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.



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.



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.



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.



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”.



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.




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.



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”.



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.



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.




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.



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.



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. 

A Modern Folk Hero?

Yesterday, August 31st 2014, as I have been informed by a stream of posts on my facebook newsfeed, 443 people gathered in Temple Newsom, in Leeds, in an attempt to break the world record for the largest number of people dressed as Sherlock Holmes. As the cover picture shows most of the participants opted just to wear the ‘deerstalker’, with pipe and magnifying glass, provided by the organisers. I’m not criticising the efforts of this latter group. Goodness knows I don’t keep a deerstalker and inverness cape in my wardrobe. What I do find interesting is just how little it takes to transform a person from Joe Bloggs into a passing resemblance of the Great Detective.

Now, it’s hardly news to point out that the character of Sherlock Holmes has been distilled in the public imagination to a very few material items. The deerstalker hat, with or without the inverness cape (which the Canonical character donned only once, in a Paget illustration accompanying The Adventure of the Copper Beeches), the pipe, the magnifying glass. Cosplayers and fans nowadays might embellish this with simple trio with some random assortment of steampunk Victoriana.

What’s really interesting, however, is the possibility that this streamlining of Sherlock Holmes as a character into a few items with instant recognition factor might reflect a deeper evolution in the stories since their first appearances in late-Victorian London. Just as anyone can pick up a deerstalker hat, a pipe and a magnifying glass and pull off a credible impression of Sherlock Holmes, so the thousands of adaptations of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, as fan fictions, pastiches and authorised re-incarnations, as stage plays, films and television series, and through pseudo-scholarship, conventions and dressing up, by combining a select few elements, can appear at once original and yet intimately connected to the ‘source material’.

It would seem that Sherlock Holmes might be the modern era’s best known folk hero. Yet, the idea of Holmes as a folk hero is complicated. On the one hand many of the adaptations, new creations and fan-led inventions, such as BBC’s Sherlock co-written by self-confessed fanboys, live up to what Davies has claimed are the key criteria of folk tales: they are examples of communal co-production, in which the audience plays a role in their creation or, as Davies says, the stories are, “part of the collective social fabric”[1]. In this case, the social fabric is perhaps more elastic than it was in the heyday of folk tales, covering fans, readers and the general public to greater and lesser depths. Further, Walter Benjamin has likened the folktale to craftmanship or communal work[2], something that is possible to see in the social nature of the Sherlockians’ approach to integrating new scholarship or adaptations into the broader ‘archive’.

At the same time, many have argued that detective stories in general and the Sherlock Holmes stories in particular are the antithesis of earlier folk tales. Davies cites detective fiction as a the clearest example of what he calls the teleogenic plot – a narrative arc whereby later events, such as the revelation of the detective’s solution, significantly alter the reader’s perception of events earlier in the story. This is an important point, as for Davies, teleogenic plots represent the highest development of the novel as a form. In the nineteenth century teleogenic plots tended to make the reader rethink what they had read about characters or events. In the twentieth, modernists began using their plots to make the reader think again about the form and artistry of what they had read. Still, Davies argues that both examples of teleogenic plots reinforce the basic ideological function of the novel: to make the reader believe they have a say in the plot, while in fact reinforcing the novel’s core, bourgeois message of personal change at the expense of political upheaval.[3] As such, detective fiction, as an example of a univocal, individually produced, undemocratic story (created by the author alone, with no real room for reader engagement) represents the antithesis of the folktale.

Other scholars, including Miller and Schneer, while taking different tracks from Davies and from each other, support the basic idea that detective fiction is far from the communal, collective productive effort represented by folktales. Miller argues that the Victorian, amateur detective novel, of which Sherlock Holmes is the most famous example, reinforces bourgeois standards on its readers by representing a world in which the middle classes can take care of their own issues, without police involvement, if only they abstain from the kinds of transgressions – fraud mostly – which are admonished by fictional detectives.[4] Schneer, writing about turn-of-the-century London, includes the Sherlock Holmes stories in his examples of Empire-oriented popular culture, arguing that they represent a kind of one-way relationship between the author, who painted a particular image of the British Empire, and the reader, who accepted it without question.[5]

Of course, the clearest difference between these two arguments is the source material on which they are based. While Davies, Miller and Schneer turn their arguments on Doyle’s original 56 short stories and four novels, my suggestion that the Sherlock Holmes stories might be folk tales rests on a broader corpus, which includes all subsequent adaptations, homages and so on alongside Doyle’s writings. But even if we concentrate only on Doyle’s stories, folktales are not very far away. The tale of the spectral hound at the centre of The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance was based on a local Devon folktale about a ghostly hound stalking Dartmoor, recounted to Doyle by a friend and journalist, Bertram Fletcher Robinson, on a sea voyage. Robinson, went on to write a piece of reportage about the longevity of the legend, while Doyle set about turning one legend into another. Further, as Nils Clausson has argued, The Hound of the Baskervilles questions the supremacy of Holmes’s scientific detection and the stories’ teleogenic plots through Doyle’s inclusion of two genres – a modern detective story represented by Holmes and a classic gothic tale represented by Watson – whose struggles for explanatory power throughout the text result in a story-long battle between science and folktale, detective fiction and gothic, progress and degeneration which is never fully resolved.[6]

In Vladimir Propp’s original schemata of folktales, in Morphology of the Folktale (1928/1958), he outlines a number of elements or functions which are common to folktales. These elements are easily interchangeable between tales but also, given the usual reliance on oral delivery, between tellings of the same tale, too. It is well known by now that details of folktales were commonly altered in the telling, so long as the overall structure and salient features remained the same. When compiling their first collection of fairytales, for instance, the Brothers Grimm relied on a variety of written sources and oral traditions, distilling from these similar-but-different tales the narrative and details of the stories as we know them today.

Its possible to see echoes of Propp’s functions in examples from the Sherlockian archive. Take, for instance, the storyline concerning Sherlock Holmes’s supposed demise and his triumphant return which spanned the last episode of season two and the first episode of season three of the BBC’s Sherlock. This television show is, as I’ve said, a great example of the collective craft of Sherlockian adaptation, as it is a successful new media adaptation, written by two self-confessed fans, Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, which ended up drawing heavily on wider fan engagement in its production. The episodes in question, which span cliff-hanger style the break between seasons two and three, loosely follow the events of Doyle’s The Final Problem and The Adventure of the Empty House. In the first, Holmes’s relationships with the police, the law and his sanity are called into question following a tortuous scheme by Moriarty to break him. The episode ends with Holmes, under pain of his friends’ deaths, apparently choosing to take his own life in their stead. Moriarty, the only person who could have stopped his henchmen killing Watson, Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson, has proven himself as crazy as well all thought by committing suicide, depriving Holmes of his only alternative. The next series opens with the same scene, though shot from a different perspective, purporting to show how Holmes, with the help of his homeless network (and Molly), faked his own death for the benefit of Moriarty’s men. Holmes eventually returns to London and to crime solving after being tracked to Serbia by his brother, and MI6 official, Mycroft.

Moffatt and Gatiss’s scripts contain a number of elements recognisable from Propp’s schema, including: ‘delivery’, in which the villain gains information about the victim, seen in Mycroft’s mistaken attempts to deal with Moriarty by supplying him with information about Sherlock; ‘trickery’ and ‘complicity’, where the villain attempts to deceive the victim and when the victim is taken in by treachery, seen in the course of the first episode where Moriarty leads Holmes and the police on a merry goose-chase in search of a ‘keycode’ of some kind, which ultimately turns out to be a ruse, and where Moriarty fools journalist Kitty Reilly into corroborating his alter-ego’s story; ‘struggle’, where the hero and villain engage in direct combat, although this time it is face-to-face mental combat atop Bart’s Hospital, the culmination of two series’ worth of mental combat played out in games and riddles; and finally, ‘pursuit’, ‘rescue’ and ‘unrecognised arrival’, seen in Holmes’s flight from Britain, his pursuit by Moriarty and his appearance (at first) unrecognisable, in a Serbian gaol.

Given, of course, the tendency of television and film productions to streamline stories’ complexity for their own medium, it is possible that the appearance of many of these folktale elements, or of elements which may be likened to them, is due to the constraints of storytelling in this format. The idea of Moriarty as an arch-nemesis, for instance, while featured by Doyle and popularised by early fan work, gained its greatest traction in the film and television era. Sherlock follows other television conventions, too, such as limiting its core cast to a handful of repeating, important characters.

Even if it is too difficult to make a direct comparison between Propp’s morphology and Sherlock, the show and these episodes in particular highlight an important objection to Davies’s suggestion that the Sherlock Holmes stories represent the purest form of the novelistic, teleogenic plot. If folktales were traditionally noticeable as communal efforts at co-production, part of the collective social fabric, then the Sherlock Holmes stories surely fall within that group. If we don’t needlessly limit ourselves to Doyle’s canonical writings and admit that the popular understanding of Sherlock Holmes is based on a broader corpus of stories, adaptations and so on, what we can see is that communal co-production, collective engagement and the interchangeability of certain standard elements in  new stories is at the heart of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon.

In fact, Moffatt and Gatiss’s writing showcases this nicely. A part of the storyline of The Empty Hearse is devoted to different fans’ interpretations of what happened to Sherlock after he jumped from Bart’s rooftop. Moffatt and Gatiss drew inspiration from the myriad explanations and guesses posted across the internet after the end of season two. Each new sequence contains the same – already known – elements: Sherlock’s phone call to Watson; Molly’s involvement; the intervention of the homeless network; and takes place in the same locations. Yet the details change each time, depending on who is telling the story.

This storytelling aspect also highlights one of the aspects I am keen to emphasise in my study of Sherlock as a reader co-produced phenomenon: the element of fun involved in making and telling the stories. One of the dramatised stories of Holmes’s cheating death is from a fan who injects a homoerotic element between Holmes and Moriarty. This reflects the acres and acres of Holmesian homoeroticism on the internet (Tumblr, it seems, is nothing but fantasies about Holmes and Moriarty or Holmes and Watson). The storyteller clearly injects some of her own desire and imagination, and humour, into her tale. Yet, we know from watching an earlier scene between Lestrade and Robinson that the matter of Holmes’s death (or escaping it) is a harrowing reality that has taken its psychological toll on most of the characters; hardly different from the psychological depths that the original stories, with their tales of crime and imperial intrusions are supposed to have conjured – before Holmes banishes them to the darkness whence they came. Moffatt and Gatiss recognise, unlike many Sherlockian scholars, that readers and fans of the Holmes stories can and do integrate fear, suspense and relief at its proper resolution alongside and interwoven with fun, hilarity and exhilaration.

The Sherlock Holmes stories, those written by Doyle, co-written by his readers and launched into the community by fans, might not read much like folktales of old. Nevertheless, as Moffatt and Gatiss have so memorably shown, that doesn’t mean that Sherlock Holmes doesn’t stand today in their stead, as a modern folk hero for our times.

[1] Lennard Davies, Resisting Novels: Ideology and Fiction, (London: Methuen, 1987), p.200.

[2] ibid. p.201.

[3] ibid. pp.206-210.

[4] D.A. Miller, The Novel and the Police, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

[5] Jonathan Schneer, London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

[6] Nils Clausson, ‘Degeneration, Fin-de-Siecle Gothic and the Science of Detection: Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and the Emergence of the Modern Detective Story’, Journal of Narrative Theory, 35(2005), pp.60-87.

‘Walking the Walk’ – Conference Season: Part Three

This is Part Three in a series on being presenting at conferences as a first-year PhD student. You can read the other sections, Part One on finding a conference (and finding a topic) and Part Two with an extract from one of my papers, here. In Part Three, I discuss the experience of actually attending and speaking at a conference.

Given my research interests in travel and in literary responses to border crossings (this blog is called travelling histories, after all) it may seem odd that my first conference presentation happened in Cambridge, not a mile from my own front door. Yet again, perhaps it wasn’t so odd, after all. I was lucky enough to be selected as a speaker at a conference on ‘Thinking with Things’, put on as part of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). In keeping with CRASSH’s aims, the conference was avowedly interdisciplinary. The keynote speaker talked about the hidden depths of art history and what an appreciation of materials, of things, can bring to the understanding of works of art. Other presentations ranged across subjects from seventeenth-century didactic geographical board games, to the historical significance of Irish episcopal palaces and the histories of collecting cultures. My work’s own interdisciplinary approach, moving across the boundaries of geography, history and literature, meant that I felt quite at home in this apparent academic hodge-podge.

Even the walk from my flat to the conference venue, a journey of about 15 or 20 minutes, depending on how rushed I am, involved the (legal) transgression of a variety of geographical and social borders. For instance, the fastest way across the river Cam to the Sidgewick site, home of the Alison Richards Building and of CRASSH, is through the grounds of King’s College. As a member of the university I have the right to walk up to the imposing, be-gowned porters standing outside the college’s famous main gate, on King’s Parade, wave my card and pass through to the relative calm of the front court on the gate’s other side. Yet, as a member of Emmanuel College, not King’s, there’s always a slight chance that that privilege could be revoked. So, my walk past the throngs of indignant tourists (“why can he go in?!”) to the gates is often (as it was on this day) tinged with a small sense of excitement. Of course, on that day, as on most days in term time, I was allowed through.

But today’s post shouldn’t really begin with the morning of my first academic conference itself. As I’m sure is the case for many people, when I came to read my paper to the room of expectant faces that afternoon, it was not for the first time. Over the course of the previous four or five days I had read and re-read my paper, out-loud to myself and to others, around ten times. This was the real bridge between the draft text with which I ended Part Two of this series, and the paper I read out at CRASSH. Reading my words aloud was key to the redrafting process. It enabled me to actually hear where certain words would cause me to stumble, or where certain sentences  ran on for far too long. Given that I will, if left to my own devices, write in a more personal and confessional style (much like the tone of this blog), I have to work hard in academic writing to polish up my prose to a less bloggy, more professional standard. I still strive to maintain a sense of myself in what I write. I am a firm believer that the reader must know it is me writing those sentences, reading those words, framing those ideas. They did not arrive, fully formed on their own. They do not stand for some abstract, academic truth. Sadly, achieving the balance between these two outliers is not always easy and I often fall back on my tried-and-tested, undergraduate writing style: informative, clear but bland and repetitive. Reading my prose aloud helps me to correct for that, too.

One of the things I enjoy most about giving academic presentations is that, at least in my fields, it is very acceptable to ‘read’ a paper. That is, to prepare a word-for-word text and to read it out across the podium. Good presenters will work, in their text and their delivery, to put a lively and interesting voice to their words and will strive not to simply drone on in monotone for 20, eternal minutes. This practice saved me from the greatest issue I have as a presenter: my habit of forgetting most of what I want to say and the nervous tics, stumbles and ‘ums’ that accompanying this forgetting. By reading a prepared script, I could fully impart every bit of my in-depth arguments while sounding (I hope) confident and clear. Some may argue, as did the woman sitting next to my during the keynote speech, that reading a paper rather than talking extemporaneously, kills any interest the audience has. I would counter, as I did then, that the point of academic conferences is to listen to, and discuss the ideas. If reading from a paper helps the presenter to argue for all their ideas and not to leave half of them, forgotten, on the cutting floor of their mind, I am all for it.

Another great benefit of reading a written paper is that I was able to listen to and enjoy the speakers whose turn it was to speak before mine. In the past, following the ‘speak to a powerpoint, don’t use notes’ format loved by my old teachers, lecturers and bosses, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything other than the looming fear that I would forget something. That was not a problem at CRASSH. One anxiety that still remains is that I might go over time. Thus I am prone, on a first attempt, to cut deeply into my paper and actually go under time. I was a full four minutes under time at CRASSH.

Happily, this meant that I could restore a lot of material and add more things for my paper’s second outing, at Portsmouth University’s Centre for Studies in Literature‘s annual symposium, which this year was on ‘Material Objects in Detective Fiction’. As at CRASSH, having written out my words and having practiced them out-loud again and again, I was free to listen to the other presentations and contribute to the lively discussion. I was very lucky to attend that conference for three reasons. First, it was organised by the wonderful Christopher Pittard, whose work on Strand Magazine readership and the ‘moral community’ they constituted has been of great help to my own thesis. Secondly, I was able to meet the interesting Kate Brombley, who is Chris’s PhD student and whose work on Doyle and Sherlockian fandom nicely overlaps with my own work.

Thirdly, unlike the horror stories PhDs and ERCs hear of senior academics who use conferences as an opportunity to tear young researchers a new one, I was approached after my paper by the keynote speaker, Janice Allan, senior lecturer at Salford and editor of the journal Clues: A Journal of Detection. Janice simply noted that her paper, which I had unfortunately missed that morning, disagreed in parts with my own analysis. She offered to email me a copy and suggested we discuss our disagreements. Janice certainly provided a lesson on how to handle academic disagreement in a way that doesn’t demand a 30-minute ‘question’ in the Q&A session and which doesn’t lead to the humiliation of the inexperienced (and often nervous) speaker.


‘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

‘The First Draft is Always Shit’ – Conference Season: Part One

Looking at the dateline of my last entry I realise with a larger-than-expected pang of guilt that it has been a long time since I last tended to this blog. Perhaps it would help my defence if I mentioned that the months since I hatched the idea to blog my PhD have been the busiest so far. Over and above writing my First Year Report (and feverishly preparing for my oral upgrade exam) I presented at three conferences in the summer term.

I had heard from many fellow students, from academics in my department and read on many blogs (including the excellent Patter and Thesis Whisperer) that writing is the best way to drive ideas forward. I was also aware that presenting papers is a great way to get feedback on work-in-progress. (In fact, my pastoral tutor said to me in the very first week of the academic year, “don’t go to conferences unless you are presenting”. Wise words, perhaps, for the PhD student looking to get noticed but also a guaranteed way to pile on the pressure.)

While inspiration to present work-in-progress is one thing, finding a suitable conference is another. Although I had signed up to the mildly useful Conference Alerts website, the most useful tips came from university mailing lists (word to the wise: get on as many of these as you can; although I am in the Geography Department I get notice of calls for papers in from the History and English faculties, too), as well as friends who kept an eye out on Twitter. Through a combination of these avenues I found three suitable conferences.

The first was aimed at postgrads and early career researchers and hosted by Cambridge’s own, wonderful CRASSH – the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. Thinking with Things, a one-day symposium, brought together presenters from a range of scholarly backgrounds and interests, and from all over the country, to share their research on materials culture thinking in the arts, social science and humanities. Among many excellent papers, on topics as diverse as Belgian shopping-culture and commercial business cards in the nineteenth century, Pierre Duval’s seventeenth-century geographical board games and the gendering of casket metaphors in Shakespeare’s works, I had the chance to present my own work-in-progress on material objects and Sherlock Holmes’s method.

Like all good papers, this one developed out an unexpected idea that had sparked in one of my supervisor’s ‘critical geography 101’ seminars. Reading into material geographies, the strand of human geography that looks at the way objects and materials move through the world and interact with humans, non-humans and each other, I was intrigued by the idea, noted by Jane Bennett, that materials might (in some way) ‘vibrate’ with an energy of their own, and that people are, to a greater or lesser degree, sensitive to these vibrations. At the furthest end of the sensitivity spectrum are those people Bennett terms ‘hoarders’: people who collect or are greatly attracted to a variety of objects.

Bennett’s aim, which she shares with many materially-oriented human geographers, though she is a political scientist herself, is to reinvest objects and materials with a sense of political participation, or at least to raise the possibility that human-material interactions have political (and social, environmental or emotional) significance in this more-than-human world.

Though her research is broad, her comments on hoarders and on people’s sensitivity to materials’ vibrations and the role they can play in political and social life got me thinking. As a fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes relies heavily on material objects, from paper and clothing, to footprints and settled dust, to build up his cases. In most instances, Holmes is able to see physical evidence that everyone else, including the official police detectives, his partner Watson and the perpetrators themselves, overlooks or ignores. He displays a heightened sensitivity to materials, objects or things. This is just one way of analysing Holmes’s particular relationship with things – Joan Copjec, for instance, reads the detective’s abilities from a semiotical point of view: he represents the argument that there are always other ways to view a situation; his habit of noticing the overlooked letter, or the unnoticed door, indicates that there is always “one signifier more”: the “potentially infinite extension of meaning”.

Yet, materials thinking seemed to offer another way to view the question: does Holmes’s highly sensitive relationship to materials reflect Doyle’s (and other Sherlockian writers’) awareness of the significance that things play in the more-than-human world? There seemed to me to be a number of instances within the stories and their context which make this idea at least plausible. Like Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, Doyle often includes more-than-human agents into his stories, such as the snake in The Speckled Band, the atavistic, animal-like soldier in The Blanched Soldier or the poison-box in The Dying Detective. At the same time, Doyle’s Spritualist beliefs and his use of mediums indicates his understanding that some people have a greater sensitivity to objects and ‘vibrations’, to use Bennett’s word, outside of those places that people tend to look.

With these thoughts cascading out, I sat down to draft a paper. One of the real benefits of presenting at conferences in my first year has been the painful, yet necessary, confrontation with the understanding that, as historian Matt Houlbrook has warned, “the first draft is always shit”. Boy, is he right about that. In my case, given my return to academia after half a decade in policy-focussed jobs in Westminster, where lengthy, considered prose wasn’t always the aim, this was a tough barrier to face down. My touchstone for academic writing was my undergraduate and masters essays, which I would (sadly) bang out in one sitting and submit, with very little editing. As a doctoral researcher, there’s no such luxury. The submission is never final and there’s always room for improvement.

As I will demonstrate in the next post, with an extract from my paper, the piece’s final form was very, very different from the ideas I started with. I didn’t use any interpretation of the stories I mentioned above and avoided entirely any reference to Doyle’s life. With only 3,000-or-so words to reel off in 20 minutes, brevity, and simplicity, are the soul of conference presentations. Honestly, as this was my first paper and I was anxious to avoid a train-wreck situation, when my first notions that Sherlock’s relationship with objects might in some was puncture the detective’s traditional role as final arbiter of power became too knotty, I based my structure on the useful and informative work of archaeologist Carl Knappett, referencing a book he wrote while just up the road from here, in Christ’s, Cambridge. Without Carl’s excellent analytical framework to draw on (and ‘enchance’, of course) my paper would not have been in the shape it was.

Once I’d written the damn thing, my next move was to build up the courage to read it. Aloud. And not in my living room.