in-cheek satire, Derleth chose the name of "Mycroft & Moran" for his new imprint. Mycroft being the name of Sherlock's older brother, and Moran being Colonel Sebastian Moran, "the second most dangerous man in London," and Professor Moriarty's lethal right arm.
    He persuaded Vincent Starrett to write an introduction to the book, and it was duly published in 1945. For a time Derleth basked in comfort because there had been no objections from the Conan Doyle estate.
    But that objection finally did come in the form of a legal threat on September 11, 1946 (almost a year after publication) from the Estate's New York attorneys, Fitelson Mayers and London, who wrote to the book's publisher as follows:

Messrs. Mycroft & Moran,
Sauk City, Wisconsin
    We are writing you on behalf of our client, the Estate of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
We have been advised by our client that without its consent you have recently published, issued and distributed to the general public in various parts of the United States a book entitled "In Re: Sherlock Holmes" written by one, August Derleth, using and exploiting as the basis of its stories the world famous literary character, Sherlock Holmes, as well as the name, symbols, devices, suggestive dialogue and literary sequelae long associated with and identifying the original character Sherlock Holmes, and world famous works concerning him.
    Such use on your part constitutes an unfair violation of our client's property rights. As you probably know, there are broadcast radio programs on the Sherlock Holmes works under contract with the Conan Doyle Estate. Moreover, motion pictures are being made from such literary works from time to time under special contracts with the Conan Doyle Estate. You can readily appreciate that such valuable motion pictures, radio and literary rights are and will be serious[sic] affected by your infringement thereof.
    Accordingly, for the protection of our client's interest in the Sherlock Holmes properties, we demand that you immediately desist from such unlawful and unauthorized use of the Sherlock Holmes character, name, symbols, devices and other literary incidentals of the Sherlock Holmes works.
    So as to obviate the necessity of our initiating steps towards the enforcement of our client's rights in the premises, we would appreciate your confirming to us by return mail that you have complied with our demand forthwith.
    This letter is written to you without prejudice to the rights of our client for the recovery of damages in consequence of your infringing conduct in the premises.

Very truly yours,
By (signed)
Harold J. Sherman

    Derleth was not overly rattled. He fully expected that some reaction would be forthcoming. Three days later, on September 14, 1946, he sent a form letter to a number of the leading members of the Baker Street Irregulars, including Vincent Starrett, Frederic Dannay, Ben Abramson (bookseller and publisher), Edgar W. Smith (head of the BSI and a vice president with General Motors Corp.), and writer/critic Anthony Boucher, among others.

Dear Friend,
    I have today received a letter from the legal representatives of the Estate of Conan Doyle, a copy of which I enclose herewith. To this letter I have made a temporary reply, pending legal advice, to the effect that the book in question (which has virtually ceased to sell now, a year from publication) would be withheld from circulation "pending a mutually satisfactory determination of the questions involved." I have also gone on record by saying that, if it can "legally be shown that infringement has taken place, then the question of indemnity may be taken up."
    I am sending you this letter primarily to gather reaction from fellow members of the BSI. You will note that the Fitelson Mayers and London letter accuses me of "unfair violation" of the Doyle "property rights." There appears to be no accusation of copyright violation. In the matter of copyright and public domain, it would appear to be necessary to establish the fact that the name Sherlock Holmes as well as at least one of the early novels and/or tales is in the public domain. If the Lippincott copyright of 1890 on A Study in Scarlet is valid under the 1909 copyright law, and there was no prior copyright or publication — such as a piratical publication of this story by Doyle — then the name Sherlock Holmes may be considered still to be the "property of the Doyle Estate." If, on the other hand, the name is in the public domain, then it would seem that the attitude of the Doyle Estate is unwarranted. I would appreciate any information you have to offer in regard to the specific problem in hand and not relative to any presumptive "right" in the name, since any action of necessity be predicated first, upon the copyright law, and secondly, upon "damages."
    The suggestion of "damages" to the shocking mis-use of the Holmesian adventures in the cinema and on radio is frankly nothing less than laughable, since it attempts to presume upon the "remote damages" clause of the law, which in this case would operate to the distinct disadvantage of the plaintiff. Even if this were not true, the very intimation that an edition of 3000-odd books could in the slightest affect an audience of over a million persons, to put it conservatively, would hardly stand up in court.
    While my legal counsel is looking into the matter, I would appreciate hearing from you.
August Derleth

    Some of the subsequent correspondence has been lost, but a few choice letters survive. Vincent Starrett, the doyen of Holmesian bibliophiles and a Chicago Tribune columnist, sent Derleth a detailed letter on September 17, 1946, in which he produced some early copyright information that appeared to prove Derleth's contention that the name Sherlock Holmes was indeed in the public domain, at least in the United States. He concluded his letter with —
"Of course the claim of the ungrateful Doyles that you have violated their property rights is ridiculous. You have actually helped, as does every mention of Holmes, to keep their property rights valuable and the character of Holmes alive. The Doyle sons are apparently so damned greedy that they want their cut every time one mentions the name of the detective. It is so disgusting and ungrateful a spectacle that I am tempted to abjure Holmes and all his works; it would serve them right if their meal ticket was taken from them by a complete American boycott of the Holmes-Watson legend.... Keep me posted on the whole situation if you will. If and when it ever reaches a point where I can help with a blast in my column, I should like to voice that blast."
    Derleth replied to Starrett's letter on September 18, 1946. After citing a number of legal precedents in his favor, he wrote:
    "...I agree with you that the dog in the manger attitude of the Doyles is disgusting; here we have a spectacle of a couple of lazy louts simply existing on their father's work. Doyle himself was always very gracious, that is, insofar as I am concerned. I am terribly sorry that my letter from him was destroyed, but it is so — all I have left now is a note jotted on the corner of a letter, and a signed Complete Sherlock Holmes in the Murray edition (the short stories)."
Adrian Conan Doyle's legal threats vaporized into thin air, as Derleth wrote to Anthony Boucher on September 27, 1946:
    "As to the ‘In Re: Sherlock Holmes' affair, my legal counsel tells me that there not only has not been any infringement of any kind in my book, but that the attitude of the Doyle Estate is subject to considerable question under the heads of attempted intimidation and blackmail. In short, if they bring action they will lose, and once it is legally proclaimed that SH is in the public domain, no radio company or movie company will have to pay the Doyles a cent to use SH in their own stories, as long as they don't use the Doyle tales...
    "As for Solar Pons on the air, there is no reason why he cannot go on the air. Imitation is not plagiarism. You cannot copyright an idea; you cannot copyright even a name after 56 years. Adrian Doyle wrote me a snotty letter saying I had invaded his proprietary interests by my collection of Solar Pons stories; in effect I invited him to take the legal action he threatened. He hasn't a leg to stand on. Moreover, if he sues, I will take good advertising space and advertise IN RE as the book the Conan Doyle estate tried to suppress, and Messrs. Adrian and his brother will soon find themselves looked on in askance. My lawyers laughed at his letter. The only possibility of a case would have been if I had titled my book as I did solely with the intention of deceiving buyers into adding the book to their shelves under the mistaken impression that it dealt with Holmes. My jacket blurbs and the limitation of the print order (3000 c) clearly blast any such contention. The fact is that the Doyles can no longer restrict use of SHERLOCK HOLMES as a name; they can still charge fraud if I write stories featuring Holmes and Watson; but Holmes has been in the public domain over here for a long time, in fact, I don't think he was ever copyrighted, since his initial adventure was pirated over here and appeared without copyright protection. So the Doyles would have a hell of a time doing anything at all about it, and they would take a shellacking from me on several counts. The plain fact is that the Doyle sons are a pair of lazy bastards who have tried to eke out a complete living from proceeds of their father's writings. Other have told me that before; I was dubious; but I am less so."
    Derleth continued to sell In Re: Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of Solar Pons, and went on to write scores of new stories over the next twenty-five years. It took many years for Adrian Conan Doyle to even moderately temper his attitude. He was still gloating about his victory over The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, when we corresponded in the early 1960s, writing to me on October 1, 1963: "...we gave them [the publishers] fair warning that we would bring a lawsuit in the event of any more of that book. There was a tremendous affair at the time and Ellery Queen escaped a law suit by the skin of his teeth." Adrian Doyle went on to say, pompously: "The great majority of the stories contained therein were well calculated to damage the high standing of the Holmes stories which are acknowledged to be literary classics and are included in the Oxford ‘Classics of English Literature'."
    That statement of how the stories in Ellery Queen's book were "well calculated to damage the high standing of the Holmes stories" was, of course, utter nonsense. Although the general tenure of our correspondence had been very friendly for about five years, the moment I published Derleth's The Adventure of the Orient Express as a chapbook, in 1965, Doyle cut off all further communication with me.
    Derleth and I chuckled about it at the time for good reason.
    With the Doyle incident behind him, ideas for new Solar Pons stories cropped up now and again. Derleth wrote them at a leisurely pace, making an occasional sale to one of the detective story magazines. But because detective story magazines skidded into a decline in the 1950s and 1960s, at least half of the stories eventually published in book form never achieved prior magazine publication.
    When The Chronicles of Solar Pons, the sixth and last Pontine collection was published, in 1973, two years after the creator's death, it was believed that the great successor to Sherlock Holmes had made his last bow.
    Exactly twenty years later, several unpublished Solar Pons stories appeared unexpectedly. A package postmarked October 1993 Minneapolis, Minnesota, was received by the August Derleth Society in Sauk City, Wisconsin. The writer, who wished to remain anonymous, said that many years earlier, August Derleth had visited his home a few years before his death and brought with him carbons of several Solar Pons stories which he left behind either by accident or design. The writer of the note had forgotten that he had the manuscript carbons; but now that they had turned up again, he thought it would be best to place them with the August Derleth Society for safe-keeping. Several photocopies were made and distributed to members of the Praed Street Irregulars, and one set was sent to Canadian publisher George Vanderburgh, who eventually secured permission from the Derleth Estate to publish them in 1994 as The Unpublished Solar Pons.
    This slender limited edition contained the complete text to "The Adventure of the Viennese Musician" and "The Adventure of the Muttering Man." "The Adventure of the Sinister House" was missing the last page, and "The Adventure of the Green Stars" contained only the first two pages.
    In June of 1995, while attending the 25th Derleth Memorial for the late author, his daughter April presented me with two large boxes of her father's manuscripts with the hope that I would edit them for publication. They contained a dozen unpublished novels, and many hundreds of short stories, journals, articles, lectures and sketches. Included was a folder of Solar Pons manuscripts filled with some remarkable items. There was a short novel of about 30,000 words entitled "Mr. Solar Pons of Praed Street" which was missing the first one and a half chapters (which I located on a subsequent visit to the Derleth home in October). Other items were the original manuscripts to "The Adventure of Gresham Old Place," "The Adventure of the Burlstone Horror," "The Adventure of the Viennese Musician," "The Adventure of the Muttering Man," and two collaborations between Derleth and science-fiction writer Mack Reynolds.
    "The Adventure of the Burlstone Horror" was a later version of the incomplete "The Adventure of the Sinister House," which appeared in The Unpublished Solar Pons. That title evolved into "The Adventure of the Yarlpool Horror," and then with numerous penned corrections and a title change into "The Adventure of the Burlstone Horror," a considerable improvement over the original "Sinister House" draft. "The Adventure of Gresham Old Place" had been heavily revised and edited by hand, but the story was never retyped or polished further.
    The plum of the collection was, of course, the novel. At the time of its discovery, I assigned a tentative date of 1930 to the manuscript; but further research indicates it was probably written in 1928, but certainly no later than early 1929. That bound volume of manuscripts I mentioned at the beginning of this Introduction, had on that insert of suggested story titles one called "The Adventure of the Deuce of Clubs." The Deuce of Clubs was the evil International criminal mastermind whose organization terrorized the governments in Europe, and the focal point of Solar Pons' criminal investigation in "Mr. Solar Pons of Praed Street."
    I found the answer to the question as to why the novel and the several short stories were never published in a letter Derleth sent to Robert Pattrick on November 29, 1952, when Pattrick was preparing his Pons chronology:
    "....The unrevised early Pons stories are as follows: the adventure of — the viennese musician, the missing tenants the muttering man, the black cardinal, the yarlpool horror (retitled the burlstone horror, gresham old place
    The unfinished tale is that of the green stars; the short novel the clubs. I do eventually intend to revise them, rather than to let them be reprinted as they are, the typical work of a 19-year old, very amateurish."
    At the time of his unexpected death in September 1960, Robert Pattrick had not yet completed "A Chronology of Solar Pons." Derleth obtained a copy of it from his parents the following July, completed it, and then published it in The Reminiscences of Solar Pons. On the list of unrecorded adventures of Solar Pons he has "The Adventure of the Clubs."
And at the time of his own death a decade later, Derleth still had not gotten around to revising these early stories, as he had intended. That they survived at all for almost seventy years after they were written is quite remarkable.
    The Final Adventures of Solar Pons may not rank among the author's greatest stories about Mr. Pons' consulting career, but they are deftly plotted, and competently written. I have renamed "The Adventure of The Clubs" to "The Terror Over London," because it seemed to fit the mood of the story better. It may not have the slick writing style of his only published Solar Pons novel (Mr. Fairlie's Final Journey), but it is much more exciting and faster paced, and shows the definite influence of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu mysteries, in terms of excitement and intrigue. It is also less formulaic than most of the short stories.
    Background information on the Derleth-Reynolds collaborations — "The Adventure of the Extra-Terrestrial" and "The Adventure of the Nosferatu" — may be found in a section immediately preceding the section entitled "The Off-Trail Solar Pons."
    Here, then, seventy years after they were written, are the final adventures of Solar Pons as recorded by his faithful chronicler Dr. Lyndon Parker. I wish there were more. A careful examination of more than ten thousand pages of unpublished and uncollected manuscripts, and the reading of thousands of Derleth's letters, proves conclusively that all the Solar Pons stories are finally accounted for. I hope that Augie, in whatever dimension he may be, does not look down upon me too unkindly for publishing what he called his "youthful indiscretions."

— Peter Ruber
Oakdale, New York
24 August 1998