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On the Trail of Sherlock Holmes’ Mail

REUTERS

“Dear Sherlock Holmes,” writes a young American, “is there a ghost in my closet?”

A boy in Japan asks the famous sleuth for advice on how to be a top detective.

The Sherlock Holmes Museum’s collection of letters addressed to the detective even includes a reminder from an optician that Holmes is due for an eye test.

Scores of letters are mailed every week to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional hero. Now, however, a dispute has broken out over where they should be delivered.

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The museum complains that it gets only a fraction of the letters, even though it uses the same address that Conan Doyle gave Holmes--221-B Baker St., London.

The rest are delivered to the same place they were before the museum was opened last March--the Abbey National Savings & Loans institution, whose headquarters span 215 to 229 Baker St.

John Aidiniantz, 34, who set up the Holmes museum in an early 19th-Century house just up the road, wants Abbey to relinquish its traditional claim on mail for Holmes.

“It is important to put the letters on display. At the moment nobody benefits. The letters receive a standard reply and just get stuffed into a metal filing cabinet,” he said.

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“Here, we have secretaries prepared to look up original train timetables for fans who thought Dr. Watson had caught a particular train.”

Aidiniantz says his research shows that Baker Street was not numbered until 1930. By counting the buildings on a map of the area dating from Holmes’ time, he found 221-B corresponded to the 175-year-old, three-story building that now houses the museum.

“The local council never officially assigned 221-B to any house on Baker Street. Obviously, there is a spinoff to anyone who can lay claim to it,” he said.

Abbey, however, is equally determined to hold onto its links with the great Victorian detective.

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“We have been replying to fans’ letters since 1932. Our tradition is unbroken and we have no intention of stopping,” said Erica Harper, who answers mail for Holmes as part of her public relations job with Abbey.

She said specific questions were answered or passed on to the local library, but most of the 50 to 100 letters a week are from children around the world simply saying how much they enjoyed Holmes’ adventures.

They are sent a reply telling them Holmes has retired to the English county of Sussex, where he spends his time “reviewing the records of his cases and keeping bees.”

One envelope that arrived a few weeks ago was not from a fan, however. It was from the tax authorities in the northern French town of Lille and contained a bill for 67,874 French francs addressed to Sherlock Holmes.

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The computer-printed bill apparently was connected with a building permit issued in 1988. It ordered Holmes to appear in court if the debt was not settled.

“We think it was a joke,” Harper said. “We haven’t heard any more and hope it has been dropped.”

Aidiniantz hopes to persuade the local council to settle the dispute by assigning the coveted street number officially to his museum.

There is no shortage of visitors to the museum. At the peak of its first summer season about 200 people a day came to see rooms that have been furnished according to descriptions in Conan Doyle’s 60 stories.

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Among the memorabilia is a bundle of documents claiming to be case papers presented by Dr. Watson to the author and used for Conan Doyle’s book “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

Also on display is a birth certificate, dated 1897, for the first boy to be named after Sherlock Holmes.

“We have had judges and members of the FBI come to visit, and people from all over, especially Japan and Russia,” Aidiniantz said.

The museum plans to donate a statue of Holmes to stand outside the Baker Street subway station, similar to the one that Holmes fans in Karuizawa, Japan, have already put up in their town.

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