“The Razor-Potato Man”:
An Analysis of Harlan Ellison’s Short Story “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes”
The prolific science fiction author Harlan Ellison passed away on June 27, 2018. One of his last stories, “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes,” was published in the 2014 anthology In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon. The story was also published in one of Ellison’s last short story collections, 2015’s Can & Can’tankerous. In this paper I will use the aforementioned story to support my thesis, which is that Harlan Ellison shared three important traits with the beloved fictional detective Sherlock Holmes: a craving for justice, a meticulous desire to solve new and old mysteries, and a (mostly) endearing eccentricity.
Let’s start with the third similarity. As you may know, Sherlock Holmes was eccentric. There is much evidence of this in the canon: his habit of firing a gun into the wall of his flat or his practice of keeping his best tobacco stored in a Persian slipper are merely two examples. As you may also know, Harlan Ellison was eccentric. If you have spent any time in science fiction fandom, you have heard the stories of mailing dead gophers and traveling halfway across the country to end the stalking careers of misguided fans by breaking their fingers.
Please allow me to use a personal story to shed light on Ellison’s character. The last time I saw Harlan Ellison in person was in the Ray Bradbury room of the Palms-Rancho Park Branch Library in Los Angeles on September 23, 2013. Ellison was there with Twilight Zone author George Clayton Johnson to pay tribute to their departed friend, Ray Bradbury. Before the event, I took my seat next to Carol Sperling, the Diaboli of the Blustering Gales from the South-West (a scion society of the Baker Street Irregulars Sherlockian society). From behind us, we saw Ellison, decked out in a dark jacket, black shirt, and bright orange tie. He stopped to say hello to scattered audience members as he made his way up the room’s center aisle. He struck up a conversation with two ladies who were sitting directly behind me and Carol. Being a great eavesdropper, I listened to the conversation. One of the ladies asked Ellison “Are you a fan of Ray Bradbury?”
Not missing a beat, Ellison replied, “Well, I dunno. I suppose I am.”
I couldn’t resist barging in on the conversation. I showed the ladies the copy of the book Bugf**k: The Worthless Wit and Wisdom of Harlan Ellison that I happened to have with me. I said “I’m here to see this guy.”
The ladies stared at the book. “Who’s that?” one of them asked.
Ellison just grinned.
Despite his name and photo being on the front cover of the book, the ladies did not realize they had been talking with Harlan Ellison.
Ellison headed toward the front of the room to take his seat next to Johnson. Carol and I started talking with the ladies behind us. We quickly realized they had no idea who Harlan Ellison was, so we began to discuss his work with them.
After a few minutes, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around. It was Harlan Ellison.
“Did you explain it to them yet?” he asked me.
“I’m working on it,” I responded.
This lengthy anecdote is meant to convey Harlan Ellison’s uniqueness. Nobody made an entrance like Harlan Ellison. Despite the lighthearted nature of this story, much of Ellison’s writing is very dark. “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes” is no exception. This is a story about a wrong that is righted in a less-than-legal, less-than-peaceful manner. The story begins with an explanation of the wrong. The author explains it this way: “A bad thing had happened . . . A man in Fremont, Nebraska cheated an honest old lady, and no one seemed able to make him retract his deed to set things right. It went on helplessly for the old lady for more than forty years. Then, one day, she told a friend” (Ellison 215). Could Harlan Ellison be the friend in question? Is this story fiction or nonfiction? Ellison gives the reader a choice: for those who choose to believe it is fiction, he writes, “have at it . . . for those who choose to believe that I am recounting a Real Life Anecdote, I’m down with that, equally: your choice” (215).
The first actual scene of the story finds a man in bed in a New York high-rise apartment. It is early morning. He awakens to the ringing of his bedside telephone. He picks up the receiver, and a voice on the other end instructs him to watch his window curtain. Sure enough, a figure in black steps out from behind the curtain. The figure is holding a raw potato with a double-edged razor protruding from one end. The razor-potato man holds the weapon to the recent sleeper’s throat. The voice on the phone tells the recent sleeper to follow his directions precisely or his throat will be cut.
I will not recount the gory details, except to say that the recent sleeper receives a cut to the back of his hand but survives the encounter. The recent sleeper is told to sell an item in his possession, a “painting by a nearly-forgotten pulp magazine artist named Robert Gibson Jones,” to a particular dealer (218). Presumably, this is one of the items that was stolen from the old lady by Billy Brahm, the perpetrator in Nebraska. The recent sleeper is apparently Billy’s brother.
I use words like “presumably” and “apparently” because this story is a mystery in every sense of the word: Ellison tells the story in a scattering of fragmentary scenes that are interspersed with descriptions of seemingly-unrelated events from seemingly-random corners of the Globe. Is Billy brought to justice? Is the Robert Gibson Jones painting (not to mention the forty-seven other pieces that Ellison explains were stolen) returned to “the old woman Back East” (223)? If you read the story for yourself, you will learn as much about “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes” as I know. Every time I reread the story I feel as if I learn something new.
Now, let’s return to my original thesis. I argued that Harlan Ellison shared three traits with Sherlock Holmes: a love of justice, a desire to resolve mysteries, and a reputation for being eccentric. Ellison’s story ends with a man in London reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Red-Headed League.” He closes the book, smiles, and repeats a Latin phrase uttered by Sherlock Holmes in the story: “Omne ignotum pro magnifico” (223). Translated to English, the phrase means “Everything unknown is taken for magnificent.” Holmes’s foes are amazed when he finds them out, simply because his methods are a mystery to them. Billy Brahm was undoubtedly amazed to be brought to justice after forty years. Could the voice on the phone, the man in London, and the “He” of the story’s title be Harlan Ellison himself? Could Ellison be the mastermind who used Holmesian tenacity, resourcefulness, and, yes, eccentricity to bring a forty-year-old mystery to a satisfying end?
I will go one step further: Ellison ends his very unusual, eight-page tale with a dedication: “[To] the memory of my friend, Ray Bradbury” (223). What if the events recounted in “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes” are mostly true, except for Ellison’s description of the victim? I can imagine not an old lady but an old man (named Ray) telling his friend Harlan the story of his Robert Gibson Jones painting (and forty-seven other items) being stolen from him forty years ago.
Can I imagine Harlan Ellison promising his old friend to right this forty-year-old wrong? Can I imagine him carefully, meticulously constructing a less-than-legal, less-than-peaceful plan to bring the thief to justice? Can I imagine him hiring the Razor-Potato Man? Yes, but I can imagine lots of things. It’s only fiction, isn’t it?
Dan Lambert teaches English at California State University, Los Angeles and East Los Angeles College. In addition, he teaches online Communications courses for Colorado Technical University. He was nominated for the Distinguished Faculty of the Year Award at CTU in 2017 and 2019.
Dan wrote a poetry collection, Love Adventure (with his wife, Anhthao Bui), in 2017. He wrote his first collection of short stories, Mere Anarchy, in 2016. His fiction appears in the anthologies When Words Collide, Flash It, Daily Flash 2012, and Daily Frights 2012. His writing also appears in the periodicals Silver Apples, The Daily Breeze, Easy Reader, Other Worlds, and Wrapped in Plastic.
Ellison, Harlan. “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes.” In the Company of Sherlock
Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon. Ed. King, Laurie R. and Leslie S. Klinger. Pegasus Books: 2014. pp. 215-223.