- This article is for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character. For other versions of the character see Versions of Sherlock Holmes.
- "I had no idea that such individuals exist outside of stories."
- ―Dr Watson speaking about Holmes [src]
Sherlock Holmes is a fictional detective of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who first appeared in publication in 1887. He was devised by British author and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A brilliant London-based detective, Holmes is famous for his prowess at using logic and astute observation to solve cases. He is perhaps the most famous fictional detective, and indeed one of the best known and most universally recognizable literary characters.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote four novels and fifty-six short-stories featuring his creation. Almost all were narrated by Holmes' friend and biographer, Dr John H. Watson, with the exception of two narrated by Holmes himself and two more written in the third person. The stories first appeared in magazine serialization, notably in The Strand Magazine, over a period of forty years. This was a common form of publication at the time: Charles Dickens' works were issued in a similar fashion. The stories cover a period from around 1878 up to 1903, with a final case in 1914. They are read as much for their characterization and the stylised late-Victorian era in which they take place as for the mysteries themselves.
More actors have portrayed Sherlock Holmes than any other character, and by 1964, according to a report in The Times, the worldwide sales of the stories were running second only to the Bible.
Knowledge and skills
- "My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don't know."
- ―"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle
Little is known of Holmes' early life or his family background, save that his grandmother was a sister of the French artist Vernet. 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 60 years of age. It is also known that in his younger years, Holmes attended at least one of the country's leading universities ... though it cannot be ascertained whether he was an alumnus of Oxford, Cambridge, or both. Sherlock has an older brother, Mycroft, whom the younger Holmes considered to be more intellectually gifted than himself. Mycroft spent much of his life in Her Majesty's Secret Service. In "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter", Sherlock refers to Mycroft as being "[s]even years [his] senior". If Sherlock date of birth of 1854 is correct, that places Mycroft's date of birth as 1847.
At the age of 20, Holmes was to find his life's calling. For it was in that year that he began his illustrious career as the world's first consulting detective, taking his first case...which his future friend and companion Dr John Watson would come to title, in his chronicles of Holmes' endeavours, "The Adventure of the Gloria Scott". His study of science at university having informed his already keen mind and powers of observation, Holmes employed a process of deductive reasoning in his work, with great success.
In early 1881 he is presented as an independent student of chemistry with a variety of very curious side-interests, almost all of which turn out to be single-mindedly bent towards making him superior at solving crimes. In another early story, "The Adventure of the Gloria Scott", more background on what caused Holmes to become a detective is presented: a college friend's father complimented him very highly on his deductive skills.
In "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter", Holmes states that his grandmother was the sister of the French painter "Vernet" (presumably Horace Vernet).
In A Study in Scarlet, Dr Watson makes an evaluation of Sherlock's skills:
- Knowledge of Literature – 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 Sensationalism – 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
Later stories make clear, however, that the above list is misleading, and that Holmes, who has just met Watson, is pulling Watson's leg. Two examples: despite Holmes' supposed ignorance of politics, in "A Scandal in Bohemia" he immediately recognises the true identity of the supposed Count von Kramm as Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Feldstein and hereditary King of Bohemia. Regarding non-sensational literature, his speech is replete with references to the Bible, Shakespeare, and even Goethe. This is somewhat inconsistent with his scolding Watson for telling him about how the Earth revolved around the Sun, instead of the other way around, given that Holmes tried to avoid having his memory cluttered with information that is of no use to him in detective work.
Holmes is also a competent cryptanalyst. He relates to Watson, "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". One such scheme is solved in "The Adventure of the Dancing Men", which uses a series of stick figures.
In A Study in Scarlet, Conan Doyle presents a comparison between his sleuth and two earlier, more established fictional detectives: Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin and Emile Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq. The former had first appeared in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, first published in 1841, and the latter in L'Affaire Lerouge (The Lerouge Affair) in 1866. The brief discussion between Watson and Holmes about the two characters begins with a comment by Watson:
- You remind me of Edgar Allen Poe's Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories."
- Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. "No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin," he observed. "Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends' thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour's silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine."
- "Have you read Gaboriau's works?" I asked. "Does Lecoq come up to your idea of a detective?"
- Sherlock Holmes sniffed sardonically. "Lecoq was a miserable bungler," he said, in an angry voice; "he had only one thing to recommend him, and that was his energy. That book made me positively ill. The question was how to identify an unknown prisoner. I could have done it in twenty-four hours. Lecoq took six months or so. It might be made a text-book for detectives to teach them what to avoid."
Holmes seems convinced that he is superior to both of them, while Watson expresses his admiration of the two characters. It has been suggested that this was a way for Conan Doyle to pay some respect to characters by writers who had influenced him, while insisting that his is an improvement over them. However, Holmes pulls a very Dupin-esque mind reading trick on Watson in "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" (repeated word for word in the story, "The Adventure of the Resident Patient", when "The Cardboard Box" was removed from the Memoirs), and, to a lesser extent, in "The Adventure of the Dancing Men".
Holmes has shown himself a master of disguise, appearing as:
- A seaman (The Sign of Four)
- An unemployed groom and a Nonconformist clergyman (A Scandal in Bohemia)
- An opium addict ("The Man with the Twisted Lip")
- A common loafer ("The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet")
- An old Italian priest ("The Adventure of the Final Problem")
- A bookseller ("The Adventure of the Empty House")
- A plumber ("The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton")
- A dying man ("The Adventure of the Dying Detective")
- An old sporting man ("The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone")
- An old woman ("The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone")
So great a master of disguise is Holmes, in fact, that in "A Scandal in Bohemia", Watson is compelled to remark of him, "The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime."
Although Holmes looks upon himself as a disembodied brain, there are times when he can become very emotional in a righteous cause, as when he disapproves of the banker Holder as to how the man treated his son, in "The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet". At the end of "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons", he is touched by Lestrade's deep gratitude for assisting Scotland Yard. Watson says, "he was more nearly moved by the softer human emotions than I had ever seen him". And, in "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs", Watson is wounded by a forger he and Holmes are pursuing. While the bullet wound proved to be "quite superficial", Watson is moved by Holmes' 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."
Holmes' techniques could be looked upon, then, as the forerunner of modern forensic sciences:
- The use of footprints, shoe prints, horseshoe prints, carriage wheel tracks, and bicycle tracks to identify actions at a crime scene (A Study in Scarlet, "The Adventure of the Silver Blaze", "The Adventure of the Priory School")
- The use of tobacco ashes and cigarette butts to identify criminals ("The Adventure of the Resident Patient", The Hound of the Baskervilles)
- The use of typewritten letters to expose a fraud ("A Case of Identity")
- The deduction of murder from two pieces of human remains ("The Adventure of the Cardboard Box")
- The observation of gunpowder residue on victim ("The Adventure of the Reigate Puzzle")
- The observation of use of bullets from murder weapon from two crime scenes ("The Adventure of the Empty House")
- The use of a fingerprint to free an innocent man ("The Adventure of the Norwood Builder") (an especially subtle case, as Holmes recognises the fingerprint as a forgery)
In "The Adventure of the Second Stain", Dr Watson says that after his long career, Holmes moved to the Sussex Downs and took up beekeeping. But even in "retirement" Holmes would again come to the aid of his country as the First World War approached. In 1914, at the age of 60, he was instrumental in the capture and arrest of a Prussian spy known as Von Bork.
The Von Bork case seems to have been Sherlock Holmes' last bow. Following the arrest, Holmes returned to his life of seclusion in Sussex to live out his life in peace and solitude, keeping bees and eventually publishing a manual on the subject. It has been suggested that he also wrote his magnum opus concerning his deductive method: "The Whole Art of Detection," during his retirement. Aside from these, the details of his later life and death are not well known, but he lives on to this day through the records of his thrilling cases, and will always be remembered and regarded as the "World's Only Consulting Detective".
Personality and habits
Watson describes Holmes as "bohemian" in habits and lifestyle. Although Holmes is described in The Hound of the Baskervilles as having a "cat-like" love of personal cleanliness, Watson also describes Holmes as an eccentric, with no regard for contemporary standards of tidiness or good order. He alternates between days or weeks of listless lassitude and similar periods of intense engagement with a challenging case or with his hobby, experimental chemistry: "extreme exactness and astuteness... [or a] poetic and contemplative mood", "outbursts of passionate energy... followed by reactions of lethargy."
Nevertheless, Watson was very typical of his time in not considering a vice Holmes' habit of smoking (usually a pipe) heavily, nor his willingness to bend the truth and break the law (e.g., lie to the police, conceal evidence, burgle and housebreak) when it suited his purposes. In Victorian England, such actions were not necessarily considered vices as long as they were done by a gentleman for noble purposes, such as preserving a woman's honor or a family's reputation (this argument is discussed by Holmes and Watson in "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton"). Since many of the stories revolve around Holmes (and Watson) doing such things, a modern reader must accept actions which would be out of character for a "law-abiding" detective living by the standards of a later time. (They remain staples of detective fiction, being done in a good cause.) Holmes has a strong sense of honour and "doing the right thing".
Holmes can often be quite dispassionate and cold; however, when hot on the trail of a mystery, he can display a remarkable passion given his usual languor.
He has a flair for showmanship, and often, he prepares dramatic traps to capture the culprit of a crime which are staged to impress Watson or one of the Scotland Yard inspectors (as at the end of "The Adventure of the Norwood Builder"). He also holds back on his chain of reasoning, not revealing it or only giving cryptic hints and surprising results, until the very end, when he can explain all of his deductions at once.
Holmes does have an ego that sometimes seems to border on arrogance; however, his arrogance is usually deserved. He seems to enjoy baffling the police inspectors with his superior deductions. Holmes is usually quite content to allow the police to take the credit for his work, with Watson being the only one to broadcast his own roles in the case (in "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty", he remarks that of his last fifty-three cases, the police have had all the credit in forty-nine), although he enjoys receiving praise from personal friends and those who take a serious interest in his work.
Although he initially needed Watson to share the rent of his comfortable residence at 221B Baker Street we are told in "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" (when he was living alone) "I have no doubt that the house might have been purchased at the price which Holmes paid for his rooms" suggesting he had developed a good income from his practice, although it is never revealed exactly how much he charges for his services. It is possible, however, that he charges based on the client's ability to pay in "The Adventure of the Final Problem", Holmes states that his services to the government of France and the royal house of Scandinavia had left him with enough money to retire comfortably, while in "The Adventure of Black Peter" Watson notes that Holmes would refuse to help the wealthy and powerful if their cases did not interest him, while he could devote weeks at a time to the cases of the most humble clients. Certainly, in the course of his career Holmes had worked for both the most powerful monarchs and governments of Europe (including his own) and various wealthy aristocrats and industrialists, and also been consulted by impoverished pawnbrokers and humble governesses on the lower rungs of society.
Holmes is generally quite fearless. He dispassionately surveys horrific, brutal crime scenes; he does not allow superstition (as in The Hound of the Baskervilles) or grotesque situations to make him afraid; and he intrepidly confronts violent murderers. He is generally unfazed by threats from his criminal enemies, and indeed Holmes himself remarks that it is the danger of his profession that has attracted him to it.
Finally, Holmes does have capacities for human emotion and friendship. He has a remarkable capacity to gently soothe and reassure people suffering from extreme distress, a talent which comes in handy when dealing with both male and female clients who arrive at Baker Street suffering from extreme fear or nervousness. He also has a close personal friendship with Watson, whose near-death at the hands of a counterfeiter in "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs" elicits grief and anger from Holmes. Over time, Holmes' relations with the official Scotland Yard detectives goes from cold disdain to a strong respect.
- Watson: "Which is it today? Morphine or cocaine?"
- Holmes: "It is cocaine, a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?"
- ―The Sign of Four
Holmes occasionally uses addictive drugs, especially when lacking stimulating cases. Modern readers of the Holmes stories are apt to be surprised by this, though Watson describes this as Holmes' "only vice".
Holmes believes the use of cocaine stimulates his brain when it is not in use. He is a habitual user of cocaine, which he injects in a seven-per-cent solution using a personal syringe that he keeps in a Morocco leather case. Holmes is also an occasional user of morphine but expressed strong disapproval on visiting an opium den. These drugs were legal in late 19th-century England. Both Watson and Holmes are continual tobacco users, including cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, though this was not an uncommon habit during this era. Holmes is an expert at identifying tobacco-ash residues, having penned a monograph on the subject.
Dr Watson strongly disapproves of his friend's cocaine habit, describing it as the detective's "only vice" and expressing concern over its possible effect on Holmes' mental health and superior intellect. In "The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter", Watson claims to have "weaned" Holmes off drugs. Even so, according to his doctor friend, Holmes remains an addict whose habit is "not dead, but merely sleeping".
The most characteristic feature of Holmes' attire is introduced in "The Boscombe Valley Mystery" where he is described as wearing a "cloth cap" which in Sidney Paget's illustration appears as a deerstalker. It was introduced into more illustrations by the American illustrator F.D. Steele, who was also responsible (following the model of the American actor William Gillette who portrayed the detective) for associating Holmes' image with the curved calabash pipe. At home, Holmes wears a mouse-coloured dressing gown.
Besides fees, Holmes also has souvenirs from his cases:
- A black pearl and a shattered bust of Napoleon Bonaparte ("The Adventure of the Six Napoleons")
- A gold sovereign from Godfrey Norton on his chain ("A Scandal in Bohemia")
- A photograph of Irene Adler ("A Scandal in Bohemia")
- An old gold snuff box with an amethyst from the King of Bohemia ("A Case of Identity")
- A ring from the ruling family of Holland ("A Case of Identity")
- A crumpled piece of paper; a key; a peg of wood with string and three old coins ("The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual")
- An emerald tie-pin from Queen Victoria ("The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans")
- An autographed letter from the President of France and the Legion of Honour (for tracking down a notorious assassin) ("The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez")
His Stradivarius violin was a bargain purchase ("The Adventure of the Cardboard Box")
Although on occasion Holmes and Watson carry pistols with them (see also Dr Watson's revolver), there are only three times when these weapons are fired:
- They both fire at the Andaman Islander in The Sign of Four.
- They both fire at the hound in The Hound of the Baskervilles.
- Watson fires at the mastiff in "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches".
- Watson pistol-whips Colonel Sebastian Moran in "The Adventure of the Empty House".
In "The Musgrave Ritual" it is revealed that Holmes decorated the wall of their flat with a patriotic "V.R." (Victoria Regina) done in bullet marks.
Besides a pistol, Holmes uses a riding crop/cane as a weapon:
- To knock the pistol from John Clay's hand in "The Red-Headed League".
- To lash out at the snake (with his cane) in "The Adventure of the Speckled Band".
- To hit the villainous one of the title on the head after he has shot at Watson, in "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs".
As noted above Watson reports Holmes skilled in the martial arts of singlestick and sword fencing-although the only use a sword by Holmes is the Jeremy Brett adaptation of "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty" in which Holmes uses a sword-cane to force Joseph Harrison to give up the stolen treaty papers! Holmes is also quite skilled in the use of unarmed combat-such as using jujitsu to knock the murderous Professor Moriarty to his doom and also in the art of boxing - he fought three rounds with prizefighter McMurdo ("The Sign of the Four"); he beat Joseph Harrison, and he knocked out the bully Woodley with a straight left cross ("The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist"). Nevertheless Holmes has received injuries during his career - a knife cut on his right hand ("The Adventure of the Naval Treaty"); a cut on his right knuckles from a fight with a thug of Professor Moriarty ("The Adventure of the Final Problem"); being nearly strangled by the Cunninghams ("The Adventure of the Reigate Squire"); being beaten by the thugs of Baron Gunther ("The Adventure of the Illustrious Client"); Holmes also lost one of his canine teeth in a fight with a criminal named Matthews at Charing Cross Station ("The Adventure of the Empty House").
An estimate of Holmes' age in the short story "His Last Bow", in which he is described as a "man of sixty" in the year 1914, places his year of birth around 1854,
Historically, Holmes lived from the year 1881 at 221B Baker Street, London (in early notes it was described as being situated at Upper Baker Street), a flat up seventeen steps, where he shared many of his professional years with his good friend Dr Watson for some time before Watson's marriage in 1887 or 1888 and after Mrs Watson's death. The residence was maintained by his landlady, Mrs Hudson.
In almost all of the stories Holmes is assisted by the practical Watson, who is not only a friend but also his chronicler (his "Boswell"). Most of Holmes' stories are told as narratives, by Watson, of the detective's solutions to crimes brought to his attention by clients. Holmes sometimes criticizes Watson for his writings, usually because he relates them as exciting stories rather than as objective and detailed reports focusing on what Holmes regards as the pure "science" of his craft.
Holmes also has an older brother, Mycroft Holmes, a government official, who appears in three stories: "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter", "The Final Problem", and "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans". He is also mentioned in a number of others, including "The Adventure of the Empty House".
The Baker Street Irregulars
Law enforcement officers with whom Holmes has worked include G. Lestrade, Tobias Gregson, Stanley Hopkins, and Athelney (or Peter) Jones, all four of Scotland Yard, Francois Le Villard of the French police and Inspector Baynes. Holmes usually baffles the police with his far more efficient and effective methods, showing himself to be a vastly superior detective.
Professor James Moriarty
Holmes' arch-enemy and popularly-supposed nemesis was Professor James Moriarty ("Napoleon of Crime"), who fell, struggling with Holmes, over the Reichenbach Falls. Conan Doyle intended "The Final Problem", the story in which this occurred, to be the last that he wrote about Holmes. However, the mass of mailings he received demanding that he bring back his creation convinced him to continue, since the public showed little interest in his other literary endeavours. He did so with The Hound of the Baskervilles, although this was a case Holmes was involved in before his supposed death. His return in "The Adventure of the Empty House" had Conan Doyle explaining that only Moriarty fell over the cliff, but Holmes had allowed the world to believe that he too had perished while he dodged the retribution of Moriarty's underlings. Also, numerous sources claim that Moriarty was initially Holmes' mathematics tutor, as is also referenced in the work of Baring-Gould. Professor Moriarty also has a presence in The Valley of Fear.
The only woman in whom Holmes ever showed any interest that verged on the romantic was Irene Adler. According to Watson, she was always referred to by Holmes as "The Woman." Holmes himself is never directly quoted as using this term – though he does mention her actual name several times in other cases. She is also one of the few women who are mentioned in multiple Holmes stories, though she actually appears in person only in one, "A Scandal in Bohemia". She is often thought to be the only woman who broke through Holmes' reserve. She is possibly the only woman who has ever "beaten" Holmes in a mystery; this point is unclear due to a comment with some chronological problems in one of the stories (see the Irene Adler or "The Five Orange Pips" articles for details). However, it is important to note that Watson explicitly states, "It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler." That said, we have only Watson's word that this is the case, and the nature of Sherlock's thoughts about her will always remain something of a question.
Whilst it should be noted that Mrs Hudson is never actually described, Watson writes in "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" that Mrs Hudson is fond of Holmes in her own way, despite his bothersome eccentricities as a lodger, owing to his "remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women."
Relationship with women
In one story, "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton", Holmes is engaged to be married, but only with the motivation of gaining information for his case.
He clearly demonstrates particular interest in several of the more charming female clients that come his way (such as Violet Hunter of "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches", whom Watson thought might become more than a client to Holmes). However, the context implies that Holmes found their youth, beauty, and energy (and the cases they bring to him) invigorating, as opposed to an actual romantic interest, as Holmes inevitably "manifested no further interest in her when once she had ceased to be the center of one of his problems".
If he was able to turn on a certain amount of charm, as indicated by these episodes, there is no indication of a serious or long-term interest apart from the case of Adler. Watson states that Holmes has an "aversion to women" but "a peculiarly ingratiating way with [them]." Holmes stated "I am not a whole-souled admirer of womankind." His dislike may have stemmed from the fact he found "the motives of women... so inscrutable... How can you build on such quicksand? Their most trivial actions may mean volumes... their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin." This perceived resistance to his deductive processes may have annoyed him. On the other hand, it may be noted that the landlady, Mrs Hudson, is never actually described. Another point of interest in Holmes' relationships with women, is that the only joy he gets from their company is the problems they bring to him to solve. In "The Sign of Four", Watson quotes Holmes as being "an automaton, a calculating machine." this references Holmes' disinterest in relationships with women in general, and clients in particular, as Watson state that "there is something positively inhuman in you at times".
Watson writes in "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" that Mrs Hudson is fond of Holmes in her own way, despite his bothersome eccentricities as a lodger, owing to his "remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women." Watson notes that while he dislikes and distrusts them, he is nonetheless a "chivalrous opponent". Holmes cannot be said to be misogynistic, given the number of women he helps in his work, but it may be that his own detached and analytical personality is annoyed by their excessively emotional (from his perspective) natures.
Watson, on the other hand, has a perhaps justifiable reputation as a ladies' man, boasting in The Sign of Four of "an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents." In addition, he speaks favorably of some women indeed, in virtually all the longer stories he remarks on the exceptional beauty of at least one female character and actually married one, Mary Morstan of The Sign of Four.
Holmesian (or Sherlockian) Deduction
"From a drop of water", Holmes wrote in an essay described in A Study in Scarlet, "a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other." Holmes stories often begin with a bravura display of his talent for "deduction". It is of some interest to logicians and those interested in logic to try to analyze just what Holmes is doing when he performs his deduction. Holmesian (British adjective; Americans may be rarely heard to say "Sherlockian") deduction appears to consist primarily of drawing inferences based on either straightforward practical principles – which are the result of careful inductive study, such as Holmes' study of different kinds of cigar ashes or inference to the best explanation. In many cases, the deduction can be modeled either way. In 2002, Holmes was inducted as an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry the only fictional character so honored in appreciation of the contributions to forensic investigation.
Holmes' straightforward practical principles are generally of the form, "If 'p', then 'q'," where 'p' is observed evidence and 'q' is what the evidence indicates. But there are also, as one may observe in the following example, often some intermediate principles. In "A Scandal in Bohemia" Holmes deduces that Watson had got very wet lately and that he had "a most clumsy and careless servant girl." When Watson, in amazement, asks how Holmes knows this, Holmes 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 slavery."
In this case, we might say Holmes employed several connected principles such as these:
- If leather on the side of a shoe is scored by several parallel cuts, it was caused by someone who scraped around the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud.
- If a 19th-century London doctor's shoes are scraped to remove crusted mud, the person who so scraped them is the doctor's servant girl.
- If someone cuts a shoe while scraping it to remove encrusted mud, that person is clumsy and careless.
- If someone's shoes had encrusted mud on them, that person has been very wet lately and has been out in vile weather.
By applying such principles in an obvious way (using repeated applications of modus ponens), Holmes is able to infer from
- 'p': The sides of Watson's shoes are scored by several parallel cuts.
- 'q1': Watson's servant girl is clumsy and careless.
- 'q2': Watson has been very wet lately and has been out in vile weather.
But perhaps Holmes is not giving a proper explanation – after all, Holmes may be well aware of Watson's servant girl. As Watson is a doctor and it has been raining, it is likely he has been out in the rain.
In other instances of Holmesian deduction, it is more difficult to model his inference as deduction using general principles, and logicians and scientists will readily recognise the method used, instead, as an "inductive" one – in particular, "argument to the best explanation", or, in Charles S. Peirce's terminology, "abduction". However, that Holmes should have called this "deduction" is entirely plausible.
The instances in which Holmes uses deduction tend to be those where he has amassed a large body of evidence, produced a number of possible explanations of that evidence, and then proceeds to find one explanation that is clearly the best at explaining the evidence. For example, in The Sign of Four, a man is found dead in his room, with a ghastly smile on his face, and with no immediately visible cause of death. From a whole body of background information as well as evidence gathered at and around the scene of the crime, Holmes is able to infer that the murderer is not one of the various people that Scotland Yard has in custody (each of them being an alternative explanation), but rather another person entirely. As Holmes says in the story, "How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?" This phrase has entered Western popular culture as a catchphrase. It also turned up in the Dirk Gently stories by Douglas Adams where the detective uses the opposite phrase, "because we know very much about what is improbable, but very little about what is possible".
In the latter example, in fact, Holmes' solution of the crime depends both on a series of applications of general principles and argument to the best explanation.
Holmes' success at his brand of deduction, therefore, is due to his mastery of both a huge body of particular knowledge of things like footprints, cigar ashes, and poisons, which he uses to make relatively simple deductive inferences, and the fine art of ordering and weighing different competing explanations of a body of evidence. Holmes is also particularly good at gathering evidence by observation, as well locating and tracking the movements of criminals through the streets of London and its environs (in order to produce more evidence) - skills that have little to do with deduction per se, but everything to do with providing the premises for particular Holmesian deductions. Four examples of Holmes' deductions of an owner's lifestyle are: Dr Watson's old pocket watch in The Sign of Four, Dr Mortimer's walking stick in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Mr Grant Munro's pipe in "The Adventure of the Yellow Face" and Henry Baker's hat in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle".
In the stories by Conan Doyle, Holmes often remarked that his logical conclusions were "elementary", in that he considered them to be simple and obvious. He also, on occasion, referred to his friend as "my dear Watson". However, the complete phrase, "Elementary, my dear Watson", does not appear in any of the sixty Holmes stories written by Conan Doyle. It does appear at the very end of the 1929 film, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, the first Sherlock Holmes sound film, and may owe its familiarity to its use in Edith Meiser's scripts for The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio series.
It should be noted too, that our modern stereotype of police procedure – someone who looks for physical clues, rather than someone who examines opportunity and motive – comes from Holmes.
As mentioned in the Overview section above, Conan Doyle was an admirer of Oliver Wendell Holmes. In 1858, Holmes had written, in his Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, “Tell me about Cuvier's getting up a megatherium from a tooth … so all a man's antecedents and possibilities are summed up in a single utterance…." This recalls what Schopenhauer had written in 1851, “Just as a botanist recognises the whole plant from one leaf and Cuvier constructed the entire animal from one bone, so from one characteristic action of a man we can arrive at a correct knowledge of his character." (Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. II, §118) These assertions are echoed in "The Five Orange Pips", in which Sherlock Holmes declared, “As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents should be able to state all the other ones, before and after."
Readers of the Sherlock Holmes stories have often been surprised to discover that their author, Conan Doyle, was a fervent believer in paranormal phenomena, and that the logical, skeptical character of Holmes was in opposition to his own in many ways.
The word "Sherlock" has entered the language to mean a detective or used sarcastically if someone states the obvious.
It must be noted that, in Holmesian deduction, it is important to attempt to eliminate all other possibilities, or as many as possible. This requires quite a bit of practice to reach. Watson attempts several times to perform Holmesian deductions, and even gives his explanations. However, he fails to recognise other equally probable circumstances, and is wrong on almost every count.
Holmes fans refer to the period from 1891 to 1894 the time between Holmes' disappearance and presumed death in "The Adventure of the Final Problem" and his reappearance in "The Adventure of the Empty House" as "the Great Hiatus". It is notable, though, that one later story ("The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge") is described as taking place in 1892.
Conan Doyle wrote the stories over the course of a decade. Wanting to devote more time to his historical novels, he killed off Holmes in "The Final Problem", which appeared in print in 1893. After resisting public pressure for eight years, the author wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles, which appeared in 1901, implicitly setting it before Holmes' "death" (some theorise that it actually took place after "The Return" but with Watson planting clues to an earlier date). The public, while pleased with the story, was not satisfied with a posthumous Holmes, and so Conan Doyle resuscitated Holmes two years later. Many have speculated on his motives for bringing Holmes back to life, notably writer-director Nicholas Meyer, who wrote an essay on the subject in the 1970s, but the actual reasons are not known, other than the obvious: publishers offered to pay generously. For whatever reason, Conan Doyle continued to write Holmes stories for a quarter-century longer.
Some writers have come up with alternate explanations for the hiatus. In Meyer's novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, the hiatus was explained as a secret sabbatical that Holmes indulged in for those years after his drug rehabilitation treatment with Sigmund Freud's help, while he light-heartedly suggested that Watson write a fictitious account claiming he had died: "They'll never believe you in any case." A recent novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Plague of Dracula, speculates that Holmes fell victim to the disease of vampirism and spent the Hiatus seeking a cure.
John Kendrick Bangs, creator of Bangsian fantasy, wrote a book in 1897 called Pursuit of the House-Boat (a sequel to his A House-Boat on the Styx, in which the souls of famous dead people start up a club in Hades). In it, the house-boat (which was hijacked at the end of A House-Boat on the Styx by Captain Kidd) is tracked down by the members of the club with the aid of none other than Sherlock Holmes who is indeed dead.
In his memoirs, Conan Doyle quotes a reader, who judged the later stories inferior to the earlier ones, to the effect that when Holmes went over the Reichenbach Falls, he may not have been killed, but he was never quite the same man after.
The differences in the pre- and post-Hiatus Holmes have in fact created speculation among those who play "The Game" (making believe Sherlock Holmes was a historical person). Among the more interesting and plausible theories: the later Holmes was in fact an impostor (perhaps even Professor Moriarty), the later stories were fictions created to fill other writers' pockets (this is often used to deal with the stories which supposedly are written by Holmes himself), and Holmes and Professor Moriarty were in fact a variation of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Among the more fanciful theories, the story The Case of the Detective's Smile by Mark Bourne, published in the anthology Sherlock Holmes in Orbit, posits that one of the places Holmes visited during his hiatus was Alice's Wonderland. While there, he solved the case of the stolen tarts, and his experiences there contributed to his kicking the cocaine addiction.
- Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed fictional character on film, having been played by no fewer than 75 actors in 211 movies since 1900.
- Holmes is dolichocephalic as told in "The Hound of the Baskervilles".
- Sherlock Holmes/Quotes
- Holmesian Speculation
- Sherlock Holmes Adaptations
- Influence of Sherlock Holmes
- List of Sherlock Holmes Short Stories and Novels.
- Chronology of Sherlock Holmes Stories
- "101 Amazing Sherlock Holmes Facts" - written by Jack Goldstein, Jimmy Russell. ISBN = 1783330457
- Dakin, D. Martin, A Sherlock Holmes Commentary, David &
Charles, Newton Abbot,1972. ISBN 0-7153-5493-0.
- This news article mentions Holmes' honour at the bottom of the page.
- Dakin, D. Martin, A Sherlock Holmes Commentary, David &
Charles, Newton Abbot, 1972, ISBN 0-7153-5493-0.
- McQueen, Ian, Sherlock Holmes Detected, David &
Charles, Newton Abbot, 1974, ISBN 0-7153-6453-7.
|Sherlock Holmes Canon|
|Sherlock Holmes • John Watson • Mycroft Holmes • Professor Moriarty • Inspector Lestrade • Irene Adler|
|Mary Watson • Mrs Hudson • Tobias Gregson • Athelney Jones • Sebastian Moran|
|A Study in Scarlet • The Sign of the Four • The Hound of the Baskervilles • The Valley of Fear|
|Short story collections|
|The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes • The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes • The Return of Sherlock Holmes|
His Last Bow • The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes
|Behind the scenes|
|Arthur Conan Doyle • The Strand Magazine • Sidney Paget • Chronology of Sherlock Holmes Cases|