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The early adventures of the apocryphal Sherlock Holmes

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With Hollywood dominated by superhero movies and Young Adult novel adaptations, and multiple Sherlock Holmes TV shows and movie franchises still drumming up interest for a character who is now over 120 years old, it’s impossible to avoid fanfiction.

In a new book, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over The World, a selection of cultural critics, fanfiction writers and fandom academics (including the Daily Dot’s own Aja Romano) came together to discuss various aspects of fandom culture. Edited by Professor Anne Jamison, the book covers everything from Jane Austen’s canon-obsessed readers back in the 1800s, to online fandom and the huge boost in publicity it’s received since Fifty Shades of Grey shot to the top of the bestseller lists.

In light of this month’s new season of Sherlock and its many allusions to its own fandom, there’s never been a more fitting time to present this excerpt from Fic. 

This section, written by editor Anne Jamison, concerns the early days of Sherlock Holmes fandom, when Victorian fans felt perfectly comfortable sending their fanfic to Arthur Conan Doyle himself and protesting in the streets when Holmes eventually “died.” The rules may have changed a lot since then, but now more than ever, Sherlock Holmes is inexorably linked with the actions of his fandom.

The Early Adventures of the Apocryphal Sherlock Holmes

In the worlds of literary fanfiction, two names dominate: Jane Austen and Sherlock Holmes.

Already, it looks like a false parallelism.

And it is.

Austen fans are “Janeites.” They display a reverence around the author herself, “the Divine Jane,” whereas Sherlock Holmes fans are “Sherlockians” or (in an earlier, more formal designation) “Holmesians.” A tenet of Holmes fandom (an official one, in fact) is to insist on the primacy of the characters, to understand Arthur Conan Doyle as literary agent for the true author, John Watson, who was simply, as the stories claim, recording his adventures with his detective friend. These fans have little if any interest in the “agent’s” other, non-Holmesian works of fiction.

Doyle famously saw something of the kind coming, and had no wish to be eclipsed by his creations. He was writing serious historical fiction— Micah Clarke (1888), for example, or The White Company (1891)—and he didn’t intend to spend his career being remembered for his potboilers. If there was ever a writer who knew the deep truth of Joss Whedon’s dictum that “art isn’t your pet,” it’s Doyle. Really, what he most wanted out of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson was to make a buck. He had fun with them. I am sure he was fond of them, enjoyed taking them out to play. People came to know him by his “pets” (as we who frequent dog parks know happens) and he feared that soon, they would know him by nothing else: “I saw that I was in danger of being entirely identified with what I regarded as a lower stratum of literary achievement.”

So he tried to kill Holmes off. And it didn’t work.

Of course, in some ways, it worked too well. News spread fast. The December 1893 publication of “The Final Problem” chronicled Holmes’ fall into a ravine at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Newspapers ran obituaries for this fictional character. People marched on the streets wearing black armbands. People also continued to do as they had been doing: buying not nearly as many of Doyle’s other works, respected as they were in his day, while bringing Holmes to life in other ways: on the stage and in parodies and pastiches—some fully legal, some merely unchallenged.

In 1893 (before Holmes’ death initiated the period fans call The Great Hiatus), Punch magazine published eight stories and pastiches under the title “The Adventures of Picklock Holes,” including one by a liberal Member of Parliament. Also in 1893, J. M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame—who had worked with Doyle on an unsuccessful play—wrote a parody that pleased Doyle so much, he included it in his autobiography. “The Adventure of the Two Collaborators” begins with Holmes and Watson in their rooms at Baker Street, Watson was writing, Holmes “amusing himself with a little revolver practice. It was his custom of summer evening to fire round my head . . . until he had made a photograph of me on the opposite wall.” Watson invariably “springs up to the ceiling” in perpetual amazement, while Holmes spots two “literary characters” and recognizes one as “that big fellow” who has taken credit for most of Holmes’ own achievements (Doyle was not a small man). Doyle and Barrie gain entrance and demand that Holmes deduce why the public refuses to attend their failed play, and the detective brilliantly does so: “they prefer to stay away.” His author tries to force his creation to attend and, upon his refusal, kills him off. Holmes’ last words: “Fool, fool! I have kept you in luxury for years. By my help you have ridden extensively in cabs, where no author was ever seen before. Henceforth you will ride in buses!”

Eventually, in response to popular demand (and, perhaps, to riding in buses), Doyle eventually “found” some more of Watson’s writings. The detective’s first return, The Hound of the Baskervilles, appeared serially in The Strand in 1901–1902 but was set before Holmes’ death—Holmes was back, in other words, but not from the dead. Finally, however, a full decade after attempting to kill him off, Doyle brought Holmes back to life in “The Adventure of the Empty House” (he shows up, Watson faints, but Mrs. Watson has conveniently died, so it’s all for the best).

Holmesians have been “finding” new cases ever since, often filling out the various oblique allusions with which Watson peppered his original write-ups—cases politically or socially too sensitive to be related to the public or those for which, like the Giant Rat of Sumatra, “the world was not yet ready.” Many of these stories, as was the case with one of the best-known pastiches, Vincent Starrett’s 1920 “Adventure of the Unique Hamlet,” were printed privately and circulated among friends before later being collected in volumes such as Ellery Queen’s 1944 Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes. Parodies continued apace: A. A. Milne’s first sale was “The Rape of the Sherlock” (the title’s a riff on Alexander Pope’s satirical poem, not some non-con prompt on a kink meme) and everyone from Mark Twain to O. Henry to Bret Harte to John Lennon seems ultimately to have written one. Very often such “apocryphal” cases were published under more or less thinly veiled name changes (Schlock Holmes, Solar Pons) or were licensed by the Doyle estate; while in other instances, genuine confusion has arisen as to whether a “found” story was actually by Doyle or not. At least once, Doyle himself inadvertently contributed to such a case of mistaken identity.

In his introduction to "The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," Richard Lancelyn Green recounts the incident of one such story that was “Found!” as William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan magazine proclaimed in a 1948 headline. However, as Sherlockians read this supposed story, they were less than impressed with its quality, and soon rumors swirled that it was a forgery, or an imitation by Doyle’s (much resented) son, Adrian. As it turns out, it was neither. An architect named Arthur Whitaker had written it in his spare time and sent it to Doyle in 1911, hoping they might collaborate on new Holmes stories. Doyle responded in a letter of March 17, 1911: “Dear Sir, I read your story. It is not bad and I don’t see why you should not change the names and try to get it published yourself. Of course you could not use the names of my characters.”

Doyle further explained that among his reasons for declining, collaboration with another writer would cause his editors to lower his commanding price by 75 percent. He also, however, offered to buy the idea for the story, something he’d done for other would-be Holmes authors, provided that Whitaker agreed to relinquish all rights and credit and understood Doyle made no commitment to use the idea. Doyle recommended again that Whitaker publish it himself, but instead Whitaker took Doyle up on his offer to purchase the concept. Buoyed by this success, Whitaker went on to write several other stories, one of which he published, using the detective name “Harold Quest.”

This incident explains the story’s confusion of origin, and also illustrates how the question of “filing off the serial numbers”—revising fanworks to publish them as “original” à la Fifty Shades—has not always generated the same controversy and upset it often does today. Similarly, August Derleth, founder of the genre fiction publisher Arkham House, began his obviously Holmes-inspired Solar Pons series as “The Adventure of the Circular Room,” a full-blown Sherlock Holmes pastiche, in the Baker Street Journal in 1946. In 1951 he published it, character names changed, in "The Memoirs of Solar Pons."

Genderswapping, another common practice in fanfiction that’s currently finding commercial success (on CBS’ Elementary), seems to have begun in the Sherlock Holmes fandom with Rex Stout’s (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek address to the Baker Street Irregulars, “Watson Was a Woman.” Stout (better known for his massive Montenegrin detective Nero Wolfe) made waves with this close reading, finding abundant evidence in “The Sacred Writings” of Watson’s female gender in her nagging Holmes about drugs and smoking and pestering him to talk—and if that weren’t enough, “Imagine a man asking another man to play him some of Mendelssohn’s Lieder on a violin!”

Initially, Stout worries whether the couple lives in sin: “It was unquestionably a woman speaking of a man, yes, but whether a wife of a husband, or a mistress of a lover . . . I admit I blushed. I blushed for Sherlock Holmes, and I closed the book.” He assuages his worry about the morality of Doctor Watson’s and Sherlock Holmes’ intimacy by deducing that they are married with further observations drawn from the text: Watson’s assertion that he is “the most long-suffering of the mortals” and his complaint that he had become “habit” to Holmes—“as an institution I was like the violin, the shag tobacco, the old black pipe, the index books, and others perhaps less excusable.” 

As to the question “who was this person whose nom de plume was ‘Doctor Watson?’ Where did she come from?” Stout, in a quite dazzling anagramatic tour de force of cipher-discovering and decoding, teases out the name “Irene Watson.” Of course, the one who was always known as “the woman,” as the Sherlock Holmes short story “A Scandal in Bohemia” asserts, was known as Irene Adler. Adler, Stout asserts, “one who . . . addles. Befuddles. Confuses.” From there, it’s effortless for Stout to “deduce” the wedding—Holmes was present at her marriage, after all:

It is related that he was there as a witness, but that is pure poppycock. Holmes himself says “I was half-dragged up to the altar, and before I knew where I was I found myself mumbling responses . . .” Those are not the words of an indifferent witness, but of a reluctant, ensnared, bulldozed man—in short, a bridegroom.

Stout concludes by speculating that further research may shed light on the parentage of another literary detective, Lord Peter Wimsey.

Stout is in essence playing classic “Great Game,” applying the methods of “the higher criticism” to “the Sacred Writings” with all the seriousness due to the Bible. Lord Peter’s author (if not his mother), Dorothy L. Sayers, was also a noted Game player, and famously explained that “it must be played as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord’s.” She also wrote extensively about Holmes’ “parentege” or influence on her chosen genre, if not her character, but also had the two detectives meet in a radio drama for the BBC. Sherlock Holmes appears in Rex Stout’s work, too. Not only do Stout’s own genius misogynist detective Nero Wolfe and his Watson-like sidekick and chronicler Archie Goodwin live together, but a picture of Holmes hangs over Archie’s desk.

In his final years, Doyle was much more concerned with the lives of fairies than with consulting detectives. He also had a very serious interest in the afterlife. But the ones with the really remarkable afterlife are, of course, his detective and his long-suffering friend. Unlike most of the material in this volume, the history I’ve just presented has been minutely studied and written about in popular, professionally published books as well as in the various amateur and professional journals devoted to Sherlockiana. Pastiches in the classic canon style are still being published, but that isn’t the focus of most internet Sherlock Holmes–related fanfic today. Rather, that focus is the BBC’s Sherlock, which attracts an eclectic and very talented group of writers, some of whom have written in other Sherlock Holmes fandoms and thus maintain an explicit connection with previous incarnations—much like the BBC show itself. The rules of the game and the playing field, as we learn from the contemporary Sherlock fandom, have considerably changed. But the game is most definitely on.

“Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over The World” is available now on Amazon.

Screengrab via fanpop