The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Larry Townsend, 1971
The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes — its first edition coyly credited to “J. Watson” — is prolific author Larry Townsend’s take on the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and his loyal friend/longtime roommate Dr. John Watson, predicated on the notion they were lovers as well as crime-solving partners. It's not an illogical stretch, but elementary, as it were. Townsend here proves himself a fortuitous combination of erotica writer and Holmes fan who is unafraid to rework the canon with both a twist and a certain sly sensitivity. Largely based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel A Study in Scarlet, with a dash of three subsequent Holmes short stories, it’s a polished pastiche.
The novel opens canonically: 25-year-old physician John Watson has just returned from war-torn Afghanistan (yes, some things never change), where he was badly injured and is scraping by on a meager government pension in a city where affordable housing is in short supply. Yes, some other things never change, either. Forced to put his plans to establish his own medical practice on hold, Watson is lonely, living in a depressing lodging house and more than a little worried about his future. A chance encounter with one-time comrade in arms (and bed) Stamford, who appears to have prospered in civilian life, sets Watson on an unexpected course. Young Stamford, Watson learns over a genteel lunch, has become a high-class procurer — sufficiently respectable to quietly wait out the inevitable show of indignation when he suggests that the still-handsome flesh his old friend Watson used to share freely could be the answer to the doctor’s current financial difficulties. Once Watson has finished paying lip service to propriety, Stamford arranges a meeting with a client he thinks would be a perfect match.
“[W]e came here on business,” Stamford says briskly to Mr. Sherlock Holmes (one of many lines lifted verbatim from Doyle that takes on a rather different meaning in this context), and once the business is concluded, Holmes and Watson repair to 221B Baker Street, where the undergarments soon fall where they may. It’s a testament to Stamford’s sound judgment that Holmes and Watson prove sexual soul mates and within days are snuggling in their cozy front room while the great-detective-to-be marvels that “a bit of buggery should so completely change one’s life.”
It's not long before Scotland Yard's Inspector Gregson appeals to Holmes for help in a conspicuously queer case of murder: An American named Enoch Drebber has been found dead in an empty house, clad in nothing but a pair of frilly, pale-purple ladies’ underpants, with no signs of violence upon his person. This is, of course, more or less the beginning of Doyle’s 1887 A Study in Scarlet, the novel that introduced Watson and Holmes to the world. And the biggest difference between the original novel and Townsend's homage is the sex of the young person cruelly destroyed by Mormon zealots. In the former, the despoiled innocent is a lovely girl named Lucy, while in the latter it’s beautiful boy Lucius. In both, heartbroken lover Jefferson Hope arrives too late to save his beloved and instead devotes his life to vengeance, and in neither version does anyone feel particularly good about bringing him to justice. This sad, brutal narrative segues into a sexed-up variation on “The Naval Treaty” and “The Greek Interpreter,” and “The Final Problem.”
I have no way of knowing the exact extent of Townsend's investment in the Holmes stories, but I’m inclined to think he was a pretty serious fan — “Naval Treaty” and “Greek Interpreter” aren’t on the Holmes top-10 most-popular list. And I appreciate his keen eye for the suggestive phrase, such as Holmes' waspish remark that Scotland Yard Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade are “as jealous as a pair of professional beauties”; Townsend's notion that the inspectors were former lovers whose romance has curdled into bitter professional rivalry makes perfect sense. And it takes no more than the addition of the phrase "yet prettiest" to turn Watson's description of the Baker Street Irregulars — “half a dozen of the dirtiest and most ragged street Arabs that ever I clapped eye on” — into a rather different sort of appreciation. It's Doyle's own Stamford who describes Holmes as "a little queer in his ideas," and while the earliest documented examples of "queer" in the gay sense date to some 30 years after A Study in Scarlet was published, it could easily have been used much earlier within the insular London underground of male whorehouses, hot-to-trot telegraph boys, horse guards and slumming aristocrats. Doyle's Holmes who describes the Diogenes Club as "the queerest... in London" and his brother Mycroft as "one of the queerest men," it's Townsend who grabs that ball and runs with it. Yes, “queer” at that time was a synonym of “strange,” but context is everything.
And let's face it: Old-school Holmesians have invested a good deal of time in attempting to wrestle the evident intensity of Holmes and Watson's relationship into a heterosexually normative context, a task made more difficult by Doyle's conspicuous lack of interest in details. Not only does Watson's war wound migrate from his shoulder to his leg (with one additional reference to an unspecified limb), but the stories' internal chronology forces attentive — alright, obsessive — readers to conclude that Watson's 1888 marriage to Mary Morstan (in “The Sign of the Four”) was actually the second of three: References to his wife both pre- and postdate the character's death, which occurred sometime between stories published in 1891 and 1894. It's actually easier to go with the gay scenario, which situates all the inconsistencies within the context of a fundamentally honest fellow trying to stand by a big, fat lie in the face of ever-increasing scrutiny as Holmes’ fame increases.
Consider: In 1910’s “The Adventure of the Devil's Foot,” which takes place in 1897, Holmes tests a mind-altering, botanical poison on his dear friend Watson and himself, condemning them both to the bad trip of all time. Sure, Holmes apologizes profusely after the fact, but does "I'm sorry" really cover a head trip to a Miltonian hell? And this is how the "platonic" pals wind up, per Watson’s account in the story: "I dashed from my chair, threw my arms round Holmes and together we lurched through the door, and an instant afterwards had thrown ourselves down upon the grass plot and were lying side by side, conscious only of the glorious sunshine which was bursting its way through the hellish cloud of terror which had girt us in."
Townsend’s novel is a pioneering professional example that predates what came to be called “slash fiction”: stories that posit sexual/romantic relationships between popular fictional heroes (the most notorious involving Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock). Long before the likes of Wicked and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Townsend and other forgotten gay-adult writers were trailblazing with reinterpretative takes on familiar characters.
The term “slash fiction” comes from the abbreviation “K/S,” for Kirk-Slash-Spock, protagonists of homoerotic fan fiction featuring the captain and first mate of the starship Enterprise and published in the fanzine Naked Times. The ‘zine’s very name makes it clear that the enterprise, if you will, was deeply fan-driven: “The Naked Time” is the title of an early episode in which the crew of the Enterprise is infected with a disinhibiting substance. It’s worth noting that some fans of the original works were royally pissed off by the very existence of Townsend’s book. My guess is that beneath the highly specific complaints about acts and attitudes, the slash community's problem lay largely with the fact that Townsend is an unabashed pornographer, whereas Naked Times stories leaned to swoony feelings described in graphic detail, with base fornication cloaked in a shimmering veil of euphemistic vagueness — the exact opposite of opposite of Townsend's inclinations.
The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was published by The Other Traveller imprint, which was the legendary Olympia Press' gay-oriented counterpart to its Traveller's Companion line. The Other Traveller published several other Townsend novels, including Run, Little Leather Boy and the polymorphously perverse science-fiction tale The Scorpius Equation — where in the future, fretting about homosexuality will be so 3000 years ago, and marriage a utopian group grope in which the right balance of gay, straight and bisexual partners guarantees fulfillment of everyone's sexual and emotional needs.