Holmesian v. Sherlockian

When you say the word “fandom” to someone, they’re usually going to think one of five things:

  1. I’m totally a *insert fandom here* fan! *Pairing* is my OTP! (One True Pairing – the pair of characters in a particular fandom that is nearest and dearest to your heart) 
  2. That’s just something bored teenagers who like Harry Potter do on the internet. 
  3. Isn’t that, like, Transformers porn? (if you didn’t know explicit Transformers fanfiction exists, I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry. A horrible, awful person exposed me to it years ago and I still haven’t forgiven her for it. She knows who she is. I’m not judging, by the way, just offering the warning. Also? Do a Google search for your favorite childhood cartoon at your own risk.) 
  4. That’s a hobby for obsessive nerds that started because someone wanted Kirk and Spock to get it on, I think. 
  5. Fan-what? 

(All based on actual responses I have gotten from people exposed to casual use of the word.)

Full disclosure – I cut my online fandom teeth in the Rysher “Highlander: the Series” forums back in the days before Yahoo ruined Geocities and when IRC chat rooms were where it was at. I remember trolling Livejournal and Fanfiction.net for all the good fanfiction. I was a bystander, not a participant, in the shipping wars in Harry Potter and the Great Rose vs. Martha Debate (and I wasn’t even into Doctor Who at the time). Yes, I am possibly one of those “you kids and your tumblr get off my damn lawn” people the youngins complain about on the interwebs.

Most people, if they don’t fall into category five, anyway, operate under the assumption that, whatever it is, it’s a fairly modern invention and the internet may somehow be to blame. But the thing is? Fandom’s been around a lot longer than that. In fact, Sherlock Holmes fandom has been alive and well pretty much since Doyle started serializing Holmes and Watson’s adventures in The Strand. And, like all fandoms that have been around more than a minute, it’s always had its issues. Nothing demonstrates the longevity or the ridiculousness of those issues better than the “Holmesian v. Sherlockian” divide.

Once upon a time, not too long after Holmes burst forth from Doyle’s skull ala Athena, fully formed and ready to roll, people who considered themselves learned fans of the Great Detective called themselves Holmesians. Well, people in Britain, anyway. Doyle’s American fans were referred to as Sherlockians. In the late 19th Century and most of the 20th, this was the basic gist of the divide; geography. Local Baker Street aficionados – like William Gillette, for example – were the former. Mark Twain, across the sea writing and publishing Holmesian pastiche set in the States, was the latter. It was just that simple. And, heading into the later part of the 20th Century, Sherlockian became a much more catch-all term for Sherlock Holmes fans in general.

Now, though, the two terms have taken on a bit more of a contentious context. While fans of the canon – especially those who like to consider their involvement more intellectual and analytical despite geographic location – still lay claim to Holmesian, Sherlockian’s become a much different word. It started when fans of BBC’s “Sherlock” began using the term to describe the fandom specifically surrounding the show. In the UK especially, Sherlockian translates as “those who appreciate the television show.” On a broader scale, it’s come to be associated with someone who comes at their Holmes from the screen adaptions – “Sherlock,” “Elementary,” the Ritchie-verse movies. And therein lies the contention. There are those who consider the newly converted, the fans brought in by Cumberbatch or Miller or Downey, jr., to be lesser. Their enjoyment and interest is less valid, their opinions even more so.

Exclusion and elitism is a real thing here. People who have been in the “fandom” – and I’m sure they likely object to the term, too; they “play the game,” damn it – consider Sherlockians to be interlopers and trespassers into their world. These aren’t “real” fans. They haven’t poured through the texts to study Holmes’ methods or suss out all Doyle’s tiny little references and clues. They quote Moffat or Ritchie’s version of the characters, not the “real” thing. They have no “street cred”, no voice, no right to a place at the table.

Sure, this concept isn’t new or necessarily unique to the Sherlock Holmes fan community. Any fandom that’s big enough, popular enough, or long-running enough has had to deal with exclusion and fannish classicism. Every group has that segment of people who go around wearing the “We Were Here First” badge a bit too proudly, or make sure everyone knows how many times they’ve watched all the movies or episodes or read all the books. The difference is, this isn’t just about internet bullies and Big Name Fans singling out the newbies and chasing them out of the yard. This becomes more an issue of a group perceived as just a bunch of old white dudes telling a fanbase that is heavily made up of young, female fans that they aren’t welcome, specifically because of their age or their gender or the assumptions to be made based on both; that because of those things, their opinions and thoughts and appreciation are invalid; that they don’t belong.

None of this is news to anyone who has been in online Sherlock Holmes fandom for more than five minutes. My decrying it isn’t new, either. Lots of people have had this discussion before. So why bring it up? Mainly as a springboard to discuss my own experience and the importance of finding your people, even in a sea of judgmental sharks.

I haven’t really dipped my toe into Sherlock online fandom.  I follow a few tumblrs.  I listen to the Baker Street Babes podcast.  Previous experience has me reluctant to dive back into waters I used to swim in like a pro.  I’ve very much remained an outside observer this time around.  And then, “Holmes on the Range” happened.

“Holmes on the Range” is the kind of group that those staid and starched arbiters of traditional Holmes appreciation would probably despise. We don’t get together and drink high-end Scotch in our deerstalkers – which aren’t even canon! – discussing the importance of Holmes’ choice of dressing gown in “The Blue Carbuncle” or the socio-political meanings therein. The basic purpose of our meetings is an excuse for this group of wonderful, silly, intelligent women I know to get together, eat good food, drink fantastic cocktails, and watch things related to Sherlock Holmes. That’s pretty much it. As a concept, it began brewing in my brain after a collection of people from my local NaNoWriMo group decided to get together to see “The Abominable Bride” while it was in theaters. It was so much fun I thought, hey, maybe we could do this again, but in my living room, with alochol and less innocent bystanders.  Others agreed.
 I made a Facebook group, invited everyone local I thought would enjoy it, and we negotiated out first get together.

Thus far, our blasphemous formula has included the first season of the BBC series, a relevant episode of Veggie Tales (“Sheerluck Holmes and the Golden Ruler,” in case you’re curious), and “Elementary, Dear Data” from Star Trek: the Next Generation. There’s been discussion of adding things like episodes of “House,” the Ritchie-verse movies, “Elementary,” and a certain Asylum Films movie adaption. Generally, there is also pre-meeting “homework” – a story (or two) from the canon that relates to the episode we’re watching. Discussion ensues, of course. Sometimes, it’s even relevant discussion. What it always is, though, is fun.

We all come at Sherlock from different perspectives. Some of us have read the canon before, maybe years ago, and got back into things because of the BBC series. Some of us never read a single story before we started but have seen associated media. And some of us study the canon, write pastiche about the characters, and decided six months ago that it would be super fun to re-read it all and blog about it in a year.   Some of us are casual fans who don’t care about shipping; others have deep and extensive thoughts on the true definition of Sherlock and John’s affection towards each other (#teamjohnlock!).  Some of us love Sherlock; others of us are more Watsonites.  We have all the bases covered, you might say.

We aren’t a traditional Holmesian society – ones registered with the Baker Street Irregulars get to call themselves scions and be all fancy about it – and that’s awesome. If we were? That would also be awesome. It’s not the purpose of the group that determines whether it is or not, or how serious it takes itself, or how long any of the members have been into the canon, or even whether all of the members are.  What makes it awesome are the people. HotR is made up of some of my favorite people on the planet and that is why I love it.  

And that’s kind of the point of fandom. Find something you dig, then find people out there who share your joy of it and appreciate how you choose to celebrate it. Cherish those people, because if you’re very lucky you’ll find amongst them some very good friends that your life would be rather dull and dreary without.

Go out and find your fannish bliss. And for God’s sake, don’t judge how other people choose to find theirs. Even if it involves intergalactic robots that can change into automobiles falling in love with humans.

For Christ’s sake, Sherlock, it’s not a game!

I interrupt your regularly scheduled Sunday, and push back the two posts that are otherwise going up today, to bring you this wonderful tidbit: The Sherlock Season Four trailer!

I have so many questions –

  • What/who is the demon?
  • Who died, because the look on Sherlock’s face 00:43 is definitely a “they just wheeled *blank* into the morgue on a slab” one.
  • What is Mary up to?
  • What the *bleep* did Mycroft do to piss off Mrs. Hudson?

Oh, and then there’s the obvious question: when in 2017 are we getting this??

The Copper Beeches, or, What About Violet?

I feel like I need to start this off by saying I have nothing against Irene Adler.  She is a fantastic character that we did not get to see enough of, in my opinion, and that pastiche writers since have embraced beautifully.  I love that one of the first people we see best Holmes is a woman, a very clever and slightly devious woman who uses his own skills and preconceptions against him.  I have endless adoration for “The Woman.”

What annoys me, though, is this idea that she is the only strong, capable woman Doyle gives us; that every other female character that crosses Holmes’ path is little more than a cookie cutter damsel in distress needing to be saved by the Great Detective.  When people have this argument, they’ll drag out Helen Stoner (The Speckled Band), Mary Sutherland (A Case of Identity), or Annie Ruscastle (The Cooper Beeches) as definitive proof of the hypothesis while holding up Irene as comparison.  Miss Adler, in their minds, is an outlier.  An anomaly.  She is the exception to the rule.  All other women in Doyle’s Victorian London are weak, desperate creatures that fade into oblivion next to Irene’s strength.

They forget all about Violet Hunter.

Violet Hunter is the kind of young woman that likes to be clear and direct and figure things out for herself.  By the time she calls on Holmes and Watson for advice, she’s already weighed the odd circumstances of her job offer – leave London to come be a governess to  governess to one child in a country estate and acquiesce to any odd quirks her employers might suggest – against her own lack of funds and the 120 pounds a year they’re offering for her services.  She knows something about it seems strange and is looking for someone to tell her whether her suspicions are warranted or silly.

This is the same advice sought in “The Stockbroker’s Clerk;” it’s a similar situation to the one presented in “The Redheaded League,” as well.  The main difference between Violet’s situation and Mr. Jabez’s and Mr. Pycroft’s is that the exorbatant pay is being offered for actual, related work – just with a few odd circumstances involved.  Unlike her male counterparts, she’s at least not being wooed by a ridiculous premise attached to an unexpected sum of money.  She’s a governess being asked to take care of a child – while sporting a specific haircut and occasionally sitting in front of a window in someone else’s dress listening to her employer tell her funny stories.  That’s a bit more credible than being asked to copy out the encylopedia or the phone book.  At least the job she’s taking on makes sense.  Mostly.

Holmes sends her on with a vague warning that things may yet end up dangerous, even if he doesn’t know where exactly the danger lies, and Violet ensures him if things go wrong, she will send word.  Not very long after, he gets a summons to the Copper Beeches.

Violet Hunter is an observant, clever woman capable of noticing there are strange things afoot.  When Holmes and Watson arrive, she provides them a thorough, exacting account of her days in the Rucastle house.  She provides them enough information that Holmes has the entire case solved before he ever sees the scene.  When he arrives on scene, he already expects to find Annie Rucastle tucked away in that locked wing and a fairly good explanation of why.  He’s able to make such a clean deduction because Violet not only provides excellent information, but also because she is brave enough to find a way into that locked wing and investigate its contents, based on a hunch.  Violet may not cleverly disguise herself to play with Holmes and then slip away unseen into the night, but she matches Holmes’ curiosity and observation at the very least.  She isn’t who Holmes and Watson have to swoop in and save – she’s the one that precipitates the rescue mission.

Of course, another woman – Mrs. Toller, the cook – manages that rescue mission entirely on her own before the boys of Baker Street arrive, providing another example of a woman in the canon operating outside the damsel in distress boundaries.  Sure, she does it as much for a monetary motive as a humanitarian one, but that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme.

I’m not sure why Violet gets ignored.  Watson describes as an attractive woman, so it’s not because she’s plainer than Irene.  She possesses a more conventional career for a woman of the era; does she thus get left off because she’s too common?  Too boring in comparison to the infamous adventuress?  Is the story just less exciting?  I don’t know.  But I definitely think Violet gets the short end of the fandom stick sometimes, and she really shouldn’t.


The Case of the Blue Scarf

(Author’s note: First off…I’m caught up! And I promise to never let myself get so behind ever again.  Because that was just not fun.

The last thing on my mind this July is Christmas, for a lot of reasons, so I decided to stay far away from that aspect of the story, even if Victorian Christmas traditions might be fun to play with.  Might save that for December.  Instead, I’ve chosen to play with the deduction-off a bit.  And maybe have a little fun at Mycroft’s expense.

Of course it’s a blue scarf.  This fandom has had an obsession with blue scarves since “Game of Shadows” and the costume department of “Sherlock” only made it worse.)

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Excerpts From the Journal of John Watson

(Author’s note:  To quote the Tenth Doctor, circa “Blink,” this one got away from me a bit.  At one point, I had to stop myself and go “Are you planning to rewrite the entire novel, from the point Watson leaves London to the end?”  It looked like a possibility there for a while.   I usually try not to make these stories just a redux of the original, but I wanted to use Watson’s being sent off to Dartmoor specifically as a plot point.  And then it kind of became “Watson tells me a story for a few thousand words” pretty quickly.

I tried to rein that in a bit.  It’s still longer than I intended, and more summary-ish than I wanted, but the basic idea of what I wanted from it is here.)

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Lend Me An Ear

(Author’s note: Still playing catch-up.  This is the story that should have gone with “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box.”  The one for Hound of the Baskervilles is still forthcoming.  The post on ”The Blue Carbuncle” will probably go up before that, though, then the story to go with it will probably follow after I get last week’s up.  Plan is to be fully caught up by the end of the week, barring malfunctioning air conditioners and storms that knock out the power a day after fixing the AC. 

Yes, last week was fun.

Things I’ve neglected thus far that are essential bits of Holmesian lore: his prolific monograph penning.  It’s something that I think is mentioned in Book One, but I haven’t touched on in these shorts yet, and it needs to be.  Especially since it comes up again in “The Cardboard Box.”

Something else I’ve neglected, more specific to Charlotte’s lore: Anne and her knowledge of all the sneaking about going on right under her nose.

Both get addressed now.)

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The Hound of the Baskervilles, or, “Watson. John Watson. I’ll Take My Earl Grey Hot and Not Shaken.”

John H. Watson: doctor, Army surgeon, ladies man, biographer, narrator, Doyle’s likely self-insert, friend. No one word best describes the man that Sherlock Holmes refers to as “my dear Watson.” He is the heart of every story, the lens through which we thrill at and observe the mental gymnastics of the most progressive fictional detective of any era. He is a fiercely loyal and steadfast friend who provides an anchor for a mind that you are left to believe might lose itself to the cosmos without someone holding on. He is, simply, the best friend Sherlock Holmes could ever ask for.

Despite all that, we spend most of the canon hearing Holmes correcting Watson on one missed or misinterpreted deduction after another, and watching the good doctor following Holmes into one adventure or another. While Doyle never gave us the bumbling sidekick of early adaptations, the time spent reaffirming Holmes’ brilliance at Watson’s expense set the stage for that possibility. It’s not until The Hound of the Baskervilles that we get to see Watson being clever without correction, and Watson diving into adventures all his own. When he does? It is a glorious thing to behold.

Hound is the novel Doyle wrote by protest – or, more accurately, because he really needed the money- after dropping Holmes off a cliff in “The Final Problem.” It took him eight years to get around to revisiting his most famous character, and would take him another two to actually resurrect the Great Detective. Like so much of Doyle’s work, Hound is written out of continuity, taking place before Holmes’ demise. Unlike the rest of the canon, Holmes himself is absent for a good 70% of the novel (I’m guesstimating here; I’m not sad enough to count pages yet). That means we spend the majority of the narrative watching Watson discover clues, make deductions, and lay the groundwork for Holmes’ eventual triumph.

The narrative is a fairly standard quasi-gothic mystery. I say “quasi-gothic” because it turns on the idea of a horrific, supernatural creature haunting the moors and running down baronets in sadistic glee, but the focus is never really fully on the beast or the horror enough to qualify it a gothic. Besides; you know going in that it can’t be a real monster. This is the world of Sherlock Holmes, where order and rational logic trump all. The monster is of course going to be proven to be a perfectly normal animal by the end.

(Full disclosure – a world where magic and Sherlock Holmes coexist tempts me on a daily basis, no lie. I have a whole other series in my head with a Holmes descendant who is a medium and haunted by the ghost of her dead Great Uncle Sherlock, who twists her arm into solving crime and aggravating local law enforcement. Or maybe his good friend Watson is the spook. Maybe “good friend” is archaic Victorian code and he’s hanging about to look over the subsequent generations of his, ahem, friend’s, family. Or it’s Watson’s descendant with Holmes doing the watching over from beyond the grave. Because a Holmes should never be without a proper Watson. Anyway. Welcome to my brain.)

Watson gets to be absolutely brilliant in this book. For once, we’re allowed to see that, even if his cleverness is different than Holmes’, that doesn’t diminish its worth in anyway. We know, because Watson notices, that there is something squirrely about Stapleton (and, to a leaser degree, his “sister”) from the moment we meet him. (Thanks to every police procedural I’ve ever read or watched, so did I; always suspect the person who tries to insert themselves in the investigation, guys). Watson puts two and two together about something being wrong with the Barrymores. He even figures out which of the characters in the village will be the best source of useful gossip and knows the perfect way to interrogate him, too. Watson is one clever, cagey son of a bitch and he’s obviously learned a thing or two from watching his friend at work.

The chronology of this one bugs me, and I only bring it up – having sworn off doing so weeks ago – because of Beryl Stapleton. Nothing about her specifically, but more Watson’s reaction to her. We know Watson is fond of the ladies, but he spends an awful lot of page space talking about how pretty Miss Stapleton is. This bothers me only because of where everyone agrees the book falls – after Sign of the Four and before “The Empty House.” After Sign, we know Watson is a married man. He’s not a widower until after “Empty House.” But the opening of the book has him talking as if he’s living at Baker Street again and he’s really keen on how pretty Sir Henry’s neighbor’s sister is. Things like this, and the odd mentions of a wife in stories Doyle set before the timeline of Sign are why people argue over how many times Watson was married.

I said before that Sign of the Four is my favorite Holmes story, but Hound has to at least come in a close second, if not a tie for first, and it’s the focus on Watson that cinches it for me. I may love Holmes and playing with how he thinks and who he really is at the core, but I absolutely adore everything about Watson. I always have. Maybe it’s all those qualities I listed above. Maybe I just have a thing for men who were formerly in uniform. At the heart of it, though, I think it’s because Watson is the kind of friend we all want, and that we’d all like to be. Everyone hopes that the people they depend on are worthy of that trust; that we’ve chosen comrades who will have our back and to whom we can turn, no matter the day, time, or situation. And we want to be that sort of person to others, too.

The world would be a much better place with more Watsons in it, don’t you think?

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, or, “Hey, Lend Me Your Ear.”

So, this week is going to be a busy blogging one, since I managed to miss last week entirely (remember that “life” thing I mentioned last time?  Yeah, it kind of sucks right now) and need to play catch up this week.  Which means today, we’re going to talk about “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” and later this week, we’ll talk about The Hound of the Baskervilles.  The shorts might wait for the weekend for both, but they’re coming.  Expect Hound to pretty much be a John Watson Appreciation post, because it’s likely to be.  I refuse to apologize for my unabashed Watson adoration.

Today, though, we’re going to talk about little old ladies that get severed ears sent to them via post and what it takes to figure out who they belong to.

The whole thing starts with the delivery of an unexpected parcel to the address of Miss Susan Cushing, an elderly landlady in Croyden.  The delivery itself isn’t the cause for alarm, of course – it’s the pair of human ears inside the box that causes Miss Cushing to summon the police, who in turn call upon our intrepid heroes to come take a look.  Miss Cushing is convinced it must be a mistake.  Lestrade thinks it’s a prank perpetrated by a trio of medical student boarders who got the heave ho for being less than exceptional lodgers.  Holmes, of course, suspects that it’s all much more sinister than either of those options almost from the moment he sees the specimens.  It’s the ears that lead Holmes to the right questions, which then lead him to the conclusions that wind up turning the entire case.

Here’s one of the things that always kind of fascinates me about Doyle.  The story, which is set in 1888 or 1889 (depending on which chronology you go by), was published in 1892.  Holmes mentions that he’s published “two short monographs” on the topic of distinctive qualities of an individual’s ear in the previous year’s Anthropologicl Journal.  While the study of fingerprints began as early as ancient Babylon – where they were used as signatures and a method to prevent forgery – and their evidentiary value was understood (minimally, anyway) since 1880 (thank you Henry Faulds), the history of using the human ear to definitively identify a suspect (or victim) is nowhere near as long.   And earprints themselves didn’t come into the equation until the 20th Century.

In the late 19th Century, ear measurements were included as one of eleven anthropometrics, but they weren’t a vastly used investigative tool, and I’m sure most people couldn’t look at one person’s ear, then look at a severed one, and definitively declare the two ears related. That’s what Holmes does: after the initial chat with Miss Cushing, Lestrade shows Holmes and Watson the ears, then Holmes requests to ask the poor old lady a few more questions.  These questions mostly deal with her family.  Holmes soon learns that Miss Cushing has two sisters, once who is married to a sailor, and another that has lived with (or near) both her sisters at one time or another, but moved out after quarreling with the elder (the recipient of the package) and falling out with the younger and her husband.

That leads him to narrow the owner of one of the ears to either of the remaining sisters, though he still has to figure out which.  Not that it takes him too much energy to really do that.  Soon enough, Holmes has a working theory on the owner of the ear, that further evidence holds up, meaning he just identified a person via a severed ear and her sister’s comparative sample.  Like in most things, Holmes – and thus Doyle – is ahead of his time.

Identifying the other ear doesn’t seem quite as impressive comparatively.  He can only deduce it’s male and that it belongs to a sailor, based on the fact it’s pierced and sunburned.  What else is he supposed to glean from a body part otherwise free of context?  Holmes is brilliant, but he’s not psychic.

It’s funny.  As I’m writing this, I’m watching a first season episode of CSI, “Sex, Lies, and Larvae,” where the secondary case partially hinges on an earprint left behind on a wall during a robbery.  Even in 2000, Catherine is dubious about the worth of the evidence until Warrick reminds her that a murderer was convicted a year earlier based on just that sort of evidence.  So maybe Holmes was ahead of our time, too.