Bob Coghill to speak truth about fictional detective Holmes in final Chautauqua Speaks

Followers of the online announcements and requests service, “Chautauqua Grapevine,” are aware that another crime novel by Deb Pines is out — Vengeance is Mine: A Chautauqua Murder Mystery. One of Pines’ characters, Cynthia Merriweather, is based loosely on Chautauqua Institution’s Lost and Found office manager Stephanie Holt, whose Grapevine posts have merited a fan following near and far.

Bob Coghill

Pines’ protagonist — “reporter and relentless snoop Mimi Goldman” — is one of a long list of fictional crime-solvers leading back to Edgar Allan Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin, in 1841’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

One of the earliest mystery writers was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a physician who created detective Sherlock Holmes while he was a struggling writer. Holmes, whom Doyle introduced in 1887 in A Study in Scarlet, solves crimes using scientific observation and deductive reasoning. Having been exposed to this tenaciously enduring fictional character at schools and libraries, generations of children have become better readers and observers.

Since the late 19th century, Holmes has amassed a fan following with a capital “F.”

At 9:15 a.m. Thurs., Aug. 23, at the Chautauqua Women’s Club, former Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle archivist Bob Coghill will give a talk titled, “ ‘Elementary, Watson’: An Introduction to Sherlock Holmes,” for the final presentation of the 2018 Chautauqua Speaks series.

Among other things, Coghill is an expert on one of the world’s finest collections of library materials devoted to Doyle’s work and life. As it happens, the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection is housed in Toronto Public Library’s Toronto Reference Library — from which Buffalo, New York, is a mere two-hour drive.

Chautauqua is partly responsible for Coghill getting his job as a reference librarian at the TPL’s Special Collections Department, which he held until he retired in 2013, began traveling the world and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia.

And, absent Doyle and Holmes, Coghill said he would never have come to Chautauqua, been a teacher or earned three bachelor’s degrees (in English and psychology, education and education service) and two master’s degrees (in language and learning disabilities, and library and archival science) from York University in Toronto.

“I joke that I was a meek, mild teacher by day, but a rough, tough librarian by night,” Coghill said.

For most of his professional life, he lived and worked in Toronto. He said he was a guidance resource teacher in the central guidance department of the Toronto District School Board for a number of years. When there were job changes, he served in schools as an itinerant guidance counselor.

“In Toronto, there was an amalgamation,” Coghill said. “Some boards had elementary guidance counselors and some did not. … To make everything equal when they merged the six boards, they took away guidance from everyone, but gave them guidance resource teachers.”

Most of his work as a guidance counselor entailed staff development for teachers within a family of schools. His primary focus was on middle school and preparation for high school.

“I used to define my job as saying to kids, ‘How can I help you?’ ” Coghill said. “In finding the answer to that question, that was how I did my job. At nighttime at the (Toronto Reference) Library, I said, ‘How can I help you?’ So for a person who likes to help people, they’re the best two jobs in the world.”

One of the ways in which Coghill has helped children of all ages is by introducing them to Sherlock Holmes.

He has long been a member of the literary society Baker Street Irregulars and in 1984 received a Master Bootmaker award for significant contributions to the Bootmakers of Toronto and the Canadian Sherlockian movement.

On Thursday morning, Coghill will explain in person what both of these honors signify, and how Sherlockians are connected to Chautauqua.

He is also a member of the Baker Street Irregulars Trust, a society that cares for the Holmes records that have been housed at Harvard University’s Houghton Library and will soon be moving to Indiana University Bloomington.

“Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character,” Coghill said. “But our purpose is to perpetuate the legend that Sherlock Holmes is not a legend. And so the game of Sherlockiana is to treat the text as if it were biography rather than fiction. And that leads to all kinds of things.”

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The author Deborah Trefts

Deborah Trefts is a policy scientist with extensive United States, Canadian and additional international experience in conservation. She focuses on the resolution of ocean and freshwater-related challenges and the art and science of deciphering and developing public policy at all levels from global to local.