On a steamy hot Saturday afternoon in July why in blazes would 20 normally sane Middle Tennesseans be sitting beneath a Wilson County carport listening to a gent chat for 30 minutes about some British writer who's been dead for nearly 90 years?
It's no mystery. This congregation is composed by ardent fans of Sherlock Holmes, the world's most famous detective, a super sleuth concocted by the creative genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Eating brats on buns, chomping chips, sipping ice tea and soft drinks, the members of the Nashville Scholars of the Three Pipe Problem are having a jolly old time.
Their hosts, Susan and Gael Stahl, live barely inside Wilson County, and for the past 20 summers they've invited their guests to their lodge on Old Hickory Lake. This day, knowledgeable Nashvillian Derek Martin shared a 30-minute overview on the life of Doyle,
So who are these Nashville Scholars of the Three Pipe Problem?
Charter member Gael Stahl responds, saying, "They are people who have an interest in the fictional character Sherlock Holmes. They also treat him as having actually lived and do a lot of research and write articles about his real life as the world's first consulting private detective.
"We get together once a month and always discuss one of the stories or topics about Sherlock Holmes or Doyle. Half of my library is Sherlockian. It's a hobby that totally takes over," he confessed. "Some of us have been doing this since January 1979. We've got two good experts that have written books about Sherlock Holmes."
A native of Plainville, Kansas, and a former Catholic priest who served as a chaplain at Fisk University, Meharry Medical College and Tennessee State University, Stahl discovered Holmes at a B. Dalton Bookstore in Knoxville one day in 1977.
"They had come out with a book with all the Sidney Paget artwork, who did the artwork for most of the Holmes stories and two of the novels," said Stahl of the artist, whose illustrations in "The Strand Magazine," beginning in the early 1890s, helped make icons of Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson.
"I bought that book and took it home and read one of the stories. I told my wife, 'You know, this detective story is kind of good, and the next time it starting raining, I said, 'Sit down, I'm gonna read to you,' and we began reading the stories to one another."
Two years later, Stahl spotted an announcement in "The Tennessean" inviting people to a meeting of those with a common interest in Holmes.
Stahl took his wife and two friends and met about 30 others who were to become the charter members of the Nashville Scholars of the Three Pipe Problem.
Not long afterward, Gael and Susan left to spend two years in Europe and California. When they returned to Tennessee, they learned the club had about fallen apart as the organizer had moved. Gale tracked down Vickie Overstreet and Patricia Blocker, two charter members who had continued to publish a newsletter.
(The club's quarterly newsletter, "Plugs & Dottles," today is produced online by Jim Hawkins and Dean Richardson.)
"I got a hold of them and said, 'Let's get the group going again.' We met at the Donelson Library and got it going again. Then we met at different libraries and in people's homes, and now we mostly go to nice restaurants and have our meetings," said Stahl, retired after 30 years as editor of the Tennessee Municipal League's newspaper, "Tennessee Town and City."
The Nashville Scholars have convened every month since Stahl returned to the Music City area in April 1982. Typically, they gather the third Saturday of the month at Corky's BBQ in Brentwood and at McNamara's Pub in Nashville for a Christmas dinner. They met for many years at the former Sherlock Holmes Pub in Music City.
For those who have yet to discover Sherlock Holmes, the "Guinness Book of World Records" has him down as the "most portrayed movie character" with more than 70 actors playing the part in over 200 films. Author Doyle's crime buster solves cases using his uncanny powers of observation, forensic science and logic.
The detective made his print debut in 1887 in the novel, "A Study in Scarlet," but it was not until 1891, when "The Strand Magazine" began publishing a series of short stories, that Holmes' popularity took off. Before he was done, Doyle wrote four Holmes novels and 56 short stories.
The mysteries occur mostly in Victorian-era London where Holmes hangs his deerstalker cap at 221B Baker Street and is abetted by his biographer and roommate Dr. Watson. The most well-known of their adventures is likely "The Hound of the Baskervilles."
As for what drew Stahl into the casebooks of the master detective, he said, "The foggy Victorian atmosphere for one thing. Doyle's a masterful storyteller. He knows how to get all your attention. He was born a good storyteller. I've read a lot of his books but none as good as his Sherlock Holmes books.
"I think a part of it is because he started something new. He had a medical professor at Edinburg, Joseph Bell, who was a medical detective. People would come to him, and he would pretty well diagnose them before they opened their mouth. Doyle was quite impressed by that and a few years later thought about writing a detective story. He brought Joe Bell as Sherlock Holmes, and he was the only one doing that type of thing. He figured it out by detecting it from the beginning, and that proved to be popular with readers."
Stahl noted that there are about 1,500 clubs around the world devoted to studying and admiring Holmes, with hundreds of clubs in the U.S. Japan has the largest single group with more than 1,000 members.
Among the Nashville Scholars' 40 members are Bill and Jean Markie of Lebanon, who have been in the group for 12 years. Bill read his first Holmes mystery, "The Case of the Speckled Band," at the age of 7 or 8.
"I have no idea why, but afterwards, everything that had Sherlock Holmes with it, I got. My folks bought me the canon when hardback books were $3. I've about worn the pages out. It was wonderful. You could read and drop off into a fantasy world," said Bill, who estimates he has read all 60 stories 15 to 16 times.
Jean also has read them all, and said, "I had done that before we married. Then I saw all his stuff, and I said, 'You like Sherlock Holmes?'"
Both are fans of the late British actor Jeremy Brett. Jean noted, "I think he is the quintessential Holmes."
Jeff Steward of Mt. Juliet, a club member of eight years, got hooked on Holmes at age 10.
"I was on a trip to Chattanooga with my dad, and we stopped at a bookstore, and I found one of the compilations, and my dad bought it for me. I was falling in love with it from then on," he recalled.
There were two things that snared him.
"Obviously the logic," he said. "The deductive reasoning was just like a whole new way of framing the world. The other was how atmospheric the stories were written."
Conor Kimbro, 14, a freshman at Centennial High School in Franklin, is the youngest member of the Nashville Scholars of the Three Pipe Problem. He owes it all to his fourth-grade school teacher, Shannon Carlisle, a member of the group whose classroom has a sign naming it 221B.
"She made a curriculum kind of around Sherlock Holmes and his way of thinking and reasoning," said Kimbro. "Then we read some of the stories in class and even performed a play of 'The Red-Headed League.' The play was written by Dr. Marino Alvarez [a member of the Nashville Scholars]. He came to see the play, and said I should come to one of the meetings. I was invited to join the group and I took it."
Any Sherlock Holmes fan, young or old, who might be interested in investigating the Nashville Scholars of the Three Pipe Problem, can go online to nashvillescholars.net or call Stahl at (615) 758-9111.
The game's afoot
A Middle Tennessee group of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts, the Nashville Scholars of the Three Pipe Problem, meet the third Saturday of each month. They next convene at 11 a.m. Aug. 19 at Corky's BBQ in Brentwood, 100 Franklin Road (Exit 74 off I-65). For details go online to nashvillescholars.net or call (615) 758-9111. To read the group's latest quarterly newsletter, "Plugs & Dottles," go to nashvillescholars.net/plugs_dottles_July2017.pdf