The exciting visit to the rooms of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson at 221 B Baker Street on the occasion of the London presentation of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s new novel, which is appropriately full of mysteries — including one related to the Nazis and the RAF bombers—The final problem (Alfaguara), has led me back to the world of Conan Doyle’s detective and to immerse myself in the canon of his adventures, the ones aptly called by fans the Scriptures. It has also allowed me to discover that Watson and I have something else in common apart from being secondary characters: he also lived with a stuffed cobra.
The first thing I did when I arrived in the English capital, where I traveled with the founding A Study in Scarlet (my old 1985 edition of Alliance) in my pocket (“Don’t you know Sherlock Holmes yet? You might come to the conclusion that you don’t “He’s exactly the type you’d always like to have as a neighbor”), was to direct my steps to Foyle’s, in Charing Cross, in search of some good essay on the character. As fortune rewards the bold (the other journalists went to dinner at The Coach Makers Arms pub) I picked up A Brief Story Of Sherlock Holmes, The Complete Guide To The World’s Most Famous Detective, by Nigel Cawthorne (Running Press, 2011 ), the perfect support book for an adventure like the one that awaited me. As a cherry on top, I picked up Warriors in Scarlet, precisely, the new book (McMillan) by Ian Knight, warm, about the last soldiers of the Victorian era, which Arturo himself later recommended to me, not Wellesley, of course, but Pérez-Reverte.
Cawthorne’s volume, with summaries of all the canonical cases (4 novels and 56 stories), includes some very tasty biographical chapters on Holmes, Watson and Conan Doyle himself (the writer had worked on a whaling ship in the Arctic, not the Sea Unicorn but the SS Hope, and accompanied a part of the expedition to avenge Gordon of Khartoum); as well as brief profiles of the detective’s allies: Mycroft, Lestrade, the indispensable Mrs. Hudson, queen of the Scottish breakfast, the Baker Street Irregulars. And also profiles of the investigator’s enemies, led by Moriarty (by the way, we must remember that Adam Worth, who is considered the true Napoleon of the crime that inspired the character, dedicated a biography to him, in Spanish in Ediciones B, today so popular Ben Macintyre), and also profiles of Colonel Moran, great hunter and accredited sniper of Evil; of Von Bork, agent of the Kaiser; of Baron Gruner, “venomous as a cobra” (!) or, of course, of Irene Adler (another ophidic reference: the European viper in English is adder), although Cawthorne, chivalrously, does not place her in the villains section.
Mannequins of Holmes, Watson and Lady Frances Carfax, in the house museum.
We all have our favorite ways to enter Holmesian territory, in addition to the essential canon. For me they are the deerstalker cap with earflaps (yes, I know it’s a false icon popularized by the movies, but I want to wear it) and the pastiches, of which I am a big fan, especially the ones that mix Sherlock Holmes with myths of the horror like Lovecraft’s monstrous Cthulhu or Dracula (now that it is fashionable because of the new movie Demeter, the schooner in which the count arrives in England, we must remember that the infernal dog that jumps off the ship when arriving at Whitby has been associated with that of the Baskervilles). There are some very stimulating works about Holmes and the Lovecraft universe, among them the anthology Shadows on Baker Street (La Factoría de Ideas, 2003), in which 18 Anglo-Saxon writers contribute their respective stories: worth highlighting is that of Richard A. Lupoff or that of Michael Reaves, in which Holmes finds the Necronomicon. Among my favorite pastiches, also those that bring the detective together with Conrad, although Holmes’s interest in ships was reduced to lists of departures, arrivals and passengers, and some submarines.
A visit to 221 B Baker Street brings many joys and reunions to the fan. On his own visit, which he recounts in his entry on Holmes in his essential Passionate Dictionary of Crime Novels (Salamandra, 2023), Pierre Lemaitre (which curiously also includes an entry on Pérez-Reverte) found the house museum to be a kind of “cabinet of curiosities” (Holmes believes he is “perhaps bipolar, undoubtedly homosexual, hyperactive, misogynistic, cold, narcissistic and secretive”). Certainly, everything in the house is a bit crazy: you immerse yourself in a world of literary fantasy as if it were a real place and you pass between objects and characters that have never existed except in the minds of Conan Doyle and the readers (and in the films). Which does not prevent you from feeling intimidated by the stuffed head of the Baskerville dog (where did they get it from?), or from being excited by Holmes’ violin, his magnifying glass, his pipes, his syringe and the costumes of that real Victorian bologna. The entire house, three floors of the building, is quite thunderous and full of strange and disturbing things. It adds a surreal touch that the guides or guards are girls dressed as period maidens, with an unexpected touch of servants of the Roissy castle, and let’s not forget that Sherlock Holmes’ favorite weapon is the riding crop…
Illustration of the play based on ‘The Adventure of the Polka Dot Band’, an adaptation by Conan Doyle himself.
Precisely with one of them he defends himself against the reptile that stars in my favorite story (which was also Conan Doyle’s favorite): The Adventure of the Polka Dot Gang. The one about the guy who murders her victim using a trained poisonous snake that ends up biting him when Holmes beats it away. In the Baker Street house there is an amazing staging of the case with a mannequin of the criminal, Dr Grimesby Roylott, with a horrified face, his eyes bulging and a small black snake around his head. Which snake it was originally is a matter that has given rise to much talk in Holmesian circles. In Watson’s story, Holmes identifies it as a “swamp adder” and adds that it is “the most deadly snake in India” (its venom kills in ten seconds, he says). Here our detective apparently slips, since “adder” refers only to some vipers that, precisely, do not exist in India. For the others in English the term “viper” is used (we use viper for all of them). It has been speculated that Holmes was referring to the Russell’s viper or dibonga, which does exist in the subcontinent (where it causes many deaths), but that massive snake, a piece of bug, could not do what the one in the story does (climb by a cord of cloth), apart from the fact that snakes are deaf and none would respond to the call of a whistle as in the case, and neither would they allow themselves to be domesticated by giving them milk (in fact, it feels terrible to them).
Visitors at the doors of the Sherlock Holmes house museum on Baker Street.
I have found on the Internet an alleged article by herpetologist Laurence M. Klauber supposedly published in 1948 in The Baker Street Journal, which thoughtfully reviews the case from a scientific point of view with many notes and citing an extensive bibliography. In reality, either Klauber (who really existed, died in 1968 and is considered the world’s leading authority on rattlesnakes) had a great sense of humor and made a stupid joke or it is a clever and very funny invention at his own expense. . Be that as it may, the text proposes that Watson was wrong when interpreting Holmes’ words (evidently incapable of screwing up on a topic of natural sciences and poisons: the article reviews in detail the classic titles on poisonous reptiles that the library undoubtedly contained of the detective) and what he said was that he was a “samp-aderm, the deadliest skink in India.” The text maintains, tongue in cheek, that Conan Doyle based his villain Roylott on a real character who worked like Dr. Moreau on the hybridization of species. And what Holmes and Watson face is the diabolical result of crossing a Gila monster, Heloderma suspectum, a poisonous lizard (skink is lizard in English) with a cobra! For the specimen, the detective invented a neologism with the words samp (snake in Hindi) and aderm, in reference to heloderm: samp-aderm.
And this brings us to the central point of this article: visiting Watson’s room on the second floor of 221 B Baker Street, I discovered an unexpected stuffed cobra placed in a corner by the window. It caught my attention because it was very similar to the one I own (although I don’t sleep with it, at the moment). Mine was a gift from the Carola family: it was from the grandmother, who brought it from India, and they had it in their beautiful house in Formentera, which by the way had an external shower building similar to the Jantar Mantar, the old astronomical observatory. of Delhi built in 1724 by Sawai Jai Singh. My cobra (which I took from Formentera to Barcelona on a journey that is a chronicle in itself) is like Watson’s in an attack position, with its upper part raised, its hood extended and its mouth open, with its fangs well visible. The good doctor’s is even a little more worn than mine and some of the filling is coming out in several places where the scaly skin has opened.
The stuffed cobra in Watson’s room at 221 B Baker Street.
In the entire Holmesian canon I have not found mention of an adventure with a cobra, much less that Watson kept one next to his bed. In this we are like with the giant rat of Sumatra, “a case for which the world is not yet prepared.” My proposal is that the cobra kept on Baker Street is none other than the mother of the hybrid reptile that would be the protagonist of The Adventure of the Polka Dot Gang. I imagine that Holmes foisted it on Watson as a reminder of the “swamp adder” blunder and a warning for him to pay more attention to the teacher’s words. The truth is that seeing a cobra in an attack position every time you go to sleep and wake up naturally puts you on alert, almost like seven percent coke.
And a coda: Could the two cobras, Watson’s and mine, be related? The most famous couple of cobras in literature is the one formed by Nag and Nagaina, the malevolent killer snakes faced by the mongoose protagonist of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the story by Rudyard Kipling. And Kipling and Conan Doyle were friends for 35 years, during which they visited each other’s homes, exchanged correspondence and read each other’s works, apart from the fact that Conan Doyle introduced Kipling to golf and gave him some skis. It is difficult for me to establish a clear connection between the two snakes (one is not Holmes), but at the same time: everything is continuing to pull the thread of deduction, dear Watson. The adventure continues!
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