David Hammer: Sherlockian Traveller
Iowan David Hammer, an attorney by vocation, has written about one Sherlockian book per year since 1980. And to that list he has appended many a travel and many a tale. More than 50 years after Dr. Gray Chandler Briggs found Camden House (The Empty House), Hammer and his ardent Audrey began searching, researching, finding, and photographing most of the Sherlockian sites in England, Europe, and North America. Vincent Starrett would be proud of him.
Hammer's series of whimsical, informative travelogues starting with The Game is Afoot, For the Sake of the Game, The Worth of the Game, To Play the Game, and A Dangerous Game is so highly appreciated that the series has been rated one of the five top sources for pursuing the Higher Learning of the Sherlockian Canon. (A list of books by David Hammer is available, hyperlinked at the bottom of this page.)
The writing style is intimate, dryly understated, self-denigrating humor framed in exquisite turns of speech that pit the conversational and anecdotal against the perverse, quick pivot of a puckish storyteller. And he delivers the sites.
For our conversation, we sat in Manhattan's Algonquin Hotel library after an early repast at the 1998 Baker Street Irregular's Martha Hudson Breakfast, a Friday morning, Jan. 9.
When I told Hammer I'd be probing his early life, he said he has written an as yet unpublished book called The Game is Underfoot: The Memoirs of a Sherlockian Publisher. He wrote about the significant people in his life — many of them now dead, some famous, some tending toward the infamous.
His first Sherlockian experience occurred in the late 1940s in central Iowa while riding a short jitney train from his hometown, Newton, Iowa, to Grinnell College in Grinnell. One of his parent's friends, a 70-year-old theatrical agent who went by the name of Edward Holland, was reading the Sherlock Holmes stories. He said it was the only book he ever read.
"When I get to the end of the last story, I turn back to the beginning of the first." To young Hammer, that was a committed Sherlockian, the first person he ever met so profoundly interested in Sherlock Holmes. There've been a lot of them since. Hammer's only Holmes book dating back to childhood was the 1930 red-cover Doubleday out of Garden City. Prefaced by Christopher Morley, it was the first-ever edition of all 60 stories in the Canon.
As a boy Hammer had read some of the stories because he was interested in the English ambience, the fogs and feel of London. Newton was a small midwestern Maytag company factory town. He was attracted to a magical English life style that he knew nothing about. He didn't read the American story, Valley of Fear, until half a dozen years ago when he was researching the Pennsylvania sites for the fourth Game book.
Hammer's mother read to him for years before he learned to read. She was a member of the Book of the Month Club, a teacher, and had a fine personal library.
His father and mother encouraged young David to read what he wanted. Once when he was in the eighth grade, he wanted a book about European history. His mother, a library board member, could get a library discount. The librarian said, "Now you know, Agnes, that's a college text." Agnes Hammer insisted, "If he wants to read it, I want him to have it. When people want a book, they're ready for it."
At nearby Des Moines there was a used book dealer by name of Hansen whose prices, "like most used-book dealers, were if not fair, flexible." If you wanted a book, its value usually went up. Hammer's father, secretary of the Newton Chamber of Commerce for 30 some years, was not a bookish type. But because of his son's interest in Robert Ingersoll, he bought an eight-volume set from Hansen, The Mistakes of Moses. That despite the fact that Ingersoll called himself an agnostic (but was probably an atheist) and the Hammers were Quakers.
Ingersoll was popular but controversial. Hammer tells about the visitor to Ingersoll's library in Chicago, who commented, "You certainly have a lot of books here. What did they cost you?" — "Well, said America's most stirring public speaker at the time, an engaging writer, and a quick wit, "Certainly the governorship of Illinois and probably the presidency of the United States."
Newton's population was about 15,000, a town in which you could walk almost anywhere if you wanted to. There was no Quaker meeting in the town so the family attended the Congregational Church together.
In 1947, Hammer began liberal arts studies at Grinnell College, a Congregational school, and graduated in 1951. He claims to have been an indifferent student. Instead of reading the books called for by the courses, he spent most of his time reading what he thought were more interesting college library books. He was also active in extracurricular activities.
He made his alma mater proud by excelling at many diverse endeavors becoming a fine attorney, scholar, art and Sherlockiana collector, raconteur, a friend among friends, a much envied husband, an admired father, a wanderer, a writer, and a publisher. [Interviewed by Nashville Scholar Gael Stahl, 5 March 1999, at the O'Hare Aerospace Center, Starlight Inn, Chicago, IL]
GS: Looking back, what was the kernel of those years of higher learning?
Hammer: I think that in a way neither college nor law school are really worth it. That in a way, it can be a scam. One of the most well-educated people I know is a high school graduate who read sensible things. I think one can obtain what college is supposed to give you by yourself. The tragedy is that if you don't have that background you can fall prey to nutty books — ideas that are sort of half-baked, because you are meeting them for the first time.
My complaint about intellectuals is that they deal in ideas, and after awhile, one idea, no matter how half-baked or half-cracked it is, sounds every bit as good as another. I don't think there is any leaven in their bread and that's a mistake. But I think if you don't go to college, you always think you've missed something more than you did.
As for law school, it's worse now than it used to be. In the old days one could become a lawyer, which is what my other life is, by reading law. And if you had a good mentor, you learned everything you would have learned in law school. You can't do that any more. I think it's a shame.
One of my pet peeves is law professors who have arrogated to themselves narrower areas of practice. Some teach two or three hours a week and that's it. A lawyer does his research at night, and there is no reason for law professors not to be able to do it either. I'm pretty discouraged on that aspect of it.
GS: What drew you to law; what prepared you for that vocation?
Hammer: I learned more probably, or at least sustained more inspiration from reading The Holmes – Pollock Letters before I went to law school. Frederick Pollock was the son of an English writer and judge and was himself a lawyer, and I believe, in the end was a judge. I always had an interest in Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. [the Supreme Court justice who lived 1841-1935] that was probably as great as my interest in the other Holmes. There is a connection, you know, because the Holmes name was used by Doyle. It was Holmes Sr. of The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table [a writer and doctor who lived 1809-94] whom Doyle admired and whose name he used. The first thing Doyle was going to do when he came to the United States was visit the senior Holmes. Unfortunately Holmes died the week before. In a way, Oliver Wendell Jr. would have been the other Holmes' stepbrother.
What Holmes Jr. did was to take a young law student from Harvard each year, one of Judge Frank-furter's flock, as a clerk each year. There were some interesting ones. Two of them were the brothers Alger and Donald Hiss. Holmes mentions in his later years about reading Sherlock Holmes. I always wondered if the old fellow knew why his patronym had been selected.
GS: How did the letters of Holmes and Pollock inspire you more than law school?
Hammer: I learned what the law should be, the approach one should take to the essential spirituality that should exist in practicing any profession. I assumed, in my naivete, and I'm still pretty naive, that lawyers talked about things like Holmes and Pollock did. I learned that wasn't true.
Most lawyers belong to a rather dull group. It's the unusual one who has an interest outside of the law. And if the interest is intensive, as matters that are literary or philosophical usually are, you don't find lawyers there. I remember I came back home at Christmas after my first six months in the practice of law, and my father asked me if I had any disappointments. And I said, "Yes, Dad, I do, just two. One is the bench and the other is the bar." I think I would still say that 40 years later.
GS: Where did you go to study law?
Hammer: I started law school at Northwestern University. That ended rather abruptly when I was drafted into the Korean War. I passed the test that kept you out of the war until you finished law, medical, or whatever school it was. I was somewhat disappointed that I was drafted. My father and the fathers of a couple of other fellows drafted at the same time I was had been active in unseating a rather unsuitable chap who was the mayor of our town. He was also head of the draft board. But I survived. Afterwards, I didn't return to Northwestern because I'd married in the interim, and didn't feel, unlike my children, I guess, that my parents should have to support me when I was married. So I went to the University of Iowa. Also, my wife Audrey, who is from the St. Paul-Minneapolis area, did not want to live in Chicago.
GS: Where did you spend your years of military service?
Hammer: Specifically, the answer to your question is Virginia. Generally, the answer is that it was a very undistinguished service career, for which I was very grateful. At that time, you could put in for Europe (and so avoid Korea). Each month, the levy came down for people with your MOS (military occupation specialty) and people were going to Korea right and left. I didn't want to be one of those people who went to Europe and then would have to explain to myself later on that it was to avoid responsibilities.
The closest I came to going to Korea was when the legal officer did not want to choose between Julius Birnbaum, who was a lawyer, and me to go to Korea. He said, "I don't want that on my conscience. We flipped a coin. I won. Julius Birnbaum went to Korea, survived, and made the military his career.
GS: When did you marry Audrey?
Hammer: We married during my last tour of military service. I was accepted to go to Europe in the CID (Criminal Investigation Division), but it would have meant another year in the military, and I didn't want to do that. I had already spent a long summer in 1949 bumming around Europe, which the military regarded as an added reason to send me over there.
GS: You'd been to Europe during your undergraduate days at Grinnell?
Hammer: Yes, a friend of mine and I had the idea that we could probably do it on the cheap, which we could. It was the summer after the Berlin airlift started — not a smart time to go. Everybody in Europe was expecting an invasion. One of the professors at Grinnell, my mentor, convinced my parents that I was mature enough to go, and further, it was a worth one year of college life. My friend's parents didn't want their son to go because of the parlous situation
with the Russians. Professor Frederick Baumann convinced my parents I was mature enough, erroneously I'm sure, to go alone. Since I had an uncle in the Army of Occupation in Germany and my aunt was living there with him, my father made arrangements that I could always go back and borrow money from my uncle if I ran out of money. It was a most interesting summer and was truly one of those "rites of passage" that we can all look back on in our lives. Baumann was right. It was a real experience.
GS: Did you spend all your time in Germany?
Hammer: No, I landed in Rotterdam on a ship called the Volandam on the Holland-America line. It was an unreconverted troop ship on which for 250 bucks you could travel both ways. There was one class — 'bad.' After one night in the five-tier berth, I slept on deck. I found it fairly pleasant, although the crossing was a bit rough. A good many of us were seasick. From Rotterdam, I went first thing to Germany to visit my uncle, who was a colonel.
GS: Hammer, I assume, is German. (It means hammer in English too.)
Hammer: The family came from Silesia where they were apparently influenced by William Penn who came to Germany. They went to the Rhineland and then to Wales and then to the United States. My father's family came here I think it was 1700, my mother's family in 1750. Her family were Welsh. My suggestion would be that my people were miners. That was one of the big industries in Silesia and in Wales.
The other day I received a notice from someone who for money can get you a listing of all the people of that name in the United States. I wasn't interested, but he said you could also acquire some drinking glasses with your family crest. I figured it will be interesting to see what kind of family crest I don't have, so I sent my money in and they came back with a very nice crest with a lion rampant holding a sword upright. The lady I bought them from said they'd send me the genealogical basis for the crest. I didn't get it so I called her, and did get it. And it is probably as specious as I originally thought.
GS: Where was your uncle stationed in Germany?
Hammer: Bad Kissingen [east of Frankfurt, north of Nuremberg] a few miles from the southwest border of the Russian sector. Many wives chose to go back home but my aunt decided to stay and they were given pistol practice since the invasion was regarded as being imminent.
When you're 19 or 20 you don't worry about those things. I'd always wanted to go to Vienna, which was behind the Iron curtain at that time. I did go there, and then to Venice. Then I ran into a couple of American girls traveling on the train to Monte Carlo. I accepted their invitation and went to Monte Carlo, then to Switzerland, back to Germany, then to Paris, to London, and then back to Holland, and returned to the United States. It was a long summer from June to September.
GS: How did you, a college student, afford it?
Hammer: Oh, I'd saved about $1,000 and blew it on the trip. I also had PX privileges as a military dependent. I could also get military currency that I regularly sold in basement rooms in Germany. That helped support me. You wonder later how you got out alive. It was, of course, quite illegal. I suppose my uncle could have gotten in trouble but he didn't know about it. It was my Aunt Juana who was kind enough to provide for me. She's a great lady — still alive. My uncle was a career Army man when he met her down in Nicaragua before the war when he was 38 and she was 18. She left a convent school to elope with him. They were both very helpful to me, very kind to me.
GS: So you worked in high school and college and saved enough to travel?
Hammer: I worked in high school. In college, well, I guess I did work. I had a corsage business. A home town friend who went to the University of Indiana persuaded me there was money to be made if I hooked up with a Chicago florist, a fellow named Burnett, now long dead. You'd call a couple days before with a code, and you'd get boxed corsages with numbers on them on the 5 a.m. train. A friend of my father's had a cold storage plant near the railroad station where I'd take the flowers in the morning. I'd give his wife an orchid every now and then. I had salesmen in each hall. Here I was, a very young kid with all these guys working for me who were GIs who needed the money.
It worked very well until one year the flowers didn't come in on time due to a railroad foul up. I had to go to the local florist, Bates, to fill my orders. He turned me in for not having an Iowa retail sales license — not a very kindly man.
I learned a lot about "business" from that flower operation. Bates inflated his prices and the only competition was two old sisters who had a little old moldering greenhouse at the edge of town. I went out to see them and in the best American business tradition I struck a deal. "Look, we can both make more money if we don't compete and sell our flowers for less than what Bates sells for. (Laughs.) That's illegal restraint of trade. But fortunately it didn't have any
interstate boundaries, so we weren't violating — I later learned — the federal legislation. But it was sort of interesting.
Audrey and I were married in the college chapel and my wife's family went to Bates the florist. He was not very pleased at having to sell flowers to somebody who had given him a very bad time. The flowers were pretty ugly.
GS: What was the best thing about Northwestern Law School?
Hammer: That law school had the pretension of looking beyond the law. Before I arrived, Dean Havighurst, whom I very much liked, sent a letter to those who'd been admitted saying: Here are the books we think you should read: Bleak House (by Dickens), Orley Farm and The Eustace Diamonds (by Trollope) that have a lot to do with the law. I did like that. I had a friend, who is a Sherlockian by the way — he may be here this weekend — who is a professor of medicine at the University of Iowa, and he has taught a course to doctors, both students and practitioners, on the literature of medicine, trying to get doctors to broaden their narrow perspectives. A good many lawyers have an interest only in the law and have no interest in literature and art and music. I think it's all one seamless web.
GS: Where did you practice law on graduating from Iowa?
Hammer: I went to Dubuque where I still am, still restoring defendants to their friends and relations.
GS: Let's move into your Sherlockian life. How did you happen to read the stories?
Hammer: I still have that Doubleday edition of the stories I had at home as a young kid. I probably read it earlier, but I vividly remember reading it one summer when I was in college. I sold aluminum pots door to door, a very discouraging experience. I read the Holmes stories because the work was depressing.
But to answer what you're asking, I didn't get on to it very seriously until one time Audrey and I were in Egypt. The situation was very sticky, particularly between Egypt and Israel and the Americans as well. Americans were not popular, and I wanted to have somebody have a commercial interest in our whereabouts, who was neutral — so we went on SAS via Denmark to get on the Egyptian tour — an odd way to do it. I was talking to one of the people who was on the tour, a very interesting lady who worked for SAS. We were having drinks on the terrace of the hotel below which they were filming Agatha Christie's "Death on the Nile" in Aswan, at the first cataract on the Nile.
She said, "I can tell you don't like tours. What kind of tours do you like?"
"Oh," I said, "I like going through Scotland with Boswell and Johnson. She said that wouldn't sell.
"Well," I replied, "I'd like to do the Sherlock Holmes places in England." She didn't say much more and two weeks later I got a call from her. SAS had approved the Sherlockian tour. "Where are the sites?"
I said, "Damned if I know. If I knew I wouldn't take a tour."
GS: So in the late 1970s or the early '80s you went looking, and that's how your books got started?
Hammer: I had an interest because I wanted to go on the tour. So I went through my Sherlock Holmes book. I tried to come up with places, and I did, but realize now, it was pretty naive. I didn't have access to any of the literature. It was there, but I didn't know it. I thought the Baker Street Irregulars had ended with Morley's death and a few of the others. It was only later that I realized that it probably had. Those of us who came later lacked the credentials of those people.
But anyway, the tour was advertised twice. It had to be pretty expensive as you had to go through Denmark, which really knocked the hell out of the price. Those who signed up to go were a family from New York, Audrey and me and our son, and a neighbor boy. It wasn't a go.
But, I was interested then, so every year, we spent part of the year, Audrey and I, going to England. I'd work during the winter evenings to find what I could about where the sites were. It was sort of stupid, in a way, looking for actual sites of a fictional character. But, on the other hand, many of them were there, and they were there because Doyle had gone there.
GS: When did you begin to write about what you found?
Hammer: One year, we went to England a couple of times. We were at dinner with some friends. He was chairman of the board of a British publishing company and had been a Spitfire pilot during the Blitz. He asked me why and I told him why, because I know it's there. He said his editors might be interested. Why don't I write something on Sherlock Holmes?
I still have what I wrote. It was pretty bad. All I did was give all the conclusions as to where the places were and why they were the ones selected. I thought that to do anything else, that is, to put yourself in it was a horribly arrogant and unnecessary thing to do.
He wrote back, "My editors just don't feel there is enough interest in Sherlock Holmes." I accepted that as true. He was a good friend letting me down easily. I'd written a bad book.
GS: A book that lacked the famous idiosyncratic, personal Hammer voice.
Hammer: Somebody put me in touch with John Shaw; I don't know who. And Shaw, by letter, got me in touch with Jack Tracy, a Sherlockian publisher. Tracy was a lousy publisher. Some say dishonest. My experience with Jack was that he wasn't dishonest by choice but by necessity. I never got paid for the book he did publish. But nobody ever got paid. The only one who came out ahead was Paul Herbert who took a lot of books instead of money and sold them.
Tracy was an excellent editor. Excellent. I remember one of his criticisms was, "Your wife surely has a first name. What is it?" I figured out that what I had to do was a write a story about how you got there, fill in the background, and the travail, and so forth. That's what he finally published.
GS: That was your first travel book? The Game is Afoot? Published by Tracy's ...?
Hammer: Gaslight Press. Through Tracy, I met someone who became a very good friend of Audrey and me — Michael Harrison. He lived on his social security as there wasn't much coming in from his books. He probably was the finest Sherlockian scholar I ever met. What we would do is give money through various institutions, which is deductible, with the understanding that they would bring Harrison over to be an artist or writer in residence. He came to the University of Dubuque, then Clarke College, and other groups. We all gained from that.
GS: A writer in residence?
Hammer: Yes. He'd speak on more than Sherlock Holmes. He'd written about more than Sherlock Holmes.
At about that time, Tracy had not paid Harrison for a book he'd written — which is probably the most distinguished book in all Sherlockian history: A Study in Surmise. The book came out at a prominent conference in Dubuque. Sherlockians came from all over because Harrison was there. Tracy never paid him for that book. He never paid me, but I didn't live on what I wrote.
So I formed a publishing company, called Gasogene Press**, which was as deceptively similar to Gaslight as I could find. My thinking was that if there was an honest press that published people and paid them, then the bad press would disappear. — Well, I was quite wrong. It didn't work. And, I couldn't stay mad with Jack Tracy as he was an engaging fellow.
With Gasogene Press, I published stuff from Michael, because that was how he was getting income, and I published stuff of my own, because they sold pretty well. Michael's did too. I had some other people, for otherwise, Gasogene Press would be a vanity press. I wanted to publish people who hadn't been published before. And it was once referred to by one of the English writers as "the odd press."
GS: Who else did you publish?
Hammer: I published a young woman from Kentucky, Deborah Sage, who wrote some poetry. It got some slicingly bad reviews. That was under the title of The Doggerel in the Night-Time. That title came from my law partner, Angela Simon. I published a book by Bill Goodrich in Chicago — my title — Good Old Index. And there were some others. [Including John Bennett Shaw's delightful quiz books, The Ragged Shaw and The Really Ragged Shaw.]
Go to Part Two of David Hammer interviewed by Gael Stahl.
1. Books by D. Hammer -at Battered Silicon Dispatch Box website, owner George Vanderburgh
2. Travel Books by D. Hammer - at Gasogene Press, a division of Wessex Press