I first played the game a lifetime ago when I was a beginning teacher in Oregon. Two friends, a fellow English teacher and a college professor, and I would get together just about every week to smoke cigars and play board games. All of us bibliophiles and Sherlock Holmes fans, we found ourselves captivated by a now out of print game called Consulting Detective. A series of Holmesian adventures, it eschewed a standard board or dice, and instead presented us with a map of Victorian London, facsimiles of the London Times, and ten cases to be solved collaboratively. We were in heaven.
When I moved to California I brought a copy of Consulting Detective with me. I wasn’t sure how I’d use it again; once you’ve done the cases, you can’t repeat them, and anyway I wouldn’t want to without my friends Dave and Steve. The box sat on my bookshelf for most of my first year at Piedmont High School and then around January 6th, Holmes’ supposed birthday, as I prepared a unit on detective fiction for my classes returning from winter break, it hit me: use it to challenge the kids.
In retrospect the use of Consulting Detective with my students was one of the choices I’m still proud of. I surrounded the experience of playing the game in table groups with plenty of reading of Doyle’s stories. The students were immersed in the milieu; in subsequent schools over the course of a decade, I added a Diogenes Club day and radio play, and as I saw them dive into the challenge of solving a case that felt relevant and real their engagement was wonderful to watch.
Of particular note was the fact that there wasn’t a key to the problems. The students needed to work together to come up with a plan to follow clues and come up with a solution. In pursuit of this answer they ran into red herrings and dead ends, and (for a couple of hours) became Sherlock Holmes, or at least a pack of street urchins.
If they solved the case: cheers! If they remained stumped: they remained stumped.
A few intrepid young sleuths who completed their cases were always willing to join in with a group who couldn’t come up with the answer. Working together at lunch or after school, these teams of students collaborated to solve the mystery and finally arrive at that collective cheer.
The students who played Consulting Detective with me are now in their 20s and early 30s, and I like to imagine that the generous spirit, critical thinking, and ability to work as a team to complete a task they showed in class are traits they’ve taken with them into adulthood.
As we talk in education today about how we can create experiences that challenge students to struggle with the unknown, I look back fondly at Consulting Detective in my classroom. I changed up the stories I taught every year, rotating “The Red Headed League,” “The Speckled Band,” and “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.” But whether I led my students to the Grimpen Mire of Dartmoor or the Falls at Reichenbach, they always ended up together with that map of London in front of them and a case to be solved.
The continuity of Consulting Detective gave me a better perspective about how groups of students thought, not just wrote or performed on tests, year after year. I could see the groups who could work together, the students who could suspend disbelief, the kids who genuinely liked the challenge. To be honest, I knew these kids would be all right.
My copy of the game is pretty ragged now; I’m not sure it could survive a class of middle schoolers. I hope that Consulting Detective comes back into print again. If it does, when it does, I look forward to seeing if a few students might want to join me in a hunt through the streets of London, thinking, collaborating, and putting the lessons on Sherlock Holmes to the test. Someone might say that it’s “very common core.” I’ll argue: it’s very fun.