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The View from the East End (69)

By Inspector Hopkins

July 15, 2007

Spreadsheet Sherlockiana

by Inspector Hopkins

This month my “Just the Facts” database will be four years old!  A number of our readers have written in with comments and questions about it, so I thought a few words regarding the database might be appropriate for this week’s column.

I have always had a personal philosophy that if I can put something into a database or a spreadsheet, then I can understand it better!  When I first became serious about Sherlock Holmes, and found myself reading and re-reading the Canon, it struck me that there were patterns and systems within it that were common to all the stories. For example, I noticed that there was usually a police Inspector involved in each case. Many times this was Lestrade, but there were others of course, and sometimes none. Sometimes Watson was living at 221B and sometimes he was not, etc. So I thought it might be fun to sort out all these details for each of the stories and see what patterns I might find.

Looking for patterns then, was the initial reason for the database’s creation.

I also wanted to use it as a learning tool for myself. Contrary to what some people had thought, I did not simply copy material from other works into the database. Each time I read a story I would add material into it based on my own personal observations. Of course, I started by listing the client, the villain, the type of crime and so forth, but as I became more intrigued with Sherlock Holmes, I began to see that the Excel spreadsheet could be a very useful vehicle for experienced Sherlockians also.

As a newcomer to our hobby, one of the first things that I noticed was that many people had attempted to put all the stories into an exact chronological order. I found a number of chronological listings by authors such as Jay Finley Christ, Dr. Zeisler, and Baring-Gould.  And when I first stumbled onto, I was immediately drawn to the very carefully thought out chronology by our editor, Brad Keefauver. Realizing Excel’s potential of easily sorting through lists of data, I added four more fields containing all these chronologies, so that the Canon could be sorted in many different orders, hopefully to pick up some as yet undiscovered trends.

Then, with Brad’s advice and encouragement, I struck upon the idea of determining the exact distances that Holmes and Watson traveled during each of their adventures. This is something that I do not believe anyone else has done so far. Gradually, these distances were calculated and then included in new fields. Other Sherlockians such as Philip K. Jones and Robert W. Scull also sent advice and some of their own efforts, which were immediately incorporated into the database. From that point, the database really took off, and has been expanding ever since.

People have asked what the various “version numbers” mean.  The digit to the left of the decimal place indicates a major addition to the database.  The digit to the right is simply an indicator of how many times that version has been improved, corrected, etc. Thus the current version 8.1 means the database has had eight major additions to it since its creation, and this eighth version has been updated once so far. From time to time, I send an update to Brad,  and he replaces the current version on the website with it.

Although I have been flattered that some people have compared my database with other reference works such as Jack Tracy’s Encylopaedia Sherlockiana and Steve Clarkson’s Canonical Compendium, I consider those books to be quite unique in their approach. I am pleased to think, however, that my own efforts compliment theirs. Some advantages of my database include the sorting ability and ease of looking up certain words and phrases with “ctrl F”. All this requires is a casual knowledge of Microsoft Excel, and even if you don’t have Excel software you can get an “excel viewer” to at least see the spreadsheet.

Interestingly enough, I have found that no matter how much I have tried to analyze the Canon, even with this spreadsheet approach, it seems to refuse to be completely pigeon holed. There are always some gray areas that defy completely absolute categorization.

The most amazing thing to me, though, is that no matter how many times I read through the Canon, I always still seem to find some small bit of data, a name, or a fact which I neglected to enter before. And of course, there is always room for expansion and improvement, so this database will never really be completely “finished”.

Ah!  Such is the scope of this wonderful hobby we call Sherlockiana!

Well, I’d better get back to work . . . I still have lots more stuff to add.

Until next time, and thanking you for your attention, I indeed remain,

Yours Faithfully,