Anything in Latin sounds imposing. For example, let’s take the name ‘Solar Pons’ itself. That’s Latin, you know. I looked it up. ‘Solar,’ meaning of, or pertaining to, the sun. And ‘Pons,’ meaning bridge. See what I mean? Doesn’t ‘Solar Pons’ sound a lot better than just calling someone a sun of a bridge?
—Robert Bloch, speaking on the occasion of the first annual Praed Street Irregulars Awards
Ray Palmer, a founding member of the Milwaukee Fictioneers (an antecedent of the Allied Authors of Wisconsin), was also a literary editor for Fantasy Magazine. Palmer wrote an article about the Sauk City Wisconsin writer August Derleth, which appeared in the March 1936 issue.
What exactly led to this event, I haven’t been able to determine. Even though both men made their careers writing, editing, and publishing (with especial interest in fantasy and science fiction), there is no record of correspondence in the “August Derleth Papers” housed at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
But Palmer’s article raises another topic of mutual interest: mystery fiction. Titled “August Derleth” (which already was a broad topic), Palmer covers primarily Judge Peck, a detective character Derleth features in a series of early novels—and mixed in is the hint of something else:
Late in 1936 will appear a book of [Derleth’s] poems, Hawk on the Wind. This will be followed by Still Is the Summer Night, a long serious novel, and Solar Pons of Praed Street, a book of short detective tales.
Praed Street’s Solar Pons and Dr. Parker are also detectives, Derleth’s version of the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson team. His earliest stories with Pons and Parker are juvenilia—Derleth was a teenager in 1928 when he began—but he sold them to Dragnet Magazine and then to Detective Trails, Gangster Stories, and others. After this early spate, Derleth moved on to other types of writing.
And yet in 1934, he began to casually mention two Solar Pons novels he believed Loring & Mussey (who did issue three Peck novels) would publish. And perhaps one of these by 1936 had become the “book of detective tales” Palmer wrote; only L&M went out of business that year.
Derleth, unlike the unlucky publisher, was just starting; whenever the mood hit, he added stories to the Solar Pons series. Jack Chalker, in the “Fellow Travelers” section of The Science-Fantasy Publishers, nails what he did with:
Good fun if you like Holmes. Derleth was adamant these were pastiches, not parodies; a detective who took up when Holmes retired and imitated him precisely.
Many readers heard about Solar Pons for the first time in 1945 in Books from Arkham House, Derleth’s catalog of the Arkham House books he was publishing. That’s where Derleth first announced a new imprint:
The House of Mycroft & Moran has been organized to produce one book per year in a field in itself as unique as that of Arkham House—the genre of the off-trail detective story.
M&M’s first title would be In Re: Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of Solar Pons.
As author, editor and publisher, Derleth joyfully set the stage. He intimated that procuring these stories somehow involved Mycroft Holmes, the brother of Doyle’s own Great Detective, and Colonel Sebastian Moran, “the second most dangerous man [after Moriarty] in London”: thus, Mycroft & Moran.
Perhaps they were who approved the deerstalker colophon that artist Ronald Clyne provided.
And the “Baskerville” linotype used throughout…
The M&M books would be sturdy and cloth-bound—each to be introduced by reputable mystery-experts, drawing-room bookmen, including Vincent Starrett, Ellery Queen, Anthony Boucher, and Edgar W. Smith.
Year-after-year, it was all great fun!
What the Pontine canon would mean was revealed in publisher’s ephemerae I doubt that even maestro Don Herron has seen: The centennial Best Wishes from Pons to Holmes, notarized by Derleth himself as well as Mr. Mycroft and Mr. Moran–we can only guess at the number of copies sent out to amuse fans and friends.
But more was going on than could (at first) meet the eye. It was easy to miss how Derleth did more than pastiche Holmes precisely; he was also copying Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—precisely!
All was owned up to when announcing (in yet another undocumented piece of the publisher’s elusive ephemerae) the fifth collection of Pons stories:
Publication June 17 of August Derleth’s The Casebook of Solar Pons will round out what is perhaps the most ambitious venture in pastiche in the history of literature. For almost four decades the dean of Wisconsin writers … has amused himself writing fond imitations of the Sherlock Holmes tales, pastiching not only the tales, but the collections. The Casebook of Solar Pons brings to 56 the number of Pontine tales in print—the precise number of the Sherlock Holmes stories in short length.
More would follow. Watson hinted about Holmes adventures that Doyle never wrote. Derleth, on the other hand, completed more Pons stories that Parker knew of.
Derleth published his first Pons novel in 1968, the well-received Mr. Fairlie’s Final Journey. Doyle wrote four of his own about Holmes, so Derleth promised four. And we might’ve gotten all of them, had the world’s most prolific pastiche-writer not also been writing versions of Thoreau…
And Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson…
Also Edgar Lee Masters…
Plus little-known H. P. Lovecraft. (Aficionados were delighted when they learned Pons’ résumé includes this treatise: An Examination of the Cthulhu Cult and Others.)
In addition, Derleth did “serious” writing (even while publishing)—carrying on the Sac Prairie Saga and chronicling the history of Wisconsin. He passed away July 4, 1971, but posthumous publication of The Chronicles of Solar Pons raised his short-story total to 68.
Solar Pons acquired his own “Baker Street Irregulars,” fans based in California who organized as the “Praed Street Irregulars” (PSI), held meetings, and published newsletters. When the PSI held its first annual dinner award ceremony in 1968, Milwaukee Fictioneers alumnus Robert Bloch delivered the address. Bloch had moved to Hollywood from Wisconsin, the same year his famous novel Psycho was published.
Luther Norris and the group’s inner-sanctum “pontifical council” produced eight issues of The Pontine Dossier during the 1960s and more throughout the 1970s. In 1969 membership hit 600. In 1970 Derleth reported on a London, England branch of the PSI.
Derleth continued stoking interest. Besides the official Pontine canon (six collections and the 1968 novel), he published ancillary materials including A Praed Street Dossier in 1968—containing a brief essay “The Beginnings of Solar Pons.”
Working on behalf of the estate in the 1990s, Peter Ruber discovered unpublished Pons material, including what is most likely the early L&M novel! George Vanderburgh published these in 1998 as The Final Adventures of Solar Pons.
So where does Ray Palmer fit in?
Though they worked in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Sauk City, Palmer, Derleth, and the other Fictioneers would stay in touch. Palmer especially had reason to: in 1938 he landed a job in Chicago as the editor of a handful of pulp magazines, including Amazing Stories and Mammoth Detective.
Derleth wrote a new Pons story, “The Adventure of the Norcross Riddle,” which was accepted by Ellery Queen’s Frederic Dannay, who was compiling The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, published by Little, Brown & Company in 1944.
Just the little things that few people ever know about, that change history…
Aspects of the deal involved the Chicago connection. Derleth’s “The Beginnings of Solar Pons” reveals the key role Ray Palmer played:
Yet Solar Pons might have been forgotten, had it not been for another fortuitous circumstance … while discussing with Ray Palmer, then with Ziff-Davis in Chicago, the idea of a horror story anthology (later successfully published by Rinehart as Sleep No More!), I mentioned the possibility of a Solar Pons collection. Palmer urged me to put it together and, without committing Ziff-Davis to it, asked to see such a book with a view to publication.
With that added incentive and the promise from Vincent Starrett to write an introduction to the book, I went home and got to work to assemble a collection to be titled “In Re: Sherlock Holmes”: The Adventures of Solar Pons … I got to work and wrote new stories, while revising the old.
By this time, however … I was no longer so willing to trust any publisher with Solar Pons and, since I already had a publishing venture of my own … Solar Pons made his bow….
John D. Haefele contributed this article.
© John D. Haefele. All rights reserved.