When I think back to my preteen years, when I first discovered Sherlock Holmes, the story that immediately jumps out in my memory is "The Adventure of the Dancing Men." The idea of Holmes solving a secret picture code appealed to my young imagination. Right around the same age, I had read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, and had learned as much as I could about the runes on the map to the Misty Mountain. I used to try to write my name in runes, based on the little I could glean from Tolkien's novel and an encyclopedia article I found on runes. I don't know if I ever tried writing any messages in the Dancing Men code, but I bet there are all kinds of Sherlockians, young and old, who have done so.
I also remember poring over the Adventures, Memoirs, and Return of Sherlock Holmes, as well as The Hound of the Baskervilles, as they appeared in The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes (it had a different cover design from the one pictured here, but it was essentially the same one, with all of the Paget illustrations). My parents had bought me the collection when I began to show interest in the Holmes stories. As I recall, it took me a little while to realize that there were more Holmes adventures beyond the ones in that collection. In the days before Wikipedia, I compared the Illustrated Holmes with my grandpa's Complete Sherlock Holmes (the one by Doubleday, with the preface by Christopher Morley). In a sense, my search for the "complete" stories and novels was my own youthful "detective investigation."
And then I remember clearly the excitement of first reading A Study in Scarlet: here at last I was discovering the genesis of the characters I had come to know and love. I marked in pencil some of the passages that stood out to me: Holmes's theory of the mind as an "attic," Watson's list of Holmes's limitations, and Holmes's dismissal of the importance of astronomy. I'm sure lots of Sherlockians can recite it from memory:
“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”
I have to admit, these recent weeks of "rediscovering" my interest in Sherlock Holmes, and working on this very blog, have allowed me to recapture some of the wonder and excitement I had thirty-odd years ago, discovering it all for the very first time. I suppose that's part of why Sherlockians end up gathering in their various societies and groups: they love to share that excitement, and hopefully to pass it on to the next generation. It's part of why I've been so thrilled with the recent resurgence in Holmes adaptations. The idea of a new generation discovering Holmes through the movies and TV shows is something that I find very fulfilling to contemplate. As it has been for over a hundered years, the game is afoot! And always will be...
I remember when I was young, and my grandfather gave me his paperback copy of W.S. Baring-Gould's biography of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. It was the first time I realized that there were Holmes fans who played what has come to be known as "the Great Game" (or the Sherlockian Game, or the Holmesian Game, or simpy the Game), wherein Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and the rest are treated as historical figures, and Arthur Conan Doyle is cast in the role of Watson's "literary agent." Playing the Game, fans attempt to reconcile ACD's numerous errors and gaps in continuity (e.g., Watson having received a bullet wound in his shoulder...or is it his leg?). It's a tremendous amount of fun to approach the stories in this manner, and Baring-Gould's Holmes bio and his monumental Annotated Sherlock Holmes, as well as Leslie Klinger's New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, are perfect examples of how detailed the Game can get.
Some fans who enjoy playing the Great Game are probably a bit disappointed by the Oxford Sherlock Holmes, as the introductions and notes in that series treat the canon as the fictional series they are in what is usually known as "the real world." However, I for one am glad that the Oxford collection exists, because the publication history of the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels is fascinating in and of itself, and the Oxford series treats the works as worthwhile literature, which they certainly are. How fortunate we are to have such amazing resources, by those who play the Great Game, and by those who refuse to play it. Meanwhile, I always get a chuckle out of the little "disclaimer" immediately before the first chapter of Baring-Gould's Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street:
"No characters in this book are fictional, although the author should very much like to meet any who claim to be."
I'm a stay-at-home dad, and Director of Music Ministries at a United Methodist Church in Mt. Juliet, TN. And a longtime fan of Sherlock Holmes.