Vickroy: The curious case of Sherlock’s fandom
DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org | (708) 633-5982 July 13, 2012 10:04PM
Jack Levitt is a Homewood resident and authority on the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. | Larry Ruehl~Sun-Times Media
Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty, was a mathematical genius.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s cases and stories have been translated into several languages, including Braille, shorthand and pig Latin. Jack Levitt has a copy of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” written in Hebrew.
About 500 letters are received at 221B Baker St., Holmes’ address in London, each year. An insurance company claims that address today, but a secretary there answers all inquiries about Holmes with a note explaining the esteemed detective is in retirement.
Holmes is said to have used a 7 percent solution of cocaine, which was not considered illegal.
It’s also believed he used morphine and was a chain smoker. His sidekick, Dr. John Watson, tried tirelessly to get him to kick the drug habit.
Holmes played the violin, but not just any violin. He played a Stradivarius.
Holmes refused to eat while working on cases, believing that starvation would increase blood flow to his brain.
Updated: August 16, 2012 6:09AM
How to explain Jack Levitt’s fascination with famous fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes?
Really, it’s elementary.
“It may sound strange that a fictional character is my hero.” Levitt said. “But in a day and age when we only celebrate celebrities, Holmes stands out as a man who is patriotic, honorable and respectful.”
Not to mention the whole genius thing.
Levitt, 80, recently hosted “My Fascination with Sherlock Holmes” at the B’Nai Yehuda Beth Sholom temple in Homewood. About 40 people turned out to hear him talk about Holmes’ continued popularity among the detective story-loving public. Many also admired Levitt’s collection of books, games, movie posters and puzzles.
Levitt began his lecture by pointing out that with 300 movies, 65 stage productions and some 700 radio shows inspired by Holmes, his personal fascination is hardly an aberration.
“There’s even a Holmes-inspired ballet,” Levitt said.
For the former math teacher and currency exchange operator, the hobby began when he read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” as a freshman in high school.
“I don’t remember the other stories we read that year, but I sure remember that one,” he said.
Since then, he’s read everything about Sherlock Holmes, again and again.
In 1972, Levitt went to a meeting of the Criterion Bar Association, a group dedicated to discussing and honoring Holmes. Levitt said he met lots of interesting people, solved a cryptogram and left with a prize book.
Now in its 40th year, the Criterion club, like other Holmes societies around the world, holds an annual party for the detective on Jan. 6, the date believed to be the detective’s birthday.
In 1984, Levitt became a charter member of the South Downers, a south suburban club aimed at preserving the scholarly memory and study of Sherlock Holmes. The group meets the last Wednesday of every month at Carlo’s Restaurant in Chicago Heights.
“You go to these things and you forget your troubles,” Levitt said. “The meetings always begin with a toast to somebody. Holmes, Queen Victoria, Irene Adler. The members come from all walks of life. We talk about the books and the movies. It’s fun.”
Levitt, a widower, said he finds Holmes’ logical nature and his ability to differentiate between law and justice captivating.
“He is a unique character, not a superman but an apex of what man could be,” he said. “Many of his ideas and ideals are very contemporary, a reminder that a man can be great yet not perfect.”
Levitt told the audience that from 1887 to 1904, Doyle published short stories and novels in which Holmes solved cases of murder, blackmail, vampirism, even students cheating on a final exam.
Doyle, who earned a degree in medicine and wrote to cure boredom, based Holmes on a real-life doctor named Joseph Bell, while Holmes’ sidekick, Dr. John Watson, was based on Doyle himself.
Levitt’s favorite Holmes novel is “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
“Read it on a winter’s night when the wind is howling,” he said. “Love its surprise ending.”
His favorite Holmes actor is Jeremy Brett, who played the esteemed detective in a long-running PBS series.
“He has all the tics and mannerisms of the fictional detective,” Levitt said. “And he looked like what Holmes would look like.”
Levitt doesn’t care for actor Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of the sleuth in the 2009 film version and its 2011 sequel. But 12-year-old Tyler Burnett, who attended the presentation, does.
“The movies are exciting. I like mysteries. I like figuring things out,” Tyler said.
Dory Machtinger, of Flossmoor, also attended. She loves the Holmes series because it features mysteries set in Victorian England.
“Plus the fact that he’s so smart and picks up such small subtleties,” she said. “It’s all fun and it’s all not for real.”
Diane Wolf, of Homewood, said she attended because, “I like mysteries of all kinds. That’s the dark side of me — I like murder.”
Levitt understands completely.
“Read the stories, then close your eyes and you can see the hansom cabs, the gas lights, the men in long capes,” he said.
And you can also imagine a tall, thin detective with a deerstalker hat and a long-stemmed briar pipe getting to the bottom of things.
For more information on the South Downers group, contact Kenn Czarnecki at (708) 429-4326.