I Believe in Sherlock Holmes: Sherlockian Fandom Then & Now

By Jeanette Laredo

“You really do, don’t you?” Sherlock’s voice was quiet, not a whisper but more like he was talking to himself than to John, “Even after everything. You still… believe in me.”

—from “I Believe in Sherlock Holmes,” a Sherlockian fanfic by Cennis

Silhouette of Sherlock HolmesI was on my way to a job talk, weaving through the crowd of students that poured out from the corridors leading to the lecture hall, when my eye caught a flash of that unmistakable silhouette: the turned up collar, the distinct deerstalking cap that could only belong to the immortal detective. The crowd continued to mill around me, forgotten, as I paused to get a better look. It was a flyer announcing “I Believe in Sherlock Holmes” in bold block-type. Strips of paper bearing the same intriguing phrase dangled enticingly from the bottom of the flyer. I grabbed one and placing it in my pocket could not shake the thrilling feeling that a game was afoot.

As I would later discover, the #ibelieveinsherlockholmes meme exploded after the second series finale of the BBC hit Sherlock, a contemporary remake of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective stories set in modern day Britain. In the final episode of the series, Sherlock is caught in a showdown with his brilliant nemesis Moriarty who plans to frame Sherlock as a criminal and con-artist. To do so, Moriarty creates the identity of Richard Brook—an out of work actor Sherlock supposedly hired to play the villain while Sherlock perpetrated the crimes he claimed to have solved. Sherlock must confess he is a fraud in order to save his friend Watson, inspector Lestrade and his landlady Mrs. Hudson.

The ending of the cliffhanger episode has led to an all out war between Sherlock and Brook supporters on the internet and on college campuses around the world.  Fan-made flyers professing “I Believe in Sherlock Holmes,” “I Stand with John Watson” and “Moriarty was Real” compete for space next to posters that decry “Shamlock Holmes is a Fraud,” “Moriarty is a Myth” and “Brook is Innocent.” This fan activity has grown to include websites like Sherlockology, the unofficial fan site of the BBC drama, and “The Great Sherlock Holmes Debate” Facebook page.

Silhouette of John Watson

As modern readers we can readily recognize this kind of activity as the domain of fandom. Fandom is defined as “the world of enthusiasts for some amusement or for some artist”[1] while the term “fan” comes from the abbreviation of the word “fanatic” and describes an “enthusiast for a particular person or thing”[2]. With the explosion of recent Sherlockian fandom, I wonder what is the purpose of this kind of fandom and what is its relationship to the academy?

Fandom is problematic for the academy which demands that academics “set our disciplined habits of reading apart from the fan’s supposedly naïve, possible obsessive, often transferential forms of desire” [3]. The uncomfortable relationship between fandom and academia is personified in The Baker Street Journal, the official publication of the Baker Street Irregulars. Long before internet fanboys debated the Moriarty versus Holmes question on Twitter and Tumblr, this group of Sherlockian “fans” gathered in 1934 in New York to discuss pivotal questions of the Holmes universe: Was his addiction to cocaine benign or harmful? Were his feelings for Irene Adler romantic or respectful? Were his origins British or American?

This first Sherlock “con” or conference evokes many of the commonplaces of fandom and membership in the Baker Street Irregulars was and still is predicated on the belief that Watson and Holmes were real people. But the Baker Street Irregulars were not merely fans but writers, scholars and educated men who counted amongst their ranks such luminaries as Ellery Queen, Basil Rathbone, Isaac Asimov, T.S. Eliot and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Their works recorded in The Baker Street Journal become a mix of scholarly articles and what may be termed fan fiction, including stories like “My First Meeting with Sherlock Holmes” by Ellery Queen and “Sherlock Holmes in the White House” by Roosevelt. But the thought of such fan fiction being passed off as serious scholarship has irked some who criticize the journal’s method of “apply[ing] Holmes’s rules for detection to unsolved and artifactual pseudoproblems inherent in the narrative . . . . yield[ing] results that quite simply violate the canons of elementary psychology and outrage common sense” [4]. The shifting status of The Baker Street Journal as both a scholarly and fannish text becomes a flashpoint for the competing demands of fandom and academia.

I suggest that The Baker Street Journal‘s fannish activity, instead of representing an affront to serious scholarship, performs an important task in expanding the fictional world of “the magical Holmesian cosmos”[5] Fictional world theory holds that the fictional worlds of literary texts are “aesthetic artifacts constructed, preserved, and circulating in the medium of fictional texts”[6]. These worlds, like the Sherlockian cosmos, are created by their authors and the reader must reconstruct it with the text acting like a set of instructions that allows the reader to experience and integrate the fictional world into their own reality. But this view of the fictional world is passive and static, with the reader assuming a traditional role in deciphering the fictional world created solely by the author. The Baker Street Journal arises out of a more complex facet of fictional world theory that sees possible fictional worlds as being infinite. The possible fictional worlds of Sherlock Holmes chronicled in The Baker Street Journal complicate the relationship between passive reader and active author as its members participate in and multiply the fictional world Doyle created “where it is always 1895” [7].

Doyle’s universe may lend itself to this phenomenon because of its writerly style. Roland Barthes defines readerly texts as static and fixed in their meaning while a writerly text is “perpetual[ly] present,…is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersected, stopped…which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks and the infinity of language”[8]. The existence of these infinite points of entry into Doyle’s fictional world is nowhere more apparent than in the  “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” (1893) as Holmes opens up his archive:

[Holmes] threw back the lid. I could see that it was already a third full of bundles of paper tied up with red tape into separate packages.

“There are cases enough here, Watson,” said he, looking at me with mischievous eyes. “I think that if you knew all that I had in this box you would ask me to pull some out instead of putting others in.”

“These are the records of your early work, then?” I asked. “I have often wished that I had notes of those cases.”[9]

Like Watson, we desire access to the potential fictional worlds contained in Sherlock’s early case files. The writings of The Baker Street Journal as fan fiction pull at the red tape that binds the untold cases of the great detective. As fan fiction they reify a connection to the fictional world by making the reader/fan an active participant in creating that world. The purpose of Sherlockian fandom then is “to enlighten about the rarest and finest of worlds surrounding Baker Street and beyond” [10]. These “fans” as authors are stewards of the fictional world that Doyle has created.

Still the question remains: How do we reconcile the relationship between fandom and the academy? As a fan of Sherlock Holmes and now a fan of the BBC show I submit that serious scholarship cannot exist without fandom. It is our fanaticism that drives us to investigate the writings of the Holmes canon and create new points of entry into the text. We may use theory instead of whimsy, but our scholarly efforts to expand the meaning of literature may reveal that we “serious” scholars of Sherlock are more like the Baker Street Irregulars than we care to admit.

As The Baker Street Journal editor Philip Shreffler puts it: “There are some paths in life that we may follow only with our intellects; some we may follow only with our hearts. But only occasionally do we find paths like these that we may follow with both” [11].

So, do you believe in Sherlock Holmes?


[1] “fandom, n.”. OED Online. December 2011. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/68041?redirectedFrom=fandom (accessed March 06, 2012).

[2] “fan, n.2”. OED Online. December 2011. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/68000?rskey=0S29Qg&result=2 (accessed March 06, 2012).

[3] Eric Eisner. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Energies of Fandom” The Victorian Review. Volume 33 Number 1 p. 85.

[4] Pasquale Accardo. Diagnosis and Detection: The Medical Iconography of Sherlock Holmes. (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987) p. 14-15.

[5] Shreffler, Philip A. Sherlock Holmes By Gas-lamp : Highlights from the First Four Decades of the Baker Street Journal. (Fordham University Press, 1989) p. 2.

[6] Lubomír Doležel. Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) p. 16.

[7] Shreffler, p. 2

[8] Barthes, Roland. S/Z. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974) p. 5.

[9] “The Adventure of The Musgrave Ritual” The Strand Magazine, May 1893.

[10] Shreffler, p. 7.

[11] Shreffler, p. 7.

Jeanette Laredo is a doctoral student at the University of North Texas who specializes in late eighteenth and nineteenth-century British literature, from Walpole to Stoker. She will be presenting a paper on trauma, Jane Eyre and penny dreadfuls at the ‘Wounded Bodies, Tortured Souls: Narratives of Victorian and Neo-Victorian Trauma’ conference at the University of Portsmouth, UK in June of this year.


  1. Fantastic article! It’s definitely interesting to view fandom from a different angle, especially when it comes to Holmes.

    It also gives me a warm fuzzy feeling knowing that I’m part of something, part of a group of passionate people, who have been enjoying the same stories and fictional world for years and years!

  2. Nicely done. One correction–Philip Shreffler is the former editor of the Baker Street Journal. Current editor is Steven Rothman.

  3. Brilliant. I study media and cultural studies and it’s wonderful to see an article that accounts for fandoms as something much more than just a strange, cultural quirk. Thank you for this.

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