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Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes is a famous, brilliant, fictional detective of the late 19th century, created by British author and physician Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes describes himself as a "consulting detective", which means that people come to consult him about their problems, rather than him going to see them; we are told that he is often able to solve a problem without leaving home (although this aspect is somewhat lost in the stories themselves, which focus on the more interesting cases which often do require him to do actual legwork). He specializes in solving unusual cases using his extraordinary powers of observation and "deduction" (see below). Conan Doyle loosely based Holmes on his teacher at the medical school of Edinburgh University, the gifted surgeon and forensic detective Joseph Bell. The Sherlock Holmes name was derived from a pair of cricketers.

It is a popular myth that Sherlock Homes gave rise to an entire genre of murder mystery fiction, whereas the detective genre was alive before Holmes, if not one which followed a logical progression to the solution. Many fictional detectives have imitated Holmes' logical methods and followed in his footsteps, in many different ways. Some of the more popular fictional detectives to continue Holmes' legacy include Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen, Perry Mason, Columbo, Dick Tracy and even the comic book superhero Batman.

In many of the stories he is assisted by his companion, the practical Dr. John H. Watson, with whom Holmes shared rooms for some time, before Watson's marriage. Watson is portrayed as Holmes's friend and chronicler, i.e., Holmes's stories are told as reports, by Watson, of Holmes's solutions to actual crimes. Holmes also has a brother, Mycroft Holmes[?], who appears in at least three stories: "The Greek Interpreter[?]", "The Final Problem[?]", and "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans[?]".

In three stories, including The Sign of Four[?], he is assisted by a group of street children or urchins he calls the Baker Street Irregulars.

In the very first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, something of Holmes's background is given. On March 4, 1881 he is presented as an independent student of chemistry with a variety of very curious side-interests—which turn out all to be single-mindedly bent toward making Holmes superior at solving crimes. (Well, perhaps not all—certainly violin playing and pipe-smoking do not). In another early Holmes story, "The Gloria Scott[?]", we get more background on what caused Holmes to become a detective: a college friend's father complimented him very highly on his deductive skills.

In this first story, Dr. Watson makes an evaluation of Sherlock's skills:

"Sherlock Holmes–his limits"

  1. Knowledge of Literature.—Nil.
  2. " " Philosophy.—Nil.
  3. " " Astronomy.—Nil.
  4. " " Politics.—Feeble.
  5. " " Botany.—Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
  6. 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.
  7. Knowledge of Chemistry.—Profound.
  8. " " Anatomy.—Accurate, but unsystematic.
  9. " " Sensational Literature.—Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
  10. Plays the violin well.
  11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
  12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

Elsewhere Sherlock himself mentions that he has "some knowledge" of baritsu, "the Japanese system of wrestling", by means of which he escaped the death-grip of his arch-enemy.

In this same first story Doyle presents a comparison between his debuting character and two earlier established and better known at the time fictional detectives: Edgar Allan Poe's Auguste Dupin[?] and Emile Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq[?]. Dupin had first appeared in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", first published in 1841, and Lecoq 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 Allan 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 textbook for detectives to teach them what to avoid."
Sherlock 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 Doyle to pay some respect to characters by writers who had influenced him, while insisting that his character is an improvement over them.

Holmes's arch-enemy, and popularly-supposed nemesis was Professor James Moriarty ("the Napoleon of Crime") who fell, struggling with Holmes, over the Reichenbach Falls[?]. Conan Doyle intended "The Final Problem", the story in which Holmes and Moriarty fell over the cliff, to be the last that he wrote about Holmes; however the mass of mailings he received demanding that he bring Holmes back convinced him to continue. "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. Notably, Moriarty does not appear directly in the stories; Watson never encounters Moriarty, and so the encounters between Holmes and his nemesis are described by Holmes.

Irene Adler[?] was always referred to by Holmes and his fans as "The Woman". She only appeared in "A Scandal in Bohemia", but she is often thought to be the only woman who broke through Holmes's reserve. Given the fact that he got himself engaged in several times during different books (only to add information to his cases, but even so) this is most unlikely.

However Holmes is not at all a stuffy strait-laced Victorian gentleman; in fact, he describes himself and his habits as "Bohemian". He apparently suffers from bipolar disorder, alternating between days or weeks of listless lassitude and similar periods of intense engagement with a challenging case or with his hobby, experimental chemistry. Modern readers of the Holmes stories are apt to be surprised that he is an avid user of cocaine, though Watson describes this as Holmes's "only vice". Watson might not have considered as a vice Holmes's habit of smoking (usually a pipe) like a chimney, nor his tendency to bend the truth and break the law (i.e. burgle, housebreak, but not say murder or rape) when it suited his purposes; in Victorian England these were probably not considered vices as long as they were done by a gentleman for noble purposes. Since a lot of the plot revolved around doing this, a reader must accept this as contemporary readers did.

Table of contents

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 Holmes's 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 (that's the British adjective; Americans 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's study of different kind of cigar ashes—or inference to the best explanation. In many cases, the inference can be modelled 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's 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 gotten 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, 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, they were caused by someone who scraped around the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud from it.

(Of course they could be used to remove anything from the shoe, or by someone wishing to damage the shoe.)

  • If a nineteenth-century London doctor's shoes are scraped to remove crusted mud, the person who so scrapes 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.

(But of course we only gather that mud was scraped off by the information above.)

  • If someone's shoes had encrusted mud on them, that person has been very wet lately and has been out in vile weather.

(Which seems a very bad turn of speech. People would likely to get wet often! Also the mud wasn't placed there recently anyway.)

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 isn't 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 recognize the method used, instead, as an inductive one—in particular, argument to the best explanation[?], or, in Charles S. Peirce's terminology, abduction. (That Holmes should have called this deduction is entirely plausible, however; in several stories, Holmes is said not to have known anything at all of philosophy.)

The instances in which Holmes uses abduction 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 certain 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 the various people that Scotland Yard has in custody (each of them being an alternative explanation)—but rather ... well, we don't want to give away the story, but you get the idea. 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?"

In the latter example, in fact, Holmes's solution of the crime depends both on a series of applications of general principles and argument to the best explanation.

Holmes's 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 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.

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. However, the complete phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson" does not appear in any of the 68 Holmes stories written by Doyle.

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.

Readers of the Sherlock Homes stories have often been surprised to discover that their author, Conan Doyle, was a fervent believer in paranormal phenomena, and that the logical, skeptical/sceptical character of Holmes was in opposition to his own in many ways.

The word 'Sherlock' has entered the language to mean a detective or nosey person.

Man or Machine

Watson calls Holmes a "desiccated calculating machine" (desiccated means "dried up", as in dessicated coconut). This was, by the way, the era of Charles Babbage. In some ways this is true. If Holmes wants to find out information, he will either send out his Irregulars or look through books (as he looked up about The Hound of the Baskervilles), treating all he finds as data — information to be interpreted. This is very similar to a way a computer works. Like a machine, he doesn't have a social life and he doesn't seem to eat or even sleep (even when he was ill). When a computer wants to solve a problem it focuses it — just like Holmes. A detective nowadays may go out for a walk or go out for the night and try to clear the mind. There are differences however. Although a computer could possibly come with the idea of getting engaged to a woman to gain information from them, it couldn't come up with a way of doing this. A computer would not stoop to disguise or acting as Holmes did. In fact if you consider Holmes's deduction principles above, it seems a very skewed logic. Of course, even computers aren't always that logical.

The Canon Conan Doyle wrote four novels and fifty-six short stories about Sherlock Holmes. All were narrated by Dr. Watson, with the exception of two narrated by Holmes himself and two more written in the third person. The stories appeared in magazine serialization, notably in The Strand[?], over a period of forty years. This was a common form of publication in those days; Charles Dickens also wrote in a similar fashion.


Short stories

(organized by collection)

Note: Frequently, "The Adventure of ..." is dropped from some story titles in current-day anthologies. However, in their original appearance in The Strand, this is how the titles were given.)

"The Hiatus" Holmes fans refer to the period from 1891 to 1894—the time between Holmes's disappearance and presumed death in "The Final Problem" and his reappearance in "The Adventure of the Empty House"—as "the Hiatus". It is notable, though, that one later story ("The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge") is described as taking place in 1892.

For Conan Doyle, writing the stories, the period is ten years. Conan Doyle, wanting to devote more time to his historical novels, killed off Holmes in "The Final Problem", which appeared in print in 1893. After resisting public pressure for eight years, Conan Doyle wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles, which appeared in 1901, setting it before Holmes's "death". The public, while pleased with the story, were not satisfied with a posthumous Holmes, and so Conan Doyle resuscitated Holmes two years later. Many have speculated on Conan Doyle's 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 motives are not known. For whatever reason, Conan Doyle continued to write Holmes stories for a quarter-century more.

Adaptations The stories were very popular as adaptations for the stage, and later film, and still later television.


The actor most associated with Holmes on stage was William Gillette[?], who wrote, directed, and starred in a popular play about Holmes while the stories were still being published. His version of Holmes, dressed in deerstalker cap and Inverness cape and smoking a large curved pipe, contributed much to the popular image of the character. (There are occasional hints of the deerstalker cap in Paget's original illustrations for The Strand, but it is by no means a regular accoutrement. Doyle's text is even vaguer, refering only to a soft cotton hat or a hat with earflaps in the passages with the relevant illustrations. He is also described as smoking at least two different types of pipe, varying pipes with his mood.)

A number of plays have been written around Holmes and also one musical.


In film, two actors are most commonly associated with the role: Eille Norwood[?] (47 films) and Basil Rathbone (14 films (with Nigel Bruce[?] as Watson) and 1 play), both of them somewhat resembling the Sidney Paget illustrations in the Strand.


John Gielgud played Holmes for BBC radio. There have of course been other adaptations.


There have been many television adaptations of the better-known Sherlock Holmes tales, notably The Hound of the Baskervilles, over the years. Many aficionados consider the Granada Television adaptation, with Jeremy Brett as Holmes, as the most faithful depiction of the stories ever produced. Initially with David Burke[?] and subsequently Edward Hardwicke as Watson, all but nineteen of the Conan Doyle stories were filmed before the premature death of Jeremy Brett from a heart attack in 1995. Between 1984 to 1994, 36 episodes and 4 films were produced over 6 series. Many regard Brett's performance as a near-perfect portrayal of Holmes. Brett and Harwicke reprised their roles as Holmes and Watson in 1988-89 in a West End stage play, The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, written by Jeremy Paul (the secret being that Holmes had "invented" Moriarty as a challenge to his investigative ability).

Other people who have played Sherlock Holmes in film, television, stage, or radio include:

Holmesian Speculation A popular pastime among fans of Sherlock Holmes is to pretend that Holmes and Watson were real people, and Arthur Conan Doyle merely Watson's "literary agent", and to attempt to "discover" new facts about them, either from clues in the stories or by combining the stories with historical fact.

One influential player of the historical-Holmes game was William S. Baring-Gould, whose works on the subject included The Chronological Holmes, an attempt to lay out in chronological order all the events alluded to in the Sherlock Holmes stories; Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, an influential "biography" of Holmes; and Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-fifth Street, a "biography" of Rex Stout's detective character Nero Wolfe which popularised the theory that Wolfe was "really" the son of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler.

The Holmes family

One particularly rich area of "research" is the "uncovering" of details about Holmes's family history and early life, of which he says almost nothing in Conan Doyle's stories.

Various authors have given different views of Holmes's parentage, but usually agree he was of English-French origin and that his father was a country Squire and that his mother was named or nick-named Violet.

This widespread agreement is due to Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, the influential "biography" of Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould. Faced with Holmes's reticence about his family background and early life, Baring-Gould invented one for him. According to Baring-Gould, Sherlock Holmes was born in Yorkshire, the youngest of three sons of Siger Holmes and Violet Sherrinford. The middle brother, Mycroft, appears in the Canon, but the eldest, Sherrinford Holmes, was invented by Baring-Gould to free Mycroft and Sherlock from the obligation of following Siger as a country squire. (In reality, "Sherrinford Holmes" was one of the names Arthur Conan Doyle considered for his hero before settling on "Sherlock".) Siger Holmes's name is derived from "The Adventure of the Empty House", in which Sherlock spends some time pretending to be a Norwegian mountaineer called Sigerson. (This hardly qualifies as a clue about the name of Sherlock's father, but in the absence of any genuine clues it was the best Baring-Gould had to work with.)

Some other versions of Sherlock's parentage:

The Holmes family and the Wold Newton family

Based originally on the writings of Philip Jose Farmer, the concept of the Wold Newton family is the construction of a giant genealogical tree which connects many fictional characters to each other and to a number of historical figures. Additions to this tree are based on the writings of the original creators, pastiche writers, and "Wold Newton scholars". Sherlock Holmes has been one of the central characters of this tree. The Holmes family (http://www.pjfarmer.com/secret/contributors/holmes-family-tree.htm) and its various generations have been the subject of many Wold Newton articles. Sherlock himself has been described as born as William Sherlock Scott Holmes on January 6, 1854 to Siger Holmes and his wife Violet Rutherford. One of eight siblings, including Mycroft. The descendants of those siblings include many other characters. Sherlock himself has been given as the father of at least eight children, including Nero Wolfe.

Authors of new (i.e. Non-Doyle) Sherlock Holmes stories

See also: Scotland Yard (the HOLMES computer).

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