Sherlock Holmes is a fictional detective created by Scottish author and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The fantastic London-based "consulting detective", Holmes is famous for his astute logical reasoning, his ability to take on 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's 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. However, an argument for a later birthdate is posited by author Laurie R. King, based on two of Conan Doyle's stories: A Study in Scarlet and "The Gloria Scott" Adventure. Certain details in "The Gloria Scott" Adventure indicate Holmes finished his second and final year at university in either 1880 or 1885. Watson's own account of his wounding in the Second Afghan War and subsequent return to England in A Study in Scarlet place his moving in with Holmes in either early 1881 or 1882. Together, these suggest Holmes left university in 1880; if he began university at the age of 17, his birth year would likely be 1861.
Holmes states that he first developed his methods of deduction while an undergraduate. The author Dorothy L. Sayers suggested that, given details in two of the Adventures, Holmes must have been at Cambridge rather than Oxford and that "of all the Cambridge colleges, Sidney Sussex (College) perhaps offered the greatest number of advantages to a man in Holmes's position and, in default of more exact information, we may tentatively place him there".
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".
Holmes shares the majority of his professional years with his good friend and chronicler Dr. John H. Watson, who lives with Holmes for some time before his marriage in 1887, and again after his wife's death; his residence is maintained by his landlady, Mrs. Hudson.
Watson has two roles in Holmes's life. First, he gives practical assistance in the conduct of his cases; he is the detective's right-hand man, acting variously as look-out, decoy, accomplice and messenger. Second, he is Holmes's chronicler (his "Boswell" as Holmes refers to him). Most of the Holmes stories are frame narratives, written from Watson's point of view as summaries of the detective's most interesting cases. Holmes is often described as criticising Watson's writings as sensational and populist, suggesting that they neglect to accurately and objectively report the pure calculating "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.
—Sherlock Holmes on John Watson's "pamphlet", The Sign of Four.
Nevertheless, Holmes's friendship with Watson is his most significant relationship. In several stories, Holmes's fondness for Watson—often hidden beneath his cold, intellectual exterior—is revealed. For instance, in "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs", Watson is wounded in a confrontation with a villain; although the bullet wound proves to be "quite superficial", Watson is moved by Holmes's 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.
In all, Holmes is described as being in active practice for 23 years, with Watson documenting his cases for 17 of them.
In "His Last Bow", Holmes has retired to a small farm on the Sussex Downs in 1903–1904, as chronicled by Watson in his preface to the series of stories entitled "His Last Bow." It is here that he has taken up the hobby of beekeeping as his primary occupation, eventually producing a "Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen". The story features Holmes and Watson coming out of retirement one last time to aid the war effort. Only one adventure, "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane", which is narrated by Holmes as he pursues the case as a civilian, takes place during the detective's retirement. The details of his death are not known.
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's emotional state and mental health have been a topic of analysis for decades. At their first meeting in A Study in Scarlet, the detective warns Watson that he gets "in the dumps at times" and doesn't open his "mouth for days on end". Many readers and literary experts have suggested Holmes showed signs of manic depression, with moments of intense enthusiasm coupled with instances of indolent self absorption. Other modern readers have speculated that Holmes may have Asperger's syndrome based on his intense attention to details, lack of interest in interpersonal relationships and tendency to speak in long monologues. The detective's isolation and near-gynophobic distrust of women is said to suggest the desire to escape; Holmes "biographer" William Baring-Gould and others, including Nicholas Meyer, author of the Seven Percent Solution, have implied a severe family trauma (i.e., the murder of Holmes's mother) may be the root cause.
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, however, and appears in contrast with statements that, in the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, his hands are discoloured with acid stains and Holmes uses drops of his own blood to conduct experiments in chemistry and forensics.
Holmes occasionally uses addictive drugs, especially when lacking stimulating cases. He 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 special syringe that he keeps in a 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 serial tobacco users, including cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. Holmes is 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's mental health and superior intellect. In later stories, 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"
Although he initially needed Watson to share the rent of his comfortable residence at 221B Baker Street, Watson reveals in "The Adventure of the Dying Detective", when Holmes was living alone, that "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 seldom revealed exactly how much he charges for his services. In "A Scandal in Bohemia", he is paid the staggering sum of one thousand pounds (300 in gold and 700 in notes) as advance payment for "present expenses". In "The Problem of Thor Bridge" he avers: "My professional charges are upon a fixed scale. I do not vary them, save when I remit them altogether".
This is said in a context where a client is offering to double his fees; however, it is likely that rich clients provided Holmes a remuneration greatly in excess of his standard fee. For example, 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. Holmes also tells Watson, in "A Case of Identity", of a golden snuff box received from the King of Bohemia after "A Scandal in Bohemia" and a fabulous ring from the Dutch royal family; in "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans", Holmes receives an emerald tie-pin from Queen Victoria. Other mementos of Holmes's cases are a gold sovereign from Irene Adler ("A Scandal in Bohemia") and an autographed letter of thanks from the French President and a Legion of Honour for tracking down an assassin named Huret ("The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez"). In "The Adventure of the Priory School", Holmes "rubs his hands with glee" when the Duke of Holdernesse notes the 5,000 pound sterling sum, which surprises even Watson, and then pats the cheque, saying, "I am a poor man", an incident that could be dismissed as representative of Holmes's tendency toward sarcastic humour. 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 had also been consulted by impoverished pawnbrokers and humble governesses on the lower rungs of society.
Holmes has been known to charge clients for his expenses, and to claim any reward that might be offered for the problem's solution: he says in "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" that Miss Stoner may pay any expenses he may be put to, and requests that the bank in "The Red-Headed League" remunerate him for the money he spent solving the case. Holmes has his wealthy banker client in "The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet" pay him for the costs of recovering the stolen gems and also claims the reward the banker had put for their recovery.
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 he dislikes and distrusts them, he is nonetheless a "chivalrous opponent".