In the Indiana archives In the university’s Lilly Library, there is a small piece of paper, no bigger than an index card. The age-old fragment is yellowed and battered, but the handwriting remains firm and clear. “My dear Watson,” it reads, “I am writing these few lines with the courtesy of Mr. Moriarty, who awaits my convenience for the final discussion of the questions that lie between us.” While the letter is undated and unsigned, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to distract the author and his predicament: it’s clearly intended as the famous detective himself, in the final moments before his ultimate showdown with his nemesis.
“It looks like a leftover fragment of a real letter, doesn’t it?” says Erika Dowell, Lilly Library’s curator of modern books and manuscripts, as she examines the paper. In an 1893 short story called “The Final Problem”,John Watson quotes from the letter and explains how he found it on a narrow mountain ridge in the Alps outside Meiringen, Switzerland. It was there, he concluded, that Holmes tumbled to his death in the rushing waters of the Reichenbach Falls.
Dowell, of course, knows that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character created in 1887 by Arthur Conan Doyle. She also knows that this is Doyle’s bold and precise handwriting; the Lilly Library holds numerous letters written in his hand. And while the full provenance of the letter fragment, which has been in the collection for decades, is unclear, she knows it didn’t pass through Watson’s hands. He’s also not real unless you’re “playing the game.”
“Many Sherlockians would consider this—in an ironic way—a fragment of the actual letter found near Reichenbach Falls,” explains Dowell, using the nickname Holmes aficionados have adopted for themselves. “When Sherlockians ‘Play the Game,’ they basically pretend that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were real people, and that Arthur Conan Doyle was their literary agent.” This belief in a living, breathing Holmes has been around for almost as long as the stories of his crime-solving adventures; Doyle was regularly asked where he could find 221B Baker Street, the address of the London flat where his fictional detective lived (which didn’t exist then, but does now, like the Sherlock Holmes Museum). The idea of ”Playing the Game” — embracing and building on the world Doyle had created as a pseudo-reality — emerged not long after and was formalized with the founding of the Baker Street Irregulars in 1934.
“It was the world’s first official fandom,” says Maria Fleischhack. “I don’t think there was a group that was working on a literary text before that.” Fleischhack is a lecturer at the University of Leipzig in Germany, where she studies Victorian literature, including the stories of the iconic detective. She is also a founding member of the Baker Street Babes, an all-female group of Sherlockians that offers a new perspective on “the Game,” which originated in predominantly older, white, male circles.
“Playing the Game” is ultimately about connection, says Fleischhack: “There are quizzes, there are toasts, there is drinking – a lot of drinking – and a lot of fun. Interestingly, one of the elements that is so important, this friendship between Watson and Sherlock Holmes is, which translates into friendship between the people who meet to talk about these stories. This is not an academic association. It’s people who meet to talk to friends about their favorite friendship couple.” (But you’ll also find many of the same academics attending serious literary conferences about Arthur Conan Doyle getting together to “play the game.”)
While Doyle may not have expected readers to form such an attachment to Holmes and Watson, Fleischhack believes the author’s writing style fostered this fandom. Doyle’s imaginary detective stories took place on the real streets of London and were often almost simultaneously with their serialization. A 19th-century reader might discover that she had walked down the same street that Doyle Holmes described as he sauntered down — the same day he did. Doyle also – intentionally or accidentally – introduced inexplicable inconsistencies into the fictional world and alluded to untold stories. Was Watson’s war wound in his arm or in his leg? (Or both? Or neither?) What was the deal with the “Sumatra Giant Rat,” a story, Holmes says in The Sussex Vampire, “for which the world is not yet prepared”? It’s as if Doyle was seeding a modern form of fandom, and these are the kinds of things Sherlockians are still arguing about today.
To explain the enduring appeal and countless adaptations of the detective’s stories, Fleischhack likens Holmes to another fictional creation that has sparked a widespread obsession: The Avengers. “He’s like a superhero,” she says. “But he’s just human enough. He is someone you want to exist in the world.” Although the letter in Lilly Library is, correctly, attributed to Doyle, Sherlockians want it and the feeling – farewell to dear Watson – to come out of the hand and mind of Holmes himself.