Who knows Solar Pons?

In 1953—with tongue firmly in cheek—editor Anthony Boucher provided readers of Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction the lowdown on August Derleth:

Mr. August Derleth is the literary agent in this country for such writers as Stephen Grendon, H. Russell Wakefield and Lyndon Parker, M. D. Dr. Parker is the Boswell of that modern master of the science of deduction, Mr. Solar Pons, the famed consulting detective of 7B Praed Street, London. Mr. Derleth has marketed three volumes of the Doctor’s accounts of his friend’s triumphs: In Re: Sherlock Holmes, The Memoirs of Solar Pons and Three Problems for Solar Pons (all published by Mycroft & Moran)—a criminously delightful trio that any reader will, as Vincent Starrett say, “accept with enthusiasm.”

Boucher was himself a well-known critic and mystery writer. Starrett had become a leading authority on the world-famous literary detective, Sherlock Holmes. And Derleth was Wisconsin’s most prolific regional writer and publisher.

What resonated with readers, however, was the inference here—and in the new story “The Adventure of the Snitch in Time” (recalled with the help of science fiction writer Mack Reynolds)—that Solar Pons is Sherlock Holmes, just as Dr. Parker is Sherlock’s sidekick Dr. Watson . . .

Adding nuanced meaning to a question Derleth asked when publishing the Pons collections of stories under his own M&M imprint:

“Do You Know Solar Pons?”

 

Do You Know

 

If this doesn’t ring the bell, go back and read my earlier post on this site: The Mystery of the Milwaukee – Chicago – Sauk City Connection

Then you will know why Solar Pons—as does Sherlock Holmes—has his own legion of fans who seek out the Derleth detective’s earliest appearances in the American wood-pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s . . .

 

Dragnet

 

And collect Derleth’s M&M books, known as the Pontine canon—collect even the publishing ephemera associated with those books.

Literary people know all about ephemera—in this case, almost anything related to a press, or imprint, items with a limited lifespan not offered for sale to the public. Advertising. Giveaways. Those that do the collecting are the diehard fans, and usually it is the paper items they collect.

As for Pontine ephemera, check out what my partner Don Herron posted only a few years ago:   http://www.donherron.com/rediscovered-further-pontine-ephemera/  Don concluded his blog by noticing, “Yeah, I guess the ephemera collecting game is once more afoot…”

And so it was.

In fact, it had been afoot for a long time.

Way back in 1985, Mycroft & Moran and Arkham House collector—the House being Derleth’s more famous publishing imprint specializing in supernatural fiction—Phillip T. Mays and bookseller-publisher Roy A. Squires issued a little chapbook bibliography, The Phil Mays Collection of Arkham House Ephemerae: A Descriptive Listing.

Combining the two imprints made sense, because Derleth usually included M&M within Arkham’s more famous Stock Lists and bulletins. Almost immediately the little items listed in Squires-Mays began to sky-rocket in price, a large contingent of Arkham or Derleth collectors wanting to find and add each and every one to their collections.

A difficult task to complete with so many of the pieces genuinely rare—with little or no knowledge of the quantities originally printed, or how many now survive.

Mays included two advertising pieces Derleth used to promote only M&M titles: the first a postcard that announced “— a new Mycroft & Moran book, coming December 12, 1952 . . . Three Problems for Solar Pons”; and then a brochure that blared, “Coming Late in 1955! The Return of Solar Pons.”

At this point you might ask why these ephemera pieces are important . . .

To which I would respond by asking, “How well do you know Solar Pons?

That’s because I’ve sampled the little treasures of interesting information one can find buried in the ephemera. For example, from—and only from—the Mays find could I deduce the true story behind the small and unusual Three Problems book—unusually small compared to earlier collections in that it contained only three of the detective’s adventures.

 

3 Problems

 

Yes, a little digging turns up the fact that Derleth published this book in the 50’s when small publishers were struggling for sales against changing tastes and the rising costs of doing business following World War II—who wouldn’t think Derleth wasn’t merely responding to these operational realities?

The ephemera pieces suggest otherwise—a motive perhaps historically significant . . .

The very moment Derleth decided he would mirror in pastiche the entire Sherlock Holmes canon produced by Arthur Conan Doyle, who had once brought the Holmes canon to a temporary end, interrupting it after chronicling twenty-six adventures.

Derleth introduces Three Problems sadly, proclaiming that “These are quite possibly the last Solar Pons pastiches I shall write,” for reasons he blamed on new activity within the Doyle estate…

Three brought the total of Pons adventures in print to exactly 26.

Coincidence? Perhaps there was a coded message in the utterance Derleth is known to have begun making: “I think Doyle had, and so Derleth must also have”. . .

A message of intent which explains how the meaningful title for the next volume of Pons chronicles series was decided; mimicking that of Doyle’s third Holmes collection, it would be The Return of Solar Pons.

None of this is to say that Derleth, a cagey publisher with excellent business sense, didn’t make at least one adjustment to cope with a softened market: he trimmed his initial order of Three Problems, estimated (if we believe the colophon) to have been 2,000 books, down to 990—probably the exact number of patrons who had routinely purchased the earlier collections.

We learn as well from the M&M ephemera Mays listed another tantalizing, behind-the-scenes, bit of data. How otherwise would we know that the collection Derleth planned to follow The Return had, for a short while, The Problems of Solar Pons as its working title? Only from the ephemera do we learn this, a “lost title” apparently undreamed of by Sheldon Jeffery–or else it would’ve been with the others he included under that heading in The Arkham House Companion (1989), a reference book covering every AH and M&M title published, or merely considered.

Perhaps so that it wouldn’t be confused with Three Problems, the already announced Problems of Solar Pons was retitled The Reminiscences of Solar Pons prior to publication.

The Mays listing of Derleth’s AH and M&M ephemera gave completists a great start for finding the game, but new finds made it evident almost immediately that his collection had not been complete.

Finally, about sixteen or seventeen years later, my friend Don Herron jumped in. He wanted to refine the Mays list—compile a new one that would be up-to-date, definitive, and otherwise as useful as it possibly could be.

On the sidelines, I agreed to help.

It would be Don’s list, but I supplied every new item I could reasonably, authoritatively, corroborate the existence of, even if not all of the needed information was at my disposal.

One of these was another strictly M&M piece, which the reputable New York bookseller Lloyd Currey listed in an old catalog—it was a variation of the Mays “Do You Know Solar Pons.”

All I had for the description was an excerpt from the actual piece, a quotation used in the piece that Currey used to promote it:

“If you liked Sherlock Holmes, you will not want to miss Solar Pons, The Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street. . . .” In Re: Sherlock Holmes, The Adventures of Solar Pons, The Memoirs of Solar Pons, The Return of Solar Pons, The Reminiscences of Solar Pons. Includes two pages devoted to offset reviews of the Pons saga from various sources – Starrett in his Books Alive column, Time, San Francisco Chronicle, etc. “Under the imprint of Mycroft & Moran. Order without delay from your bookseller or Arkham House: Publishers. . . .”

It was enough for us to include it in the new list. And today, validating our decision, I located one, and now own the actual piece.

“Arkham House Ephemera: The Classic Years” by Don Herron was published in 2002, in Firsts: The Book Collector’s Magazine.

Since then, however, Don & I both are aware there is game still afoot. But not even he knows about the two additional brochures I found, which raise the “Do You Know Solar Pons” series to a total of four.

For Derlethians and Sherlockians—especially for Arkham House completists—here is my updated list of the ephemera Derleth devoted exclusively to Mycroft & Moran:

1952: POSTCARD.
Arkham House Announces.
“— a new Mycroft & Moran book, coming December 12, 1952. . . Three Problems for Solar Pons. . . .”

1953:
“The Memoirs of Solar Pons: A Unicorn Selection—Coming Next Month.” Unicorn Mystery News V3n12 (c. 1953): 10-11.

1954: LETTER w/M&M letterhead.
“Solar Pons joins me in wishing all friends of his as well as the Master, his best on the occasion of the Master’s Centenary!”
Signed by August Derleth, “Sebastian Moran” and “Mycroft Holmes.”

1955: BROCHURE.
Do You Know Solar Pons?
“Coming Late in 1955! The Return of Solar Pons.”

1961-63: BROCHURE.
Do You Know Solar Pons?
“If you liked Sherlock Holmes, you will not want to miss … The Reminiscences of Solar Pons.”

1965: LETTER w/Deerstalker (M&M) letterhead.
Dear Reviewer:
The Casebook of Solar Pons brings to 56 the total number of Pontine tales in print — the precise number of the Sherlock Holmes stories in short length.”

1965: BROCHURE.
Do You Know Solar Pons?
“If you liked Sherlock Holmes, you will not want to miss … The Casebook of Solar Pons.”

c. 1966: BROCHURE.
About Solar Pons.
A 57th story, The Adventure of the Orient Express, was published (1965) in chapbook form … The Candlelight Press also published in 1965 Praed Street Papers.”

1971: CABINET CARD w/Roy Hunt illustration of Solar Pons & Dr. Lyndon Parker.
“All thanks for your order … We expect to publish [Chronicles] in October.”

Is the foregoing all the game there is to find that is exclusively Mycroft & Moran ephemera?

Maybe, if we recall that announcements for the first two books in the Pons series—In Re: Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Solar Pons—were adequately covered in Arkham House pieces, and that those published after 1967—Mr. Fairlie’s Final Journey, The Adventure of the Unique Dickensians and A Praed Street Dossier—were announced in Derleth’s house-magazine, The Arkham Collector.

Maybe, but the likelihood is there’s more game afoot . . .

John D. Haefele submitted this article.

© John D. Haefele. All rights reserved.

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