The Man who was Wanted – Sherlock Holmes and Fan Fiction

August 18, 2011

This is the text (more or less) of the talk I gave at the Forest of Thoughts the other weekend about Sherlock Holmes and fan fiction. I think it needs a bit of tidying up, really – the section on fan fiction rushes through it far too briefly and includes some monstrous generalisations, and I think there’s quite a lot more to be said regarding Holmes apocrypha. Plus it gets a bit melodramatic at the end. I’m pretty sure all of the facts are correct but I might have slipped a couple of lies in there anyway. After the talk, someone mentioned that I had entirely forgotten to mention Watson’s vanishing bull terrier. I’d quite like to expand this a bit more at some point, but here’s it so far, anyway.



First of all, I’d like to ask you all a question. Canyone tell me where Sherlock Holmes lived?

221b Baker Street. You’d agree that’s a true statement, yes?


Ok, on with the show. We’ll come back to his address in a bit. Firstly, for the purposes of this talk, I’m going to take the Canonical Works to refer to the 60 stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle about Holmes – 56 short stories, and four novels. There’s all sorts of other bits and pieces kicking around – movies from the 50s where he fights the Nazis, hundreds of stories written by other people, the new series where he uses a mobile phone instead of telegrams – but as far as this talk goes, they don’t count as true Sherlock Holmes adventures. We’ll discuss some of them in passing, but they don’t fall into what I’m going to call the Canon.

What do we know about Holmes? What do people know about Holmes? As Julian Barnes points out in his novel England, England, it is the first mistake of a historian to say “Everyone knows about Robin Hood”. Or Sherlock Holmes, for that matter. But there are some facts that can’t really be argued with.

Holmes was born in the early 1850s – a descendent of “country squires of no particular distinction”, although his grandmother was a Vernet, related to the now sadly little-known French painters of the 18th century. He was in active practice for 23 years, which, excluding his absence between 1891 and 1894, seems to span the years 1878 – 1903. After 1903, he retired to Sussex to keep bees. For those residents of Sussex, his villa was “situated on the southern slope of the Downs, commanding a great view of the channel”. I shall leave it to your imagination during your wanderings of the Sussex countryside as to exactly where this location would be.

I shall, in time, return to further biographical information regarding Sherlock Holmes In the meantime, however, we are going to take a close look at the events following the Final Problem, namely, the Great Hiatus.

The Great Hiatus

After 2 novels and 23 stories, (in order of publication, not chronology), Sherlock Holmes met a terrible fate. Pursuing the dangerous criminal Professor Moriarty, generally considered to be Holmes’ greatest adversary and dubbed “The Napoleon of Crime” by Holmes himself, the two of them, locked in mortal combat, plunged into the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, presumably to their mutual demise.

With the benefit of hindsight, and with thanks to Watson’s documentation of The Adventure of the Empty House, we now know that due to Holmes’ knowledge of the “Japanese system of wrestling, baritsu” (a mythical martial art, although it is believed that Holmes was in fact referring to Bartitsu – or perhaps it is simply an example of Watson’s poor handwriting) that Holmes was able to cast Moriarty into the falls and himself survive, despite the wicked Colonel Sebastian Moran casting rocks upon him from above.

However, whilst Holmes remained absent from Watson’s life for three years, the poor Victorians had to endure eight years in mourning before their hero could make his triumphant return from his watery grave.

Conan Doyle, tiring of his hero, had killed off Holmes in order to spend more time writing his historical novels. (These, incidentally, were remarkable pieces of work – Conan Doyle, being a true perfectionist, would not set pen to paper until he had read over 500 historical texts in order to ensure his narratives were accurate to the time in which they were set, and they are undoubtedly better for it, although they do contain a lot of mead, animal-skins and walking.) He seemed thoroughly fed up of Holmes, and in one notable letter to a friend who urged him to resurrect Holmes, compared him to that cruellest of goose products.  “I couldn’t revive him if I would, at least not for years,  for I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do towards pâté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.”

Conan Doyle must have been shocked at the reaction of the Victorian public to Holmes’ untimely death. Many people wore black armbands in mourning for their late hero, whilst others bombarded Conan Doyle with pleading and threatening letters.

Once armbands were lain aside and threats and pleas posted, what the disappointed Holmes fans did next was much more interesting.

Sherlock Holmes Erotic Fan Fiction

The great Victorian public, in the absence of official Conan Doyle authored stories, started writing their own.  These ranged from cheap and often flawed attempts to recreate Conan Doyle’s carefully balanced mysteries, to something else entirely – fan-authored erotic fiction, usually involving steamy encounters between Holmes and Watson themselves.

These couplings between Holmes and Watson are considered to be the first instance of something which is often described as  a much more modern phenomenon – that of slash fiction. The phrase ‘Slash Fiction’ is a subgenre of the world of Fan Fiction – non-canonical stories featuring characters from established novels, films, and other mediums. Human nature being what it is, the temptation to make characters ‘get it on’ is often difficult to resist, and a lot of fan fiction inevitably involves couplings that the original author would have found surprising.

Slash fiction specifically refers to couplings between two male characters, alongside femslash (two female characters), and hetslash (for heterosexual couplings), although slash seems to be the most popular of these genres. The word ‘slash’ derives from the resurgence in fan fiction that took place in the obscure Star Trek fanzines of the 60’s – torrid romances, with the pairing denoted as “Kirk / Spock”, on anything else you may possibly be able to think of.

A surprising amount has been written about the predominance of slash in the fan fiction scene – with psychologists and theorists often equally baffled as to the phenomenon of a large quantity of imaginary homosexual pairings between fictional characters, usually written by heterosexual women.  I spoke to a keen member of the slash community, who dismissed a lot of academic study of slash fiction as writing about it “inaccurately or as some kind of freakish paraphilia”. One theorist who is respected by the slash community is Henry Jenkins, professor of Communications, Journalism and Cinematic arts at the University of Southern California. It would be trite to summarise his detailed writings on slash in such a short period, but amongst other things he deals with is to look at slash as a reaction to: “the forced isolation of characters as a situation which produces intense longing and which gives physical expression to the emotional bonds between characters.”

With the rise of the internet, slash fiction took off in an astounding way, and its rise is now thoroughly entwined with the rise of the Harry Potter series. I’ve just done a quick search online, and looking at just one site (admittedly one of the more popular),, there are over half a million Potter stories, containing every pairing imaginable. One slightly alarming aspect of the rise and rise of Potterfic is that a lot of the pairings, featuring teenage wizards, generally seem to involve underage sex and incest. Pairings don’t have to take place in the same universe, either – I found an utterly bizarre piece the other day in which Indiana Jones takes advantage of the young Lord Voldemort. I know.

However, one of the strangest aspect of modern day slash is the rise of RPS – real person slash. This can throw up all sorts of strange pairings – by all accounts, you can read sordid love scenes featuring David Cameron and the lead actor in Inception, and there’s a Michael Howard / Jeremy Paxman piece that’s legendary in the scene. My personal favourite RPS has to be political slash, something which seems to have risen very rapidly after the 2010 election – possibly an aspect of the “New Politics” we all embraced. Whole subsectors pop up on LiveJournal; “Clameron” denoting a Cameron/Clegg pairing, “Mandelbourne” for Lord Mandelson and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and my particular favourite, the creepy “Milicest”.

There are often disclaimers at the top of slash, separating it from the actual characters, but with RPS there’s an added worry – it getting into the hands of the subjects. At the top of an UK Politics RPS site, letters in bold spell out the golden rule – DON’T LET THE POLITICIANS READ IT. You can imagine the alarming reaction in the corridors of power – reading a Cameron / Balls fic, I’ll never look at PMQs in the same way again, so you can imagine how the protagonists might feel…

Anyway, enough of this – Back to Holmes! THE GAME IS AFOOT!

The Return

Conan Doyle finally relented and started writing more stories, but as a critic pointed out “He may not have been killed when he fell over the cliff, but he was never quite the same man afterwards”.

It is perhaps appropriate, whilst on the subject of critics, to consider the nature of critical works regarding Holmes. Firstly, we shall take a look at the original masterwork, which set the ball rolling: the legendary “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes”, by Ronald Knox. It is a fascinating piece of writing, and one which we shall return to several times throughout the rest of this talk.

Knox approaches his subject with no small sprinkling of humour, opening his essay with the bold declaration that “if there is anything pleasant in criticism, it is finding out what we aren’t meant to find out … if one brings out a book on turnips, the modern scholar tries to discover from it whether the author was on good terms with his wife; if a poet writes on buttercups, every word he says may be used as evidence against him at an inquest on his views of a future existence”. It is in this spirit of joyous enquiry that Knox attempts to unpick some of the mysteries that Holmes has presented us.

Tempting as it is to present a detailed description of Knox’s piece, I suspect time will not allow, and so we must suffice to brush over great chunks of it, and merely present a couple of sections that are interesting to this discussion today. Firstly, Knox addresses the theory that either the story telling the death of Holmes, or the tales concerning his sudden return, have been fabricated by Watson. His evidence for the second is undoubtedly the most entertaining and intriguing, including statements as follows:

–          “The true Holmes is never discourteous to a client – the Holmes of [the return] ‘shrugs his shoulders in ungracious acquiescence’”

–          “He deliberately abstains from food whilst at work; the real Holmes only does so through absent-mindedness”

–          And finally, gloriously, “The true Holmes never splits an infinitive – the Holmes of the Return-stories splits three”.

Knox concludes that the stories of “the Return” are indeed fabrications, concocted by a “gadabout, spendthrift” Watson, “his practice … vanishes away; he is forced to earn a livelihood by patching together clumsy travesties of the wonderful incidents of which he was once the faithful recorder.”

I would contend, however intriguing Knox’s theories are, that it isn’t possible to kill off Holmes as easily as that.  For if we are to have this multiple Holmes, a splitting of his very character, then it must also be worth taking into account the Holmes’s that never were. There are at least two stories written by Conan Doyle which are Holmes stories in all aspects but one – the absence of the great detective himself. These tales, The Lost Special and The Man with the Watches, both published in Conan Doyle’s excellent collection “Tales of Mystery”, both remain unsolved until a confession or posthumous letter bring the solution to light – although one gets the impression that were Holmes around, he would be able to shed some light on the problem. Indeed, in the case ofTthe Lost Special, a letter in the Times “over the signature of an amateur reasoned of some celebrity at that date” appears to be a cameo-Holmes, repeating that old Holmesian adage that “when the impossible has been eliminated the residuum, however improbable, must contain the truth.”

The True Holmes, it would seem, is a difficult man to pin down. A lot is known about what Holmes did do, but a subject of more debate is what Holmes didn’t do. He certainly does not wear the deerstalker that he is frequently depicted wearing, and neither does he ever utter the well-worn phrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson”. Similarly, it is remarkable to see any depiction of Holmes’s adventures without the ubiquitous London Pea Soup Fog, but this is to do Watson a disservice – Holmes carries out his deductions in a vast range of weather- as Gavin Brend describes, examples include “the snow of the Beryl Coronet, the bright August sunshine of The Norwood Builder, the storm of the Five Orange Pips, the bitter frosty dawn of The Abbey Grange, the soft spring weather of The Yellow Face, the heatwave of The Cardboard Box, and the torrential rain of The Golden Pince Nez”. Brend attributes the association with Holmes and Fog partly to Watson’s masterful description of it in The Bruce Partington Plans, the only story to feature a genuine fog, but secondly because “we, the English, love and cherish our fogs beyond all things on earth”.

I mention Gavin Brend earlier, and we must briefly describe Brend’s masterful 1951 work, “My Dear Holmes”. Amongst all the works written about Holmes, Brend’s certainly stands out as a cornerstone work, attempting as it does to find a path between all the inconsistencies of Watson’s narratives and to put together a definitive biography of the great detective. Again, there is sadly not enough time to cover this book in detail, but we will visit a couple of interesting points. Firstly, as you remember from earlier, we all know Holmes’s address is 221b Baker Street. The building that is currently 221b Baker Street is home to the Sherlock Holmes museum and a statue of our hero adorns the street just outside. However, as Brend points out, until 1930, this building was in a road known as Upper Baker Street – the streets were merged, and the houses renumbered. In an intricate calculation based on the location of hansom cabs and the distance from the underground station, Brend places Holmes and Watson’s lodgings at approximately 61 in the current Baker Street numbering.

Other questions and inconsistencies are harder to pin down, and for the sake of chronology, Brend is forced to posit that Watson had terrible handwriting, making his 9s and 8s impossible to tell apart when the manuscripts went to the printers. Brend and Knox both agree that Watson is a spendthrift, but Brend goes further and suspects a gambling addiction is the reason Watson’s cheque book remains locked in Holmes’s drawer, whilst Watson goes from a man who knows nothing of horses to a “handy guide to the turf” who spends “half his pension” on the races in the course of eight years. Watson’s wives, alas, we must brush over, but the theorists are all agreed that he must have married at least twice.

What is a Sherlock Holmes story? At the outset, we described the 60 tales that constitute the Canon, but this is again not something we can be 100% certain about. The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, a tale in which a respectable middle-aged woman receives two severed ears in the post, was generally considered too gruesome for a Victorian audience, and disappeared from the canon for about 50 years, with the exception of the introductory display of Holmes’s deductive skills, which was awkwardly shoehorned into the opening paragraphs of The Resident Patient for this time.

Meanwhile, a new story, The Case of the Man Who was Wanted, was found amongst Conan Doyle’s papers in 1942, and was lauded with great excitement as a brand new story, serialised in the Strand Magazine. It was eventually discovered that this (very good) story was not in fact by Conan Doyle, but was sent to him by the author Arthur Whitaker, so impressing Conan Doyle that he retained a copy of it, but not before it had been included in several collected editions of the Holmes stories. In a similar incident, a Holmes story written by J. M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame) for Conan Doyle’s entertainment was also mistaken for a genuine piece, although it is of my opinion that only a madman or a thoroughly deluded critic could possibly mistake this piece, in which Watson frequently floats from floor to ceiling and Holmes disappears in a puff of smoke, for a genuine one.

Finally, there remain a couple of extra pieces of Holmes miscellany written by Conan Doyle himself, generally parodying the abilities of Holmes to take a single glance at an old hat and announce that the owner was a tall man with a wooden leg who had worked in India and had recently fallen on hard times. In Watson Learns the Trick, Watson has a go at the same methods with disastrous results,

It has been necessary to rush through a great deal of things in this brief talk that would no doubt benefit from a more thorough analysis – but as time presses, it is necessary to wrap things up now. I ask you to return to our statement from the beginning, this statement:


I can tell you now that there are a lot of people who would not agree with that. Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, they will say, and therefore could never have lived there.  Hamlet was the Prince of Denmark, I would say, and they would wave a history of the Danish Royalty in my face.

But I’m going to contend that you can answer that question. Sherlock Holmes is real and he’s fictional. I think I can say that without contradiction. Did he live at 10 Downing Street? No. Did he live at 221b Baker Street? Yes. Even though these days it’s more likely to be no. 61. Sherlock Holmes lived at 221b Baker St. You all said so at the beginning.

As I get older, I have a lot more time for G. E. Moore’s approach to philosophy. When presented with the pit of the doubt, the deceiving demon, the sheer weight of scepticism about everything that we see and experience, he would raise his left hand. “Here is a hand”, he would say. He would raise his right hand. “Here is another hand”. These are external objects. They are my hands. You know they are there. An external world exists. Why would you doubt? We can face the utter uncertainty of everything around us, and we will still play billiards. Look around. See the people around you. They exist.

Sherlock Holmes does not live at 221b Baker Street any more. In 1903, he retired to the South Downs to keep bees. He enjoys that particular immortality granted to a select group of literary characters, even dead ones like Hamlet. So please raise your glasses to the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known. Mr Sherlock Holmes. Long may he live.

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