I've seen him somewhere before...In our discussion of the world’s greatest detectives on the most recent Podwits podcast, you might have heard me drop the name of Solar Pons. In fact, I made a pretty big deal out of him. And, chances are you’ve never heard of him before.

So who the heck is this oddly-named fellow anyway?

Not to put too fine a point on it, Solar Pons is little more than an unauthorized fan-fiction version of Sherlock Holmes, created in the late 1920s by August Derleth. However, as usual in cases like this, there’s way more than that to the story…

August DerlethAugust Derleth (1909-1971) is well-known in literary circles for his association with H.P. Lovecraft. A longtime correspondent of Lovecraft, Derleth founded the publishing company Arkham House two years after the author’s death expressly for the purpose of publishing Lovecraft’s (then almost unknown) horror fiction, thereby almost single-handedly securing Lovecraft’s place in history. (He’s also well-known, in a less flattering and much more controversial light, as a self-described “posthumous collaborator” of Lovecraft’s—Derleth claimed that the numerous stories that appeared in the pulps throughout the ’40s and ’50s under the by-line “H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth” were merely completions of ideas and notes left unfinished by Lovecraft; others believe Derleth was using his dead friend’s good name as an “in” to get his own horror tales published.)

Anyway, as the story goes, young August was such a tremendous fan of Sherlock Holmes that when he heard that Arthur Conan Doyle intended to write no more Holmes stories, Derleth became history’s first outraged obsessive nerd, and went ahead and continued the series himself. (Beyond this the histories differ; some sources claim Derleth wrote to Sir Arthur asking permission and was denied, while others say he never felt entitled to write further stories specifically about Holmes.)

Only the names were changed.

Dragnet MagazineWhen the first story (“The Adventure of the Black Narcissus”) appeared in Dragnet Magazine in February 1929, it looked terribly familiar: Solar Pons, a detective with nearly superhuman powers of observation and deduction, lives at 7B Praed Street in London (where his landlady is Mrs. Johnson), solving cases that baffle the police with the help of his friend and assistant Dr. Parker, who also narrates and chronicles Pons’ adventures for posterity.

The only real difference between the Solar Pons and Sherlock Holmes canons is that Solar Pons lives and works in the 1920s, in a world where Sherlock Holmes also existed (and is admired by Pons and Parker)—in fact, the first collection of Pons stories, published in 1945 by Derleth’s own mystery imprint Mycroft & Moran (!), was titled In Re: Sherlock Holmes—The Adventures of Solar Pons.

Solar Pons Pinnacle BooksHere’s the thing, though: It would be easy to look at this body of work and laugh at it as pre-Internet fan fiction or worse (the covers of the paperbacks published in the 1960s and ’70s by Pinnacle Books make it even more laughable by illustrating Pons as a Basil Rathbone lookalike in cloak and deerstalker cap). But by most accounts, the 75+ Solar Pons stories and one novel are actually pretty good! No one is claiming that the Pons stories are a match for the original Holmes stories, but most people who have read them seem to think that they’re reasonably well-written and worthy mystery stories in their own right. They’ve inspired a small but passionate cadre of fans who publish newsletters and rally ’round their love of the Pontine canon (as they call it). This excellent (if fannish and unobjective) essay on Pons by Roger Johnson makes the compelling point that “the later stories are, if anything, better than the early ones, because Derleth’s writing matured and improved as he aged, and because he cared about Pons and Parker.” So, derivative they might have been and derivative they might have stayed, but the well-read mystery fan could do much worse than spending a few hours in the company of the redoubtable inhabitants of 7B Praed Street.

I have been aware of Pons’ existence since a very young age—Pinnacle Books, publisher of the Solar Pons paperbacks with the ridiculous covers, also published a small number of Doctor Who novelizations in the U.S. back in the late ’70s, and most of them featured an ad for the Solar Pons series on their last page. Pons has therefore been lodged in the back of my mind for decades, and whenever a discussion of great detectives happens in my general vicinity (something that happens more often than you’d think), the name “Solar Pons” bubbles up to the forefront of my medial temporal lobe.