CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In a mostly empty room off the South Charleston Public Library's DVD section, Nye Clinton stretched his arms across a plastic folding table and gripped the edge for dear life.
He was trying to determine if a cleaver-wielding attacker could cut his thumb off.
Short on props, Clinton used the table as a stand-in for a windowsill. He reasoned that if a man was dangling from a window and gripped the inside of the sill, his thumbs would be completely exposed to his assailant.
"If you're on the inside, your thumb's a perfect shot," he said.
Other members of the Norwood Building Inspectors — that's what members of Charleston's Sherlock Holmes society call themselves — disagreed.
They reasoned the dangling man likely would be hanging from the outside of the window, leaving his fingers, but not his thumbs, exposed to an attacker's blade. Perhaps, they reasoned, Dr. Watson was confused about the details when it came time to report "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb."
Fletcher Adkins sided with Clinton, however. He pointed out that in Victorian architecture, windowsills were quite wide.
"That would lay his hand out across it, as if it were on a cutting board," he said.
There are other problems with the Dr. Watson's account of the mystery, however, and none escaped the scrutinizing eyes of the Building Inspectors.
"The Engineer's Thumb," first published in The Strand magazine in 1892, chronicles the adventure of a young engineer recruited by a mysterious German to do maintenance work on his hydraulic press in Berkshire, about 60 miles west of London. The German turns out to be a counterfeiter who tries to kill the engineer with a cleaver once the young man discovers the true nature of his work.
The engineer escapes with his life but without one of his thumbs, and he returns to London to recount his strange tale to Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.
"They're having a little discussion, and obviously he's bleeding through his handkerchief, and Watson isn't concerned," said Mille Clinton, Nye's wife.
Bill Crockett scoffed at the hour of the young man's appointment with Dr. Watson.
"I can't imagine getting a doctor at 7 in the morning," he said.
Crockett also was concerned with Watson's initial prescription of brandy and water.
"We imagine most doctors would recommend a hot drink, rather than alcohol," he said.
"My Irish grandmother cured everything with a whiskey tonic," Crockett's wife, Bunny, added.
You may have deduced that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock's creator, is not mentioned very often in these gatherings. That's because "Sherlockians" like the Building Inspectors prefer to imagine Doyle did not write the stories, but instead served as Watson's literary agent.
It's a game played by Sherlock fans all over the world. Devotees pretend the great detective, his sidekick, Watson, and all their adventures are real.
Any inconsistencies or inaccuracies in the stories are Watson's fault because he didn't write things down correctly. In those cases it's up to Sherlockians to figure out what really happened using clues from the stories.
That's why Nye Clinton was so concerned about the windowsill. The game, as Sherlock once said, is afoot.
The Case of the German Bible Scholars
Sherlock Holmes, Watson and their famous 221B Baker Street address first appeared in the 1887 novel "A Study in Scarlet." The characters did not gain a wide following until four years later, however, when The Strand magazine began publishing short stories featuring the duo.
Doyle's fan base grew with each new story he published, but the author was not entirely comfortable with his newfound acclaim. Fearing his detective fiction would overshadow his other work, Doyle killed off Sherlock in 1893, just two years after his debut in The Strand.
"People were hysterical," said Andrew Gulli, a Michigan publisher who revived The Strand in the United States in 2000. "There were protests."
Women apparently cried in the streets. Men wore black armbands to show their solidarity.
Doyle eventually caved to public pressure in 1901 and wrote a new Sherlock novel, "The Hound of the Baskervilles." He eventually penned three more collections of short stories, where it is revealed the detective actually faked his death.
In-depth study of Doyle's work began in 1911 as a joke among Bible scholars.
English theologian Ronald Knox published a paper in 1911 titled "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes," in which he lampooned German Bible scholars of the day by using their study techniques on Doyle's stories.
"He was very good at irony," said Nicholas Utechin, longtime editor of The Sherlock Holmes Journal in Oxford, England. "These German biblical scholars were doing all sorts of extraordinary serious studies. 'Did Paul really write that? If Peter did that, why did John do that?' "
Knox applied this same super-serious scholarship to Sherlock Holmes stories and attempted to, among other things, place all the stories in chronological order and guess which college Sherlock attended.
"To write fully on this subject would need two terms' lectures at least," he wrote. "Some time, when leisure and enterprise allow, I hope to deliver them. Meanwhile, I have thrown out these hints."
He ended the essay with a paraphrased quote from "The Hound of the Baskervilles:" "You know my methods, Watson: apply them."
Although Knox's study of Sherlock was meant only to be a good-natured jab at his fellow scholars, Utechin said all modern Sherlock societies can trace their history to his paper.
Knox's essay was republished in 1928 in a collection called "Essays in Satire." In 1931, S.C. Roberts, a professor at Cambridge University, wrote a reply to the paper pointing out "the Watson problem" in Sherlock scholarship: details in the stories do not always match up, so Watson either wrote things down incorrectly or he left details out of the stories.
Utechin said literary societies soon began cropping up on both sides of the Atlantic to solve "the Watson problem." And so the game began.
The United States' largest and longest-running Sherlock society, The Baker Street Irregulars, was founded in 1934, growing out of male-only dining clubs in Philadelphia and New York. The group began publishing "The Baker Street Journal," a magazine for players of "the game," in 1946.
A short-lived Sherlock society also sprang up in London in the mid-1930s, but it lasted only for two dinners and one official meeting. England would not get its own Sherlock society for nearly 20 years.
The "Festival of Britain," held in 1950, featured a variety of exhibitions highlighting the history and accomplishments of different parts of the country.
Community leaders in the Borough of St. Marylebone, where Baker Street is located, formed a council to come up with ideas for their exhibit. Some members suggested an exhibition about slum clearance. The council eventually picked an idea from the Public Libraries Committee for a Sherlock Holmes tribute.
The exhibit included a recreation of Sherlock and Watson's rooms at 221B Baker Street, featuring mementos from Holmes' "life." More than 50,000 people visited the display.
Inspired by this enthusiasm, the Sherlock Holmes Society of London was formed in January 1951. The society soon began publishing its own periodical, The Sherlock Holmes Journal.
Other societies eventually sprang up across Europe, including large societies in Switzerland, France and Germany. Utechin said Sherlock became extremely popular in Soviet Russia.
Back in America, enthusiasts started establishing branch societies of the Baker Street Irregulars, including the Amateur Mendicant Society of Detroit, the Nashville Scholars and the Noble And Most Singular Order Of The Blue Carbuncle, located in Portland, Ore.
Societies now exist all around the country, gathering Sherlock fans for the singular purpose of discussing — and occasionally arguing about — Doyle's stories.