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A Study In Sherlock

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Each year in January, Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts from all over the country and the abroad gather in New York to celebrate the world’s most famous detective. Last year the buzz was all about Guy Ritchie’s film “Sherlock Holmes,” and whether Robert Downey Jr. would measure up to literature’s most enduring character. This year, the Sherlockian world has returned its focus to its more traditional preoccupation, the playing of “The Game."

If you ask most people about their “game,” you’ll hear about their favorite teams, tennis stars, or weekend warrior battles. But to Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts “The Game” is the century-old practice of regarding Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective as an historical character whose exploits were chronicled by his trusty companion Dr. John Watson.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the event that got “The Game” started. In March 1911, a young divinity professor at Oxford University, Ronald Knox, gave a talk to a number of student societies that was later published as “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes.”

Nicholas Utechin, a former BBC journalist and Sherlockian scholar, researched the history of Knox’s seminal work for an article in   “The Baker Street Journal”:

“Knox was a satirist, and what he was doing was using Sherlock Holmes to take the mickey out of what was called 'The Higher Scholarship'—German scholars who were researching Biblical stories very heavy handedly.”

Knox invented some preposterously named foreign scholars (Piff-Pouff and Backnecke) who were supposed to have written learnedly about such anomalies in “Watson’s” texts as whether Holmes really fell to his death from Reichenbach Falls, the exact color of his dressing gown, and how he could tell the manufacturer from a pencil nub. But the results were unexpected. Instead of skewering pretentious textual readings, Knox wound up fostering a culture of pseudo-scholarship equal in density and importance to any in the “real” world. 

While a few other authors had written critically about the stories, Knox’s essay was so detailed, and the framework of theological scholarship so elaborate, that it created a model for generations of subsequent writers. The term “The Game” is credited to the celebrated mystery novelist Dorothy L. Sayers (creator of Lord Peter Wimsey), who wrote: “The rule of the game is that is must be played as solemnly as a country cricket match at Lord’s” (the elegant traditional playing field for the sport.)

Sayers was no mean player herself, contributing pieces on Holmes’ choice of university (Cambridge vs. Oxford) and Watson’s name (John? James?) among others.

According to Michael Whelan, the head of the leading American Sherlockian society, The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI)*, “literally thousands” of articles have been penned since the turn of the 20th century, celebrating the brief, but eternal, span of Holmes and Watson’s literary lives. In honor of the Knox anniversary, the BSI has published a first volume collecting some of the most notable examples of Sherlockian scholarship written between 1902 and 1959, “The Grand Game.” 

The book’s two editors themselves reflect the breadth of the Sherlockian universe: Leslie S. Klinger is the editor of the exhaustive “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” and acted as a consultant on the Ritchie film, and Laurie R. King is the bestselling author of the Mary Russell series, daring to marry off the famously misogynistic Holmes to a woman who is his intellectual equal.

Klinger and King found their task daunting but fascinating. Aided by a panel of other scholars, “We tried to assemble a collection of writings that really followed in the footsteps of Knox,” says Klinger. King remarked on “the high degree of scholarship” and a “combination of whimsy and seriousness.”  The selections include works by a wide range of scholars and mystery writers, including Nero Wolfe author Rex Stout’s inflammatory “Watson Was a Woman”, but also pieces by such unexpected fans as actress Zasu Pitts, Franklin Roosevelt, and A.A. Milne. The book’s structure also follows in Knox’s footsteps, being organized into categories such as Early Criticism, Textual Criticism, Higher Criticism, Radical Criticism and Midrash, a term used for commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures. (King is a Biblical scholar.) 

Their ultimate criteria? Essays that “when you saw them, you said, ‘Well of course — that’s the answer,’" says Klinger.  The answer to, for example, whether Watson had a second wife; and where exactly he’d been wounded in Afghanistan; and what Holmes was doing during the three years after he defeated Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls; and what long-suffering landlady Mrs. Hudson would have to say about it all. 

Like the Bible, the Sherlockian “Canon,” as devotees call it, is full of contradictions, and requires both close reading and a dash of faith. “What is actually quite useful,” notes Utechin wryly, is that Conan Doyle was quite a slipshod writer, and therefore he made mistakes, and we can pounce on them.” 

While Biblical criticism generates all kinds of rancorous debate, the Author of All in this case cheerfully admitted culpability in an admiring note to Knox written in 1912: “I cannot help writing to you to tell you of the amusement—and also the amazement—with which I read your article on Sherlock Holmes…Certainly you know a great deal more about it than I do, for the stories have been written in a disconnected (and careless) way…”

There seems to be no end in sight. The BSI publishes three different series relating to the Doyle canon, as well as "The Baker Street Journal"; the Sherlock Holmes Society of London also has a journal, and scores of smaller societies offer regular opportunities for delivering papers. King and Klinger are at work on a second “Grand Game” volume—reflecting what he calls “the explosion” of contemporary works. And just this past weekend Michael Pollak, who already plies a fairly whimsical trade as the editor of the popular New York Times column “Metropolitan Diary”, won the BSI’s prestigious Morley-Montgomery Award for a piece that determined that what Sherlock Holmes was really doing in retirement was not keeping bees, as Watson informs us, but helping the British Admiralty crack German codes in World War I. 

This is fairly typical instance of Holmesian scholarship—the writer brings something of himself or herself (in this case, Pollak’s memory of a long-ago Harvard class on the language of bees as determined by Karl von Frisch), something of the world of the stories (Conan Doyle kept Holmes up to the times, not continuing to write, “the Victorian pea souper” at Utechin puts it); and something of Holmes himself—a restless intelligence who would surely have found something urgent to occupy himself, even in retirement.

“With any great writer, you can look at their works, and see that they are perfect mirrors and microcosms of their world,” says Les Klinger. “And if we want to know more about that world, we look closely. That’s what Sherlockians have been doing for a century.”

But somehow, with the Sherlock Holmes stories, there is something more. We aren’t invited simply to look at his world, but to enter into it, and it is this invitation that will keep the pens and keyboards of the faithful busy well into the next century. As one Sherlockian, William P. Schweickert, put it in a poem that is often read at Sherlockian gatherings:

…the modern rat race can't keep me in a cage
I have a passport to a far better age
As close as my bookcase, as near as a page
I can spend a long evening with Holmes.

Listen to Laurie R. King and Les Klinger discuss "The Grand Game" here:

*The Irregulars meet annually to celebrate Holmes and his universe on the Friday nearest to January 6th—a tradition that is itself the result of one example of Sherlockian scholarship: the contention by several early commentators that internal evidence proved that Holmes’ was born on Twelfth Night—the Shakespeare play most often mentioned in the stories.