Imagined histories and intangible heritages: walking the world of Sherlock Holmes

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the Transatlantic Dialogues interdisciplinary conference in Liverpool. The conference was jointly arranged by the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage at Birmingham University and the Collaborative for Cultural Heritage Management and Policy, at the University of Illinois. There were loads of papers on questions of transatlantic heritage, from the tale of John Quincey Adams as a tourist in Paris to American views on the British Royal Family. My own paper, which I’ve included below, looked at an American tourist in Europe, walking the world of Sherlock Holmes.

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In the late 1970s David Hammer, an American lawyer and life-long fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, was taking a cruise down the Nile in Egypt. As he admits, Hammer was a particularly fussy customer. After complaining many times about the way he and his fellow tourists were “shepherded” about, one of the tour guides put Hammer on the spot by demanding what type of tour he would like to be on. Hammer suggested a tour of Sherlock Holmes sites in England. This, he claims was the genesis of his series of travel books, in which he told the tale of locating sites of Sherlockian significance across North America, Britain and Europe. One of these books in particular, called A Dangerous Game: Being a Travel Guide to the Europe of Sherlock Holmes, is of interest to us today because of the way in which Hammer’s particular style of travelling and writing shapes the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes into a form of intangible, transatlantic heritage.

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Hammer himself was probably the first person to make this point about his travel books. In his memoir, called, The Game is Underfoot, he writes that, “I never really believed that Holmes had lived. I still don’t, but I do believe that he was real; so real, in fact, that if he has not become a figure of history, he has of heritage, which surely constitutes a significant form of reality. Besides, as I once wrote in the same context, there is meaning in myth and fact in fiction”. But what kind of ‘heritage’ do the Sherlock Holmes stories constitute? Robinson and Andersen, in their exploration of literary tourism as the interaction between the art of literature and the practice of tourism, specifically pinpoint heritage as one way literature has been commodified for tourist experiences. They argue that literature possesses, “some sort of public legacy expressed in emotional as well as spatial terms”. In this way, literary works can be seen as “cultural reference points that sit with conceptions of social and cultural identity, ideas and ideals of nationality and nationhood, and popular discourses of historical development”. It is this interaction between cultural reference points and these conceptions where the work of literary heritages takes place.

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Literary tourism’s interaction with literary heritage appears, to Robinson and Andersen, to focus in part on the idea of re-living an imagined or half-remembered, past. As they write, “nostalgia is important here and it seems like literary tourism increasingly plays to an audience that wishes to travel in time as well as space”. Reading the first pages of Hammer’s Dangerous Game it would seem he agrees. Because he says that Sherlockians, “are essentially time-travellers, committed to another time, and perhaps worse, to places where we never lived, and for some, have never seen”. This interplay between past and present is particular interesting in relation to literary heritage given the difficulty in discerning the boundary between fact and fiction in literature – and in the performance of literary tourism. Robinson and Andersen draw this boundary between tourists motivated by a biographical interest in the author and those motivated by the literary work itself and exploration of its fictional world.

So, with all this in mind, today I want to read Hammer’s travel guide to Europe as a text that re-lives an imagined past, as a form of intangible, Sherlockian heritage. I will explore how Hammer’s writing places the fault line between fact and fiction, the past and present, at unusual and unexpected places. And I will show that the result, which is a blending of fact and fiction, history and tourism, draws on Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, on historical artefacts and on Hammer’s own experiences moving across Sherlock Holmes’s Europe.

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Holmes’s Fictional World

At first glance, Hammer’s travel writing, like many classic literary tourists before him, appears to put great value on the fictional world he wants to explore. Indeed, A Dangerous Game is a very good example of Hammer’s work for our purposes here, because unlike his earlier travel books, the first two sections of this book, taking up almost half the pages, are structured by the events of Doyle’s 1891 story The Final Problem. The book is filled with chapter titles such as, ‘The Flight’, ’Still Deep in Snow’, ‘A Charming Week and a Lovely Trip’, and ‘I Found Myself in Florence’. These refer to lines or events from two of Doyle’s stories The Final Problem and The Adventure of the Empty House. In these chapters, Hammer follows Holmes and Watson’s footsteps across Europe as they flee from Moriarty in London, only to meet again with Moriarty, and with disaster at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. By structuring his text in this way, Hammer seems to be following the a practice common to other Sherlockian guide books, where Doyle’s stories take centre stage and real-world sites or events are negotiated through meanings derived from those stories.

Hammer’s work draws on a rich history of Sherlockian fans interpreting the world through meanings found in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Julian Wolff’s 1948 map, Operation Reichenbach (above) is a good visual example of this practice. Like Hammer, Wolff’s map is structured by the events of The Final Problem. Like Hammer, Wolff marks Holmes and Watson’s path across Europe to Switzerland. Place markings such as Brussels or Paris are justified by the inclusion of direct quotes, which indicates that they are referenced in the story. Over Paris, for example, is written the words, “Moriarty… will get off in Paris”. And here too, Wolff includes certain real-world sites and events to give cultural weight to his representation. For instance, he has marked the site of the Battle of Waterloo, perhaps as a sign of eventual British victory out of apparent defeat, and to tie the pan-European importance of Holmes’s mission in to earlier, historic British endeavours.

There is another, more subtle way, in which Hammer’s writing seems to bring to the fore the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes. We can get an idea of this from the very first page, where the full title of the book is, A Dangerous Game: Being a Travel Guide to the Europe of Sherlock Holmes. It would seem that Hammer has forgotten about Arthur Conan Doyle. This is because Hammer’s travel writing is embedded in a tradition of fan writing known as Sherlockiana, produced by fans of Sherlock Holmes who call themselves Sherlockians. This peculiar fandom is characterised by a practice known as ‘playing the game’: that is the ludic belief that Sherlock Holmes is not a literary character, but was rather a historical figure living at the end of the Victorian period. Hammer does admit that this might seem odd to the uninitiated, when he says at the beginning of A Dangerous Game, “[a]dmittedly, the deliberative confusion of reality with fancy is a supreme idiocy”.

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By the time Hammer was writing his guide to the Europe of Sherlock Holmes, in the early 1990s, Sherlockians had been playing the game, primarily in Britain and America but also in many other parts of the world, for more than fifty years. All across America, for instance, fan societies with names such as The Hugo’s Companions, The Reigate Squires or The Midlothian Mendicants produced quarterly periodicals or newsletters with names like The Grimpen Mire Gazette, The Devonshire County Chronicle and The Racing Form that were circulated locally, nationally and internationally to subscribers. We should not forget, of course, the Baker Street Irregulars, the most senior Sherlockian society in America of which all these other societies registered as ‘scions’ or offshoots, and its own quarterly Baker Street Journal. These periodicals featured scholarly articles that often discussed aspects of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories (known to fans as ‘The Canon’), new pieces of fan fiction, games and puzzles and letters pages in which lively debates about aspects of Holmes and Watson’s lives and times raged. As a senior member of the Baker Street Irregulars and an irregular contributor to the Baker Street Journal, Hammer’s books owe much to the practice of Sherlockiana.

Perhaps the central feature of ‘playing the game’ is denying Doyle his role as author of his stories, and the creator of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Displacing Doyle is in fact a prerequisite for fans’ ludic belief in Holmes’s reality. How could Holmes be a real person if he is also the artistic creation of someone else? Yet, the tongue-in-cheek nature of Sherlockiana recognises at the same time the historical role that Doyle played in bringing Holmes to public prominence. Thus Sherlockians accommodate Doyle in their histories by referring to him as “Watson’s friend and literary agent”, or simply as “the literary agent”. In this way they effect a double-displacement for Doyle: from his authorial role and from his own name. By including Doyle in their fandom, albeit out of place, Sherlockians have recognised that playing the game is characterised not, as Hammer put it, by the deliberative confusion of reality with fancy, but rather by their deliberate blurring. Hammer notes this himself further on in his introduction to A Dangerous Game, when he writes of the locations featured in his book, “there are those who claim they were visited not by Holmes but by his biographer or, God save the mark, by his literary agent, and no one can gainsay at this remove which is true”.

So already we can see that while it might look like Hammer is straightforwardly exploring the world of Sherlock Holmes as a fictional world, it is actually rather more complicated. Fact and fiction support and deny each other in equal measure. Hammer is not interested in Doyle’s life and times as a way to understand Holmes’s world, yet he needs to recognise Doyle’s attachment to the books, because that bolsters his Sherlockian belief that Holmes was real. If Doyle was the literary agent, who got Watson’s narratives into print, it explains how Holmes could have actually lived and, at the same time, appeared in books with Doyle’s name stamped all over them. In A Dangerous Game, Doyle appears as a spectre at the du Sauvage hotel in Meiringen, near the Reichenbach Falls. Hammer writes that, “Some years ago, I concluded that the Englisher Hof [the hotel mentioned in The Final Problem] was the du Sauvage, largely on the basis of the English Chapel”. Hammer must have known that this was the hotel at which Doyle and his ailing first wife, Touie, stayed on their trip to Switzerland in 1891, the very trip where Doyle had the idea for Holmes’s death scene at the Falls. Yet to admit this would be to shake the edifice on which Holmes as heritage is built.

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Moving the fault lines: blending fact and fiction, history and experience

The main effect of Hammer displacing Doyle from history into fiction is that he is then free to move Holmes and Watson from fiction into fact. Throughout his travel writing Hammer implies that Watson actually wrote the stories he is discussing. The logical step for Hammer to take, which he does take, is to accept that these stories, written by a real man about the life of another, real man, are a form of historical record. We can see this quite clearly when Hammer begins his section on ‘The Withdrawal’ with a short chapter on the ‘Timeline’ of events. Like earlier chronologists of Holmes’s life, such as Jay Finley Christ or William Baring-Gould, Hammer is quite demanding with the texts in looking to pin down Holmes and Watson’s movements to set dates. For instance, in summarising Holmes and Watson’s journey between Brussels and Strasbourg, Hammer writes that, “Moving on the third day to Strasbourg, which is what Watson reported. They should have arrived there on the 28th [of April 1891, that is], but Watson inconsistently places them in Strasbourg on Monday the 27th”. Later, he declines to guess at the length of the pair’s stay in Geneva for, “we have no hard information and insufficient data from which to extrapolate”. In treating the text of The Final Problem, which he describes as Watson’s writings, as historical fact, Hammer reflects the wider trend in Sherlockian attitudes towards these stories. Fellow Sherlockian Les Klinger neatly captured this when he described the stories as a “true record” of Holmes’s life.

Hammer further shifts the fault line between fact and fiction, by using a variety of real-world data to build up his representation of Sherlockian Europe. Unlike earlier explorers of Sherlockian geography, whom Robinson and Andersen would categorise as “tourists of the mind” who recognise the primacy of the fictional world, Hammer was not content to sit at home and pour over atlases. He went out into the world to see the sites for himself. As he wrote at the beginning of A Dangerous Game, “for the site-maven… the research must be confirmed or negated by physical inspection. There must be both search and research”. This is because Hammer’s main interest is in expanding the geography of the world of Sherlock Holmes beyond the confines of Doyle’s page; by filling the many gaps left around the edges of the text. In every place he visits, Hammer’s first move is to ask “where did Holmes and Watson stay, and what did they do there?”. To answer this question Hammer relies on a variety of evidence, including real-world texts and materials, Sherlockian assumptions about Holmes’s life, and his own movement through the landscape.

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Chief among the real-world materials are Hammer’s trusty contemporary Baedeker guidebooks. Important to Hammer’s quest for Sherlockian heritage is the possibility that, “The flavour of the place and the time can still be extracted”. This is because for the Sherlockian tourist, “the ambiance is as important as the analysis”. Baedeker’s guides, with their historical information, their prices in pounds, shillings and pence and the clues they provide to the travelling habits of late-Victorian bourgeoisie, are a vital tool for Hammer to extract the flavour of the place and time of Sherlockian Europe. Other material artefacts Hammer uses include the hotel buildings themselves: whether they seem to be of the right period and design is an important factor in their selection as a Sherlockian site.

In an example from the chapter on Brussels, for instance, we can see this triangulation process at work, involving all these forms of extra-textual, real-world evidence. Hammer starts by comparing the hotel offerings recorded in Baedeker with his understanding of Holmes’s preferences. He writes, “Baedeker for the appropriate period lists two hostelries in Brussels which would have possessed undeniable English appeal”. These are the Grand Hotel Britannique and Culliford’s English Hotel. “Either of these places”, says Hammer, “would have offered the requisite Anglophile amenities. Holmes was not one of those who would have been impressed by staying behind… the royal palace, and his clear preference had always been for inns”. After this process of negotiation between Baedeker and the portrait of Holmes offered by Doyle and other writes, Hammer declares, “I believe that there is no question but that he would have selected Culliford’s, if only because it was less pretentious”. Finally, Hammer confirms his ‘identification’ of this Holmesian site two pages later when he sees the building itself. He writes, “perhaps it was the rain which gave a sodden aspect to the buildings. Culliford’s English Hotel was no longer there, but the building was, and it was unmistakably what the Belgians thought was English”.

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As we can see from this last example, a key piece of evidence in Hammer’s quest to define the geography of Holmes’s Europe is his own movement through it. He collates data from a variety of sources, historical and contemporary, fictional and factual. But the final analysis lies with his ability to walk the supposed route, travel on a particular train or see, possibly go inside, a certain hotel. A very good example of this is his approach to unpacking the route taken, and sites visited, during Holmes and Watson’s week-long tour of the Rhone Valley. Hammer quotes the relevant passage from Doyle’s story in his discussion of timelines, when he quotes Watson saying, “For a charming week we wandered up the valley of the Rhone, and then… we made our way over the Gemmi Pass… and so by way of Interlake to Meiringen”. There is a problem here, says Hammer, in that the agreed dates of this trip allow only four days between the pair leaving Geneva and arriving in Meiringen, near the Reichenbach Falls. Hammer’s solution is to walk the route himself. His record of this experiment, in a chapter called, “A charming week and a lovely trip”, shifts the balance of evidence away from Doyle’s texts more heavily on to Baedeker and Hammer’s own experience of the terrain.

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In another, later example, Hammer tries to solve the puzzle of which path Holmes took over the Alps, when getting away from Colonel Sebastian Moran after his tussle at the Falls. In Doyle’s story The Adventure of the Empty House, all that Holmes tells Watson is, “I took to my heels, did ten miles over the mountains in the darkness, and a week later I found myself in Florence, with the certainty that no one in the world knew what had become of me”. Before arriving at the Falls Hammer had made up his mind that there was only one possible route by which Holmes could have escaped: by continuing on the only path from Meiringen to Rosenlau. Yet, he notes that another Sherlockian fan suggested Holmes took the Grimsel Pass. There was only one thing for it: as Hammer writes, “I recognised that the matter could never be definitively resolved unless I could make enquiries in situ and to walk it myself”. Both these examples indicate that for Hammer, the self-professed “site-maven”, the world of Holmes is not entirely fictional, it is contaminated at every point with real-world evidence, and demands to be lived in as much as to be read about.

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Conclusion

So now I really should draw these strands together. In this paper I have attempted to show that David Hammer’s Dangerous Game is an example of literary tourism and travel writing that breaks the mould. Rather than being prompted by an interest in the life and times of a favourite author, Hammer, in the tradition of Sherlockian fandom, consciously writes Doyle out of literary history and into the world of Sherlock Holmes. And instead of seeking a deeper engagement with a favourite book, and trying to get a greater connection with the fictional world it creates, Hammer treats the Sherlock Holmes stories as starting points, as historical sources, blurring the boundary between fiction and fact, and between history and his own experiences.

This blurring points towards one of the claims I am making here today: that Hammer’s work represents a particularly lively form of literary tourism. Of course, the relationship between text and tourism is complex; often tourist-readers experience literary sites as additions or expansions to texts; otherwise, as Robinson and Andersen say, they can experience reading as a kind of tourism: by travelling to fictional worlds. But for Hammer, literary tourism rather becomes a kind of reading; an innovative way to engage with the text. Because not only does Hammer walk in the footsteps of Holmes; his co-production of Holmes’s world, through the discovery of new sites and the reinterpreting of Holmes’s activities through real-world artefacts and knowledges, means that Holmes begins to walk in Hammer’s footsteps, too. In his own way, Hammer, like a good Sherlockian, keeps the master alive; his own way involves walking through his world.

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Finally, by placing the fault lines of fact and fiction and of history and present in unexpected places, Hammer’s travel writing creates a new form of intangible, transatlantic heritage. By reading the European landscape through the Sherlock Holmes stories, and by investing in the belief that Holmes was not a character of fiction but rather a Victorian man, Hammer produces new geographical knowledges that sit on the borders of myth and of history. It is here, of course, that heritage is born. But this particular heritage is not devoted to a nation or a telling of history: it is the inheritance of the Sherlockians, those fans of Sherlock Holmes, those who believe in the stories as “true records of one man’s life”. This particular community transcends national boundaries and, as Hammer, an American in Europe, demonstrates, transcends the oceans too.

 

 

Between the Canon and the Commons

My time at the Library of Congress’s Kluge Center is coming to an end. This is sad news. It might also come as a surprise to many (any?) of you reading this blog, given the little time I have devoted to chronicling the relatively rare experience of being a British Research Councils Fellow at the Library of Congress. (I would recommend anyone interested in finding out what it is like to study at the Library’s Kluge Center, or to be a part of the AHRC’s IPS programme, to read the fascinating blogs by Sibylle Machat and Natalie Cox, respectively.

Sighting the beginning of the end of my Kluge time has brought with it the honour of presenting to the distinguished crowd of researchers that make up the Center’s Fellows and staff. To that end, last week I gave a talk on the ways in which fans of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlockians) have used and framed representations of geographical mobility in their fan fictions. I called my paper, ‘Between the Canon and the Commons’ in reference to the work of David Brewer and his notion of fan fictions as a ‘textual commons’, and to suggest that fans’ representations of Holmes and his world have always brought with them elements of Doylean originalism and fan evolution.

Like many academics before me, I made life considerably easier on myself by presenting a paper that I had already given: in this case, I wrote ‘Between the Canon and the Commons’ to be delivered at the Association of American Geographers’ (AAG) annual meeting in Chicago, the week before my Kluge talk.

In this post I will talk a bit about each presentation, show some photos and slides and talk a bit about how my work was received. If you want to read a full-length speaking text of my paper (as yet without footnotes – those will come in time), head over to my page on Academia.edu.

 

AAG – Chicago 2015

Millennium Gate, otherwise known as the Bean, in Chicago's Millennium Park
Millennium Gate, otherwise known as the Bean, in Chicago’s Millennium Park

The AAG Annual Meeting is perhaps the largest gathering of geographers (and some others) at any one time. This year, in Chicago, the conference stretched over three venues and six days, involving thousands of attendees, hundreds of panellists and tens of rooms. Yet, the way the conference was set up, with multiple panels at any one time, meant that I only got a sense of the its size and scale at certain moments – in the lobby of the main hotel venue, for instance, or in the nearby bars and restaurants where nearly every customer was wearing the tell-tale green lanyard. Given the small size of each room and the many choices available, the panels themselves were relatively intimate affairs.

Me and my friend and fellow geographer Edward-John eating Chicago deep dish pizza. Almost everyone in this restaurant was a geographer
Me and my friend and fellow geographer Edward-John eating Chicago deep dish pizza. Almost everyone in this restaurant was a geographer

There were around thirty people in the room when I spoke. My paper was part of a panel organised by myself and my supervisor, partly to give us both space in which to contextualise our work and partly to ensure that, at a conference where literary geographers are a rare breed, we would’t get lost on panels with little or no relevance to what we are doing. Phil chaired the first panel, in which I spoke, which was about mobility and circulation as they related to the relationship between literature and the world. Here is a photo of me speaking, and few slides from the presentation:

 

 

The author presenting his paper in a windowless room in Chicago's Hyatt hotel
The author presenting his paper in a windowless room in Chicago’s Hyatt hotel

Public Property

 

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We had a good series of papers, with the first two (my own and Maddy Hamlin’s) considering the formal relationship between literary representations of mobility and meaning in quite different texts; and the latter two (by Perry Carter and Stephen Dreiver) looking at the ways circulation of books or their authors have affected their representations and their impact on the world.

 

Kluge Center Work-in-Progress

At the Kluge Center I was back on home turf, presenting to a group of academics and the center’s staff,with whom I had discussed my own topic many times. The paper as I gave it was essentially unchanged. Again, here is a photo of me giving the talk, along with a few slides:

The author speaking in the Library of Congress
The author speaking in the Library of Congress

 

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What was really interesting was the difference, in depth and complexity, of the questions I received at the Kluge. Whereas in Chicago I was speaking to a room of geographers, many of whom presumably shared many of my underlying assumptions about the importance of representations of geography in narratives, at the Kluge I was in front of an interdisciplinary audience, whose members’ work differs greatly from my own.

While in Chicago questions focussed on my use of theory, in Washington the questions probed more deeply into my own orientation to the texts and to the ideas of readerly ‘borrowing’ and relationships to originary authors that I was exploring. The different angles from which each listener came gave fresh (and valuable) insights into my work which I will certainly build on.

Perhaps the message to take away here is, even if large, many-panelled conferences seem more prestigious and vital to one’s academic CV, it’s the small, intimate, interdisciplinary places where the real academic growing happens.

 

Uncovering The Sherlockian Atlas

“Let’s see if he can figure out which way to go”, chuckled Steve behind me, as I emerged from the stairwell and tried to walk into a cupboard. He was addressing his friend and fellow Sherlockian Ray but he was talking about my efforts to find my way around the labyrinthine basement of Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop, in New York. Nestled among the historic industrial buildings and modern lofts of Tribeca, on Warren Street, the Mysterious Bookshop claims to be “one of the oldest mystery specialist bookstores in America”. 

The Mysterious Bookshop (photo credit: The Mysterious Bookshop website)

Every year Otto, a long-standing member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the world’s oldest and most famous Sherlockian fan society, puts on a special Sherlockian-only viewing of his wares as part of the BSI’s annual Weekend celebrating Holmes’s birthday. I actually hadn’t planned to visit the bookstore this year; there are only so many hours in the day and mine were already full of Sherlock-related things. Yet, after brunch with Ray (Betzner, Pennsylvanian and BSI member) and Steve (Rothman, fellow Pennsylvanian, BSI member and editor of the Baker Street Journal), I was happy to tag along and see what I might find.

‘Find’ is perhaps too strong a word to use in a place like the Mysterious Bookshop, where the books almost jump out at you. At the back of the store, one whole wall is dedicated to Sherlockian fan writing, fiction and criticism. I know this is true because within five minutes of walking into the shop Steve, Ray and Otto were each on ladders or scrabbling around on the lower shelves plucking off books which seemed, to them, pertinent to my PhD research. In no time my arms were full of relevant reading. Either I did a good job of explaining myself or these men were very intuitive. (Or, most likely, Otto keeps a very well stocked shop).

After I had discreetly placed most of the books back (for lack of money, not interest!) I followed Steve’s suggestion that we head down to the basement. After my detour into the broom cupboard, I got on the right path and found myself in a room filled with rare and interesting Holmes-related books. Most lined the wall-mounted bookcases while still more filled the tables in the middle of the room. 

Found in the basement of Otto Penzler's Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan
Figure 1: Found in the basement of Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan

Rooting around the piles of material on one of the tables I found a pamphlet memorably titled, You Bastard Moriarty (fig.1) and a manila folder labelled, without comment, ‘Sherlockian Florida Citrus Labels’ (fig.2). Rather than delve any deeper into these mysteries (sadly we will never know why Sherlockian-specific fruit labels exist), I turned instead to a find what would prove to be very interesting indeed to the student of Sherlock Holmes and literary geography. Sitting in an unmarked envelope, priced inauspiciously at $1, was an artefact that has led me down a research path, fruitful in its own way. [Complaints about puns can be addressed to the author – Ed.]

It was a Christmas card from 1964; unwritten and unsent. The card was printed, so I discovered from the inside page, by Edward Chichester, 6th Marquis of Donegal, long-time member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and former editor of the Sherlock Holmes Journal. This was interesting in itself, for why would Don (as he liked to be called) keep only one card from a presumably larger run? Yet, if it came to the bookshop via a recipient, wouldn’t it have been written and signed? 

In any case, I let these questions sit and turned instead to what had caught my eye in the first place. On the front of the card was a reprint of Julian Wolff’s Sherlockian Map of England, with colour added onto what I later found out was a black and white original. (fig. 3) The map depicted sites from Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the fifty-six shorts and four novels that make up what Sherlockians, that is, fans term ‘the Canon’. Also marked, alongside country and county lines, were locations that even non-Sherlockian fans can agree to, such as Coventry, Exeter and Frinton (the latter a seaside town in Essex where I spent many a happy summer’s day as a child).

What intrigued me about this map is the relationship between literature and geography that it suggested. By including fictional, Sherlockian settings such as King’s Pyland, purportedly in Devon alongside real-world locations with no Sherlock Holmes connections, such as Waterbeach (which I can attest is a short bike ride along the river from Cambridge; though be careful as the path gets muddy in the winter), Wolff and by extension Donegal were making a particular claim about the value of literary locations in relation to geographical imaginations. Wolff appears to be saying not only that these fictional locations might exist but that they might as well exist – and, in fact, to the Sherlockian fan they are as real as any non-fictional place as yet unvisited.

I have no idea why or to what end these exist
Figure 2: I have no idea why or to what end these exist

However, Wolff’s apparent claim about the geographical truth value of fictional, Sherlockian places is more complicated than it first seems. The map used by Donegal on his 1963 Christmas Card was copied from a map drawn by Wolff to accompany a book called Baker Street and Beyond. Written by leading Sherlockian Edgar W. Smith, with forewords by Christopher Morley and Vincent Starrett, this 1940 gazetteer was the first attempt by fans to record the various locations that feature in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. In this context, Wolff’s simple line-drawn maps, plotting bald locations with rough geographical accuracy serve to liven up what is in essence a rather long alphabetical listing. 

Yet the maps actually do more than provide diverting illustrations; they form a link between the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes and real-world geographies. Smith’s gazetteer deliberately draws no geographical distinctions between real-world places represented in the stories, fictionalised versions of probable real-world locations or locations wholly invented by Doyle. This is because his list is related entirely to Doyle’s stories: Smith sought not to tie Doylean locations to their likely real-world counterparts but rather simply to list those locations as they appear in the text. Thus what results is a motley assortment of real-world geographical statements combined with descriptions of events in the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes. For example, under ‘Kensington’ we read: “A metropolitan borough: somewhere in which lay the ostensible destination of Mr Melas – The Greek Interpreter”.

Smith’s gazetteer on its own doesn’t really engage with issues of geographical fact or fiction. This seems counterintuitive for two reasons. First, the sentence above clearly posits fictional actions in a real place – the London borough of Kensington. Secondly, Smith sets out his philosophy on the question of fact and fiction in Sherlockian geography in his introduction, justifying his jumbling of real-world and fictional places into one alphabetised list. However, it is apparent because Smith’s gazetteer doesn’t actually step outside of the bounds of Doyle’s text. So while Kensington is indeed a metropolitan borough in London (or was, at least, before the 1980s), it is also a metropolitan borough in the London of the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes. 

Figure 3 Wolff's Sherlockian Map of England, from his 1952 Sherlockian Atlas. Only 100 copies of this pamphlet were made.
Figure 3 Wolff’s Sherlockian Map of England, from his 1952 Sherlockian Atlas. Only 100 copies of this pamphlet were made.

However, reading Smith’s descriptions of Sherlock Holmes’s London – including Kensington – alongside Wolff’s illustrative maps constitutes a very different literary geographical experience. Remember that Wolff’s map makes little distinction between real-world and fictional, Sherlockian locations. [I should note that Smith, in his introduction to Baker Street and Beyond claims that Wolff does in fact distinguish between these categories. Looking again at Wolff’s map as printed in Smith’s book and the later Sherlockian Atlas, it is true – Wolff does italicise Sherlockian place names. Yet his attempt to distinguish between real and fictional places is in part undone by his plotting fictional locations onto a map that represents real-world England and Wales in the late nineteenth century and which includes many places that are not mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes stories. No doubt Wolff intended these as geographical ‘standard candles’. Still, the blending of factual and fictional geographies serves, in this instance, to reinforce the apparent reality of the latter.] 

By presenting Sherlockian and non-Sherlockian place names on the same representation of a recognisably real-world England, Wolff’s map begins to bridge the divide between Smith’s exploration of the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes, including the activities which occur in each location, like Mr. Melas travelling to his destination in Kensington and the world outside of the text. In this way, Wolff’s map, read in the context of Smith gazetteer, presented not only an interesting new way to view the geography of the Sherlock Holmes stories: it presents an argument through geography for the historical occurrence of the events of the Sherlock Holmes stories, as quoted in Smith’s gazetteer.

Published as they were in the 1940s, at the height of Sherlockian’s first golden age in America, by some of the world’s leading Sherlockians, it is fair to say that Smith’s gazetteer and Wolff’s maps had a profound influence on they ways in which future Sherlockians imagined the world of Sherlock Holmes and its relationship to real-world geographies and readers’ geographical imaginations. Indeed, Donegal’s Christmas card, printed twenty years after Wolff’s map first appeared in print and more than a decade after his Sherlockian Atlas is testament to that influence. 

So, really what I’m saying is, if you scratch a Sherlockian you’ll probably find a geographer in there somewhere, with some interesting things to say on the relation between real-world and fictional places. It’s probably polite to explain why you’re scratching them first. 

‘I Can’t Think of a Better Title Right Now’ – Conference Season: Part Two

This is the second part in what will probably be a long-ish series on my recent experiences as a first-year PhD student in the world of academic conferences. In the last post I wrote about looking for a conference to present at, looking for an idea to write about and the writing process itself. This post is an edited version of the paper I presented at Cambridge CRASSH’s Thinking with Things: Material Cultures 1400-1940 graduate symposium and Portsmouth University’s Detecting Objects: Materials and Detective Fiction symposium. As you can see, in comparison with the ‘initial ideas’ I briefly covered in the last post, my paper changed shape dramatically between initial proposal and presentation version.

Sherlock Holmes’s Things

In the Sherlock Holmes stories, the line between people and their environments is indistinct; bodies are not bounded entities but intimately connected to the world around them. Things can be understood, for instance, by both definitions of the term ‘property’: as something possessed by a person but also as a distinguishing mark or feature. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, Dr. Mortimer’s cane is not just his possession, it is an item that marks him out as a rural inhabitant, a medical man and a keen walker. Neither is it a mere accessory, for he tells us that he, “would not lose that stick for the world”.[1] It is not just things close to the body which distinguish their possessors. At the beginning of The Cardboard Box Holmes is able to break into Watson’s train of thought, much to Watson’s surprise, by following Watson’s gaze around the room and noting which objects his eyes rest on.[2] Holmes’s feat of deduction is made possible by recognising the interactive, affective relationship that occurs between Watson and these particular things.

The blurred line between persons and things indicates that these characters are what Carl Knappett has termed, ‘extended organisms’.[3] These ‘props’ emphasise the performative nature of identity, its materiality, and through its dependence on recognition by an observer or observers, its social rather than innate nature. Sherlock Holmes is the best example of this phenomenon of ‘fuzzy boundaries’ between the human body and its physical environment. As Watson explains in a famous passage from The Cardboard Box, “He loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour and suspicion of unsolved crime.”[4]

There is a duality at work in this metaphor. Firstly, the imagery is both organic and technological. Undoing the idea that bodies are bounded by their skin, we are presented with a figurative coupling of a man and his environment, where words and messages replace nervous signals, and where people are imagined to be at once individual and yet combined into a system. The term ‘filaments’ suggests a particular organic and inorganic hybridity. Though it conjures up an image of living nerves, those little rumours and suspicions of crime more often come to Holmes by mechanical means: through telegraph wires, postal services and transport networks. Although Holmes is described at various times in the stories as being akin to a ‘calculating machine’, he is in fact closer to what Donna Haraway has described as a ‘cyborg’.[5] His mental and physical capacities are augmented by materials. These range from the encyclopedia of crime and the communications networks he relies on for information, to the Hansom cabs that speed him around the city and the magnifying glass he uses to discern what his eye alone cannot.

Secondly, the quotation suggests a tension between stillness and mobility at the heart of Holmes’s character. The organic and inorganic hybridity of Holmes’s filaments reflects the late-Victorian imagery of the ‘All Red Routes’: the imperial communications network. This was made of postal steamer ships as well as the telegraph wires that spanned the globe (known as the All-Red Line) and connected the various colonial outposts with Britain’s heartlands. Although they gained their nickname from the red colouring by which they were marked on maps, these ‘All Red Routes’ were also metaphorically described as the Empire’s arteries and veins; carrying material messages of love, friendship and trade that were the lifeblood of imperial connections.[6]

Yet, as the filaments quotation illustrates, Holmes is not just aware of the power of the communications network; he is a part of its power. This does not just reflect his position as a servant of the law. Though there is an element of the panoptic about his ability to ‘lie in the very centre’, being, ‘responsive to every little rumour and suspicion’, Holmes doesn’t actually lie in wait, like a Victorian NSA agent. He actively makes use of the network, becoming a part of the great, democratic access to communications, first made possible by the universal penny post.

Following Thrift, the nineteenth-century telegraph system should be regarded as a ‘machine complex’, one kind of technology – others include stagecoaches, railways and, more recently, the internet – whose operation relies on synergy between humans and machines. The stagecoach and the telegraph are well known for their contributions to the ‘annihilation of time and space’. Yet, by enhancing the motility – the potential for movement – in people, they also turn places into “stages of intensity…Traces of movement, speed and circulation”.[7] So while Holmes appears to be lying still, in the centre of London, through his connections to the communications networks his stillness is no more than an illusion.

 

[1] Doyle, Complete Stories, p.181.

[2] Ibid. p.1113.

[3] Carl Knappett, Thinking Through Material Culture: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), p.16.

[4] Doyle, Complete Stories, p.1113.

[5] Adey, Mobility, p.201.

[6] Kate Thomas, Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal and Victorian Letters, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p.162.

[7] Cresswell, On the move, p.47

A Study in Predecessors

Does this sound familiar? In the early 1930s the New York Times ran an obituary for a famous detective fiction writer, born in the middle of the nineteenth-century. The author combined full-length detective fiction with collections of short stories and wrote to great acclaim from the late nineteenth-century through to the 1920s. In the obituary, the NY Times noted that the author wrote genre-altering detective fiction in the hope that it would draw attention to their more serious, literary work.

Although the newspaper’s description fits the well-known biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle it was actually an obituary for US novelist, poet and crime fiction author Anna Katherine Green, who died in 1935. It might seem puzzling that Doyle is widely assumed to be the father of modern detective fiction (at least among those who have never read Murders at the Rue Morgue), when Green and many others are all but forgotten. Green’s prodigious output, beginning with her first novel, The Leavenworth Case (1878) includes many more volumes of detective fiction than Doyle’s own career. In fact, Green found fame as a detective fiction writer from the very start, more than nine years before Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet flopped on it’s initial release. (Another bonus fact: Doyle was so enamoured by Green’s work that he sought her out on one of this first visits to America.)Revelations of a Lady Detective

Green isn’t the only woman to disrupt the popular notion of the ‘founding fathers’ of detective fiction: Poe, Gaboriau, Doyle. Among them, Metta Victoria Fuller Victor, who wrote her most well-known works under the pseudonym Seeley Regester, stands out for mention right now. She is recognised as having written one of the first American examples of the genre, The Dead Letter, in 1866. Although this fact is not contested nowadays – I first found mention of it on Wikipedia, for goodness’s sake – what is interesting is how Victor and Green’s contributions, among many others, are glossed over in popular histories.

For example, take Daniel Stashower’s excellent The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Muder, which interweaves the histories of the horrific murder of New Yorker Mary Rogers with Poe’s attempts to write the events into a new kind of fiction and to engage with the real-life detection efforts at the same time. Stashower, who is an expert on Doyle first, discusses the likely influence of Poe’s early work on the later Sherlock Holmes stories. Now, I am not arguing that there was no link; indeed, Doyle referenced Poe’s creation in A Study in Scarlet. What is interested is that by drawing a line directly from Poe to Doyle, Stashower reinforces the popular perception that these were the only detective fiction writers in town. 

The-Female-Detective_-1864In order to address this misconception I plan to (at some point!) discuss various writers that predated Arthur Conan Doyle or who could be considered to have influenced his work. I hope to demonstrate that the world of nineteenth century detective fiction was far richer and far more socially and gender diverse than is commonly supposed nowadays. This project was inspired in part by the news that the British Library recently reprinted three excellent works of mid-nineteenth century British detective fiction, two of which feature women detectives as main characters and one which is thought to be the first example of the detective novel: William Stephens Hayward’s Revelations of a Lady Detective (1861), Andrew Forrester’s The Female Detective (1864) and Charles Warren Adams’s The Notting Hill Mystery (1863).

I’ll end as I started – with a puzzle. In 1994 at a symposium at the University at Albany (SUNY), Ellen Higgens presented a paper on ‘The Female Rivals of Sherlock Holmes’. In it she talked about Anna Katherine Green, Seeley Register and other women authors. About the reception of her work in some (Sherlockian) circles, Higgins is reported to have said, “People… don’t want to hear about women competing with the Master”. What’s peculiar about this is that women authors rarely, if ever, wrote female characters. As we have seen, the few female characters in nineteenth century were created by men. (Green did go on to create a female detective but only well after the success of her male police detective Ebernezer Gryce.) So who is the ‘Master’ that Higgins is talking about: Doyle or Holmes? Higgins is not alone in conflating the author Doyle with his vastly more popular character Holmes. I am intrigued to see whether the same can be said for the other authors here and what that might reveal about their relative popularity today.