For years I avoided thinking too deeply about chronology in the canon, and was happy that my favorite story, SPEC, was undisputed in its placement in April 1883, but it appears that I must look into this maddening subject at last. I'm afraid that it'll make my head hurt as much as reading The Sign of Three essays did, but as I can't find any existing Sherlockian chronologist whose theories I can agree with, I shall have to come up with my own. (I have not actually read every chronology available, of course, just a few that I could find through Alibris, and I've also referred to the "Just the Facts" database at Sherlock Peoria.)
Now, defining a chronology of the cases is different from my writing my novel DIM. In DIM, I choose sometimes to order the cases by the whims of my story, because I want the plot and the characters to do certain things. For example, I shifted CHAS to the early years primarily because I want Holmes courting Milverton's housemaid and feeling guilty about it not long after SPEC; to do that, I simply make the excuse that Watson described electricity being in Milverton's house simply to disguise the date of the case. I'll have to twist a bunch of facts about other post-Return cases as well, to accommodate my story.
But if I do a chronology of the canon, I shall have to ignore anything going on in DIM and just rely on the discernible facts, the action and the things that are said, in the canon. I've printed out a perpetual calendar covering 1775 to 2025, and will probably have to do some chart as I systematically go through all 60 stories. As I'm no expert on moon phases or English weather, I shall ignore such details, which can easily be misremembered or even exaggerated for dramatic effect.
I've already mentioned some chronological things here already when I talked about how Watson lies, and how the Irregulars didn't age between STUD and SIGN, and how Holmes must have discussed Villard with Watson before his French case in REIG. I wonder very much why I don't remember anyone discussing the Villard discrepancy before, though some Sherlockians do mention that Watson has written SIGN (and many of the Adventures cases) as if no significant time had passed since STUD. I'm also surprised that so many chronologists go through acrobatics about Watson's bad handwriting or bad memory to explain dates, and yet they are perfectly willing to say that Watson disguised the names of clients out of discretion. If he can deliberately make up aliases, then why can't he deliberately make up nonsensical dates to shield the clients as well? Maybe the mess of GLOR can be explained by Holmes saying to Watson, "If you do publish this, please don't reveal the full details. Victor Trevor may be in Terai, but I think that he will still be upset with me if he hears his father's scandal raked up again," and then Watson dutifully misdates Trevor's account to the Crimean War, when it didn't happen then at all.
So far I've read John Hall's I Remember the Date Very Well, Gavin Brend's My Dear Holmes, and D. Martin Dakin's Sherlock Holmes Commentary after reading Klinger's vague chronological tables in the New Annotated. Klinger keeps mentioning his chronological book The Date Being...?, but it's too hard to find a copy of it, and if it's just full of summary tables, with no reasoning listed, then it would not help me. I even read through all the chronology by Brad Keefauver at Sherlock Peoria but I really could not take him seriously when he said that SPEC was the first case and that Watson had replaced it with STUD because of his pledge of secrecy. But SPEC doesn't read like a first case at all; the way that Holmes wakes Watson and invites him to join the case, it seems clear that they have been working together before.
To me, Dakin's 1972 book appears to make the most sense, and contain the most helpful data (often mentioning what earlier writers said), even if I think he's wrong about certain things, like Watson spending less than a year in Afghanistan, because Dakin doesn't know how long the course at Netley takes. (Klinger's note in the Annotated says that Netley gives a six-month course twice a year.) Even with his uncertainty about Netley, Dakin should at least have trusted Watson when he said that he arrived in India (not Afghanistan) then was quickly transferred when the Second Anglo-Afghan war broke out (in Sept 1878). Thankfully, Dakin goes through the cases in order of the publication dates, whereas other chronologists go in order of their own theories, and that helps me to follow his reasoning, which is often good, but not infallible. I don't agree with him thinking that there are three separate Second Stain cases, especially when the reference to SECO as a failure in YELL is sometimes replaced by a reference to MUSG instead. (That YELL reference must be where M. J. Elliott's insistence on Rachel Howells getting away with murder comes from.)
It's odd that chronologists will start out reasoning quite rationally and conservatively, then suddenly they'll expound the most fantastic and involved absurdities, like when Brend argued that the Moriarty in VALL is actually Colonel James Moriarty, who took over the criminal organization after FINA, but Watson wrote VALL as if the Professor were alive, to avoid tipping off the Colonel about Holmes's current investigation. I really wanted to support Brend over dating SIGN in 1887, because of the error of the six pearls when there should have been seven, but wild theories like this one about Moriarty make me question his logic.
But to me the most absurd chronology of all is Keefauver's insanity about Watson's six wives. I really, really hope that it's all a tongue-in-cheek joke, because I would hate to think that Keefauver really believes that he's right. I mean, he's basing it on the apocryphal Angels of Darkness play, wherein Watson has an informal pledge of marriage with Lucy Ferrier, and Keefauver claims that therefore Watson never legally married any of his subsequent "wives." Totally ignoring the fact that the play doesn't work with what's published in the Mormon section of STUD, and totally ignoring that Watson would surely not deceive and discard women so cavalierly, given how chivalrously he acts in the canon. Besides Watson, Holmes is chivalrous too, and if he would kill Dr. Roylott and attempt to horsewhip James Windibank, would he accept Watson behaving in such a way with women?
Keefauver has the nerve to criticize chronologists who begin with the theory that Watson only has one wife, and therefore twist the facts to suit their theories! This is unfair, when Sherlockians including Dorothy Sayers, Dakin, and Chris Redmond all point out that Watson writes of his love for Mary Morstan with innocent, child-like wonder, suggesting that he's falling in love for the first time, despite his boast about his experience of women. That is a perfectly legitimate conclusion based on Watson's character. Meanwhile, Keefauver assumes that there are wives at any time that Watson is away from Holmes, even in REIG, when Watson makes no mention of a wife, and it's Holmes who's away, in France. I personally prefer only one wife as well, but could be persuaded that there's a post-Return second wife. However, I will never believe that there was a pre-Mary wife, because of how Watson writes in SIGN.