A great unknown is quite a thing, but what of a great "almost known" such as the one true sequence of Watson’s stories? It is a mystery forever at the edge of our fingertips, yet forever out of reach. Many have tried to produce the definitive sequence of these tales, and many have failed — one might even say "dying in the attempt," for the pursuit of the true Watsonian chronology is a lifelong endeavor. Even the best of chronologers date the tales and then date them again after further study. It’s a challenge that never ends. A puzzle that will never be solved.
Yet, as impossible as the task may seem, as unknowable as Watson’s calendar might be, we have to try. It is truly the Mount Everest of Sherlockian scholarship, the one great peak some Sherlockians must climb, once they finally give up the chronological training wheels of the sequence used in Baring-Gould’s The Annotated Sherlock Holmes and find themselves unsatisfied by anyone else’s attempt. Some Sherlockians start this early in their Sherlockian careers, some late in the Game, some not at all (don’t know whether that’s intelligence, or just plain old sanity). But the challenge is always there, looming over us, waiting.
It took me two attempts to make it all the way through the sixty Sherlock Holmes stories in an attempt to decode Watson’s dates. The first time, in the early nineties, I gathered all the data, but was more timid in drawing my conclusions. The second time, beginning in September of 2000, I had just signed on as discussion leader for the Hounds of the Internet. That elder on-line group discusses the sixty Holmes tales at the rapid rate of one per week, and in addition to supplying discussion questions I told the Hounds that I would supply a weekly study of dating that week’s tale. I called the weekly feature "Chronology Corner," and used it as a ploy to force myself to put dates to all sixty stories. The ploy worked.
Every Monday, I posted some notes and conclusions on finding the beginning date of the story for that week, quoting key dating points from the story, the dates two important past chronologers had claimed were the beginning point of the tales, and my own feeble (and eventually maniacal — wait for "Silver Blaze") attempts to pin down those same points. I called my own small part of those studies "The Birlstone Railway Timetable," to go with my Hounds nickname, "The Birlstone Railway Smash," and used every form of logic, illogic, and as much as I hate to say it, flat-out guesses to put dates to those tales.
You may find that my personal judgment calls and rules of chronology may be totally antithetical to your own. I like doing original research first, drawing my conclusions, and only then consulting past chronologers. I don’t like bending or breaking plainly stated dates just to keep Watson monogamous, as some Sherlockians have done. And while some like to see Sherlockian scholarship as a science, I am one of those who definitely views it as an art, subject to the occasional whim and style-based choice. But my own conclusions were never intended to be the last word on the subject, merely something to occupy my own brain and perhaps encourage others to try solving the puzzle themselves. That is the truly great thing about studying the lives of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson . . . unless some very astonishing and authentic hard evidence turns up, we will never have definitive final answers. Each Sherlockian is forever left to draw one’s own conclusions, no matter how much one’s fellow Sherlockians try to help one out.
Thus, this collection of quotes and theories is not intended as a pleasant evening’s read. You’ll bore yourself silly if you try to use it so. It is not intended to be a complete and thorough record of all work on the subject done before. There are other works for that. The purpose of this collection is two-fold: First, as shelf-filler for the completist Sherlockian collector (I love helping those guys out!). And second, as one more aid for those rare future Sherlockian adventurers attempting to chart their own chronal course through Watson’s chronicles.
Could one of those adventurers be you? Only one person can decide that, and he’s not someone from the dusty pages of the past.
While a number of excellent and brave Sherlockian scholars have attempting putting dates to Watson’s tales over the years, I only use two of them at touch-stones in this text. The first is William S. Baring-Gould, whose popular work The Annotated Sherlock Holmes provided the most commonly accepted set of dates among the fans of Holmes. The second was Ernest Bloomfield Zeisler, whom I got into the habit of calling "the King of Chronology." Why?
There have been a lot of excellent laborers in Watson’s date orchard, but something about Zeisler’s Baker Street Chronology has always impressed me. Chronology is something that most fans of Sherlock Holmes may find dreary and dull, but Zeisler dove headlong into the topic without any sidelights on other aspects of Holmes’s cases, without making any pretense at doing a biography. Zeisler was into chronology for chronology’s sake, and one has to admire such pure devotion.
Yet as much as I do admire the guy, and even though I may call him the "King" of this specialty of Sherlockian study on occasion, it doesn’t mean his dates are any more valid than those posited by Henry Folsom, John Hall, Gavin Brend, D. Martin Dakin, or any others of the ever-growing legion of students in the field. Heck, you yourself could place a set of dates on Watson’s works with just as much validity of any of these gentlemen of the past, for past a certain line in Watsonian chronology, it’s all interpretation. (And what you can sell other people on. Simply because he plopped his own dates right in the center of his landmark The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, William S. Baring-Gould became the most consulted chronologer of all, despite some questionable choices along the way.)
As Sherlockian fun moves into the new century, you can bet we’re going to be seeing some brand new variations on the Grand Old Game of Sherlock Holmes scholarship. Things like role-playing, virtual reality, and alternate history Holmeses all have great potential for pushing the borders of the real estate at 221B Baker Street out to entirely new expanses. We can define the world of Sherlock Holmes in entirely new mediums, and fill out the gray areas with research and imagination like never before. And as we map out the three dimensional world of Sherlock Holmes’s Victorian Earth, the fourth dimension — time — will also need its reference points flagged as well.
So whether you’re headed this way for your own entertainment or in building the structure for some greater project, what follows are notes from my own expedition into the chronology of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Take what you can use, and don’t hold the rest against me.
Brad Keefauver, once a.k.a.
"The Birlstone Railway Smash"
on the Hounds of the Internet,