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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ronald A. Knox: Pioneer Holmesian

One of the joys of being a Sherlockian (at least to me) is the deep well of history involved. People have been writing about the Writings since before the Canon was completed. Recently I immersed myself in the seminal work of Monsignor Ronald A. Knox.

Three years ago, Gasogene Books published a priceless volume called Ronald Knox and Sherlock Holmes: The Origin of Sherlockian Studies. It brings together in one book all five of the cleric's writings on Holmes, plus a valuable essay by the editor, Michael J. Crowe.

Most importantly, Knox wrote the cornerstone essay "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes" when he was just 23 years old. Most Sherlockians (or Holmesians in England) agree that this was the first significant example of The Grand Game - reading the Holmes stories as fact rather than fiction, and explaining interior contradictions and conundrums without reference to a man named Arthur Conan Doyle. 

The great collector and scholar Richard Lancelyn Green called Knox's paper "the earliest, the best, and the wittiest of all the 'Higher Criticism.'" In reality, a writer named Frank Sidgwick had analyzed The Hound of the Baskervilles in the same spirit almost decade earlier. But, as T.S. Blakeney noted, "he did not found a movement, whereas Knox did."     

Nicholas Utechin marked 100th anniversary of "Studies" in 2011 by writing a monograph called From Piff-Pouff to Backnecke: The Full Story. It was published by The Baker Street Journal published for The Sherlock Holmes Society of London. Until reading it, I had no idea how involved was the history of this little essay, both before and after its publication. Utechin's scholarship amazes. (The Green and Blakeney quotes above come from his monograph.)

The two volumes, published around the same time, are complimentary and best read together. Both include the full text of a wonderful letter from Arthur Conan Doyle to Knox in 1912. It begins: "I cannot help writing to you to tell you of the amusement - and also the amazement - with which I read your article on Sherlock Holmes. That anyone should spend such pains on such material was what surprised me."

And that was on the beginning, Sir Arthur!

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