Sherlock Holmes Fans Play 'Great Game'

One of the oldest societies of Sherlock Holmes fans, the all-male Speckled Band in Boston plays "The Great Game" — essentially, pretending that Holmes and Dr. Watson were real, and that Arthur Conan Doyle was merely their literary agent. Reporter Sean Cole spends a night with the Speckled Band.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is long gone, but his creation, Sherlock Holmes, is alive and well. A new Holmes mystery aired on public television this fall. A new edition of the collected stories and novels is out, and whole societies of self-proclaimed Sherlockians are training their magnifying glasses on these developments. Sean Cole of member station WVUR investigates one of them, "The Speckled Band of Boston."

SEAN COLE reporting:

The Speckled Band begins to trickle into Harvard University's Houghton Library at around 6:00, mostly older men. Golden serpents speckle their neckties and bow ties. The Speckled Band is named after a Sherlock Holmes adventure in which the murder weapon is a poisonous snake. If you were planning on reading it, I just spoiled the ending.

Unidentified Man: Ladies and gentlemen, please follow me.

COLE: This group has been around since 1940. Usually they meet once a year to toast various Holmesian characters and hold a contest in which members present works of Sherlockian scholarship. But tonight everyone's gathered for a talk and book signing with the editor of a new annotated edition of the stories and novels--the canon, fans call it, fans like Speckled Band officer Dan Posnansky.

Mr. DAN POSNANSKY (Officer, The Speckled Band): Well, I've been a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast all of my life, starting when I was a boy. And probably even after I'm gone, I will still be a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast. I'll be next to Holmes, and we will be keeping bees in Sussex together. So...

COLE: See, that's a reference I don't get.

Mr. POSNANSKY: Well...

COLE: I don't think I

Mr. POSNANSKY: ...when Sherlock Holmes retired, it was his fondest wish that he would retire as a beekeeper in Sussex.

COLE: Posnansky retired from Harvard in 1978, as far as he can remember. He says he's been coming to these meetings for maybe 45 years. Part of the reason his love for the stories has endured so long, he says, is their idealized depiction of the Victorian era. The quote you hear over and over again in this crowd is, `For us, it is always 1895.' But Posnansky says people also just love Holmes, the man, the redresser of wrong, taking the law into his own hands.

Mr. POSNANSKY: So he's a hero. There's more written about Sherlock Holmes than any other literary illusion, except for the Bible.

COLE: Is that right? That can't be right.

Mr. POSNANSKY: That is true. There are over 150 films alone about Sherlock Holmes. Some of them are very accurate; some of them are just made up.

COLE: Now it might seem strange to refer to a film about a fictional character as being accurate as opposed to made up, but this is the thing about Sherlock Holmes. A lot of them don't treat the stories as fiction. Rather, they treat them as historical documents written by a real doctor named John Watson, who was friends with a real detective named Sherlock Holmes. They call this `The Great Game,' and it's led to a lot of hobby detective work. For example, a couple of Sherlockians once looked up old train schedules to determine the exact Italian town Holmes visited in "The Adventure of the Empty House." It's Sesto Fiorentino, by the way. A bust of Sherlock stands there now.

If pressed, most Sherlockians will admit it's just a game, but only if pressed.

Mr. LESLIE KLINGER (Editor, "The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes"): Dorothy Sayers famously said, `The game must be played with one's tongue firmly in one's cheek, but with all the seriousness of a game of cricket at Lords.'

COLE: This is Leslie Klinger, editor of "The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes." `Annotated' doesn't really do justice to Klinger's work. There are times when the footnotes take over the entire page. Note number five from "A Scandal in Bohemia" even second-guesses Watson the narrator's account of the story, saying he might have sent a telegram to his wife and failed to mention it. I suggest to Mr. Klinger that some people would think this whole thing is really crazy.

Mr. KLINGER: But it's just for fun. These are not "Star Trek" fans who walk around being Klingons and all that. We all know we're having fun. It's serious fun, but it's fun.

Mr. POSNANSKY: We know he didn't live.

COLE: Again, Dan Posnansky.

Mr. POSNANSKY: We know that Conan Doyle lived. But we can't bring ourselves to admit it, so we refer to Doyle as `the literary agent.' We never really mention his name in--at the Sherlock Holmes meetings.

COLE: This whole thing sort of smacks of being a religion to me, you know what I mean?

Mr. POSNANSKY: Well, it isn't a religion because there's very little worship involved.

COLE: Really?

Mr. POSNANSKY: Yes. We do not go to the synagogue on the high holy days. There is no high holy days. We believe in Sherlock. We believe in the good that this person has done.

COLE: There are or have been believers in India, Israel, Malaysia and Spain. There are 25 groups in Japan. The Speckled Band is still a men-only society, but most of the others are coed now, including the original group in New York that all of the others sprang from. It's called The Baker Street Irregulars. It's had some pretty prominent members. One of the most prominent wrote a letter to the group five months after he approved the bombing of Hiroshima. That's right, Harry S. Truman was a Sherlockian.

Mr. POSNANSKY: And what does he say?

COLE: Dan Posnansky reads from the letter.

Mr. POSNANSKY: (Reading) `I commend your good sense in seeking escape from this troubled world into the happier and calmer world of Baker Street.'

COLE: When your stories calm the worries of a war president, you know you're doing something right. There's no atom bomb in the world of Baker Street. There's not even very much crime to speak of; enough, though, to keep a certain someone gainfully employed. For NPR News, I'm Sean Cole in Boston.

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