Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore it is upon the logic rather than upon the crime that you should dwell. – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
|Sherlock Holmes character|
Sherlock Holmes in a 1904 illustration by Sidney Paget.
|First appearance||A Study in Scarlet|
|Created by||Sir Arthur Conan Doyle|
|Family||Mycroft Holmes (brother)|
Sherlock Holmes (/ˈʃɜːrlɒk ˈhoʊmz/) is a fictional private detective created by British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Known as a “consulting detective” in the stories, Holmes is known for a proficiency with observation, forensic science, and logical reasoning that borders on the fantastic, which he employs when investigating cases for a wide variety of clients, including Scotland Yard.
First appearing in print in 1887 (in A Study in Scarlet), the character’s popularity became widespread with the first series of short stories in The Strand Magazine, beginning with “A Scandal in Bohemia” in 1891; additional tales appeared from then to 1927, eventually totalling four novels and 56 short stories. All but one are set in the Victorian or Edwardian periods, taking place between about 1880 to 1914. Most are narrated by the character of Holmes’s friend and biographer Dr. Watson, who usually accompanies Holmes during his investigations and often shares quarters with him at the address of 221B Baker Street, London, where many of the stories begin.
Though not the first fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes is arguably the most well-known, with Guinness World Records listing him as the “most portrayed movie character” in history. Holmes’s popularity and fame are such that many have believed him to be not a fictional character but a real individual; numerous literary and fan societies have been founded that pretend to operate on this principle. Widely considered a British cultural icon, the character and stories have had a profound and lasting effect on mystery writing and popular culture as a whole, with both the original tales as well as thousands written by authors other than Conan Doyle being adapted into stage and radio plays, television, films, video games, and other media for over one hundred years.
- 1Inspiration for the character
- 2Fictional character biography
- 3Personality and habits
- 4Knowledge and skills
- 7Adaptations and derived works
- 9See also
- 11Further reading
- 12External links
Inspiration for the character
Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin is generally acknowledged as the first detective in fiction and served as the prototype for many that were created later, including Holmes.Conan Doyle once wrote, “Each [of Poe’s detective stories] is a root from which a whole literature has developed… Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”
Conan Doyle repeatedly said that Holmes was inspired by the real-life figure of Joseph Bell, a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, whom Doyle met in 1877 and had worked for as a clerk. Like Holmes, Bell was noted for drawing broad conclusions from minute observations. However, he later wrote to Doyle: “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it”. Sir Henry Littlejohn, Chair of Medical Jurisprudence at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, is also cited as an inspiration for Holmes. Littlejohn, who was also Police Surgeon and Medical Officer of Health in Edinburgh, provided Doyle with a link between medical investigation and the detection of crime.
Other inspirations have been considered. One is thought to be Francis “Tanky” Smith, a policeman and master of disguise who went on to become Leicester’s first private detective. Another might be Maximilien Heller, by French author Henry Cauvain. It is not known if Conan Doyle read Maximilien Heller, but in this 1871 novel (sixteen years before the first adventure of Sherlock Holmes), Henry Cauvain imagined a depressed, anti-social, polymath, cat-loving, and opium-smoking Paris-based detective.
Fictional character biography
Family and early life
Details about Sherlock Holmes’s life, except for the adventures in the books, are scarce in Conan Doyle’s original stories. Nevertheless, mentions of his early life and extended family paint a loose biographical picture of the detective.
An estimate of Holmes’s age in “His Last Bow” places his year of birth at 1854; the story, set in August 1914, describes him as sixty years of age. His parents are not mentioned in the stories, although Holmes mentions that his “ancestors” were “country squires“. In “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter“, he claims that his grandmother was sister to the French artist Vernet, without further clarifying whether this was Claude Joseph, Carle, or Horace Vernet. Holmes’s brother Mycroft, seven years his senior, is a government official who appears in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”, “The Final Problem“, and “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” and is mentioned in “The Adventure of the Empty House“. Mycroft has a unique civil service position as a kind of human database for all aspects of government policy. He lacks Sherlock’s interest in physical investigation, however, preferring to spend his time at the Diogenes Club.
Holmes says that he first developed his methods of deduction as an undergraduate; his earliest cases, which he pursued as an amateur, came from fellow university students. A meeting with a classmate’s father led him to adopt detection as a profession, and he spent six years after university as a consultant before financial difficulties led him to accept John H. Watson as a fellow lodger in 1881 (where the first published story, “A Study in Scarlet”, begins).
Life with Watson
Holmes worked as a detective for twenty-three years, with physician John Watson assisting him for seventeen. They were roommates before Watson’s 1887 marriage and again after his wife‘s death. Their residence is maintained by their landlady, Mrs. Hudson. Most of the stories are frame narratives, written from Watson’s point of view as summaries of the detective’s most interesting cases. Holmes frequently calls Watson’s writing sensational and populist, suggesting that it fails to accurately and objectively report the “science” of his craft:
Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it [“A Study in Scarlet”] with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story …. Some facts should be suppressed, or, at least, a just sense of proportion should be observed in treating them. The only point in the case which deserved mention was the curious analytical reasoning from effects to causes, by which I succeeded in unravelling it.— Sherlock Holmes on John Watson’s “pamphlet”, The Sign of the Four
Nevertheless, Holmes’s friendship with Watson is his most significant relationship. When Watson is injured by a bullet, although the wound turns out to be “quite superficial”, Watson is moved by Holmes’s reaction:
It was worth a wound; it was worth many wounds; to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.
The Great Hiatus
The first set of Holmes stories was published between 1887 and 1893. Wishing to devote more time to his historical novels, Conan Doyle killed off Holmes in a final battle with the criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty in “The Final Problem” (published 1893, but set in 1891). After resisting public pressure for eight years, the author wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised in 1901–1902, with an implicit setting before Holmes’s death). In 1903 Conan Doyle wrote “The Adventure of the Empty House”, set in 1894; Holmes reappears, explaining to a stunned Watson that he had faked his death in “The Final Problem” to fool his enemies. “The Adventure of the Empty House” marks the beginning of the second set of stories, which Conan Doyle wrote until 1927.
Holmes aficionados refer to the period from 1891 to 1894—between his disappearance and presumed death in “The Final Problem” and his reappearance in “The Adventure of the Empty House”—as the Great Hiatus (though 1908’s “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge” is described as taking place in 1892 due to an error on Conan Doyle’s part). The earliest known use of this expression is in the article “Sherlock Holmes and the Great Hiatus” by Edgar W. Smith, published in the July 1946 issue of The Baker Street Journal.
In “His Last Bow”, Holmes has retired to a small farm on the Sussex Downs and taken up beekeeping as his primary occupation. The move is not dated precisely, but can be presumed to predate 1904 (since it is referred to retrospectively in “The Second Stain”, first published that year). The story features Holmes and Watson coming out of retirement to aid the war effort. Only one other adventure, “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” (narrated by Holmes), takes place during the detective’s retirement.
Personality and habits
Watson describes Holmes as “bohemian” in his habits and lifestyle. Described by Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles as having a “cat-like” love of personal cleanliness, Holmes is an eccentric with no regard for contemporary standards of tidiness or good order. In “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual“, Watson says:
Although in his methods of thought he was the neatest and most methodical of mankind … [he] keeps his cigars in the coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and his unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jack-knife into the very centre of his wooden mantelpiece … He had a horror of destroying documents …. Thus month after month his papers accumulated, until every corner of the room was stacked with bundles of manuscript which were on no account to be burned, and which could not be put away save by their owner.
In many of the stories, Holmes dives into an apparent mess to find an item most relevant to a mystery. The detective starves himself at times of intense intellectual activity, such as during “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder“—wherein, according to Watson:
[Holmes] had no breakfast for himself, for it was one of his peculiarities that in his more intense moments he would permit himself no food, and I have known him to presume upon his iron strength until he has fainted from pure inanition.
Although his chronicler does not consider Holmes’s habitual use of a pipe (or his less frequent use of cigarettes and cigars) a vice per se, Watson—a physician—occasionally criticises the detective for creating a “poisonous atmosphere” of tobacco smoke. Holmes acknowledges Watson’s disapproval in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot“: “I think, Watson, that I shall resume that course of tobacco-poisoning which you have so often and so justly condemned”.
His companion condones the detective’s willingness to bend the truth (or break the law) on behalf of a client—lying to the police, concealing evidence or breaking into houses—when he feels it morally justifiable, but condemns Holmes’ manipulation of innocent people in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton“.
Holmes derives pleasure from baffling police inspectors with his deductions, and has supreme confidence—bordering on arrogance—in his intellectual abilities. While the detective does not actively seek fame and is usually content to let the police take public credit for his work, Holmes is pleased when his skills are recognised, and responds to flattery. Police outside London ask Holmes for assistance if he is nearby, even during a vacation. Watson’s stories and newspaper articles reveal Holmes’s role in the cases, and he becomes well known as a detective; many clients ask for his help instead of (or in addition to) that of the police.
Government officials and royalty are among those he serves. A Prime Minister and the King of Bohemia visit 221B Baker Street to request Holmes’s assistance; the government of France awards him its Legion of Honour for solving a case; Holmes declines a knighthood “for services which may perhaps some day be described”; the King of Scandinavia is a client; and he aids the Vatican at least twice. The detective acts on behalf of the British government in matters of national security several times. As shooting practice during a period of boredom, Holmes decorates the wall of his Baker Street lodgings with a “patriotic” VR (Victoria Regina) in “bullet-pocks” from his revolver.
Although the detective is usually dispassionate and cold, during an investigation he is animated and excitable. He has a flair for showmanship, preparing elaborate traps to capture and expose a culprit (often to impress observers).
Except for that of Watson, Holmes avoids casual company; when Watson proposes visiting a friend’s home for rest, Holmes only agrees after learning that “the establishment was a bachelor one, and that he would be allowed the fullest freedom”. In “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott“ he tells the doctor that during two years at college he made only one friend, Victor Trevor: “I was never a very sociable fellow, Watson, always rather fond of moping in my rooms and working out my own little methods of thought, so that I never mixed much with the men of my year; … my line of study was quite distinct from that of the other fellows, so that we had no points of contact at all”. The detective is similarly described by Stamford in A Study in Scarlet.
Holmes relaxes with music in “The Red-Headed League“, taking the evening off from a case to listen to Pablo de Sarasate play violin. His enjoyment of vocal music, particularly Wagner’s, is evident in “The Adventure of the Red Circle“.
Holmes occasionally uses addictive drugs, especially in the absence of stimulating cases. He uses cocaine, which he injects in a seven-percent solution with a syringe kept in a Morocco leather case. Although Holmes also dabbles in morphine, he expresses strong disapproval when he visits an opium den; both drugs were legal in late-19th-century England. Watson and Holmes use tobacco, smoking cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, and the detective is an expert at identifying tobacco-ash residue.
As a physician Watson strongly disapproves of his friend’s cocaine habit, describing it as the detective’s “only vice”, and concerned about its effect on Holmes’s mental health and intellect. In “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter” Watson says that although he has “weaned” Holmes from drugs, he remains an addict whose habit is “not dead, but merely sleeping”.
During his career, Holmes works for the most powerful monarchs and governments of Europe (including his own), wealthy aristocrats and industrialists, and impoverished pawnbrokers and governesses. Although when the stories begin Holmes initially needed Watson to share the rent for their residence at 221B Baker Street, by the time of “The Final Problem”, he says that his services to the government of France and the royal house of Scandinavia had left him with enough money to retire comfortably. The detective is known to charge clients for his expenses and claim any reward offered for a problem’s solution; in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” he says that Helen Stoner may pay any expenses he incurs, and asks the bank in “The Red-Headed League” to reimburse him for money spent solving the case. Holmes has his wealthy banker client in “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet” pay the costs of recovering the stolen gems, and claims the reward posted for their recovery. In “The Problem of Thor Bridge” the detective says, “My professional charges are upon a fixed scale. I do not vary them, save when I remit [omit] them altogether”. In this context a client is offering to double his fee, and it is implied that wealthy clients habitually pay Holmes more than his standard fee.
The detective tells Watson, in “A Case of Identity“, about a gold snuff box received from the King of Bohemia after “A Scandal in Bohemia” and about a valuable ring given to him by the Dutch royal family; in “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans”, he receives an emerald tie pin from Queen Victoria. In “The Adventure of the Priory School” Holmes rubs his hands with glee when the Duke of Holdernesse mentions his ₤6,000 fee, the amount of which surprises even Watson (at a time where annual expenses for a rising young professional were in the area of ₤500). However, in “The Adventure of Black Peter” Watson notes that Holmes would refuse to help even the wealthy and powerful if their cases did not interest him.
Attitudes towards women
As Doyle wrote to Joseph Bell, “Holmes is as inhuman as a Babbage‘s calculating machine and just about as likely to fall in love”.Holmes says in The Valley of Fear, “I am not a whole-souled admirer of womankind”, and in “The Adventure of the Second Stain” finds “the motives of women … inscrutable …. How can you build on such quicksand? Their most trivial actions may mean volumes … their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin or a curling tongs”. In The Sign of the Four he says, “I would not tell them too much. Women are never to be entirely trusted—not the best of them”. Watson calls him “an automaton, a calculating machine”, and the detective replies: “It is of the first importance not to allow your judgement to be biased by personal qualities. A client is to me a mere unit—a factor in a problem. The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning. I assure you that the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three little children for their insurance-money”.
At the end of The Sign of Four Watson reveals to Holmes that “Miss Morstan has done me the honour to accept me as a husband in prospective.”
He gave a most dismal groan.
‘I feared as much,’ said he. ‘I really cannot congratulate you.’
I was a little hurt.
‘Have you any reason to be dissatisfied with my choice?’ I asked.
‘Not at all. I think she is one of the most charming young ladies I ever met, and might have been most useful in such work as we have been doing.
She had a decided genius that way; […] But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things.
I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgement.’ 
Watson says in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” that the detective inevitably “manifested no further interest in the client when once she had ceased to be the centre of one of his problems”. In “The Lion’s Mane“, Holmes writes, “Women have seldom been an attraction to me, for my brain has always governed my heart,” indicating that he has been attracted to women on occasion, but has not been interested in pursuing relationships with them. Ultimately, however, in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” he claims outright that “I have never loved...”.
Despite his overall attitude, Holmes is adept at effortlessly putting his clients at ease, and Watson says that although the detective has an “aversion to women”, he has “a peculiarly ingratiating way with [them]”. Watson notes in “The Adventure of the Dying Detective” that Mrs. Hudson is fond of Holmes because of his “remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women. He disliked and distrusted the sex, but he was always a chivalrous opponent”. In “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” the detective easily manages to become engaged under false pretenses in order to obtain information about a case, but also abandons the woman once he has the information he requires.
Irene Adler is a retired American opera singer and actress who appears in “A Scandal in Bohemia“. Although this is her only appearance in the canon, she is one of the most notable female characters in the stories: the only woman who has ever challenged Holmes intellectually, and one of only a handful of people who ever bested him in a battle of wits. For this reason, Adler is the frequent subject of pastiche writing. The beginning of the story describes the high regard in which Holmes holds her:
To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler … yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.
Five years before the story’s events, Adler had a brief liaison with Crown Prince of Bohemia Wilhelm von Ormstein while she was prima donna of the Imperial Opera of Warsaw. Recently engaged to the daughter of the King of Scandinavia and fearful that, if his fiancée’s family learned of this impropriety, their marriage would be called off, Ormstein hires Holmes to regain a photograph of Adler and himself. Adler slips away before Holmes can succeed, leaving only a photograph of herself (alone) and a note to Holmes that she will not blackmail Ormstein.
Her memory is kept alive by the photograph of Adler that Holmes received for his part in the case.
Knowledge and skills
In the first novel, A Study in Scarlet, Holmes’ background is presented. In early 1881 he is a chemistry student with a number of eccentric interests, almost all of which make him adept at solving crimes. Shortly after meeting Holmes, Watson assesses the detective’s abilities:
- Knowledge of Literature – nil.
- Knowledge of Philosophy – nil.
- Knowledge of Astronomy – nil.
- Knowledge of Politics – Feeble.
- Knowledge of Botany – Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
- Knowledge of Geology – Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks, has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
- Knowledge of Chemistry – Profound.
- Knowledge of Anatomy – Accurate, but unsystematic.
- Knowledge of Sensational Literature – Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
- Plays the violin well.
- Is an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman.
- Has a good practical knowledge of British law.
Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
Subsequent stories reveal that Watson’s early assessment was incomplete in places and inaccurate in others. At the end of A Study in Scarlet Holmes demonstrates a knowledge of Latin. Despite Holmes’s supposed ignorance of politics, in “A Scandal in Bohemia” he immediately recognises the true identity of “Count von Kramm”. His speech is peppered with references to the Bible, Shakespeare, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and the detective quotes a letter from Gustave Flaubert to George Sand in the original French. At the end of “A Case of Identity”, Holmes quotes Hafez. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, the detective recognises works by Martin Knoller and Joshua Reynolds: “Excuse the admiration of a connoisseur …. Watson won’t allow that I know anything of art, but that is mere jealousy, since our views upon the subject differ”. In “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” Watson says that in November 1895 “Holmes lost himself in a monograph which he had undertaken upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus“, considered “the last word” on the subject. Holmes is also a cryptanalyst, telling Watson in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”: “I am fairly familiar with all forms of secret writing, and am myself the author of a trifling monograph upon the subject, in which I analyse one hundred and sixty separate ciphers”.
In A Study in Scarlet Holmes claims to be unaware that the earth revolves around the sun, since such information is irrelevant to his work; after hearing that fact from Watson, he says he will immediately try to forget it. The detective believes that the mind has a finite capacity for information storage, and learning useless things reduces one’s ability to learn useful things. The later stories move away from this notion: in the second chapter of The Valley of Fear he says, “All knowledge comes useful to the detective”, and near the end of “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” the detective calls himself “an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles”.
The detective is particularly skilled in the analysis of physical evidence, including latent prints (such as footprints, hoof prints, and bicycle tracks) to identify actions at a crime scene (“A Study in Scarlet”, “The Adventure of Silver Blaze“, “The Adventure of the Priory School”, The Hound of the Baskervilles, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery“); using tobacco ashes and cigarette butts to identify criminals (“The Adventure of the Resident Patient“, The Hound of the Baskervilles); comparing typewritten letters to expose a fraud (“A Case of Identity”); using gunpowder residue to expose two murderers (“The Adventure of the Reigate Squire“); comparing bullets from two crime scenes (“The Adventure of the Empty House”); analyzing small pieces of human remains to expose two murders (“The Adventure of the Cardboard Box“), and an early use of fingerprints (“The Norwood Builder“).
Holmes demonstrates a knowledge of psychology in “A Scandal in Bohemia”, luring Irene Adler into betraying where she hid a photograph based on the premise that an unmarried woman will save her most valued possession from a fire. Another example is in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle“, where Holmes obtains information from a salesman with a wager: “When you see a man with whiskers of that cut and the ‘Pink ‘un’ protruding out of his pocket, you can always draw him by a bet …. I daresay that if I had put 100 pounds down in front of him, that man would not have given me such complete information as was drawn from him by the idea that he was doing me on a wager”.
Holmes’s primary intellectual detection method is abductive reasoning. Holmesian deduction consists primarily of observation-based inferences, such as his study of cigar ashes. “From a drop of water”, he writes, “a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other”.
In “A Scandal in Bohemia”, Holmes deduces that Watson had gotten wet lately and had “a most clumsy and careless servant girl”. When Watson asks how Holmes knows this, the detective answers:
It is simplicity itself … my eyes tell me that on the inside of your left shoe, just where the firelight strikes it, the leather is scored by six almost parallel cuts. Obviously they have been caused by someone who has very carelessly scraped round the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud from it. Hence, you see, my double deduction that you had been out in vile weather, and that you had a particularly malignant boot-slitting specimen of the London slavey.
In the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, Dr. Watson compares Holmes to C. Auguste Dupin, Edgar Allan Poe’s fictional detective, who employed a similar methodology. To this Holmes replies: “No doubt you think you are complimenting me … In my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow… He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appears to imagine”. Alluding to an episode in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue“, where Dupin deduces what his friend is thinking despite their having walked together in silence for a quarter of an hour, Holmes remarks: “That trick of his breaking in on his friend’s thoughts with an apropos remark… is really very showy and superficial”. Nevertheless, Holmes later performs the same ‘trick’ on Watson in “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box“.
Deductive reasoning allows Holmes to learn a stranger’s occupation, such as the retired Marine sergeant in A Study in Scarlet; the ship’s-carpenter-turned-pawnbroker in “The Red-Headed League”, and the billiard-marker and retired artillery non-commissioned officer in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”. By studying inanimate objects, he makes deductions about their owners (Watson’s pocket watch in The Sign of the Four and a hat, pipe, and walking stick in other stories). The detective’s guiding principle, as he says in The Sign of the Four and elsewhere in the stories, is: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
Holmes displays a strong aptitude for acting and disguise. In several stories (“The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”, “The Man with the Twisted Lip“, “The Adventure of the Empty House” and “A Scandal in Bohemia”), to gather evidence undercover he uses disguises so convincing that Watson fails to recognise him. In others (“The Adventure of the Dying Detective” and, again, “A Scandal in Bohemia”), Holmes feigns injury or illness to incriminate the guilty. In the latter story Watson says, “The stage lost a fine actor … when [Holmes] became a specialist in crime”.
Until Watson’s arrival at Baker Street Holmes largely worked alone, only occasionally employing agents from the city’s underclass; these agents included a host of informants, such as Langdale Pike, a “human book of reference upon all matters of social scandal”, and Shinwell Johnson, aka “Porky” Johnson, who acted as Holmes’ “agent in the huge criminal underworld of London…”. The most well known of Holmes’ agents are a group of street children he called “the Baker Street Irregulars“. The Irregulars appear in three stories: A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four and “The Adventure of the Crooked Man“.
Holmes and Watson carry pistols with them—in Watson’s case, his old service weapon (probably a Mark III Adams revolver, issued to British troops during the 1870s). In the stories, the pistols are used (or displayed) on a number of occasions. In “The Musgrave Ritual” Holmes is described as decorating the wall of his flat with a patriotic VR (Victoria Regina) of bullet holes. Holmes and Watson shoot the eponymous hound in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and in “The Adventure of the Empty House” Holmes pistol-whips Colonel Sebastian Moran. In “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist“, “The Adventure of Black Peter” and “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” Holmes or Watson use a pistol to capture the criminals, and the detective uses Watson’s revolver to reconstruct a crime in “The Problem of Thor Bridge”. A Webley Bulldog (carried by Holmes), Webley RIC, and Webley-Government (“WG”) army revolver have been associated with Holmes and Watson.
Cane and sword
As a gentleman, Holmes often carries a stick or cane. He is described by Watson as an expert at singlestick, and uses his cane twice as a weapon. In A Study in Scarlet Watson describes Holmes as an expert swordsman, and in “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” the detective practises fencing.
In several stories Holmes carries a riding crop, threatening to thrash a swindler with it in “A Case of Identity”. With a “hunting crop”, Holmes knocks a pistol from John Clay’s hand in “The Red-Headed League” and drives off the adder in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”. In “The Six Napoleons” he uses his crop (described as his favourite weapon) to break open one of the plaster busts.
Holmes is an adept bare-knuckle fighter; in The Sign of the Four he introduces himself to McMurdo, a prize fighter, as “the amateur who fought three rounds with you at Alison’s rooms on the night of your benefit four years back.” McMurdo remembers: “Ah, you’re one that has wasted your gifts, you have! You might have aimed high, if you had joined the fancy.” “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” mentions that Holmes trained as a boxer, and in “The Yellow Face” Watson says: “He was undoubtedly one of the finest boxers of his weight that I have ever seen”.
The detective occasionally engages in hand-to-hand combat with his adversaries (in “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” and “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty“), and is always victorious.
In “The Adventure of the Empty House”, Holmes tells Watson that he used martial arts to fling Moriarty to his death in the Reichenbach Falls: “I have some knowledge … of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me”. “Baritsu” is Conan Doyle’s version of bartitsu, which combined jujitsu with boxing and cane fencing.
The detective is described (or demonstrated) as possessing above-average physical strength. In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, Dr. Roylott demonstrates his strength by bending a fire poker in half. Watson describes Holmes as laughing, “‘I am not quite so bulky, but if he had remained I might have shown him that my grip was not much more feeble than his own.’ As he spoke he picked up the steel poker and, with a sudden effort, straightened it out again.” In “The Yellow Face” Holmes’s chronicler says, “Few men were capable of greater muscular effort.”
The Sherlock Holmes stories helped marry forensic science, particularly Holmes’ acute observation of small clues, and literature. He uses trace evidence (such as shoe and tire impressions), fingerprints, ballistics, and handwriting analysis to evaluate his theories and those of the police. Some of the detective’s investigative techniques, such as fingerprint and handwriting analysis, were in their infancy when the stories were written; Holmes frequently laments the contamination of a crime scene, and crime-scene integrity has become standard investigative procedure.
Because of the small scale of much of his evidence (tobacco ash, hair, or fingerprints), the detective often uses a magnifying glass at the scene and an optical microscope at his Baker Street lodgings. He uses analytical chemistry for blood residue analysis and toxicology to detect poisons; Holmes’s home chemistry laboratory is mentioned in “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty”. Ballistics feature in “The Adventure of the Empty House” when spent bullets are recovered and matched with a suspected murder weapon.
Holmes observes the dress and attitude of his clients and suspects, noting style and state of wear of their clothes, skin marks (such as tattoos), contamination (such as ink stains or clay on boots), their state of mind, and physical condition in order to deduce their origins and recent history.
He also applies this method to walking sticks (The Hound of the Baskervilles) and hats (“The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”), with details such as medallions, wear, and contamination yielding information about their owners. In 2002 the Royal Society of Chemistry bestowed an honorary fellowship on Holmes for his use of forensic science and analytical chemistry in popular literature, making him (as of 2010) the only fictional character thus honoured.
The detective story
Although Holmes is not the original fictional detective (he was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe‘s C. Auguste Dupin and Émile Gaboriau‘s Monsieur Lecoq), his name has become synonymous with the role. The investigating detective (such as Agatha Christie‘s Hercule Poirot and Dorothy L. Sayers‘ Lord Peter Wimsey) became a popular character for a number of authors.
John Radford (1999) speculated on Holmes’s intelligence. Using Conan Doyle’s stories as data, he applied three methods to estimate the detective’s intelligence quotient and concluded that his IQ was about 190. Snyder (2004) examined Holmes’s methods in the context of mid- to late-19th-century criminology, and Kempster (2006) compared neurologists’ skills with those demonstrated by the detective. Didierjean and Gobet (2008) reviewed the literature on the psychology of expertise, using Holmes as a model.
“Elementary, my dear Watson”
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The phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” is never uttered by Holmes in the sixty stories written by Conan Doyle. He often observes that his conclusions are “elementary”, however, and occasionally calls Watson “my dear Watson”. One of the nearest approximations of the phrase appears in “The Adventure of the Crooked Man”, when Holmes explains a deduction: “‘Excellent!’ I cried. ‘Elementary,’ said he.”
The phrase “Elementary, my dear fellow, quite elementary” appears in P. G. Wodehouse‘s novel, Psmith in the City (1909–1910), and “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary” in his 1915 novel Psmith, Journalist (neither spoken by Holmes). The exact phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” is used by protagonist Tom Beresford in Agatha Christie’s 1922 novel The Secret Adversary. It also appears at the end of the 1929 film The Return of Sherlock Holmes, the first Holmes sound film. William Gillette (who played Holmes on the stage and on radio) had previously said, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow”. The phrase may have become familiar because of its use in Edith Meiser’s scripts for The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio series, which was broadcast from 1939 to 1947.
The Great Game
Conan Doyle’s 56 short stories and four novels are known as the “canon” by Holmes aficionados. Early canonical scholars included Ronald Knox in Britain and Christopher Morley in New York.Morley founded the Baker Street Irregulars—the first society devoted to the Holmes canon—in 1934.
The Sherlockian game (also known as the Holmesian game, the Great Game, or simply the Game) attempts to resolve anomalies and clarify details about Holmes and Watson from the Conan Doyle canon. The Game, which treats Holmes and Watson as real people (and Conan Doyle as Watson’s literary agent), combines history with aspects of the stories to construct biographies and other scholarly analyses of these aspects. Ronald Knox is credited with inventing the Game.
One detail analyzed in the Game is Holmes’s birthdate, with Morley contending that the detective was born on 6 January 1854.Laurie R. King also speculated about Holmes’s birthdate, based on A Study in Scarlet and “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott“; details in “Gloria Scott” indicate that Holmes finished his second (and final) year of university in 1880 or 1885. Watson’s account of his own wounding in the Second Afghan War and return to England in A Study in Scarlet place his moving in with Holmes in early 1881 or 1882. According to King, this suggests that Holmes left university in 1880; if he began university at age 17, his birth year would probably be 1861.
Another topic of analysis is the university Holmes attended. Dorothy L. Sayers suggested that, given details in two of the Adventures, the detective must have studied at Cambridge rather than Oxford: “of all the Cambridge colleges, Sidney Sussex (College) perhaps offered the greatest number of advantages to a man in Holmes’s position and, in default of more exact information, we may tentatively place him there”.
Holmes’s emotional and mental health have long been subjects of analysis in the Game. At their first meeting, in A Study in Scarlet, the detective warns Watson that he gets “in the dumps at times” and doesn’t open his “mouth for days on end”. Leslie S. Klinger (editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes) has suggested that Holmes exhibits signs of bipolar disorder, with intense enthusiasm followed by indolent self-absorption. Other modern readers have speculated that Holmes may have Asperger’s syndrome, based on his intense attention to details, lack of interest in interpersonal relationships, and tendency to speak in monologues. The detective’s isolation and distrust of women is said to suggest a desire to escape, with William Baring-Gould (author of Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: A Life of the World’s First Consulting Detective) and others—including Nicholas Meyer, in his novel The Seven Percent Solution—implying a family trauma, the murder of Holmes’s mother, as the cause.
In 1934, the Sherlock Holmes Society (in London) and the Baker Street Irregulars (in New York) were founded. Both are still active, although the Sherlock Holmes Society was dissolved in 1937 and revived in 1951. The London society is one of many worldwide who arrange visits to the scenes of Holmes adventures, such as the Reichenbach Falls in the Swiss Alps.
The two societies founded in 1934 were followed by many more Holmesian circles, first in the U.S. (where they are known as “scion societies”—offshoots—of the Baker Street Irregulars) and then in England and Denmark. There are at least 250 Sherlockian societies worldwide, including Australia, India, and Japan (whose society has 80,000 members).
For the 1951 Festival of Britain, Holmes’s living room was reconstructed as part of a Sherlock Holmes exhibition, with a collection of original material. After the festival, items were transferred to The Sherlock Holmes (a London pub) and the Conan Doyle collection housed in Lucens, Switzerland by the author’s son, Adrian. Both exhibitions, each with a Baker Street sitting-room reconstruction, are open to the public.
In 1990, the Sherlock Holmes Museum opened on Baker Street in London, followed the next year by a museum in Meiringen (near the Reichenbach Falls) dedicated to the detective. A private Conan Doyle collection is a permanent exhibit at the Portsmouth City Museum, where the author lived and worked as a physician.
Widely considered a British cultural icon, the London Metropolitan Railway named one of its 20 electric locomotives deployed in the 1920s for Sherlock Holmes. He was the only fictional character so honoured, along with eminent Britons such as Lord Byron, Benjamin Disraeli, and Florence Nightingale.
A number of London streets are associated with Holmes. York Mews South, off Crawford Street, was renamed Sherlock Mews, and Watson’s Mews is near Crawford Place.
Adaptations and derived works
The popularity of Sherlock Holmes has meant that many writers other than Arthur Conan Doyle have created tales of the detective in a wide variety of different media, with varying degrees of fidelity to the original characters, stories, and setting. According to The Alternative Sherlock Holmes: Pastiches, Parodies, and Copies by Peter Ridgway Watt and Joseph Green, the first known period pastiche dates from 1893. Titled “The Late Sherlock Holmes”, it came from the pen of Doyle’s close friend, J. M. Barrie, who was to create Peter Pan a decade later. A common take is creating a new story fully detailing an otherwise-passing canonical reference (such as an aside mentioning the “giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared” in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire“). Other adaptations have seen the character taken in radically different directions or placed in different times or even universes. For example, Holmes falls in love and marries in Laurie R. King‘s Mary Russell series, is re-animated after his death to fight future crime in the animated series Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, and is meshed with the setting of H.P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu Mythos in Neil Gaiman‘s “A Study in Emerald” (which won the 2004 Hugo Award for Best Short Story). An especially influential pastiche was Nicholas Meyer‘s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a 1974 New York Times bestselling novel in which Holmes’s cocaine addiction has progressed to the point of endangering his career. It was made into a film of the same name in 1976, and popularised the pastiche-writing trend of introducing clearly identified and contemporaneous historical figures (such as Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, or Jack the Ripper) into tales featuring Holmes, something Conan Doyle himself never did.
Related and derivative writings
In addition to the Holmes canon, Conan Doyle’s 1898 “The Lost Special” features an unnamed “amateur reasoner” intended to be identified as Holmes by his readers. The author’s explanation of a baffling disappearance, argued in Holmesian style, pokes fun at his own creation. Similar Conan Doyle short stories are the early “The Field Bazaar”, “The Man with the Watches”, and 1924’s “How Watson Learned the Trick“, a parody of the Watson–Holmes breakfast-table scenes. The author wrote other material, especially plays, featuring Holmes. Much of it appears in Sherlock Holmes: The Published Apocrypha, edited by Jack Tracy; The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Peter Haining, and The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes, compiled by Richard Lancelyn Green.
In terms of writers other than Doyle, authors as diverse as Anthony Burgess, Neil Gaiman, Dorothy B. Hughes, Stephen King, Tanith Lee, A.A. Milne, and P.G. Wodehouse have all written Sherlock Holmes pastiches. Notably, famed American mystery writer John Dickson Carr collaborated with Arthur Conan Doyle’s son, Adrian Conan Doyle, on The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, a pastiche collection from 1954. In 2011 Anthony Horowitz published a Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk, presented as a continuation of Conan Doyle’s work and with the approval of the Conan Doyle estate. In early 2014 a sequel, Moriarty, was announced and published.
Some authors have written tales centred on characters from the canon other than Holmes. M.J. Trow has written a series of seventeen books using Inspector Lestrade as the central character, beginning with The Adventures of Inspector Lestrade in 1985. Carole Nelson Douglas‘ Irene Adler series is based on “the woman” from “A Scandal in Bohemia”, with the first book (1990’s Good Night, Mr. Holmes) retelling that story from Adler’s point of view. Martin Davies has written three novels where Baker Street housekeeper Mrs. Hudson is the protagonist. Mycroft Holmes has been the subject of several efforts: Enter the Lion by Michael P. Hodel and Sean M. Wright (1979), a four-book series by Quinn Fawcett, and 2015’s Mycroft, by former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. John Gardner, Michael Kurland, and Kim Newman, amongst many others, have all written tales in which Holmes’s nemesis Professor Moriarty is the main character. Anthologies edited by Michael Kurland and George Mann are entirely devoted to stories told from the perspective of characters other than Holmes and Watson.
Laurie R. King recreated Holmes in her Mary Russell series (beginning with 1994’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice), set during the First World War and the 1920s. Her Holmes, semi-retired in Sussex, is stumbled upon by a teenaged American girl. Recognising a kindred spirit, he trains her as his apprentice and subsequently marries her. As of 2016, the series includes fourteen novels and a novella tied into a book from King’s Kate Martinelli series (The Art of Detection).
The Final Solution, a 2004 novella by Michael Chabon, concerns an unnamed but long-retired detective interested in beekeeping who tackles the case of a missing parrot belonging to a Jewish refugee boy. Mitch Cullin‘s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind (2005) takes place two years after the end of the Second World War, and explores an old and frail Sherlock Holmes (now 93) as he comes to terms with a life spent in emotionless logic; this was also adapted into a film, 2015’s Mr. Holmes.
Adaptations in other media
Guinness World Records has listed Holmes as the “most portrayed movie character”, with more than 70 actors playing the part in over 200 films. His first screen appearance was in the 1900 Mutoscope film, Sherlock Holmes Baffled. The detective has appeared in many foreign-language versions, including a Russian miniseries broadcast in November 2013.
William Gillette’s 1899 play Sherlock Holmes, or The Strange Case of Miss Faulkner was a synthesis of four Conan Doyle stories: “A Scandal in Bohemia”, “The Final Problem”, “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”, and A Study in Scarlet. In addition to its popularity, the play is significant because it, rather than the original stories, introduced the key visual qualities commonly associated with Holmes today: his deerstalker hat and calabash pipe. It also formed the basis for the Gillette’s 1916 film, Sherlock Holmes. In his lifetime, Gillette performed as Holmes some 1,300 times. In the early 1900s, H.A. Saintsbury took over the role from Gillette for a tour of the play. Between this play and Conan Doyle’s own stage adaptation of “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, Saintsbury portrayed Holmes over 1,000 times.
Basil Rathbone played Holmes and Nigel Bruce played Watson in fourteen U.S. films (two for 20th Century Fox and a dozen for Universal Pictures) from 1939 to 1946, and in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on the Mutual radio network from 1939 to 1946 (before the role of Holmes passed to Tom Conway). While the Fox films were period pieces, the Universal films were distinctive for abandoning Victorian Britain and moving to a then-contemporary setting in which Holmes occasionally battled Nazis.
Between 1979 and 1986, Soviet television produced a series of five television films, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The series were split into eleven episodes and starred Vasily Livanov as Holmes and Vitaly Solomin as Watson. Livanov was appointed an Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire for a performance ambassador Anthony Brenton described as “one of the best I’ve ever seen”.
Jeremy Brett is considered the definitive Holmes by critic Julian Wolfreys. Brett played the detective in four series of Sherlock Holmes for Britain’s Granada Television from 1984 to 1994, and appeared as Holmes on stage. Watson was played by David Burke and Edward Hardwicke in the series.
Bert Coules penned The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams/Andrew Sachs as Watson, based on throwaway references in Doyle’s short stories and novels. He also produced original scripts for this series, which was also issued on CD. Coules had previously dramatised the entire Holmes canon for Radio Four.
The 2009 film Sherlock Holmes, which earned Robert Downey Jr. a Golden Globe Award for his portrayal of Holmes and which co-starred Jude Law as Watson, focuses on Holmes’s antisocial personality. Downey and Law returned for a 2011 sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. As of May 2016, a script for a third film is ready and the aim is to begin shooting before the end of the year; further sequels are acknowledged as possible.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays a modern version of the detective (with Martin Freeman as Watson) in the BBC One TV series Sherlock, which premiered on 25 July 2010. In the series, created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, the stories’ original Victorian setting is replaced by present-day London. Cumberbatch’s Holmes uses modern technology (including texting and blogging) to help solve crimes. Similarly, on 27 September 2012, Elementary premiered on CBS. Set in contemporary New York, the series features Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as a female Dr. Joan Watson.
The 2015 film Mr. Holmes starred Ian McKellen as a retired Sherlock Holmes living in Sussex, in 1947, who grapples with an unsolved case involving a beautiful woman. The film is based on Mitch Cullin‘s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind.
Holmes has also appeared in video games, including the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series of seven titles. The detective is based on Jeremy Brett’s portrayal, with the series’s plot independent of the Conan Doyle stories.
The copyright for Conan Doyle’s works expired in the United Kingdom and Canada at the end of 1980, were revived in 1996, expired again at the end of 2000, and are in the public domain there. All works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain; this includes all the Sherlock Holmes stories, except for some of the short stories collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle’s heirs registered the copyright to The Case-Book in 1981 in accordance with the Copyright Act of 1976.
On 14 February 2013, Leslie S. Klinger (lawyer and editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes) filed a declaratory judgement suit against the Conan Doyle estate in the Northern District of Illinois asking the court to acknowledge that the characters of Holmes and Watson were public domain in the U.S. The court ruled in Klinger’s favour on 23 December, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed its decision on 16 June 2014. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case, letting the appeals court’s ruling stand. This final step resulted in the characters from the Holmes stories, along with all but ten of the Holmes stories, being in the public domain in the U.S.
- A Study in Scarlet (published 1887 in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
- The Sign of the Four (published 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
- The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
- The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)
Short story collections
The short stories, originally published in magazines, were later collected in five anthologies:
- The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1891–1892 in The Strand)
- The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1892–1893 in The Strand)
- The Return of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1903–1904 in The Strand)
- His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1908–1917)
- The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1921–1927)