Sherlock Holmes is a fictional private detective created by British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Referring to himself as a “consulting detective” in the stories, Holmes is known for his 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’s 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 until 1927, eventually totalling four novels and 56 short stories. All but one are set in the Victorian or Edwardian eras, between about 1880 and 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.
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?” Similarly, the stories of Émile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq were extremely popular at the time Conan Doyle began writing Holmes, and Holmes’ speech and behaviour sometimes follow that of Lecoq. Both Dupin and Lecoq are referenced at the beginning of A Study in Scarlet.
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 Conan 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 Conan 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 Conan Doyle with a link between medical investigation and the detection of crime.
Other inspirations have been considered. One is thought to beMaximilien Heller, by French author Henry Cauvain. It is not known if Conan Doyle read Maximilien Heller, but he was fluent in French,and 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’ life are scarce in Conan Doyle’s 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 clarifying whether this was Claude Joseph, Carle, or Horace Vernet. Holmes’s brother Mycroft, seven years his senior, is a government official. 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 several years after university as a consultant before financial difficulties led him to accept John H. Watson as a fellow lodger.
The two take lodgings at 221B Baker Street, London, an apartment at the upper (north) end of the street, up seventeen steps.
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 1888 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.
Holmes clients vary from the most powerful monarchs and governments of Europe, to wealthy aristocrats and industrialists, to impoverished pawnbrokers and governesses.
He is known only in select profession circles at the beginning of the first story, but is already collaborating with Scotland Yard. However, his continued work and the publication of Watson’s stories raises Holmes’ profile, and he rapidly becomes well known as a detective; so many clients ask for his help instead of (or in addition to) that of the police that, Watson writes, by 1895 Holmes has “an immense practice”. Police outside London ask Holmes for assistance if he is nearby, even during a vacation. A Prime Minister and the King of Bohemia visit 221B Baker Street in person to request Holmes’s assistance; the government of France awards him its Legion of Honour for solving a case; and he aids the Vatican at least twice. and declines a knighthood “for services which may perhaps some day be described”.
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”, 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 many of the stories, Holmes dives into an apparent mess to find a relevant item. 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.
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. While 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). 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, he is pleased when his skills are recognized and responds to flattery.
Except for that of Watson, Holmes avoids casual company. In “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott”, he tells the doctor that during two years at college he made only one friend: “I was never a very sociable fellow, Watson … I never mixed much with the men of my year”. The detective is similarly described in A Study in Scarlet.
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. 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, 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 19th-century England. 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, the detective remains an addict whose habit is “not dead, but merely sleeping”.
Watson and Holmes both use tobacco, smoking cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. Although his chronicler does not consider Holmes’s smoking a vice per se, Watson—a physician—occasionally criticises the detective for creating a “poisonous atmosphere” in their confined quarters.
Attitudes towards women
As Conan 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 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 in some way 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”. At the end of The Sign of Four, Holmes states that “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.”
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.
Knowledge and skills
Shortly after meeting Holmes in the first story, A Study in Scarlet (generally assumed to be 1881, though the exact date is not given), 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.
Though Holmes is famed for his reasoning capabilities, his investigative technique relies heavily on the acquisition of hard evidence. Many of the techniques he employs in the stories were at the time in their infancy (for example, Scotland Yard’s fingerprint bureau opened in 1901).
The detective is particularly skilled in the analysis of trace evidence and other physical evidence, including latent prints (such as footprints, hoof prints, and shoe and tire impressions) 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); handwriting analysis and graphology (“The Adventure of the Reigate Squire”, “The Man with the Twisted Lip”); 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”).
Because of the small scale of much of his evidence, 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 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”.
The detective story
Although Holmes is not the original fictional detective, 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 successful character for a number of authors.
“Elementary, my dear Watson”
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.”
William Gillette is widely considered to have originated the phrase with the formulation, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow”, allegedly in his 1899 play Sherlock Holmes. However, the script was revised numerous times over the course of some three decades of revivals and publications, and the phrase is present in some versions of the script, but not others.
The exact phrase, as well as close variants, can be seen in newspaper and journal articles as early as 1909; there is some indication that it was clichéd even then. The phrase “Elementary, my dear fellow, quite elementary” appears in P. G. Wodehouse’s novel, Psmith in the City (1909–10), 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. The phrase became familiar with the American public in part due to its use in The Rathbone-Bruce series of films from 1939 to 1946.