A Sherlockian Menagerie
(A Guide to Sherlockians for Those New to the Hobby)
This article is primarily for the benefit of those new to the hobby of Sherlockiana. Many of us who are now veterans to the world of Sherlock Holmes may very well have gone to our first scion meeting knowing little (or nothing) about the kind of people whom we may meet there, other than that they shared an interest in The Great Detective of Baker Street, as did we. The good news for those of you who haven’t yet attained the status of experience Sherlockian is that you’re likely to meet some of the nicest people that you’ve ever encountered at a typical Sherlockian scion meeting. The bad news, unfortunately, is that, as is the case in any hobby, you may also run into a few people who are not-so nice, and although fortunately they’re extremely rare, you may even end up at a “bad” scion. But before you may start having second thoughts about getting more involved in the hobby than simply enjoying Holmes on your own or privately collecting Sherlockiana, let me reassure you: Most of the Sherlockians you’ll meet—and almost all of the scions that you may attend—are sure to be simply great. Great folks, great fellowship, and a great hobby! (And we’ll deal with the not-so great later in this article.)
Now, that’s not to say, however, that all Sherlockians that you meet are going to be alike in their appreciation of the hobby or in how they celebrate the Master Sleuth of Victorian literature. Aside from them all being individuals as people, Sherlockians also come in many flavors as Sherlockians. This article describes several broad categories of Sherlockians that you may meet at any scion (along with those in a category that we hope you never encounter). And don’t worry if you do meet some Sherlockians who don’t quite fit into any one of these categories—or who fit into more than one. As already noted, those who enjoy Sherlock Holmes come in many stripes—some of which bleed over into others to some extent or another. And that’s just part of the adventure that you experience when you get involved with this fascinating hobby.
So, in general, you may wonder, just what kinds of Sherlockians can you expect to meet? Well, for the purposes of this article, we divide the field into three main categories (the first two and the fourth discussed), plus a fourth minor category (wedged in between categories two and four). We also toss in a fifth category (and a variation of it) to represent the “dark side” of the hobby that you want to try to avoid. (Cue a dark, heavy-breathing, black-cloaked Moriarty hissing to Holmes at the edge of the Reichenbach: “Sherlock, I am (uhh-huhhh) your father . . . !” No, wait! Wrong hobby!) Anyway, following is your guide to different types of Sherlockians (with sincere apologies in advance to all who may feel as though this approach is a form of “profiling” or “type-casting”).
Sherlockian Generalists are, simply put, those who enjoy all aspects of Sherlock Holmes and the hobby of Sherlockiana. A generalist may have a special area of the hobby that is particularly close to his heart and which he pursues more than others, but in the main, he enjoys not only the original Holmes stories, but the pastiches, parodies, movies, comic books and other graphic portrayals, games . . . you name it, and the Generalist loves it. Most scions are Generalist to at least some extent (and even a few of those that aren’t may at least claim to be). Our scion, The Hated Rivals on the Surrey Shore, for example, is broadly Generalist in nature. We extend our enjoyment of Sherlock Holmes to every medium in which he’s been portrayed in some way. (Well, as long as it’s legal and moral, that is.) And we welcome anyone who falls not only in this category, but in the following three as well (as long, of course, as they’re also tolerant of those with interests that may differ from their own). And there’s really not much else to say about this category. (Although we’d venture to guess that the majority of Sherlockians fall squarely into it.)
Specialists are those Sherlockians who focus on one (or maybe two) particular aspects of the hobby. (These are usually in addition to the original Holmes stories, but you can also – if infrequently – find specialists who enjoy some part of Sherlockiana but aren’t all that enamored of the original Doyle tales. We know—to some, that may seem almost blasphemy. But it’s a matter of fact, and if we’re to embody all that’s good about the hobby, as exemplified by the Master Detective himself, we must also embrace those who are Sherlockians but not necessarily Doylean Sherlockians.) Specialists often are aficionados of the Holmes movies, for example. (Although within that broad category, you can frequently find even further specialists—those who, for example, elevate the Basil Rathbone movies to the highest level of film personifications of Holmes or who pledge their full allegiance to Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes in the Granada TV series—the latter not strictly movies, of course, but why quibble?) Other Specialists may focus on a particular series of pastiches, while still others may primarily pursue knowledge of the Victorian Age itself rather than any category of Sherlockiana. Specialists who are collectors almost always narrow their collection to items that most reflect their special interests. The possible types of specialties to which a Sherlockian Specialist may dedicate himself are far too many to name in a short article—but you’ll know almost as soon as you start talking to one that you’ve encountered a Specialist. He’ll gladly talk your ear off about his own particular specialty—and if you listen closely, you’re likely to learn a lot about a fascinating aspect of the hobby that you’ve perhaps never considered before.
Occasionally, an entire scion may be specialist in nature, in that its focus—its very reason for existing—is to celebrate but one part of Sherlockiana. Most often, such a scion alludes to its specialty in its name. Our sister scion, The Victorian Gamers Afoot!, is one such example. As you can tell from its name, its focus is on games with Victorian or Sherlockian themes—anything from Sherlockian board games such as 221B Baker Street to role-playing games such as Cthulhu By Gaslight (which takes the H.P. Lovecraft role-playing game Call of Cthulhu and transports it to 1890s England, where Holmes often figures at least in the background of a scenario). Members of this scion meet from time to time expressly to play such games. Other scions may revolve strictly around, say, Holmes on film. Their meetings often include video presentations of Holmes movies and TV episodes, and discussions may center around the relative merits of the different actors who’ve played Holmes, from Neville St. Clair (A Study in Terror) to Nicole Williamson (The Seven Percent Solution). Specialist scions can be as much fun to attend as Generalist scions—as long as you enjoy the topic enough to revisit it again and again. (And many Sherlockians do.)
This category is really a subcategory of the preceding category. The Cross-Genre Sherlockian is a Sherlockian who admires not only Sherlock Holmes but some other literary figure or genre (or, more rarely, a historical figure) and often enjoys seeing them mixed or in some way interacting. Cross-Genre Sherlockians especially love pastiches that bring together their two loves—be it, say, Holmes and Tarzan, Holmes and H.G. Wells’ Martians, Holmes and Batman, Holmes and Star Trek (or any science fiction universe) . . . Holmes and, well, almost anything else. The Web site on our Links page that combines the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Who universes is one such example of Cross-Genre Sherlockiana. Although a Cross-Genre Sherlockian is often a Specialist in that he focuses on a single other genre, character, or universe with which to mix Holmes, some Generalists also enjoy such fertile mixes. (One of my own all-time favorite pastiches, for example, is Sherlock Holmes’ War of the Worlds.)
Cross-Genre Sherlockians, if they’re really deeply into their other genre, are often casual Sherlockians, so you probably won’t find any dedicated scions of this nature. (Although if you know of one, do let us know about it.) But if you don’t insist on your Sherlock straight up, this variety of Sherlockian can be a lot of fun to talk with and listen to.
In essence, a Sherlockian Purist is merely a Sherlockian who prefers to read, discuss, and consider only the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Doyle—the 60 tales that Sherlockians dub “the Canon.” Some Purists may “fudge” a bit to include other stories by Doyle among their interests, especially those considered by some experts to be “semi-Canonical,” or may also list one or two other related aspects of the hobby as “acceptable” areas of study—especially anything about Doyle himself. But the main focus of a Purist’s pursuit of the hobby lies squarely in the original Holmes stories. And there’s certainly nothing wrong at all about that. Many great Sherlockians were Purists—and we tip our hats to them. The hobby wouldn’t be what it is today without them. (In fact, we as a scion have nothing but respect for all Sherlockians, whether they be Purists, Generalists, Specialists — whatever. The only problem that we may have with any Sherlockian who is a Purist is if that person is also an elitist—see below.) And, of course, the original Holmes stories are absolutely wonderful! We can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t enjoy them, whether Purist, Generalist, or (with few exceptions) Specialists. And if you want to learn even more about the original stories so that you can really enjoy them, a Purist is often the type of that you want Sherlockian to turn to. Purists usually have a vast knowledge of the Canon and are fully willing to share it with those of us who are not be quite up on all the details of all the stories. And a true Purist is never egotistical about his knowledge, nor does he put down anyone else for knowing less about the Canon than he does—or for even for enjoying a different part of the hobby.
Few scions are strictly Purist in nature. In fact, we can’t even name one off the top of our heads, although we’re certain there are some out there. (And if you belong to one, let us know.) On the other hand, nearly all scions are Purist to some extent. That’s because, in the final analysis, it was the original Holmes stories that spurred the first Sherlockians to begin forming scion societies – and that captured the imagination of most of us who describe ourselves as followers of the Master Sleuth. And a Sherlockian scion that has no interest at all in Doyle’s tales of the Great Detective would be a rare bird indeed. Although our scion, as noted earlier in this article, is broadly Generalist in nature, and we want everyone to know that you don’t need to be a Purist to join the Hated Rivals, we fully welcome any Purist who would want to attend any of our meetings—because we know that we could learn a lot from a Purists’ usually vast knowledge of the Canon. And that’s a great part of the fun of Sherlockiana.
And now, sadly, on to the dark side of the hobby.
As noted previously, most Sherlockians that you’re going to encounter at scion meetings or elsewhere are great people, bar none! A Sherlockian elitist, however, is another story entirely. The elitist (and we refuse even to capitalize the category name of this type) is the only exception to our statement that we respect all Sherlockians. Elitists are poison to a true Sherlockian scion. And they can suck the very life out of the entire hobby—not to mention all the fun—for far too many Sherlockians should they manage to take root in a scion (or, even worse, gain control of one). So what exactly is an elitist? Well, we hope that you’ve never had the misfortunate to encounter one—and, thankfully, they’re really very rare in our hobby (although, sadly, not unknown). In fact, to reiterate, the vast majority of Sherlockians are great people and not at all elitist in nature. But every group of any size has a few bad apples (or perhaps rotten orange pips is a more appropriate description). You often can tell the Sherlockian elitist by checking the angle of his nose—straight up in the air (metaphorically speaking, of course).
The elitist is the kind of Sherlockian who looks down on others in the hobby if they’re not “enlightened” enough to share his own particular area of interest—an area that the elitist firmly believes is superior to all other areas of Sherlockiana. Of course, that also makes the elitist superior (in his own mind, at least) to all other Sherlockians. And any scion that focuses only on the elitist’s own area of interest is also superior to those scions that don’t or that have a broader range of interests— including, perhaps, the very same scion that the elitist now belongs to at an earlier stage in its existence. (Or course, to the elitist, before he and his views became prevalent, that scion wasn’t really a scion. Or perhaps he magnanimously considers it once to have been all right and merely to have “fallen into disrepute” or “entered a period of indifference and drift” for a while until it finally “came to its senses” or, ludicrously, “got back on track” and got rid of all those trivial, “unworthy” Sherlockian pursuits—or any activities that were “non-Canonical,” which is usually just a code word for anything that the elitist doesn’t like. Coincidentally, the scion’s “revival” often is said to have occurred at about the time that the elitist and his cronies either took over the group or managed to sway enough to their viewpoint to crush out competing interests.)
Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me clarify that I’m obviously not talking about a scion that was founded or that focuses by design on a particular aspect of the hobby, as I describe above regarding Specialist scions. Nor am I referring to scions that may revolve around a shared interest of members beyond a love of Sherlock Holmes—for example, certain professional scions (where all members are, say, lawyers or doctors) or multi-hobby scions (where all members are also, say, amateur beekeepers or deer hunters or puzzle enthusiasts or the like). Such scions (almost certainly) are not elitist. In fact, when you get down to the heart of the matter, extremely few scions, as a whole, are elitist in any way. You’re far more likely to find an isolated elitist (or, worse, a clique of them) in an otherwise good scion, where they’re tolerated in a sense of fair play worthy of Holmes himself – one that elitists themselves almost never demonstrate should they ever manage to usurp control of the group. Rarely, thank Doyle, does the situation evolve beyond that. So if you currently attend or belong to a scion, you can usually avoid its elitists, if any, and just hope that they eventually leave. (If they find out that they can’t dominate anyone else, they often do.) If you want to see a scion die, however, look for one where the elitists have managed to gain control. True, the group may continue on — for many years even — but at its heart, it’s deader than that poor dog on which Holmes tested the poison pill in A Study in Scarlet. It may even appear on the surface to still be vibrant and open and alive, but as you get more deeply involved, you begin to see the tell-tale signs. (And as elitist control wears on, the malignancy becomes more and more evident.)
Signs of an Elitist Takeover
So what to look for, you may wonder? For starts, does (or did) the scion begin its existence electing new officers every year, elevating people from the ranks to greater and greater leadership positions—but then, suddenly, it switched to “rotating” officer positions, in which the same two (or maybe three) people alternate from year to year in an office? Or does one person eventually become a perpetual incumbent—a “president for life”? If so, beware—elitists may have taken over. (And we’re talking about a situation in which other people want to serve as officers and even attempt to run for scion office—but are opposed by an incumbent who, like too many in Congress today, uses the power of his incumbency to remain entrenched against all comers. If only a handful wants to serve as officers in a scion, of course, that’s an entirely different situation.) You’ll also find, at some point after elitists take over, that scion activities begin to take on a boring sameness—all meetings are mainly, say, story discussions and quizzes, or the same “games” are played over and over at the same “special” meetings, while anything different is vetoed by the elitists in the “officer” clique because it doesn’t fit into their idea of what a scion meeting should be all about (or, just as likely, such “officers” don’t have the originality to come up with anything else).
And if things were ever different in a scion’s past, its new elitist rulers make sure to use their bully pulpits—scion newsletters, “special” anniversary brochures, and other publications, as well as their self-serving speeches and presentations to the scion—to constantly pound into newer members the fact that the old ways of doing things were the “bad old days” and that today’s “new improved” or “back-on-track” scion is the only way to go . . . if, of course, you’re a real Sherlockian. (And you’re likely to need to really dig to find out whether the scion actually was different at some point in the past and, if so, in what way. The current crop of elitists nearly always attempt to rewrite the history of the scion — replacing actual events with their biased opinions and revisionist misinterpretations — to tear down and further obscure any positives about the group before they usurped control. Finding out the truth may prove difficult, too, because if elitists seize control of a scion, you’ll often discover that most, if not all, of the people who attended it in the past (the true disciples of the Master) are long gone, searching for fairer Sherlockian fields or, worse, so disgusted by the actions of the elitists that they leave the hobby entirely.)
Even more telling of a scion on the way down is what happens if an entire clique of elitists is involved. At most scion meetings, you find that such clique members all sit or gather together, while new people, following perhaps a short, perfunctory greeting by whoever’s “in charge,” are mostly left to their own devices. New people may even end up forced to sit alone at a separate table, ignored by the self-absorbed (and self-important) elitists. Any nonelitist member who does choose to sit with the “outsiders” is similarly ignored. (I actually saw and experienced this at a scion I once attended and almost couldn’t believe that it was happening—until it had occurred too many times for me to deny the truth, so that I could no longer make excuses to myself, based on what the scion was like back when I’d first starting going – and for years afterward, for that matter, at least until the elitists seized the reins of power. It was a real eye-opener. I cringe still to think what impressions these visitors may have taken with them of our hobby, not realizing that such behavior was not representative of true Sherlockians. And I mourn for the loss of what that scion was like in its heyday back in the early to mid-1980s, before the elitists took over and finally remade it into their own perverted image.)
Eventually, you find that an elitist clique that gains control begins devising new “bylaws” for the scion, sometimes even ramming through rules excluding entire categories of people that the elitists don’t want around (for example, children or teens) . . . and at that point, the scion is well on its way down. Sadly, the real Sherlockians eventually leave such scions, and the elitists are freed to blow their own horns and proclaim to everyone willing to listen (and be duped) how great they and “their” scion are (which by then bares little resemblance to the original group). Fortunately for the majority of good, honest Sherlockians that make up the hobby, such groups truly are rare—and, if they exist at all, they’re almost never the only scion in town.
And those are just some of the reasons why we, as a scion (as well as individuals within the scion), can’t abide elitists. (Those who truly know Sherlock Holmes, as portrayed in the original stories, know not only that Holmes himself was not an elitist—despite a few deplorable quirks—but that he, too, would never abide by them. For the typical elitists in the Canon, look to Professor Moriarty, Baron Gruner, Grimesby Roylett, and a whole host of unsavory characters.) We want to clear up here, too, before closing the book on elitists (we wish!) a misperception that some may have gotten in reading a few of our past newsletters, where we mentioned Purists in what could be misconstrued as a less than favorable light. Our choice of terms at the time was unfortunate, because the type of people we were really referring to were elitists. (That old curmudgeon that we mentioned in one newsletter, for example.) Although it’s true that some elitists may also be Purists, the reverse, obviously, is not necessarily true. Certainly, very few Sherlockians who are true Purists are also elitists—because they know and understand from the stories the true heart of Sherlock Holmes and, thus, the spirit behind our hobby.
Conclusions (At Last!)
We hope that those of you who are new to the hobby now have a better idea of the kinds of Sherlockians that you’re likely to meet if you choose to attend a scion meeting at some point. (And if you wonder why we spent so much time and effort warning you about those nasty elitists, when they really make up the smallest percentage of Sherlockians, well, it’s because, for all that their numbers are small, they can cause the most damage to the hobby and to individuals—especially to new or young Sherlockians. So, in the spirit of the biblical watchmen on the walls, we feel it our sworn duty as Sherlockians to warn you against that kind, lest we be responsible should you suffer at their hands because we held our silence.) Perhaps, in reading this little piece, long-time Sherlockians will recognize themselves in one of the first few of these categories and, we hope, have a smile or two over what is, by necessity, a gross simplification of the complex nature of our hobbies. (But, hey—ya gotta start somewhere.) No doubt, some may take offense at our characterizations and/or categorizations. We can only offer our sincerest apologies to any who do (providing, of course, they’re not elitists—and if they are, they should be ashamed of themselves).
We certainly hope that no one recognizes him- or herself in our descriptions of the elitist or the elitist clique. If so, such people need to really examine their reasons for being in the hobby in the first place.(Sherlock Holmes, after all, represents justice for all, not exclusive status for self-confessed “superior” people.) And if you recognize a scion that you’re attending as one in which an elitist clique has seized control, do yourself a favor and get out—now! In fact, run—don’t walk—from that elitist scion and look for greener Sherlockian pastures. We guarantee that if you look for a good scion, you’ll find it—sans elitists rulers. (Unless, of course, you’re one of the elitists, too, in which case, see above.) If you don’t, you’re almost sure to eventually run afoul of the elitists and may even find yourself forced out of the scion (or, if you remain, forced to endure their constant elitist digs and putdowns—plus the far worse things that they say behind your back). Or, even worse, if you let your guard down too much, you may even find yourself sinking to their level and end up becoming an elitist yourself (or an elitist wanna-be that they keep around to stroke their egos), thinking that’s how Sherlockians are in general, because, after all, that’s all that you see at scion meetings. And so you may finally, almost unconsciously, adopt the elitist’s loathsome traits yourself (shudder!). (And we’re sad to report that we’ve even seen that happen to a few formerly good people, too.) We pray that such a terrible fate never befalls any of you.
And, as a final favor, we ask, too, that should you ever attend one of our meetings and see anyone in this scion begin to act as described under the elitist and elitist-clique categories in this article, please do us a favor: Place a good, solid, British hiking boot squarely in the middle of our hinder parts and keep doing so until we get the idea. The elitists certainly may hate us for it, but we want The Hated Rivals to always remain an open and fun scion for all Sherlockians who want to join us, no matter what kind they may be.