The curious case of Sherlock Holmes and the Norwood Building Inspectors

This story was originally published Jan. 3, 2013 in the Charleston Daily Mail.

In a mostly empty room off the South Charleston Public Library’s DVD section, Nye Clinton stretched his arms across a plastic folding table and gripped the edge for dear life.

He was trying to determine if a cleaver-wielding attacker could cut his thumb off.

Short on props, Clinton used the table as a stand-in for a windowsill. He reasoned that if a man was dangling from a window and gripped the inside of the sill, his thumbs would be completely exposed to his assailant.

“If you’re on the inside, your thumb’s a perfect shot,” he said.

Other members of the Norwood Building Inspectors – that’s what members of Charleston’s Sherlock Holmes society call themselves – disagreed.

They reasoned the dangling man likely would be hanging from the outside of the window, leaving his fingers, but not his thumbs, exposed to an attacker’s blade. Perhaps, they reasoned, Dr. Watson was confused about the details when it came time to report “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb.”

Fletcher Adkins sided with Clinton, however. He pointed out that in Victorian architecture, windowsills were quite wide.

“That would lay his hand out across it, as if it were on a cutting board,” he said.

There are other problems with Dr. Watson’s account of the mystery, however, and none escaped the scrutinizing eyes of the Building Inspectors.

“The Engineer’s Thumb,” first published in The Strand magazine in 1892, chronicles the adventure of a young engineer recruited by a mysterious German to do maintenance work on his hydraulic press in Berkshire, about 60 miles west of London. The German turns out to be a counterfeiter who tries to kill the engineer with a cleaver once the young man discovers the true nature of his work.

The engineer escapes with his life but without one of his thumbs, and he returns to London to recount his strange tale to Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.

“They’re having a little discussion, and obviously he’s bleeding through his handkerchief, and Watson isn’t concerned,” said Mille Clinton, Nye’s wife.

Bill Crockett scoffed at the hour of the young man’s appointment with Dr. Watson.

“I can’t imagine getting a doctor at 7 in the morning,” he said.

Crockett also was concerned with Watson’s initial prescription of brandy and water.

“We imagine most doctors would recommend a hot drink, rather than alcohol,” he said.

“My Irish grandmother cured everything with a whiskey tonic,” Crockett’s wife, Bunny, added.

You may have deduced that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock’s creator, is not mentioned very often in these gatherings. That’s because “Sherlockians” like the Building Inspectors prefer to imagine Doyle did not write the stories, but instead served as Watson’s literary agent.

It’s a game played by Sherlock fans all over the world. Devotees pretend the great detective, his sidekick, Watson, and all their adventures are real.

Any inconsistencies or inaccuracies in the stories are Watson’s fault because he didn’t write things down correctly. In those cases it’s up to Sherlockians to figure out what really happened using clues from the stories.

That’s why Nye Clinton was so concerned about the windowsill. The game, as Sherlock once said, is afoot.

The Case of the German Bible Scholars

Sherlock Holmes, Watson and their famous 221B Baker Street address first appeared in the 1887 novel “A Study in Scarlet.” The characters did not gain a wide following until four years later, however, when The Strand magazine began publishing short stories featuring the duo.

Doyle’s fan base grew with each new story he published, but the author was not entirely comfortable with his newfound acclaim. Fearing his detective fiction would overshadow his other work, Doyle killed off Sherlock in 1893, just two years after his debut in The Strand.

“People were hysterical,” said Andrew Gulli, a Michigan publisher who revived The Strand in the United States in 2000. “There were protests.”

Women apparently cried in the streets. Men wore black armbands to show their solidarity.

Doyle eventually caved to public pressure in 1901 and wrote a new Sherlock novel, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” He eventually penned three more collections of short stories, where it is revealed the detective actually faked his death.

In-depth study of Doyle’s work began in 1911 as a joke among Bible scholars.

English theologian Ronald Knox published a paper in 1911 titled “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,” in which he lampooned German Bible scholars of the day by using their study techniques on Doyle’s stories.

“He was very good at irony,” said Nicholas Utechin, longtime editor of The Sherlock Holmes Journal in Oxford, England. “These German biblical scholars were doing all sorts of extraordinary serious studies. ‘Did Paul really write that? If Peter did that, why did John do that?'”

Knox applied this same super-serious scholarship to Sherlock Holmes stories and attempted to, among other things, place all the stories in chronological order and guess which college Sherlock attended.

“To write fully on this subject would need two terms’ lectures at least,” he wrote. “Some time, when leisure and enterprise allow, I hope to deliver them. Meanwhile, I have thrown out these hints.”

He ended the essay with a paraphrased quote from “The Hound of the Baskervilles:” “You know my methods, Watson: apply them.”

Although Knox’s study of Sherlock was meant only to be a good-natured jab at his fellow scholars, Utechin said all modern Sherlock societies can trace their history to his paper.

Knox’s essay was republished in 1928 in a collection called “Essays in Satire.” In 1931, S.C. Roberts, a professor at Cambridge University, wrote a reply to the paper pointing out “the Watson problem” in Sherlock scholarship: details in the stories do not always match up, so Watson either wrote things down incorrectly or he left details out of the stories.

Utechin said literary societies soon began cropping up on both sides of the Atlantic to solve “the Watson problem.” And so the game began.

The United States’ largest and longest-running Sherlock society, The Baker Street Irregulars, was founded in 1934, growing out of male-only dining clubs in Philadelphia and New York. The group began publishing The Baker Street Journal, a magazine for players of “the game,” in 1946.

A short-lived Sherlock society also sprang up in London in the mid-1930s, but it lasted only for two dinners and one official meeting. England would not get its own Sherlock society for nearly 20 years.

The “Festival of Britain,” held in 1950, featured a variety of exhibitions highlighting the history and accomplishments of different parts of the country.

Community leaders in the Borough of St. Marylebone, where Baker Street is located, formed a council to come up with ideas for their exhibit. Some members suggested an exhibition about slum clearance. The council eventually picked an idea from the Public Libraries Committee for a Sherlock Holmes tribute.

The exhibit included a recreation of Sherlock and Watson’s rooms at 221B Baker Street, featuring mementos from Holmes’ “life.” More than 50,000 people visited the display.

Inspired by this enthusiasm, the Sherlock Holmes Society of London was formed in January 1951. The society soon began publishing its own periodical, The Sherlock Holmes Journal.

Other societies eventually sprang up across Europe, including large societies in Switzerland, France and Germany. Utechin said Sherlock became extremely popular in Soviet Russia.

Back in America, enthusiasts started establishing branch societies of the Baker Street Irregulars, including the Amateur Mendicant Society of Detroit, the Nashville Scholars and the Noble And Most Singular Order Of The Blue Carbuncle, located in Portland, Ore.

Societies now exist all around the country, gathering Sherlock fans for the singular purpose of discussing – and occasionally arguing about – Doyle’s stories.

Tales of the Norwood Building Inspectors

The Sherlock Holmes Society of Charleston, otherwise known as the Norwood Building Inspectors, was founded in September 1999. Members conducted their first meeting in a basement meeting room beneath Taylor Books on Capitol Street.

The group also met for a time at Trans-Allegheny Bookstore. Each meeting during these early years included a champagne toast to “the woman,” Sherlock’s nickname for Irene Adler, his one-and-only love interest.

The imbibing ended a few years later when the society moved its meetings to the Kanawha County Public Library’s main branch in downtown Charleston. The library doesn’t allow drinks, even symbolic ones.

“We’ve been teetotalers ever since,” Jerry Summers said.

The society moved to the South Charleston branch, which has better parking, four years ago. Sherlockians have come and gone through the years, but the Norwood Building Inspectors now boast about a dozen members.

The group takes occasional field trips (members watched both Robert Downey Jr. “Sherlock” films in theaters) and holds a birthday party for Sherlock each January.

This year’s gathering will be at Mayberry’s in St. Albans. Sherlock, who was born Jan. 6, 1859, will turn 159.

Most meetings are casual affairs, however. Members munch on light refreshments while one Sherlockian delivers a short talk about a story of his or her choosing. Bill Crockett chose “The Engineer’s Thumb” for November’s meeting because he is a retired Union Carbide engineer.

Crockett was first introduced to Sherlock Holmes around 1959 while he was in graduate school at West Virginia University, studying chemical engineering.

He and his wife, Bunny, had been married for a few years and were trying to have a child. Their first attempt ended in a miscarriage. When they conceived again, Bill resolved they should be much more careful with Bunny’s health this time around.

She was still completing her bachelor’s degree in English at the time, and all her classes were in Armstrong Hall, which, like much of WVU’s campus, is built into a hill. Crockett, worried about his wife, would walk to meet her and help her up the hill.

He often arrived before class dismissed.

“I got captivated by the discussions going on. Finally, I asked her prof if I could sit in on the class,” he said.

Bunny’s professor, excited that an engineering student would take an interest in literature, readily agreed. The professor also invited Crockett to a meeting of the Bakers Street Irregulars.

“They were true believers. God forbid you should mention Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was always, ‘Watson wrote those things,’ and that was it,” he said.

Utechin said it’s a testament to Doyle’s writing that 125 years after his detective fiction first appeared in print, fans are still able to study and analyze Sherlock’s adventures.

“There’s always more juice to squeeze out of the orange,” he said.

A Sherlockian once concluded Watson had five wives, given the varying marriage dates listed in the stories, but others contend he was married twice. Others are still debating whether Sherlock attended Oxford or Cambridge.

Some Sherlock fans never play “the great game,” but prefer to read the stories or watch the films and television shows they inspire. Some collect original editions of Doyle’s books, which often bring astronomical prices at auction.

“You can have this extraordinary enjoyment of Sherlock Holmes on so many levels,” Utechin said.

Characters reason for lasting appeal

When Andrew Gulli revived The Strand, he said most of his original subscribers signed up because of the magazine’s historical association with Sherlock Holmes.

The Strand now has around 50,000 subscribers. And while it publishes new fiction, interviews and book reviews, each issue contains a Sherlock Holmes story.

“People love superhuman figures. They love people who are larger than life,” Gulli said. “In Sherlock Holmes’ case, he was not cartoonish.”

Gulli pointed out the great detective is often cynical to women and was known to use cocaine when he got bored.

“That’s where the appeal lies. He was a larger-than-life person but had a lot of human weaknesses,” he said. “He was not Captain America. In many respects, Sherlock Holmes is not the kind of person you’d want to have as a next-door neighbor.”

Utechin said most of Doyle’s stories do not contain a lot of action, as only a few tales contain actual crimes. In many cases, Sherlock becomes involved because he is intrigued by the quirkiness of the situation.

Like Gulli, Utechin said he believes the strength of Doyle’s stories are his interesting, realistic characters. Those characters have appeared in hundreds of stage and screen adaptations, dating back to 1899, making Sherlock the “most portrayed detective” according to the Guiness World Book of Records.

Despite legendary portrayals by actors like Peter Cushing and Basil Rathbone, newer actors have not shied away from reinterpreting the great detective. Director Guy Ritchie recently produced two blockbuster films starring Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock and Jude Law as Watson.

In 2010, the minds behind the British Broadcasting Corporation’s science-fiction series “Doctor Who” debuted a new television show called “Sherlock,” which updates Doyle’s stories for the 21st century. Instead of telegrams, Sherlock sends text messages. Instead of keeping a journal, Watson writes in a blog.

CBS debuted its own update of Sherlock last fall with “Elementary,” starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as “Joan Watson.”

Utechin said these adaptations are all part of Doyle’s legacy. Although his first detective stories were written in the 1800s, the last were not published until 1927.

“By which time there were cars in the stories, and there was a telephone and a record player,” Utechin said. “Conan Doyle knew how to move things along. Anything that keeps the brand alive and is of good quality, I’m all for.”

Members of the Norwood Building Inspectors agree. None of them like the new BBC series, but all enjoyed the Robert Downey Jr. films.

For them, the lasting appeal of Sherlock lies in his personality and cleverness. No matter how fantastical the situation, Sherlock eventually cracks the case and explains everything.

“It’s always logical,” Bunny Crockett said.

She compares reading a Sherlock story to her visit to the Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin once walked and developed his theories for “The Origin of Species.” Bunny said she saw all the same things Darwin did but never could have come up with the same theories.

“I’m just smart. Darwin was a genius. Sherlock is a genius, too,” she said.

Although Doyle gives Sherlock and his readers all the same clues, only Sherlock can reveal the solution.

Dr. Watson often expressed similar fascination with the great detective. At the beginning of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes immediately deduces that Watson has recently walked in the rain and hired a clumsy and careless servant girl.

“When I hear you give your reasons,” Watson then told Holmes, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process.”

Holmes then lights a cigarette and flops into an armchair.

“Quite so,” he tells his friend. “You see, but you do not observe.”