How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?
I’ve been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for more than 30 years and have enjoyed hundreds of different interpretations of the character in various forms of media. For me, the term Sherlockian refers to a particular breed of Sherlock Holmes fan: a student of the Canon whose knowledge is beyond the basic narrative of the stories and engages in the Great Game (which is an exercise in which we critically examine the original texts and make sense of the inconsistencies contained within, how it intersects with the real world, etc.). Based on that definition, I didn't become a "Sherlockian" until my mid/late-teens.
I recognize my definition may not be a popular one because it is a narrower in scope than some would prefer. However, I don’t see the term fan as a pejorative, and in fact, embrace it. I am a fan of lots of things ranging from sports teams (Green Bay Packers), to book series (Harry Potter), to movies (I attend several film festivals annually), and TV shows (especially the BBC sci-fi show, Doctor Who). Fan is a general term for an enthusiast, whereas Sherlockian is a very specific type of fan (kind of like all thumbs are fingers, but not all fingers are thumbs). For many years, I avoided self-applying the term Whovian, (the Doctor Who equivalent of Sherlockian) and referred to myself as a Doctor Who Fan because term/title Whovian implies a level of knowledge surrounding the character and the various facets of the Whoniverse (which extends far beyond the original and new TV series) that I didn’t possess until six or seven years ago.
A different, and perhaps more provocative, question might be “What does it mean to you to be a Sherlockian?” And in answering that question, I think it means being part of a long-standing scholarly literary community and tradition that has united people from all demographics in their love of the friendship between the great detective and his Boswell.
How did you become a Sherlockian?
I’ve told the story of how I became a Sherlock Holmes fan many times before: I was introduced to the character through a made-for-TV movie that aired in January 1987: The Return of Sherlock Holmes. My mother made me go to bed midway through the movie (I was 5 ½, after all), but I never forgot the classic pop-culture signifiers of Sherlock Holmes shown in the film. A year or two later, I came across an abridged children’s edition of The Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes on my brother’s bookshelf, which I read over and over again. And then in 1991, I came across Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes on cable’s A&E. That is when I got really hooked as a fan of the character (and of Jeremy Brett’s portrayal).
But I didn’t become a Sherlockian until the mid-90’s. One of my junior high teachers, Mrs. Patricia Cox, saw me lugging around a copy of the Canon and suggested I use a search engine on the Internet to research Swamp Adders and Tapanuli fever. When I couldn’t find much information beyond a couple of small entries from obscure scholars and links to the Sherlock Holmes stories, Mrs. Cox introduced me to the concept of the Grand Game and how Sherlockians have sought to engage in scholarly research, trying to make sense of the minutiae in the Canon and explain away the inconsistencies and other facets of the stories. This is what started me down the rabbit hole and, on the path, to becoming a Sherlockian.
What is your favorite canonical story?
The Sign of Four is my favorite. It’s the story I was obsessed with as a teen, in part because I was trying to make sense of Holmes’s use of cocaine/morphine for recreational purposes while observing my eldest brother struggle with his addiction to similar substances. My desire to make sense of Holmes’s use (and consequently, my brother’s use) forced me to go beyond the story and understand the Victorian cultural attitude towards cocaine use compared to the modern American view. I also happened to really like the story.
But there is a special place in my heart for “The Red-Headed League,” “The Blue Carbuncle,” and “The Speckled Band,” as those were the short stories to which I was first exposed as a child.
Who is a specific Sherlockian that you think others would find interesting?
While scouring Wikipedia a while back, I came across Richard H. Hoffmann, BSI (1952, The Beryl Coronet). He was a rather high-profile psychiatrist who treated several notable people for alcohol addiction, which is my specialty within the realm of mental health counseling.
Julie McKuras, BSI, ASH (who is also a Sherlockian I find incredibly interesting) did the vast majority of the heavy lifting on a biographical section on the website of the Vincent Starrett founded Sherlockian society, The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic). If you look through the members section and click the links to the biographical entries, you’ll find a British diplomat whose name appeared in Hitler’s Black Book (W.H. Gallienne), the co-inventor of the polygraph test (Leonarde Keeler), a famous magician (Jay Marshall), and a rather notable author and poet (T.S. Eliot). You’ll also find bio blurbs of some great Sherlockians both past and present on the site.
What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?
Different Sherlockian scions and societies have a large variety of traditions and I am fascinated by learning the history of how they engage with Sherlockiana. Some groups meet once annually, some once (or more) monthly, and one meets only every four years on leap day! Some groups meet at libraries while others have elaborately planned dinners with menus that haven’t changed in decades. Some groups really study their Canon and for others, the Canon almost seems like an afterthought. To me, the how’s and why’s are truly fascinating, as it helps a younger Sherlockian like me gain an understanding and appreciation for those who came before me.
As someone who goes to more Sherlockian events than most, what would be your sales pitch for someone who is on the fence about attending an event?
When you first start out engaging in the more social aspects of the hobby, it can feel incredibly intimidating. You walk into a room filled with people who have known each other for many years and you’re the new person who knows no one; you're a little scared and worried about how you will be perceived. But, go anyway! Sherlockians tend to be some of the most welcoming and nicest people. And the vast majority are very interested in embracing new people to the hobby.
Take an opportunity to introduce yourself. Ask people questions and listen intently to their answers. Be humble, as you are on their turf and are there to learn if it is a good fit for you. If, after attending, you decide that particular group’s style doesn’t mesh with you, that’s totally okay.
Sherlockiana is a lot like the rest of life: you’re not always going to like or fit well with every group you encounter. I encourage you to not give up and to continue your search for groups or events that fit you. For example, I attended 221b Con a couple of years ago, which is more of a sci-fi convention style, fandom-focused event with a bit of traditional Sherlockiana in the mix. It’s a wonderful event and I had a lot of fun, but it’s just not my preferred way to engage with Sherlock Holmes. But that doesn’t mean others should not go and enjoy.
My core understanding of the Canon stems from a time well before I was a mental health counselor, so my professional training didn’t really start influencing interpretation of the stories until a few years ago. During BSI weekend in 2014, I had a late-night conversation with Jim Cox in which I was lamenting that so many laymen had weighed in regarding Sherlock Holmes’s use of cocaine and whether he was or was not an addict, and no one had really bothered to consult the clinical criteria. Jim suggested that I write such an essay…and I thought, “Why not?”
That is when I started to examine the Canon through a more clinical lens. Clinically and ethically, I am not allowed to twist facts to suit theories – I am limited in my ability to diagnose by what I can support from either the patient or reliable collaborative information (ex: things Holmes says or Watson observes). Therefore, I examine the text and look for passages that support, or do not support the various criteria of a diagnosis without any pre-conceived notions about the diagnostic conclusions. So, this is why, after examining the text, I learned Holmes meets DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for Cocaine Use Disorder, Severe and Watson does not meet the criteria for Problem Gambling Disorder.
Dorothy L. Sayers once wrote that the game "must be played as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord's; the slightest touch of extravagance or burlesque ruins the atmosphere.” I’ve tried to embrace that philosophy, taking my Canonical scholarship seriously, but also welcoming dissenters and counterarguments with open arms, because that allows the conversation (and scholarship/critical thinking) to continue.
What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?
I’m going to cheat a little on this one: I would recommend the Stephen Fry narrated audiobook of the Complete Sherlock Holmes. There’s something very soothing and comforting about his narration. I would also happily listen to Stephen Fry read names and numbers out of a phone book because I so very much love the sound of his voice. And anybody who thinks audiobooks are cheating when it comes to reading needs to check their premises – it’s different than the act of reading a book, but different does not necessarily mean bad.
Where do you see Sherlockiana in 5 or 10 years from now?
Just as every era has the film or television Holmes that it needs, I imagine the Sherlockian community will continue to evolve to be a reflection of its time. Scholarship will continue and present us with new and creative theories about the stories and characters viewed from angles not yet considered. More pastiches, parodies, and homages will be published as the last few stories enter public domain. And with the emergence of a more participatory culture of fan-engagement, I anticipate there will be an even greater shift toward that direction (fanfic, fan art, costuming/cosplay, etc.) than we saw with BBC Sherlock when we have the next big wave of Sherlock Holmes-related media.
Despite that shift, I think there will still be plenty of room for traditional methods of engaging with the material and the literature. Ultimately, at the core of all of this activity will remain the Canon and the emphasis on the wonderful and unique friendship between its protagonists that is reflected on a daily basis in the Sherlockian community.