Sherlock Holmes is a fictional detective created by Scottish author and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A London-based “consulting detective” whose abilities border on the fantastic, Holmes is famous for his astute logical reasoning, his ability to adopt almost any disguise, and his use of forensic science skills to solve difficult cases.
Holmes, who first appeared in publication in 1887, was featured in four novels and 56 short stories. The first novel, A Study in Scarlet, appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887 and the second, The Sign of the Four, in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890. The character grew tremendously in popularity with the first series of short stories in Strand Magazine, beginning with A Scandal in Bohemia in 1891; further series of short stories and two novels published in serial form appeared between then and 1927. The stories cover a period from around 1880 up to 1914.
All but four stories are narrated by Holmes’s friend and biographer, Dr. John H. Watson; two are narrated by Holmes himself (“The Blanched Soldier” and “The Lion’s Mane”) and two others are written in the third person (“The Mazarin Stone” and “His Last Bow”). In two stories (“The Musgrave Ritual” and “The Gloria Scott”), Holmes tells Watson the main story from his memories, while Watson becomes the narrator of the frame story. The first and fourth novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear, each include a long interval of omniscient narration recounting events unknown to either Holmes or Watson.
Doyle said that the character of Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Dr. Joseph Bell, for whom Doyle had worked as a clerk at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Like Holmes, Bell was noted for drawing large conclusions from the smallest observations. Sir Henry Littlejohn, lecturer on Forensic Medicine and Public Health at the Royal College of Surgeons, is also cited as a source for Holmes. Littlejohn served as Police Surgeon and Medical Officer of Health of Edinburgh, providing for Doyle a link between medical investigation and the detection of crime.
Explicit details about Sherlock Holmes’s life outside of the adventures recorded by Dr. Watson are few and far between in Conan Doyle’s original stories; nevertheless, incidental details about his early life and extended families portray a loose biographical picture of the detective. An estimate of Holmes’ age in the story “His Last Bow” places his birth in 1854; the story is set in August 1914 and he is described as being 60 years of age. Commonly, the date is cited as 6 January.
Holmes states that he first developed his methods of deduction while an undergraduate. His earliest cases, which he pursued as an amateur, came from fellow university students. According to Holmes, it was an encounter with the father of one of his classmates that led him to take up detection as a profession, and he spent the six years following university working as a consulting detective, before financial difficulties led him to take Watson as a roommate, at which point the narrative of the stories begins.
From 1881, Holmes was described as having lodgings at 221B, Baker Street, London, from where he runs his consulting detective service. 221B is an apartment up 17 steps, stated in an early manuscript to be at the “upper end” of the road. Until the arrival of Dr. Watson, Holmes worked alone, only occasionally employing agents from the city’s underclass, including a host of informants and a group of street children he calls “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”. Little is said of Holmes’s family. His parents were unmentioned in the stories and he merely states that his ancestors were “country squires”. In “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”, Holmes claims that his great-uncle was Vernet, the French artist. His brother, Mycroft, seven years his senior, is a government official who appears in three stories and is mentioned in one other story. Mycroft has a unique civil service position as a kind of memory-man or walking database for all aspects of government policy. Mycroft is described as even more gifted than Sherlock in matters of observation and deduction, but he lacks Sherlock’s drive and energy, preferring to spend his time at ease in the Diogenes Club, described as “a club for the most un-clubbable men in London”.
Watson describes Holmes as “bohemian” in habits and lifestyle. According to Watson, Holmes is an eccentric, with no regard for contemporary standards of tidiness or good order. In The Musgrave Ritual, Watson describes Holmes thus: 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. What appears to others as chaos, however, is to Holmes a wealth of useful information. Throughout the stories, Holmes would dive into his apparent mess of random papers and artefacts, only to retrieve precisely the specific document or eclectic item he was looking for.
Watson frequently makes note of Holmes’s erratic eating habits. The detective is often described as starving 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. His chronicler does not consider Holmes’s habitual use of a pipe, or his less frequent use of cigarettes and cigars, a vice. Nor does Watson condemn Holmes’s willingness to bend the truth or break the law on behalf of a client (e.g., lying to the police, concealing evidence or breaking into houses) when he feels it morally justifiable. Even so, it is obvious that Watson has stricter limits than Holmes, and occasionally berated Holmes for creating a “poisonous atmosphere” of tobacco smoke. Holmes himself references Watson’s moderation in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”, saying, “I think, Watson, that I shall resume that course of tobacco-poisoning which you have so often and so justly condemned”. Watson also did not condone Holmes’s plans when they manipulated innocent people, such as when he toyed with a young woman’s heart in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” although it was done with noble intentions to save many other young women from the clutches of the villainous Milverton.
Holmes is portrayed as a patriot acting on behalf of the government in matters of national security in a number of stories. He also carries out counter-intelligence work in His Last Bow, set at the beginning of the First World War. As shooting practice, the detective adorned the wall of his Baker Street lodgings with “VR” (Victoria Regina) in bullet pocks made by his pistol.
Holmes has an ego that at times borders on arrogant, albeit with justification; he draws pleasure from baffling police inspectors with his superior deductions. He does not seek fame, however, and is usually content to allow the police to take public credit for his work. It is often only when Watson publishes his stories that Holmes’s role in the case becomes apparent. Because of newspaper articles and Watson’s stories, however, Holmes is well known as a detective, and many clients ask for his help instead of or alongside the police. Holmes is pleased when he is recognised for having superior skills and responds to flattery, as Watson remarks, as a girl does to comments upon her beauty.
Holmes’s demeanour is presented as dispassionate and cold. Yet when in the midst of an adventure, Holmes can sparkle with remarkable passion. He has a flair for showmanship and will prepare elaborate traps to capture and expose a culprit, often to impress Watson or one of the Scotland Yard inspectors. Holmes is a loner and does not strive to make friends, although he values those that he has, and none higher than Watson. He attributes his solitary ways to his particular interests and his mopey disposition. In The Adventure of the Gloria Scott, he tells Watson that during two years at college, he made only one friend, Victor Trevor. Holmes says, “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”. He is similarly described in A Study in Scarlet as difficult to draw out by young Stamford. Holmes is described in The Hound of the Baskervilles as having a “cat-like” love of personal cleanliness. This in no way appears to hinder his intensely practical pursuit of his profession.
The only woman to impress Holmes was Irene Adler, a character introduced in “A Scandal in Bohemia” who, according to Watson, was always referred to by Holmes as “the woman”. Holmes himself is never directly quoted as using this term and even mentions her name in other cases (although it is worth noting that all of the stories using Adler’s name come after “A Scandal in Bohemia”, which was the third tale published about Holmes and the first short story so Holmes may have shifted how he referred to Adler over time). Adler is one of the few women who are mentioned in multiple Holmes stories, appearing in person in only one. In one story, “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” Holmes is engaged to be married, but only to gain information for his case. Although Holmes appears to show initial interest in some of his female clients (in particular, Violet Hunter in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”), Watson says he inevitably “manifested no further interest in the client when once she had ceased to be the centre of one of his problems”. Holmes finds their youth, beauty, and energy (and the cases they bring to him) invigorating, distinct from any romantic interest. These episodes show Holmes possesses a degree of charm; yet apart from the case of Adler, there is no indication of a serious or long-term interest. Watson states that Holmes has an “aversion to women” but “a peculiarly ingratiating way with [them]”. Holmes states, “I am not a whole-souled admirer of womankind”; in fact, he finds “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”. As Doyle remarked to muse Joseph Bell, “Holmes is as inhuman as a Babbage’s calculating machine and just about as likely to fall in love”. The only joy Holmes derives from the company of women is the problems they bring to him to solve. In The Sign of the Four, Watson quotes Holmes as being “an automaton, a calculating machine”, and Holmes is quoted as saying, “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”. This points to Holmes’s lack of interest in relationships with women in general, and clients in particular, leading Watson to remark that “there is something positively inhuman in you at times”. At the end of “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”, Holmes states: “I have never loved, Watson, but if I did and if the woman I loved had met such an end, I might act as our lawless lion-hunter had done.” In the story, the explorer Dr Sterndale had killed the man who murdered his beloved, Brenda Tregennis, to exact a revenge which the law could not provide. 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”. Again in The Sign of the Four, Watson quotes Holmes as saying, “I would not tell them too much. Women are never to be entirely trusted—not the best of them.” Watson notes that while Holmes dislikes and distrusts them, he is nonetheless a “chivalrous opponent”.
Holmes’s primary intellectual detection method is abductive reasoning,. “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”. 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 analyse just what Holmes is doing when he performs his “deductions.” “Holmesian deduction” appears to consist primarily of drawing inferences based on either straightforward practical principles—which are the result of careful observation, such as Holmes’s study of different kinds of cigar ashes—or inference to the best explanation. One quote often heard from Holmes is “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. Sherlock Holmes’s straightforward practical principles are generally of the form, “If p, then q,” where “p” stands for some observed evidence and “q” stands for what the evidence indicates. But there are also, as may be observed in the following example, 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 slavey.
In this case, Holmes employed several connected principles:
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 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, then they are likely to have been worn by him in the rain, when it is likely he became very wet. By applying such principles in an obvious way (using repeated applications of modus ponens), Holmes is able to infer from his observation that “the sides of Watson’s shoes are scored by several parallel cuts” that: “Watson’s servant girl is clumsy and careless” and “Watson has been very wet lately and has been out in vile weather”. Deductive reasoning allows Holmes to impressively reveal a stranger’s occupation, such as a Retired Sergeant of Marines in A Study in Scarlet; a former ship’s carpenter turned pawnbroker in “The Red-Headed League”; and a billiard-marker and a retired artillery NCO in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”. Similarly, by studying inanimate objects, Holmes is able to make astonishingly detailed deductions about their owners, including Watson’s pocket-watch in “The Sign of the Four” as well as a hat, a pipe, and a walking stick in other stories. Yet Doyle is careful not to present Holmes as infallible—a central theme in “The Adventure of the Yellow Face”. At the end of the tale a sobered Holmes tells Watson, “If it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you”.
SHERLOCK HOLMES 2
TOP 10 QUOTES:
1. “Excellent! I cried. “Elementary,” said he.
2. You know my methods, Watson.
3. When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever…
4. The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present…
4. London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers…
6. To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.
7. It is the unofficial force—the Baker Street irregulars.
8. The fair sex is your department.
9. …the curious incident of the dog in the night-time…
10. They were the footprints of a gigantic hound!