What is a “Sherlockian”?
Simply stated, a Sherlockian is an enthusiast of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective fiction. They often have an interest in mystery and detective fiction, British history, or the Victorian era which leads them to develop an interest in Sherlock Holmes. But there’s a twist—Sherlockians differ from those who simply like to read the Sherlock Holmes stories because they enjoy what is called “the game.”
You’re in good company—famous past Sherlockians include Isaac Asimov, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and authors Christopher Morley, Dorothy L. Sayers and Rex Stout. Prominent modern Sherlockians include authors Dan Stashower and Nicholas Meyer; actor Curtis Armstrong; and Washington Post journalist Mike Dirda.
What do you mean by “the game”?
At the heart of the Sherlockian pastime is a light-hearted, pseudo-scholarly, tongue-in-cheek analysis of the writings of Conan Doyle. This humorous underpinning distinguishes it from conventional literary analysis. Its most distinctive characteristic, however, is that the Sherlockians speak as if Holmes and Dr. Watson were real and that Watson wrote the stories about actual events.
We call this the game—echoing Holmes' call to action when he said “Come Watson, come....the game is afoot.”
The adventures were written at various times over forty years. That, along with Conan Doyle’s particular writing style—lengthy narrative with scant attention to detail—was the genesis of the game. Because of the way they were written, the stories contain many internal inaccuracies and inconsistencies. Since Holmes was “real,” these inconsistencies become actual problems for Sherlockians to investigate.
The game is played by using evidence from the stories and Holmes's own methods to analyze and explain the inconsistencies, fill in the gaps, and identify real life equivalents of characters and events. For the Sherlockian, the stories supply any number of questions to explore. For example: What was the actual location of 221b Baker Street? Sherlockians familiar with London topography have compared the real Baker Street to notes about it in the stories and have decided where on Baker Street Holmes lived. Other examples include: Where did Holmes go to university? Why did Dr. John Watson's wife call him “James” in “The Man with the Twisted Lip”? When was Sherlock Holmes born?
The personal, educational, and professional experiences of those playing the game impact what conclusions are reached. As a result, two Sherlockians looking at the same question may come up with entirely different conclusions. The resulting good natured discussion and debate over differing theories adds to the fun.
Readers of Conan Doyle began this pastime even before the adventures were all written. As early as 1902, students at Oxford and Cambridge Universities began to discuss and write about the stories. Others followed and over the years, Sherlockians have created a unique and highly enjoyable form of literary criticism—the game.
A classic example of the game is “Watson was a Woman,” a witty speech delivered to The Baker Street Irregulars in 1941 by Rex Stout. You can read his essay here.
Who are The Baker Street Irregulars?
The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI) is the oldest Sherlock Holmes society. Its membership is composed of Sherlockians from around the United States and the world. It’s named for the band of street urchins that assisted Holmes in his investigations. He called them the “irregular division” of the Metropolitan Police of London. The BSI was founded in 1934 by Christopher Morley and it meets annually in January in New York City. The Constitution and Buy-laws of the Baker Street Irregulars (sic) were written by CBS radio commentator Elmer Davis in 1934. They are read annually at the BSI dinner. It’s a good example of the subtle humor that is so much a part of the Sherlockian tradition.
Most members of the BSI are also members of local Sherlockian groups that are referred to as “scion” societies. The scions meet more often than the BSI, sometimes scheduling monthly events.
What does a Sherlock Holmes scion society do, anyway?
Well, the main point of a Sherlockian group is to have fun with those who share their interest. As a group, Sherlockians are very open—anyone with an interest in Holmes is an instant friend. At times, our events may even be a little boisterous.
Local groups are found in about 150 cities in the United States. Often, a group gathers for dinner in a restaurant or club. A cocktail hour may precede dinner with toasts to Holmes, Watson and other characters from the stories. After dinner, members play the game with presentations on topics that they have been investigating recently. Some groups designate a certain theme for an event or explore a particular story in depth. There may be a “quiz” at the end of the evening—a series of trivia questions on the canon that is enjoyable as debate arises over the answers. Throughout any evening there is a great deal of laughter and fellowship. Over the years, great friendships develop among members of a society.
That’s the basic format, but it varies quite a bit. In the past, Sherlockians have held events on just about everything that might have a link (however tenuous) to Sherlock Holmes—movie programs, theater parties, walking tours, race track events, sporting events, music programs, and library or museum programs. If you try, you can find a link between just about anything and Sherlock Holmes!
For a list of scion meetings, peruse the Sherlockian Calendar:
But I don’t know much about Sherlock Holmes.
That’s not a problem at all. All that it takes to be a Sherlockian is an interest. Our pastime is a “big tent”—there’s a whole range of interest and involvement among Sherlockians. Others have been sharing our enthusiasm for over 100 years so the cliché about a multi-layered onion is apt; nobody knows everything there is to know. Suffice it to say that you won’t be embarrassed if you aren’t an expert on the topic. That being said, as a Sherlockian, over time you will want to become familiar with “the canon.”
What is “the canon”?
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 60 Sherlock Holmes adventures between 1887 and 1927—four novels and 56 short stories. Collectively we refer to them as “the canon.” If you haven’t read them yet, you might start here. Begin with the short stories, especially the early tales found in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Among the novels, the perennial favorite is The Hound of the Baskervilles.
If you don’t own the tales and want to buy them, choose a volume that includes the entire canon because you will eventually want to read all of the stories. One popular edition published by Doubleday is known as The Complete Sherlock Holmes. You can usually find it at Barnes and Noble for under $30.00.
The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, published in 2004 and edited by Les Klinger comes highly recommended. It includes Conan Doyle’s writings and many annotations about the Victorian age and terminology. It highlights what others have written about the adventures when they were playing the game. You can find it discounted for about $47.00 on the web.
Beyond that, there are hundreds of other editions of Conan Doyle’s stories. You can also find the full text of the stories on the internet—and even download them to your smartphone.
I don’t have a Sherlock Holmes costume.
I don’t either! Although you see an occasional Sherlockian wearing a deerstalker cap (the one with a bill in the front and the back) or carrying a meerschaum pipe, the Sherlockian “thing” really isn’t about doing a Holmes impersonation.
How can I learn more?
Besides joining us at our next event, follow the example of Holmes. When he needed to learn more about a case, he often “took a ramble through London.” After you read a few Sherlock Holmes stories, take a ramble on the internet. Here are some excellent web sites that you might like to look at. Although there are literally hundreds of websites dedicated to Holmes, these are of note because they have such a great deal of information available:
The Serpentine Muse; publication of the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes Society of London
The Sherlock Holmes Collections at the University of Minnesota
Sherlock Holmes Newsletter:
You also might want to subscribe to The Baker Street Journal, the official publication of The Baker Street Irregulars. This superbly produced quarterly journal has articles written by those playing the game and news about what is going on in the Sherlockian world. You can view some past articles and obtain subscription information from its website: