I caught up with Jon Lellenberg one Sunday morning. He was about to enjoy an autumnal day in Chicago, while I was coming to the end of an autumnal day on the Mediterranean coast in Spain; thousands of miles apart, but sharing the same season. What we also shared was a discerning chat about Jon’s writing, his interests and just a tiny bit about his family. The reason I called Jon was to talk about his first thriller, BAKER STREET IRREGULAR.
Jon’s novel is an historical intelligence/mystery thriller set in the 1930s and ’40s, told by a young member of The Baker Street Irregulars — the literary club founded out of the back room of a speakeasy in January 1934. What seems at first mere Sherlock Holmes skylarking turns into resistance to America’s isolationism, then clandestine cooperation with British Intelligence when Hitler goes to war in Europe and Churchill fights on alone. When war comes to America, Woody Hazelbaker becomes part of the nation’s emerging secret intelligence complex, and uses it to wage a covert war of his own to solve the disappearance of the woman he loved the day after Hitler invaded Russia. It takes him from Washington to London, then to Germany’s battlefields, and back again to the secret nerve centre of America’s cryptologic campaign against both the Axis and the Soviet Union — for a final showdown with the unsuspected spy who had had his lover liquidated.
Jon Lellenberg is no stranger to fiction as a reader and lover of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, so much so that Jon himself is a Baker Street Irregular (more later). He is also the club’s historian, seven volumes so far which he describes as of fantastic interest to a microscopic audience. His website about this work, www.bsiarchivalhistory.org, includes a page about his novel plus a rolling weekly feature about its times, settings, and personalities. But he also has some other related non-fiction work to his credit, including Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, which was a BBC Book of the Week in September 2007, and won the Mystery Writers of America’s “Edgar Award” for best critical work that year, plus two other similar awards.
Lellenberg was a Pentagon official for many years and travelled extensively in Europe, during which time he became well acquainted with the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and the Danish equivalent of the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI), the Sherlock Holmes Klubben i Danmark, along with the Cold War history and landscape of the Continent. He retired from the Pentagon in 2006, after spending his last several years as director for policy and strategy for its special operations and counterterrorism bureau.
When he is not writing or busy on other projects, Lellenberg likes to read history and biography. He enjoys American and British cultural history, and finds Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and P. G. Wodehouse relaxing and therapeutic. One of his earliest fiction heroes was D’Artagnan. He is also fond of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay tales.
His advice to wannabe writers is to have a good, secure day job. Is there any better advice? But he also suggests that reading as much of everything that can be managed is good preparation; then learning to write clear, clean non-fiction before turning to fiction or trying to develop an idiosyncratic style.
Lellenberg begins his writing day with copious amounts of caffeine and a clear trajectory in mind. His characters and plot direction seem to flesh themselves out while he’s sleeping. It’s probably a case of having these characters and plots on his mind during the day and they develop as his mind empties during sleep, leaving a footprint. He doesn’t find writing arduous although he doesn’t call himself a natural fiction writer. When he is writing something that can be classified as historical fiction or non-fiction, he likens it to forensic archaeology. He wrote his novel a good deal to a weekly historic Jazz programme, ‘Hot Jazz Saturday Night’, broadcast in Washington D.C. He still listens to it over the internet in Chicago.
I asked Jon if he had any hobbies. There was no particular craft or hobby per se, but he remains connected to his Pentagon calling through several forums and mechanisms more than he expected when he retired in 2006. He told me that he and his wife like to travel, read and follow their children’s lives. They now have a grandchild who was three weeks old at the time of the interview. I suggested to him that his life was about to become fuller now that there was an addition in the family.
I wondered what made him write about the Baker Street Irregulars, the club? It turns out that the members of this club are quite unique in that they are devoted not at all to the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but to his famous character Sherlock Holmes instead, as a person with adventures they treat as real. Lellenberg has been the BSI’s historian since 1988, and is well qualified to talk and write about the history of the club. And it is from this remarkable group of literary and professional people that fiction has sprung from fact. When Great Britain found herself facing the might of Hitler’s Germany on her own in 1940-41, some members of the group took it upon themselves to circumvent the U.S. Neutrality Acts and find ways to send assistance to Winston Churchill. And so the seeds of Jon Lellenberg’s novel were sown.
Reviews for BAKER STREET IRREGULAR so far, which include a starred review from Publishers Weekly, are intriguing and compelling, and should thrust him to the forefront of intellectual thriller writers. Aficionados of Sherlock Holmes mysteries will find much crossover from the original tales into Lellenberg’s novel, and won’t be disappointed, I am sure. Just look at what has been written about the book by other fiction and non-fiction writers:
Jon Lellenberg is a devious bastard. At first blush, this is a gripping portrait of New York between the wars, and the early years of the Baker Street Irregulars. As the tale progresses, however, Lellenberg’s agenda emerges as far more ambitious and decidedly more sinister. He sits like a spider at the center of its web, testing each quiver and radiation of a plot that will leave readers thoroughly inconvenienced, incommoded, and hampered in their plans. This man is not to be trusted. Reader beware. (Daniel Stashower, author of Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle and The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder)
You may assume many of this book’s adventures, and many of the people Woody Hazelbaker meets, to be the product of the author’s imagination. You will usually be wrong. With a kaleidoscope of real events both famous and little known, of real people both prominent and obscure, this readable book shows how true is Sherlock Holmes’s observation that “Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.” (Thaddeus Holt, author of The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War)
Baker Street Irregular begins as the tale of a Midwestern innocent abroad in New York, with one of the best illustrations ever devised of the end of the “Golden Age” of New York gangsters. But through remarkable portraits of the idiosyncratic, brilliant, politically as well as intellectually engaged writers and newsmen making up the famous club devoted to A. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, it becomes an accomplished work of historical fiction and a true political thriller. Simultaneously heart-warming in its characterizations and cold-hearted, even ruthless, in refusing to surrender to standard sentimentalized contrivance, it brings to life the world of men and women swept up by the era’s tremendous crises to interact with, and themselves become, important historical figures — some wise, some devious, many of them both, leveraging their youthful inspirations to create and manipulate the intelligence and military machines needed to ensure the survival of the civilization that gave birth to their collective fictional hero — who, from the remove of another age, would have approved their every step. It is the kind of book we rarely find any more; we are the richer for this one. (Caleb Carr, author of The Alienist)
Lellenberg has travelled extensively because of his work and his love of Sherlock Holmes. Some of his favourite places are Britain, Ireland and France, but also Vermont where Jon and his wife have a second home. He is soon to begin a new non-fiction book about Conan Doyle in collaboration with the British Library, but is planning a companion volume, for a year from now, about the “sources and methods” (to use an intelligence community term) behind his novel that is also likely to be of interest to ITW members.
I believe Jon Lellenberg is a name which will be on people’s lips as a writer of superb fiction, but I doubt if there will be a follow-up because of Jon’s first love; non-fiction. But I warn you, Jon; the world will come beating a path to your door in pursuit of a sequel.
Jon Lellenberg, author of BAKER STREET IRREGULAR. Published by Arkham House (a Mycroft & Moran book).