Jody Baker: Studies In The Literature Of Sherlock Holmes

Friday, February 7, 2014 - by Jody Baker

Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was a 23 year-old student at Oxford  when he issued a "paper," from which he later gave a lecture, entitled "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes." It was not Rev.. Knox's intent to launch an intellectual game for the lovers of the Sherlock Holmes tales. The intended purpose was to use the discussion of Sherlock Holmes tales to ridicule some practices among those who were dedicated to "Higher Learning." Knox began his work with this introduction:

"If there is anything pleasant in life, it is doing what we aren't meant to do.  If there is anything pleasant in criticism, it is finding out what we aren't meant to find out.  It is the method by which we treat as significant what the author did not mean to be significant, by which we single out as essential what the author regarded as incidental.  Thus, if one brings out a book on turnips, the modern scholar tries to discover from it whether the author was on good terms with his wife;  if a poet writes on buttercups, every word he says may be used as evidence against him at an inquest of his views on a future existence.  On this fascinating principle, we delight to extort economic evidence from Aristophanes, because Aristophanes knew nothing of economics: we try to extract cryptograms from Shakespeare, because we are inwardly certain that Shakespeare never put them there: we sift and winnow the Gospel of St. Luke, in order to produce a Synoptic problem, because St. Luke, poor man, never knew the Synoptic problem to exist.

"There is, however, a special fascination in applying this method to Sherlock Holmes, because it is, in a sense, Holmes's own method.  'It has long been an axiom of mine,' he says, 'that the little things are infinitely the most important.'  It might be the motto of his life's work. And it is, is it not, as we clergymen say, by the little things, the apparently unimportant things, that we judge of a man's character." 

For a full text of this lecture visit

Sidney Roberts (Cambridge) issued a reply some years following. Then several other essays and booklets followed. But it was in 1934 that Christopher Morley, aided by three-hour lunches lubricated by liquid refreshment, engaged the attention of the literary elite of New York and set the game afoot.  Punctuated by Morley's   *joi de vivre*,  the Grand Game grew and grew and grew into the giant attraction that it is today.

There are two major Societies: (1) The Baker Street Irregulars based here and (2) The Sherlock Holmes Society of London founded in 1951 on the other side of the Big Pond. There are two major encyclopedic annotated works: Baring-Gould's two-volume set and Klinger's multi-volume set. There are the major journals - Baker Street Journal and Sherlock Holmes Journal.

In the Sherlock Holmes Journal (Summer, 2011 ) an article was published which challenges the part that that tradition assigns to Knox's lecture in the birth and growth of the Grand Game. That article, The Ronald Knox Myth, acknowledges that Morley was in Oxford at the time of the lecture, but questions whether Morley heard the lecture or returned home with a copy of it. That author goes on to point out that: "Knox was not the first to peer beneath the surface of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Two other scholars had done so a decade earlier, Arthur Bartlett Maurice in The Bookman in America and Frank Sidgwick in The Cambridge Review in England, in January 1902 .... Sidgwick's was a one-time query about inconsistencies in Hound, but Maurice went on writing about the tales in his periodical for 25 years."

The author of the Journal article seeks to support the claim that Morley did not attend the Knox lecture by bringing forward negative proof: 

"As for Morley bringing Knox's paper to America, we don't even know if Morley heard it while at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1911. No diaries or appointment books of Morley's for 1911-12 exist, and no contemporary letters of his indicate that he did. And on the sole occasion that he referred to it as having been given at Oxford while he was there, in his 1944 book Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: A Textbook of Friendship, Morley did not actually say he heard it. If you look up and not only see but observe the reference, one finds the BSI's founder indefinite on that point."

The author of the article has apparently overlooked or disregarded the admonition that: "Absence of proof is not proof of absence." 

So, what if accepted tradition is wrong? What if Morley did not attend the lecture? What if Morley did not bring a paper copy of the lecture with him when he returned home?  SO WHAT?

For years Morley was deeply interested in Sherlock Holmes. Morley was interested in playing the same games that formed the basis of Knox's lecture. A copy of Knox's lecture would have been  available to Morley, an editor at Doubleday.  The probability approaches certainty that Ronald Knox and the thoughts expressed in Knox's paper and repeated in his lecture had a strong and lasting influence upon the formation of The Baker Street Irregulars. If the thrust of the lecture was not the source, it was an influencing factor in the attitude and the atmosphere of the fun, frolic and frivolity with which the meetings were conducted. Little value was assigned by the BSI of the time to deep, ponderous and pedantic scholarship. The BSI followed in the footsteps of Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes.


There are books, upon books and more books. There are writings upon writings and more writings. There have been radio broadcasts over the years. Louis Hector (1934-1936); Orson Welles (1936); Basil Rathbone (1939-1946); Tom Conway (1946-1947); John Stanley (1947-1949); Ben Wright (1950); and John Gielgud (1955) See :

Movies galore: A 1900 silent film; then Alwin Neuß (1908-1914); William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes (1916): Hugo Flink (1917); John Barrymoore, as Sherlock Holmes with William Powell (debut) and Hedda Hopper (1922); Eille Norwood (1921-23); Carlyle Blackwell (1929); Raymond Massey (1931) [For more detail see: of_actors_who_have_played_Sherlock_Holmes and see:

And, more recently Basil Rathbone, of course - and Arthur Wotner ; Peter Cushing; Ronald Howard; and Jeremy Brett.

Newcomers to the movie scene are Benedict Cumberbatch (in Sherlock), Johnny Lee Miller (in Elementary) and Robert Downey, Jr. (in Sherlock Holmes). The very latest seems to be a Sherlock app (whatever, in thunder, that is). See

Little did Ronald Knox and Christopher Morley know what they were setting loose upon the world. It began as a literary trickle, grew to a stream and cascaded to a torrent --- and now a flood of Sherlockiana throughout the world. 

Inspector Baynes

(Jody Baker is a Chattanooga attorney, who specializes in Sherlock Holmes lore. He can be reached at

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