I’ve become very interested in Minnesota history, and by interested I mean annoyed in many cases. The first thing white Minnesotans did was to exploit the Indians. The second thing they did was to throw the Indians out, move them to reservations, kill them, and otherwise treat them very poorly. Meanwhile, they got going on the process of cutting down 90 percent of the trees in the state. Even New York State, where I grew up, did not have such wanton destruction of the forests, and Whitie had two hundred more years to do it there. They also killed off most of the wolves. Oh, and both wolves and Indians had actual monetary bounties on them. Both Indians and Wolves were killed for bounty in times recent enough that the average old Minnesotan white person may have had a parent or grandparent involved in that business.
I’m also very interested in Sherlock Holmes. My interest is partly because they are fun stories, but it goes deeper than that. I’m interested in semiotics, and the Holmes stories have been investigated and discussed in that context. I’m interested in race and racism, and the Holmes stories are a window int the inter-ethnic attitudes of colonial period England. I’m interested in South Africa, and these stories overlap in time with major events related to the British and South Africa, including the largest and most intense war ever fought by Britain to date. And so on.
So, how do these things relate? Well …
… Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon (Sherlock Holmes Mysteries (Penguin)) is one of those post-Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories, which I also enjoy becasue I like to see how people succeed (or fail) to bring the key elements of the Holmes literature forward into some other context. This particular story was, as usual, written by Dr. John Watson, as all but a couple of the Holmes stories were (Holmes himself had a hand at it as well). The manuscript was found in a vault in a Saint Paul mansion, and subsequently has been examined and turned to print by editor Larry Millett.
This previously unknown case was centered in Minnesota. Holmes and Watson were brought to the North Star State to investigate threats against a major railroad magnate and his interests. The story plays out against the backdrop of the afore mentioned wanton destruction of the forests by Minnesota lumberjacks. In those days, not only was clear cut the rule, but leaving debris from lumbering operations behind and not properly tended was also the usual practice. This resulted in the creation of an unlit campfire of tinder and small logs that ran hundreds of miles in every direction broken only by swamps and streams. Along the eastern tracts of lumbering, where there are fewer swamps, this was especially dangerous, and one day resulted in the breaking out of one of the worst forest fires ever.
This case is actually a chronicle of one of Holmes’s greatest failure, considering that in the end he was unable to stop the Great Hinkley Fire, which burned over 400 square miles of land and killed about the same number of people (the death toll remains uncertain to this day).
The chronicle of events recorded by the judicious and thoughtful James Watson integrate a description of the Holmsean method of inference with the dynamic frontier history playing out in Minnesota at the time. No one interested in the history of crime or of the settlement of the Northwest Territories and early Minnesota, or the story of Victorian Man against Mother Nature, or of railroad history or any form of pyromania should fail to read this book.