If you have been following me, you know that I have a deep passion for Detective stories… and detectives. (See what I did there?) That maybe because I was an voracious reader as a kid. Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys…. R.L. Stine (okay…. he’s not so much mystery as he is horror but I had a blast finding out who was ultimately pulling the strings in his books.) But in my late teens I stumbled onto Sherlock Holmes. There were points in my young life I was under the impression that Sherlock was a real person… I was in for an interesting fall down a rabbit down the rabbit hole that is Sherlock Holmes.
I was introduced to Sherlock back in 2006. I was gifted a *now old school* video* iPod and I was cycling through iTunes looking for a way to fill up all 80gb. This would also be when I was first introduced to audiobooks… I stumbled across several collections that had to have. They were for sale and I have an affinity for the classics so I took my iTunes Gift Cards and indulged in all that is Sherlock Holmes.
It was interesting to be able to go about my day and listen to the intricate short stories in the collections. In the car, or even on the bus (before I had a car.) It was good to sit back and listen to events play out like an old radio show. It started me to wanting to learning as much as I could about the author and the collections. It would be years until a friend would point me in the direction of Audible… and that would change my life. But as a 20 something year old I could afford a handful of downloads and they all hand to do with Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock Holmes: A Brief History
Sherlock Holmes is a fictional detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And while he is not the first fictional detective, he is the best known. (Hence why many people think he is real.) The Guinness World Records lists him as the most portrayed literary human character in film and television history. The detective first appears in 1887, with A Study in Scarlet, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. A Study in Scarlet was the first work of detective fiction to incorporate the magnifying glass as an investigative tool. The popularity of the character spawned 4 novels and 56 short stories, the latter of which was published in the Strand Magazine. The story goes that The Strand’s Magazine readership was down and needed a pick me up. Enter the Detective.
The short stories, originally published in magazines, were later collected in five anthologies:
- The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1891–1892 in The Strand)
- The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1892–1893 in The Strand)
- The Return of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1903–1904 in The Strand)
- His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1908–1917)
- The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1921–1927)
Financial difficulties lead Holmes and Dr. Watson to share rooms together at 221B Baker Street, London. Their residence is maintained by their landlady, Mrs. Hudson. Holmes works as a detective for twenty-three years, with Watson assisting him for seventeen of those years. 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 records of Holmes’s cases sensational and romanticized, suggesting that they fail to accurately and objectively report the “science” of his craft. What is great about the collection is the use of forensic science and crime scene investigation. In the novel, A Study in Scarlet, when Watson is first introduced to Holmes in a the lab at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, Holmes is experimenting with what I now know is a blood typing test. (Testing out whether a stain is blood or not.) Fascinating to know that this was being talked about as early as the 1880’s. Once Holmes was called to a crime scene he also looked at the trail leading up to the crime scene, taking in things like tire tracks and footprints. These things were previously viewed as unimportant to solving crimes. (Usually they interrogated people until they confessed.) Holmes also used tobacco ashes and cigarette butts to identify criminals; handwriting analysis; compared typewritten letters to expose a fraud; used gunpowder residue to expose two murderers; and analyzed small pieces of human remains to expose two murders. 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 poison. Ballistics feature in “The Adventure of the Empty House” when spent bullets are recovered to be matched with a suspected murder weapon, a practice which became regular police procedure only some fifteen years after the story was published.
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. John H. 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. Even the fictional address 221B Baker Street is famous. It is introduced in A Study in Scarlet as the place of residence for both Holmes and Watson. For many years, Abbey National employed a full-time secretary to answer mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes. I mean here is a fictional detective that is over 100 years old getting mail at a fictional address. I had a theory in college as to why people thought he was real… (not sure it still holds up over 100 years later.) but I figured that the Sherlock Holmes stories were being produced around the time the Jack the Ripper murders occurred and because the murders were real and there was a want for a person to solve these crimes (which have never been solved) they turned to Sherlock and made him a real individual.
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. Bell was involved in several police investigations, mostly in Scotland, such as the Ardlamont mystery of 1893, usually with forensic expert Professor Henry Littlejohn. Bell also gave his analysis of the Ripper murders to Scotland Yard.
What made the story interesting to me was the fact that Holmes’s clients vary from the most powerful monarchs (A Scandal in Bohemia) and governments of Europe, to wealthy aristocrats and industrialists, to impoverished pawnbrokers (The Redheaded League) and governesses. I have never heard of term consulting detective before listening to these stories. The publication of Watson’s stories raises Holmes’s 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. Police outside London ask Holmes for assistance if he is nearby but the detective doesn’t seek fame or fortune… he just wants an interesting problem. Sherlock acts on behalf of the British government in matters of national security several times, and declines a knighthood “for services which may perhaps some day be described”. He is too cool but that is mostly after the Doctor starts documenting the cases.
The Death of the Most Famous Detective Who Never Lived.
The first set of Holmes stories was published between 1887 and 1893. Conan Doyle killed off Holmes in a final battle with the criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty in The Final Problem (published 1893, but set in 1891). Conan Doyle felt that “my literary energies should not be directed too much into one channel.” (Living with a writer has given me much more insight into why a writer would want to kill off a character.) However, distressed readers wrote anguished letters to The Strand Magazine, which suffered a terrible blow when 20,000 people canceled their subscriptions to the magazine in protest. It almost put the magazine out of business. Londoners were so distraught upon hearing the news of Holmes’s death that they wore black armbands in mourning. the recorded public reaction to Holmes’s death was unlike anything previously seen for fictional events. Conan Doyle wrote other works and concentrated on other things while 8 years passed. The demand was too much to ignore and Conan Doyle wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles with a setting before Holmes’s death. In 1903, Conan Doyle wrote “The Adventure of the Empty House”; set in 1894, Holmes reappears, explaining to a stunned Watson that he had faked his death to fool his enemies. Following “The Adventure of the Empty House”, Conan Doyle would sporadically write new Holmes stories until 1927. Check out my favorite (well on of them) from the RDJ films that feature Moriarty. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBUHvAu4qSI ) I remember taking my mother to this film on Christmas Day and my mother doesn’t really do movies… and she was so taken with the movie… She didn’t know how it was going to end… (I did though.) Check out Andrew Scott doing his thing as well. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOGXSFK3Xsw)
Sherlock Holmes, The Consulting Detective
In the stories, the description we get of the great detective is through the eyes of Doctor Watson. It blew my mind that a character of this magnitude had such a drug problem. In newer adaptations this is played up because it is illegal in this day and age (Jonny Walker’s Sherlock being a recovering addict in Elementary)but at the time the stories were being written… that was not so at the time these stories were written. 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. One would think that this habit would at some point inhibit his reasoning ability or dull his senses but it never does. The detective goes without food at times of intense intellectual activity, believing that “the faculties become refined when you starve them.” What I remember being funny to me was the way Watson describes his habits once they start living together. Of course, during their introduction Holmes admits that he doesn’t eat or sleep for long periods of time when on a case but also that he plays the violin for long hours when he is stuck. Holmes is an eccentric with no regard for contemporary standards of tidiness or good order. Watson talks about this in a Study in Scarlet:
In his personal habits one of the most untidy men that ever drove a fellow-lodger to distraction. [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.A Study in Scarlet 1887
I am not saying he was a hoarder but you know… if the tobacco filled shoe fits. Now… what is interesting… or perhaps not so much so (since these stories were written over 100 years ago) is his attitudes towards women. Holmes says of himself that he is “not a whole-souled admirer of womankind”, and that he finds “the motives of women … inscrutable. … In The Sign of Four, he says, “Women are never to be entirely trusted—not the best of them”, a feeling Watson notes as an “atrocious sentiment”. That is what makes what happens in the “A Scandal in Bohemia” so much more interesting but more on that later. Check out the BBC’s adaptation of it. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bBHT158E0s) Keep in mind though… this isn’t what happens in the story. So you will have to read the short story to find the similarities. But while Watson says that the detective has an “aversion to women”, he also notes Holmes as having “a peculiarly ingratiating way with [them]”. Watson does talk about how their housekeeper 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”. But he does something in the The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton that I will never be able to get over in regards to women. Holmes becomes engaged under false pretenses in order to obtain information about a case, abandoning the woman once he has the information he requires. Not a good look Detective.
It is revealed that Sherlock has an older brother Mycroft by seven years. he is a government official and a founding member of the Diogenes Club. Mycroft is described as having abilities of deduction and knowledge exceeding even those of his brother, though their practical use is limited by his dislike of fieldwork. He mainly appears in two stories by Doyle, “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter” and “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans”. He also appears briefly in “The Final Problem”.
Holmes’s friendship with Watson is his most significant relationship. Holmes can be cold and calculating especially when he is in the middle of a case he can also be very animated. He has a flair for showmanship, often keeping his methods and evidence hidden until the last possible moment so as to impress observers). Watson is somewhat on board with Holmes’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. (The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.)
But what causes him to stand out is his deductive reasoning as well as his crime scene investigation which was ahead of it’s time. Holmes level of observation is unmatched but it is not just the keen eye for observing but it is the fact that he is able to link these things to something in the person/clients life. Holmes observes the dress and attitude of his clients and suspects, noting skin marks (such as tattoos), contamination (such as ink stains or clay on boots), emotional state, and physical condition in order to deduce their origins and recent history. The detective’s guiding principle, as he says in The Sign of Four, is: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
There are several stories that I love and as is the case with my past posts I shall make a list of my favorites. If you guys get a chance to read or listen to them (Audible guys.) I think I have it narrowed down to my top stories… These would be the ones that I find myself listening to again and again. So let’s get down to it:
- A Scandal in Bohemia – It is the first of the 56 Holmes short stories written by Doyle and the first of 38 Sherlock Holmes works illustrated by Sidney Paget. The story is notable for introducing the character of Irene Adler, who is one of the most notable female characters in the Sherlock Holmes series, despite appearing in only one story. Doyle ranked “A Scandal in Bohemia” fifth in his list of his twelve favorite Holmes stories. It was the first of the stories collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in 1892. In this short story, Holmes is visited by the King of Bohemia. He has a bit of a problem with Irene Adler. The King explains that he is to become engaged to a young Scandinavian princess. However, five years before the events of the story, he had enjoyed a relationship with the American opera singer Irene Adler. She has since retired and now lives in London. He fears that should the strictly principled family of his fiancée learn of this impropriety, the marriage would be called off. He seeks to regain letters and a photograph of Adler and himself together, which he had sent to her during their relationship as a token. The King’s agents had failed to recover the photograph through various means; an offer to pay for the photograph and letters were refused. Adler has threatened to send the photograph to his in-laws, so the King requests help in recovering the photograph. What is great about this story is that Irene comes out on top. Sherlock dislikes the King of Bohemia and rightly so… (he seems to think the world… Irene’s world… revolves him.) Sadly… he finds out how untrue that is. It is so satisfying.
- The Red-Headed League – Conan Doyle ranked “The Red-Headed League” second in his list of his twelve favorite Holmes stories. It is also the second of the twelve stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which was published in 1892. Wilson comes to consult Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. While studying this prospective client, both Holmes and Watson notice his red hair, which has a distinct flame-like hue. Wilson tells them that some weeks before, his young assistant, Vincent Spaulding, urged him to respond to a newspaper want-ad offering highly-paid work to only red-headed male applicants. (How odd. Do people really fall for this type of thing? Well I watched Catfish so this didn’t seem so far fetched.)The next morning, Wilson had waited in a long line of fellow red-headed men, was interviewed and was the only applicant hired, because none of the other applicants qualified; their red hair was either too dark or too bright, and did not match Wilson’s unique flame color. was able to vacate his shop for short periods in the afternoon, receiving £4 (equivalent to £443 in 2019) a week for several weeks; the work was obviously useless clerical work in a bare office, he was made to copy the Encyclopædia Britannica. Wilson learned much about the subjects starting with the “A” section and looked forward to getting into the “B” section. One morning, a sign on the locked office door inexplicably announced that “THE RED-HEADED LEAGUE IS DISSOLVED”—Oct. 9, 1890.” The story is outrageous enough. One point that I was clear on was that someone wanted Wilson out his office for some reason and it is really interesting watching it unfold. Check it out.
- The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton – So this made it to my list because usually Holmes has a strong sense of right and wrong and justice but in this story he takes a different approach than the norm. It is one of 13 stories in the cycle collected as The Return of Sherlock Holmes and was published in 1904. Holmes is hired by the débutante Lady Eva Blackwell to retrieve compromising letters from a blackmailer: Milverton, who causes Holmes more revulsion than any of the 50-odd murderers in his career. Milverton is “the king of blackmailers”. He has made his money by blackmailing others. He demands £7,000 (over £800,000 in 2015) for the letters, which if given to third parties would cause a scandal that would end Lady Eva’s marriage engagement. Of course, this was in the time and place when all women had was marriage. Though Holmes is aware of Milverton, he hasn’t had the chance to nail down evidence of his breaking the law; this is his opportunity and he leaps at it. All kinds of hilarity ensues and Watson’s account is to die for but when the climax comes… you’ll find yourself not feeling too bad. Just like Holmes and Watson.
- The Adventure of the Speckled Band – It was originally published in Strand Magazine in February 1892, with illustrations by Sidney Paget, and later as the eighth story in the collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The story tells of Helen Stoner, a soon-to-be married young woman who suspects her stepfather may be trying to kill her in order to retain control of her inheritance. Convinced of her stepfather’s intentions, she turns to Holmes for help. “The Speckled Band” is a classic locked room mystery that deals with the themes of parental greed, inheritance and freedom. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson meet a young woman named Helen Stoner who fears that her life is being threatened by her stepfather, Dr. Grimesby Roylott. Roylott is a doctor who practiced in Calcutta, India and was married to Helen’s late mother when she was a widow living there. He is also the impoverished last survivor of what was once a wealthy but violent, ill-tempered and amoral, aristocratic family of Surrey, and has already served a jail sentence for killing his Indian butler in a rage. Helen’s twin sister had died almost two years earlier, shortly before she was to be married. Helen had heard her sister’s dying words, “The speckled band!” but was unable to decode their meaning. Helen herself, troubled by the perplexing death of her sister, is now engaged, and she has begun to hear strange noises and observe strange activities where she and her stepfather live. This isn’t a whodunit. We know who the culprit is… the story is about proving it and it doesn’t end in the way you think. My favorite thing is that Holmes can’t be threatened. He is always more than he appears to be. I guess in his line of work. You have to be.
- The Adventure of Silver Blaze – 1 of the 12 in the cycle collected as The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle ranked “Silver Blaze” 13th in a list of his 19 favorite Sherlock Holmes stories. “Silver Blaze” focuses on the disappearance of the eponymous race horse (a famous winner, owned by a Colonel Ross) on the eve of an important race and on the apparent murder of its trainer. The famous exchange about “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time” in fact inspired an excellent novel which used that line as the title. There is a lot going on here. But it comes together in the best way.
- The Final Problem – It was first published in Strand Magazine under the title “The Adventure of the Final Problem” in December 1893. It appears in book form as part of the collection The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. This story, set in 1891, introduced Holmes’s archenemy, the criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty. (Check out the RDJ Sherlock Holmes movies he battles with Moriarty.) Moriarty is a criminal mastermind whom Holmes describes as the “Napoleon of crime”. In the short stories, Moriarty was introduced primarily as a narrative device to enable Doyle to kill Sherlock Holmes, and he is only featured in two of the Sherlock Holmes stories. However, in adaptations (BBC), he has often been given a greater prominence and treated as Sherlock Holmes’s archenemy. In The Final Problem Holmes is on the verge of delivering a fatal blow to Moriarty’s criminal organization. However he is forced to flee to continental Europe to escape Moriarty’s retribution. Moriarty follows him and Watson, and the pursuit ends on top of the Reichenbach Falls, an encounter that apparently ends with both Holmes and Moriarty falling to their deaths. In this story, Moriarty is introduced as a criminal mastermind who protects nearly all of the criminals of England in exchange for their obedience and a share in their profits. Holmes, by his own account, was originally led to Moriarty by his perception that many of the crimes he investigated were not isolated incidents, but instead the machinations of a vast and subtle criminal organization. It is a heartbreaking story since it is Watson’s POV. You can feel the pain as he realizes what has happened to his friend. Listening to this story made me realize that I had seen this scene play out a few times without knowing where it actually came from. The scene that comes my mind is that of Basil and Ratigan falling off Big Ben in The Great Mouse Detective (Watch on Disney Plus. This is it’s own novel series but it is very clear who he is supposed to be.
- The Adventure of the Empty House – 1 of the 13 stories in the cycle collected as The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Public pressure forced Conan Doyle to bring the sleuth back to life, and explain his apparently miraculous survival of a deadly struggle with Professor Moriarty. This is the first Holmes story set after his supposed death at the Reichenbach Falls, as recounted in “The Final Problem”. The story takes place in 1894, three years after the apparent death of the detective. On the night of March 30, an apparently unsolvable locked-room murder takes place in London which Watson tries to help the authorities solve: the killing of the Honorable Ronald Adair, son of the Earl of Maynooth, a colonial governor in Australia. Adair was in his sitting room, working on accounts of some kind, as indicated by the papers and money found by police. He liked playing whist and regularly did so at several clubs, but never for great sums of money. It does, however, come out that he won as much as £420 in partnership with Colonel Sebastian Moran. The motive does not appear to be robbery as nothing has been stolen, and it seems that Adair had not an enemy in the world. It seems odd that Adair’s door was locked from the inside. He liked playing whist and regularly did so at several clubs, but never for great sums of money. It does, however, come out that he won as much as £420 in partnership with Colonel Sebastian Moran. (Colonel Moran is supposed to have been the number one goon that worked with Professor Moriarty.) The motive does not appear to be robbery as nothing has been stolen, and it seems that Adair had not an enemy in the world. It seems odd that Adair’s door was locked from the inside. Later Holmes reveals himself to Watson and tells the story for how he survived but he also brings with him him Colonel Moran. (I was so interested in hearing what his explanation was going to be after the Great Fall and it turns out that it wasn’t so much his explanation as it was his triumphant return and the way he foils another plan. Simple but fun.)
- The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot– It is one of eight stories in the cycle collected as His Last Bow. Holmes and Dr. Watson find themselves at Poldhu in Cornwall one spring for the former’s health, but the holiday ends with a bizarre event. Mr. Mortimer Tregennis, a local gentleman, and Mr. Roundhay, the local vicar, come to Holmes to report that Tregennis’s two brothers have gone insane, and his sister has died. Tregennis had gone to visit them in their village (‘Tredannick Wollas’), played whist with them, and then left. When he came back in the morning, he found them still sitting in their places at the table, the brothers, George and Owen, laughing and singing, and the sister, Brenda, dead. The housekeeper had discovered them in this state, and fainted. There is a lot that happens in the story but the famous detective is never off the track. He is like a dog with a bone and sometimes that may not be the best for his health.
- The Adventure of the Yellow Face – The third tale from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. It was first published in Strand Magazine in 1893 with original illustrations by Sidney Paget. In this story, Sherlock Holmes, suffering from boredom due to a want of cases, returns home from a walk with Dr. Watson early in spring to find he has missed a visitor but that the caller has left his pipe behind. When the visitor, Mr. Grant Munro (whose name Holmes observed from his hatband) returns, Holmes and Watson hear the story of Munro’s deception by his wife Effie. She had been previously married in America, but her husband and child had died of yellow fever, whereupon she returned to England and met and married Munro. Their marriage had been blissful—”We have not had a difference, not one, in thought, or word, or deed,” says Grant Munro—until she asked for a hundred pounds and begged him not to ask why. Two months later, Effie Munro was caught conducting secret liaisons with the occupants of a cottage near the Munro house in Norbury. Grant Munro has seen a mysterious yellow-faced person in this cottage. The story is interesting to say the least. Especially how race was viewed at that time in London. (And possibly still is today.) It also shows the length that women went through to stay married during a time when they had to be.
- The Adventure of the Dying Detective – In some editions, it is simply titled “The Dying Detective” (first published 1913). Together with seven other stories, it was collected in His Last Bow (published 1917). Dr. Watson is called to tend Holmes, who is apparently dying of a rare tropical disease, Tapanuli fever, contracted while he was on a case. Watson is shocked, not having heard about his friend’s illness. Mrs. Hudson says that Holmes has neither eaten or drank anything in three days. Holmes instructs Watson not to come near him, because the illness is highly infectious. In fact, he scorns to be treated by Watson and insults his abilities, astonishing and hurting the doctor. Although Watson wishes to examine Holmes himself or call in a specialist, Holmes demands that Watson wait several hours before seeking help. At six o’clock, Holmes tells Watson to bring Mr. Culverton Smith of 13 Lower Burke Street to see Holmes, but to make sure that Watson returns to Baker Street before Smith arrives. It isn’t until Watson return that shit hits the fan. But I won’t reveal anymore here. Just know that I enjoyed this story more than I thought I would but because after the reveal… We learn what the detective thinks about Watson really.
In the end, I stumbled across Holmes and Watson about 17 years ago and have never looked back. Every now and then when I am stuck in traffic. I turn on a story and I am instantly transformed to an exciting time when I was first reading it. I am older now and so I reflect on the fact that I love a good mystery and even as a kid I would read things like Encyclopedia Brown or Nancy Drew. So it isn’t all that hard to imagine that I would love these stories too. The stories gave me enough fuel to get through my English classes because it was something I was actually interested in. And I dragged Leah to the RDJ Sherlock movie first chance I got. I give any adaption a try. I am actually headed downstairs to watch Enola Holmes on Netflix. (Heard great things about it. Will have to check that out.) Anyways… Tell me your fave Sherlock stories, moments from shows or whatever. I would love to here from you.
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