Filming of the third series of the BBC’s Sherlock begins on Monday, and it’s been confirmed that there will be a fourth. This news will either delight or horrify Sherlock Holmes obsessives, one of whom, it was reported on Thursday, has been caught cyber-stalking the actor playing the detective, Benedict Cumberbatch.
I say delight or horrify because Sherlockians, as they’re known, never agree on anything. I’ve been immersed in the Conan Doyle stories since I was 10 years old, and my bookshelves groan with volumes in which experts pore over “the canon” like biblical scholars dissecting Holy Writ.
A Sherlock Holmes Commentary by D Martin Dakin devotes a chapter to analysing every story. The Beryl Coronet, for example, is the tale of a young man wrongly accused of shameful theft. Dakin begins by asking: when precisely did this happen? Hang on, you might say, it’s fiction – but that would be to break the rules of the intricate Sherlockian game, in which Holmes and Watson are real people and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle merely Watson’s “literary agent”.
“I think Dr Zeisler has made a cast-iron case for Friday 23 February 1886,” says Dakin. “The client left the coronet with Holder the banker for four days and said he would reclaim it on Monday: therefore he called on Holder on a Thursday and Holder visited Holmes on Friday.”
Further evidence includes “a combination of meteorological records from Whitaker, including snow in London, sunshine in the morning and moonlight at 2am”. A rival date of 1883 put forward by another scholar is dismissed on the grounds that there was no snow in London in February 1883 “and snow plays too essential a part in the story to be discarded”.
Dakins’s nitpicking is witty and he has a sharp eye. Holmes “had remarkably bad luck with colonels”, he observes: Col Sebastian Moran, a deadly assassin; Col Moriarty, who tried to protect his evil brother; Col Walter, who stole the Bruce-Partington Plans; Col Upcott “of atrocious conduct”; Col Ross, “who was unpardonably rude to Holmes”, etc.
The origins of this odd game are intriguing. The Catholic scholar Mgr Ronald Knox invented Sherlockian “higher criticism” in order to tease liberal biblical scholars who used inconsistencies in the Gospels to dismiss Christian teaching. Knox wrote a mock-scholarly article exposing the hundreds of baffling inconsistencies in Conan Doyle’s stories. The game was then taken up by Dorothy L Sayers, who clashed with Knox over the identity of the unnamed university attended by Holmes.
“Oxford!” said Knox, pointing to clues in The Musgrave Ritual indicating Christ Church. “Cambridge!” said Sayers. In The “Gloria Scott” we learn that as a second-year undergraduate, Holmes was bitten by a bull terrier as he went down to chapel, and only in Cambridge was a second-year student likely to be living in college. A century on, the debate continues.
The Sherlockian movement, also big in America, verges on a cult – one to which I once felt myself drawn. Years ago I joined The Sherlock Holmes Society, but never attended their meetings because I was afraid I might get sucked in.
Also, Sherlockians hold events at which they dress up as characters from the canon – the fat blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton, or the fusspot housekeeper Mrs Hudson. There I draw the line (at least in public). But what a glorious example of Anglo-Saxon eccentricity – as puzzling, in its way, as any of the mysteries solved by the Great Detective.