You don’t know about me without you have read a blog by the name of The Well-Read Sherlockian; but that ain’t no matter.
I began that blog in order to be better able to share my love of Sherlock Holmes–and, more particularly, Sherlockian reading material–with anyone and everyone whose souls reside, at least partly, where it is always 1895. One of the most wonderful aspects of the Sherlockian world, however, is that a passion for the Great Detective often leads to other, just as consuming, interests. I know people who have followed his stealthy footsteps into drama, art, music, the sciences, costuming, gaming, public speaking, and writing–both fiction and non-fiction. Just about anything that can interest a human being, one can find in Baker Street.
I chose crime.
It is a slight quirk of mine that, as much as I love fiction, what really fascinates me are the tantalizing bits of reality one can find in any story. It’s what compelled me, at the very last minute, to change my college major from English to history, and what led me, very early on in my Sherlockian life, to explore the world of Conan Doyle himself, and to wonder what bits of truth lay behind the case details Dr. Watson readily admits he obscures.
If Sherlock Holmes were in active practice today (and who’s to say that he isn’t?), he would likely have an advanced degree in a detection-related field. He would have access to scores of databases, as well as to the support and opinions of similarly-trained (while not as brilliant) men and women. When he first began to see himself as a consulting detective (thanks to the suggestion of a friend’s father), he had no resources other than a partial university education in the sciences and an unusual gift for observation and deduction.* Just as he invented his job, he also seems to have invented his training. We gather from A Study in Scarlet that Holmes had access to the lab facilities at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital (hereafter to be referred to as “St. Bart’s,” or simply “Bart’s”), and like many scientists and physicians of his day, was not averse to testing substances on himself–or others. He remedied a need for forensics knowledge through experimentation–like beating cadavers to observe postmortem bruising–and, on the day he met a certain Army doctor, had just discovered a quick and reliable method for identifying blood stains. In “The Musgrave Ritual,” he tells Watson that, in his early days in Montague Street, he spent a good deal of time studying in the British Museum–likely the anatomy, botany (poisonous plants), and geology the doctor mentions in his famous list, “Sherlock Holmes–His Limits.”
Then, of course, there is his knowledge of crime itself. In that same list, Watson tells us that Holmes “appears to know every detail of horror perpetrated in the century.” We know from his mention of Jonathan Wilde in The Valley of Fear that the doctor should have included the 18th century as well. Holmes spends a good deal of time wandering through the less salubrious areas of London, making the acquaintance of men like Shinwell Johnson–as well as “the most winning woman I ever knew” (who murdered her children for the insurance); Parker the “harmless” garroter, and “my old friend Charlie Peace.” From them, he gains not only sources, but knowledge of how human beings think and behave, particularly when they’re being no better than they should be.
All of this information, of course, he stores in his “brain attic,” along with a mental edition of The Newgate Calendar. Yet even the most capacious mind needs a backup–hence, Holmes’s large collection of commonplace books (in which he places clippings on crime and other relevant topics), and his indexes, where he compiles information about various individuals and subjects of particular interest. Irene Adler has an entry there, as do vampires; he is apparently rather proud of the “M’s.”
Over the last few years, as I’ve read and reviewed Sherlockian fiction, I found myself wanting to branch out a bit, to include different types of books which any well-read Sherlockian might find interesting. Some I could reasonably include in the WRS blog–a book on cocaine, another on the real man behind Birdy Edwards. Others…didn’t fit as well, and may have detracted from that blog’s stated mission. Nor did I always wish to review them; sometimes I just wanted to share an interesting passage, a useful old book, an exciting Sherlockian connection, for ultimately the Sherlockian world is all about excitement and connections and sharing. This blog, then, isn’t about the adventures Holmes and Watson may have had, or might still be having. In The Commonplace Books, I hope to take you into the world of 221B–or at least a sordid little corner of it–to sit down together while we page through the indexes and scrapbooks, to see what Sherlock Holmes knows about crime and detection–and to wonder, occasionally, what he thought about it. There will be occasional reviews, excerpts, musings, clippings–anything and everything covering crime from the moment Cain struck Abel in the fields until the 1950’s. Please note that, given the subject matter, this will inevitably be a more adult blog, although I aim to keep it suitable for the 16-and-older crowd. I don’t plan to post gory crime scene photos, although I may provide links for those who are interested to follow at their own discretion. All entries with potentially disturbing content will be labelled as such, and comments will be heavily moderated. Remember, of course, that everyone mentioned is innocent until proven guilty–and, occasionally, when proven guilty as well.
Shall we begin?
*For the tragic story of how Sherlock Holmes came to realize that detection was his “line of life,” see “The Gloria Scott” in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.