Girl Meets Detective

I was never really a fan of anything until I was a fan of Sherlock Holmes.

Frederic Dorr Steele

I think with the Livejournal, then Blogger, then Tumblr generations, being a fan of something has taken on a different sort of meaning. It now seems to be skewed far more towards the creationary aspect then the consumptive. If you’re a fan of Harry Potter – using a popular “for instance” – it’s now not enough to read all the books and watch all the movies (again and again ad nauseum). You dress up like the characters, go to conventions and press events to meet the actors in the movies or J.K. Rowling, create blogs dedicated to the universe, the people in it, and the stories, and – god forbid – you fall into the seemingly endless pit of Pottermore. If you’re artistic in any way, you create fan art; if you’re not, you endlessly reblog the fan art of those who are. There’s a little more “meat” with superhero things like the Avengers (whence my devotions go) and X-Men, which have been around for longer, but still the re-creation, and re-living of the movies tends to happen, for most people, before they’ve even gotten into a fraction of all the background material. I suppose, in a lot of ways, the good old stuff is not the same world they are accustomed to, and with the power of the internet they can rehash the familiar scenes with their friends and fellow fans in hundreds of ways. One tends to think with these varieties of fandom that the passion is likely to burn bright, and burn quickly. It never feels like it from inside your devotion to a piece of entertainment, but it will probably happen sooner, with so much saturation.

I hate to lead off an essay with a “back in my day” statement, but there you go. Maybe I had the internet when I was young-ish (around 11-12), but instead of animated gifs and complicated PhotoShop graphics, there were message boards and text-based fan communities that had carved out server space here at there. People could go and talk and talk and argue about plot points and adaptations and which was the best chapter/book/episode/movie of such-and-such series. An only child, I was always, behind my politeness, wary of playing with others. So, I never really engaged in any fan community online beyond reading the threads and agreeing or disagreeing in my head. I didn’t want to create conversation, I just wanted to sit and read my books.

Because that’s what did it, made me feel what it was like to really be a fan. I had liked things before, of course, such as – embarassingly – the Disney Pocahontas and Yoshi’s Island for the SuperNintendo. Even then, though, a couple months of being interested and I would put it down, go find something else to fill my brain for five more minutes. At that young age it could have been anything from stuffed animals to a frog I found by the pond outside my house; the world was as big an oyster as it ever was going to be for me. School even could keep my attention, if we were on to a cool project or were doing something particularly fun in art class that week. Then, at the end of 7th grade, as a time-filler for the end of the year, between when you’re done with the curriculum and when you take your finals, our teacher – a kind of crotchety old hippy who was forever making us read rather dry old stuff – let us have a go at “The Hound of the Baskervilles” for a day. We didn’t even read the actual short story, I don’t think – it might have been an abridged version that we could have fit into the 1.25 hour class period. If I’m remembering right, we read it out loud, each student taking a turn at a couple of sentences until the words ran out. My take-away from that class was – I needed more of this.

I couldn’t, and never will be able to, tell you what about Sherlock Holmes made me want to keep reading, but I do know it wasn’t the same feeling as wanting to get to the end of a book report assignment (vaguely intrigued resignation) or wanting to go to the bookstore with my mom and dad to pick up the next couple of Babysitters Club or Goosebumps books (a love of the formulaic, respectively saccharine and tittilating structures that they delivered over and over again). After encountering Conan Doyle’s work for the first time, I asked my mom if we could go to the library – we had gone in the beginning of the school year, and this seemed like a good opportunity to give this new kind of thing, mystery stories, a try without having to buy the books. What I found instead of a big hard-back with a gaudy dust-jacket – like the never-ending supply of mystery bestsellers my father and grandmother were always reading – were these two little squatty brown paperbacks: two volumes, two inches thick apiece. I remember I was afraid of ruining the spine when I bent the pages back, to get at the words down in the crease, which seemed perpetually hidden in shadows.

It took me a lot of renewing to get through both books. The print was miniscule, and I found if I wasnt careful, my eyes could go a bit unfocused, and I would miss few sentences. With Holmes, that meant I went back to read things again two or three times, every ten pages or so. It didn’t matter, though, because I was in love, for the first time, with something that wasn’t  human being or a cat. London of the late 1800’s was familiar, somehow, while still romantically filled with ladies in fine dresses, hansom cabs, men in 3-piece suits, and criminals/crimestoppers who actually used ingenuity to outwit one another, rather than just mowing one another down with guns. It was maybe an odd source of escapism for a pre-teen/teenaged girl, but don’t teenagers feel at the height of their angst, that they were born in the wrong body, the wrong decade, the wrong century, and the wrong world? I wanted to be Sherlock Holmes and was also fascinated with him and his world.

But, there was a problem, initially, with putting my heart into these stories: there were a finite number of them. It was exciting, in a way, because there was no waiting for the author to write their next book or even for a new episodes to come out next week. The stories were written more than a century ago, so they were all ready and waiting for me to read. The other edge to the sword was that a complete body of work meant that you knew from the beginning that your days with this new source of entertainment were numbered, in pages and how slow you could force yourself to read them while still satisfying your desire to cram all the stories and conversations into your head at once. You could read them again and again (and I did), but there would only be that first time once, and even after the rereads, you would soon know the stories too well for re-reading them that fourth or fifth time to have any thrill. What then?

Frederic Dorr SteeleLuckily, with over a hundred years of Sherlock Holmes fans behind me, I wasn’t the first person to have this problem. In the ’70’s, ’80’s, and ’90’s, when there were people rediscovering Holmes through new editions and through the quite well-done BBC series starring Jeremy Brett, what were folks to do, when there were no new stories to read? They joined clubs (the most notable of which was The Baker Street Irregulars) to talk about the stories, they wrote analyses of the stories and of Arthur Conan Doyle, and the fans who were often accomplished mystery writers in their own right turned to perhaps the oldest outlet of the creative fan: fan-fiction. It wasn’t called that, of course – rather, pastiches, parodies, satires, homages, reimaginings, and retellings. Nevertheless, that’s what it was and what it remains.

Let me tell you, discovering this mountain of riffs on the Holmesian world to tackle was exhilarating, probably not unlike finding ten thousand dollars under your mattress when your bank account has 2 dollars left in it – thank god, I can live for a long time on this, if I’m careful. I definitely wasn’t careful, though. What fan is? I blazed through the works of Larry Miller, Quinn Fawcett, Laurie R. King, and ten or twenty more authors (which isn’t even counting the anthologies with their collections of twenty or thirty short stories), without any regard for the supply chain running dry. I read some pretty silly stuff. The one my friends always made fun of me for was a truly horrible piece of writing called Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula. If anything, all that novel did for me was solidify my dislike of anything involving vampires. My ambition ran out before the books, luckily, and in the last few years, I’ve gotten rid of all but 4 of my re-imagining books, plus a 3-volume series of the original stories that I picked up for myself after checking out the two-volume set from my library for the 2nd time. Before a couple months ago, I had compartmentalized my fandom to writing one academic paper tangentially about Holmes and seeing the fun but very silly movie adaptations starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.

Then came Sherlock.

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