Reading Sherlock Holmes

Preface: this was written as an entry for a contest on the blog of author Laurie R. King. I didn’t win, but thought I might post it here, with a little introduction for relevance.

I grew up with mysteries as a form of entertainment: the program Mystery! on PBS, and books like the Encyclopedia Brown series. The challenge was, and still is, to try and figure out what’s happened before the author tells you.

In historical research, there isn’t an author to tell you the solution. It is entirely up to you to ferret out all the clues and then reach your own conclusions (hopefully supported by the evidence!). I wanted to be like Sherlock Holmes and Jessica Fletcher when I was a kid; being a historian is, in a lot of ways, fulfilling that dream.

The entry (“What Sherlock Holmes Means to Me”):

Reading Sherlock Holmes for me is a memory from childhood, as well a lovely way to spend an afternoon. I was nine or ten, and my sister, mother and I took a summer trip to my great-aunt’s beach house in Delaware. At the top of the house was a room with a flat roof, windows all the way around. I spent hours in that room, surrounded by blue sky and clouds, warmed by the sun, immersed by my imagination in the coal-darkened world of late nineteenth-century England. I had known Holmes before that summer; he was one of a company of detectives who appeared every Thursday on the television, courtesy of public broadcasting. But that summer was the first time I had read the stories.

I already adored Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, the Irregulars and their attendant company, and I wanted to have the stories in their original form. Television episodes came at the whim of some unknown adult, but with a book in my hands I could play out the stories whenever I wished. I had purchased a paperback with all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I devoured most of the book in that sunlit room in Delaware. In Holmes, I found someone who was as sharp as my family (or sharper). In the friendship he shared with Watson, I read a promise that even a clever but sometimes awkward person like me could find a true friend. And I did, although I was a little younger than Holmes likely was when he met Watson. Today, I am a far distance in time and space from that little sun-filled room at the top of my great-aunt’s house, but the hope and excitement which I felt there are as close as that paperback, still on my shelf.