Monday, July 3, 2017

To quiz or not to quiz! That is the question.

Ah, quizzes.

The testing of our Sherlockian knowledges have been with us as long as Sherlock Holmes fans have gathered. In 1934, when Edgar Smith wrote up his slightly silly constitution for the Baker Street Irregulars, the most serious segment was all about quizzing the membership. And while the newest wave of Sherlockian energies seems more dedicated to the writing of fiction than testing one's fellow Sherlockians (A more creative female energy versus more competitive male energies of old?), there is something more about the quiz that keeps it alive.

August brings The John H. Watson Society's 5th Annual John H. Watson Canonical Treasure Hunt, a hundred questions made hard enough to defy search engines and often, as a result, simple interpretation. Where once a Sherlock Holmes trivia question was simply "Name the dog who bit Jephro Rucastle" or "What profession did Horace Harker practice?" our constant access to the internet has forced such simplicity out of our challenges.

That great Sherlockian evangelist John Bennett Shaw was ahead of his time in this practice, having established a level of cryptic questioning decades ago where many a question required a second bit of knowledge just to get to the primary inquiry. Puns were involved as well, and trying to get from the phrase "If Schoendienst rather than Cronin had led the junior circuit." to the title of a Sherlock Holmes story required more data and ingenuity than most Sherlockians could muster. (And it's not even easy with Google!)

But why test ourselves? Why submit to the sovereignty of queries designed by others? It is often said that the true winner of any award is the presenter, who is empowered only by the more-talented award nominees. Are quizzes just a ritual power dynamic in this day and age, or something more?

The John H. Watson Society's quiz has shown me that there is more potential to the hobby quiz than merely winning or losing. You can have all the knowledge in the world (as the internet would seem to provide us), but if you don't understand the wording of the questions, your answers are not going to line up with those of the questioner.

Suddenly quizzes become more a test of communication than knowledge. How good are we at seeing what our fellow Sherlockians see? How good are we at persuading them to our point of view (or accepting theirs) when we see a situation from two very different angles? How good are we at not getting so madly frustrated and righteously pissed-off at the questions and still maintaining civil discourse? There are a lot more tests in a properly difficult quiz than just tests of knowledge.

And while not quite the Kobayashi Maru of Sherlock Holmes tests (that's putting you in a no-win scenario to see how you hold up, for you non-Trekkers out there), the Annual John H. Watson Canonical Treasure Hunt is one of the better challenges a Sherlockian might face (other than social media) these days.

So, come July 31st, myself and the team whose name I can't recall begin again . . . get ready for much blog-drama, imaginary pain, and verbose suffering. But fun! Yes, fun! That too!


  1. Good thing "Who wrote the BSI's Constitution?" wasn't a quiz question for you.
    Edgar W. Smith did not write the BSI's Constitution in 1934, Christopher Morley's friend and kinsprit Elmer Davis did. The backstory about the BSI's Constitution (& Buy Laws) is in ch. 4, "The Friendly Sons of St. Vitus," of my 2009 BSI Archival History volume "Certain Rites, and Also Certain Duties." Edgar Smith's beginnings as a Sherlockian came in 1936, from reading Vincent Starrett's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. It was two years before he realized the BSI existed, and he became a member of The Five Orange Pips in New York in October 1938, a year and a half before he joined the BSI.

  2. Yep, sloppy blogger on that one! Thanks, Jon.