Edgar Allen Poe’s detective stories

During Poe’s short, miserable life (1809-49) he struggled to make a living from writing in a wide range of genres: poems, tales of fantasy and horror, an adventure novel, lots of essays, criticism and piles of ephemeral journalism.

Not much of it was recognised or rewarded in his lifetime, but many of the stories grew in fame and influence in the decades after his death. Now he is predominantly remembered as author of the ballad poem The Raven, and of a series of disturbing, macabre and fantastical Gothic short stories. The Viking Portable Poe divides these into Tales of Fantasy, Tales of Terror, Tales of Death, Tales of Revenge and Murder – which gives a good flavour of the man.

But Poe also wrote three detective stories (classified here as Tales of Mystery and Ratiocination) and most historians of the genre now consider that these more or less founded the entire tradition.

  • 1841 The Murders in the Rue Morgue
  • 1843 The Mystery of Marie Rogêt
  • 1845 The Purloined Letter

Poe himself referred to them as ‘tales of ratiocination’. Merriam-Webster defines ratiocination as ‘the process of exact thinking; a reasoned train of thought’ and in these three stories Poe is more interested in the workings of the mind – the hyperanalytical mind of his hero Auguste Dupin – than in plot as such. All three lean more towards essays than stories, with long excursions into the workings of the mind, pure reason v practical reason, the normal v the abnormal mind etc etc.

Certainly in the first two there is a murder – and then Poe’s creation, the French philosopher Auguste Dupin, uses texts and one visit to the murder scene / in the second story, texts from newspapers and from the police alone – to piece together the course of events. That’s it. There are no subsequent events, no further puzzling discoveries, let alone a chase or race against time to find the murderer.

Just one clever analytical mind sifting the evidence presented in texts to arrive at a theory and witnessed by his more or less passive sidekick, the unnamed narrator.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841)

introduced the first fictional detective in English, the eccentric and brilliant C. Auguste Dupin, an impoverished Bohemian intellectual with esoteric and occult tastes, one of which is analysing crimes. In this medium length short story Poe is credited with inventing the main tropes of the detective story which have characterised it ever since.

In the 1945 edition of Poe I have, the American critic Philip van Doren Stern wrote that Poe was painfully aware throughout his life both of his intellectual superiority and of his relative failure to establish it. Hence one of the most characteristic aspects of his prose is a tiresome straining to impress. Rider Haggard, Louis Stevenson and Conan Doyle were not intellectuals. They knew their audience, their reading market in the 1880s, and they knew the importance of getting a plot ripping along on page one and then freshly supplied with incident. It’s a shock to turn to Poe in the 1840s who freights each ‘tale’ with lengthy ‘philosophical’ remarks, thus:

The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects. We know of them, among other things, that they are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of the liveliest enjoyment. As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles. He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talent into play. He is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension præternatural. His results, brought about by the very soul and essence of method, have, in truth, the whole air of intuition.

The Murders plot is simple. The narrator bumps into Dupin in a bookshop and, both being poor, they decide to take rooms together (cf Holmes and Watson). They share esoteric interests and often go walking the streets of Paris at night. On one occasion Dupin anticipates precisely what the narrator is thinking, from a process of deduction (exactly as Holmes startles Watson on countless occasions 50 years later). One night they read about the murder of two women in the Rue Morgue. They read the account in the papers; Dupin gets the keys to the apartment from a contact in the police so they can go and see it for themselves; based on a detailed survey of the rooms Dupin explains who the murderer must be. He has already placed an advertisement in the papers and, as he finishes explaining his theory to the narrator, they hear footsteps coming up the stairs of the man who confirms all their theories (exactly as countless feet tramp up the stairs at 221b Baker Street to confirm Holmes’s theories). A few days later the correct murderer is apprehended.

This, the ur-detective story, establishes a number of tropes which are to be repeated in thousands of its descendants:

  • there are two protagonists: the brilliant ‘detective’ or analyst, and his (in Poe unnamed) sidekick and admiring chronicler
  • our heroes read about a murder in the papers, the so and so affair
  • the case features a number of impossibilities, such as the room with the corpses in being sealed by doors and windows locked on the inside
  • it presents a number of unusual features – and Dupin points out (as Holmes does) that the unusual is the detective’s best aid
  • there is a puzzling lack of motive ie the gold left on the floor
  • Dupin’s early practice of forensics in taking the exact imprint of the bruises around the murdered woman’s throat
  • the detective’s outsiderness – both to society as a whole, to which Dupin is a down-at-heel Bohemian; and to the official police, whom he holds in cheerful contempt (as will all his descendants)
  • the police, in the form of the Prefect G—, come grovelling to him requesting his help
  • the exotic/colonial origin of the murderer who turns out to come all the way from Borneo – as so many of Conan Doyle’s stories feature murder brought by exotic criminals from far overseas
  • the culprit flushed out and brought to the detective’s rooms by a carefully placed advert in the newspapers (where they originally read about the case)
Poster for the 1932 'adaptation' in which a mad scientist seeks to mingle human blood with that of an ape, and resorts to kidnapping women for his experiments - ie nothing to do with the story

Poster for the 1932 ‘adaptation’ in which a mad scientist seeks to mingle human blood with that of an ape, and resorts to kidnapping women for his experiments – ie nothing to do with the story

The Mystery of Marie Rogêt (1842)

is Poe’s thinly fictionalised account of the real-life murder of young New Yorker Mary Cecilia Rogers which had caused a media sensation in 1842. Poe sets his fictional version in Dupin’s Paris and gives all the protagonists (and the newspapers whose reports he quotes at length) French names.

This is a deliberate sequel to Morgue. In the story Dupin’s success in the Rue Morgue affair gives him a great reputation with the Paris police, whose chief comes to ask his help a few weeks after the body of the unfortunate young lady is found (cf the bungling Scotland Yard plods Lestrade and Grigson in Holmes). Once he’s left, a) the narrator goes out & procures from the Police the full description of their evidence and theories, then buys every newspaper which has reported it: he summarises all this evidence for Dupin (and for us) and b) Dupin treats the narrator to a long analysis of the various theories proposed by newspapers and police, until he deduces the events and the murderer, viz. Marie was murdered by one man, not a gang, who dragged her body to the river using the torn shreds of her petticoats, stole a boat in which to take the body to mid-river where he dumped it overboard, later tying up the boat at a jetty, later still returning to steal the boat, having realised it could be evidence against him. Find the boat and you find the murderer, Dupin concludes.

It is striking that the entire story really amounts to a piece of practical criticism or close reading of the newspaper accounts. Dupin deconstructs them into individual sentences which he then submits to searching critique and, generally, dismissal. It is not so much an investigation as a reading. Seen from another angle, there is little or no story in the text: it is more an essay, or even a lecture, than a tale.

And the overall affect is disappointing. Dupin’s interpretation isn’t that different from what some newspapers had already suggested. And the 60-page story builds to a strange anti-climax, a note from the narrator inserted into the main text:

[For reasons which we shall not specify, but which to many readers will appear obvious, we have taken the liberty of here omitting, from the MSS. placed in our hands, such portion as details the following up of the apparently slight clew obtained by Dupin. We feel it advisable only to state, in brief, that the result desired was brought to pass; and that the Prefect fulfilled punctually, although with reluctance, the terms of his compact with the Chevalier. ]


I am not a feminist, but it is dismaying that the first detective story, and the first real-life murder-turned-into-a-detective-story, both centre on murdered women. I find the 19th century focus on women as especially innocent, especially vulnerable, to be the corollary of the 19th century stifling, repression and exploitation of women, and the murder of women in fiction, drama and opera a rather nauseating epitome of it.

I used to go to opera a lot but gave up because I went to a run of operas which eventually made me sick of watching women die for entertainment: La Boheme, La Traviata, Rigoletto, Carmen, Tosca – watching women die with the suggestion that their murder or suicide was that bit more artistic or entertaining or sensational or aesthetic I eventually found sick and exploitative. And something the same feminist feeling in me is roused by these Poe stories. Luckily the third is the exception, though it still rotates around a woman and her ‘honour’.

The Purloined Letter (1844)

is the third in the Dupin trilogy, the shortest and most focused. Though larded with Dupin’s lectures about the human mind it is noticably more interested in describing the bachelor setup enjoyed by the narrator and Dupin:

At Paris, just after dark one gusty evening in the autumn of 18–, I was enjoying the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum, in company with my friend C. Auguste Dupin, in his little back library, or book-closet, au troisieme, No. 33, Rue Dunot, Faubourg St. Germain. For one hour at least we had maintained a profound silence; while each, to any casual observer, might have seemed intently and exclusively occupied with the curling eddies of smoke that oppressed the atmosphere of the chamber.

An unscrupulous minister has palmed a compromising letter he found in the Queen’s boudoir (presumably she is having an affair) in order to blackmail her. The Queen employs the Prefect of Police to find and return it without causing a scandal. He has the minister’s apartment searched with fantastic precision and thoroughness but finds nothing and arrives at Dupin’s apartment to implore him to help. A month later he is back still without luck, moaning he would give 50,000 francs to have it. Dupin says, Well make out the check and will give it to you. And hand it over he does, to the amazement of the narrator and G—.

Stripped of fol-de-rol, Dupin explains it was about knowing his man, putting himself into the place, into the mind, of the Minister whereat he quickly realised how he would outwit the obvious hiding places suspected by the police. In fact he was so cunning that he didn’t hide the letter at all – tarnished and readdressed, it was in an open letter holder on his shelves throughout all the police’s searches.

Dupin arranges for a shot to go off in the street during his visit, and as quickly purloins the letter as the Minister originally did himself. Ta da! The theme of the stolen, incriminating letter recurs in the Holmes stories The Second Stain and The Adventure of the Naval Treaty and the arranged distraction in the street features in A Scandal in Bohemia, also about compromising love letters.

Edgar Allen Poe (1809-49)

Edgar Allen Poe (1809-49)

Related links

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1927)

This is the final collection of twelve Sherlock Holmes short stories, published in the trusty Strand Magazine between October 1921 and April 1927. Incredible that the character associated with London pea-soupers, hansom cabs, gas lamps and Jack the Ripper, should live on into the Jazz Age and see the publication of Ulysses and The Great Gatsby, the Russian Civil War, the rise of Mussolini, the General Strike and talking movies. As Conan Doyle writes in the preface to this final collection:

He began his adventures in the very heart of the later Victorian era, carried it through the all-too-short reign of Edward, and has managed to hold his own little niche even in these feverish days. (Preface)

Cruelty and violence

But, possibly as a sign of the traumas the world had passed through viz. the Great War, the collapse of Europe’s land empires, and the tempestuous Bolshevik Revolution, the stories are notably crueller and harsher than previous ones.

  • A handsome man has acid thrown in his face.
  • A man finds himself among half-beasts and catches leprosy.
  • Holmes is severely beaten and repeatedly threatened.
  • When he seizes the diamond from Count Negretto Sylvius he holds a pistol to his head, more the act of a Philip Marlowe than the debonaire Holmes.
  • A boy infects his baby brother with incurable poison.
  • A woman shoots herself in the head.
  • A man takes medicine which turns him into a half ape.
  • A maniac traps his wife and lover in a gas chamber.
  • A deadly jellyfish kills its victims by flailing their backs to a bloody pulp.
  • A lion rips a beautiful woman’s face off.

Animal imagery

And the greater cruelty and violence of the stories is reflected in the much more frequent comparison of humans to animals:

  • ‘When one tries to rise above Nature one is liable to fall below it. The highest type of man may revert to the animal if he leaves the straight road of destiny.’
  • The Baron has little waxed tips of hair under his nose, like an insect.
  • How a beastman could have laid his vile paws upon such a being of the beyond I cannot imagine. You may have noticed how extremes call to each other, the spiritual to the animal, the cave-man to the angel. You never saw a worse case than this.
  • It seemed that none of them could speak English, but the situation wanted clearing up, for the creature with the big head was growing furiously angry, and, uttering wild-beast cries
  • A sudden wild-beast light sprang up in the dark, menacing eyes of the master criminal.
  • ‘You cruel beast! You monster!’ she cried.
  • From keeping beasts in a cage, the woman seemed, by some retribution of fate, to have become herself a beast in a cage.
  • Ruffian, bully, beast – it was all written on that heavy-jowled face.
  • Holmes sprang at his throat like a tiger and twisted his face towards the ground.
  • I tell you, Mr. Holmes. this man collects women, and takes a pride in his collection. as some men collect moths or butterflies.
  • ‘And is this Count Sylvius one of your fish?’ ‘

    Yes, and he’s a shark. He bites. The other is Sam Merton the boxer. Not a bad fellow, Sam, but the Count has used him. Sam’s not a shark. He is a great big silly bull-headed gudgeon. But he is flopping about in my net all the same.’

  • If I had said that a mad bull had arrived it would give a clearer impression of what occurred. The door had flown open and a huge negro had burst into the room.
  • She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.
  • ‘I see. You’ve tested them before.’ ‘They are good hounds who run silent.’ ‘Such hounds have a way sooner or later of biting the hand that feeds them.’
  • There have been no advertisements in the agony columns. You know that I miss nothing there. They are my favourite covert for putting up a bird, and I would never have overlooked such a cock pheasant as that.’
  •  With his dressing-gown flapping on each side of him, he looked like some huge bat glued against the side of his own house, a great square dark patch upon the moonlit wall.
  • In all our adventures I do not know that I have ever seen a more strange sight than this impassive and still dignified figure crouching frog-like upon the ground and goading to a wilder exhibition of passion the maddened hound, which ramped and raged in front of him, by all manner of ingenious and calculated cruelty.
  • It was a dreadful face – a human pig, or rather a human wild boar, for it was formidable in its bestiality. One could imagine that vile mouth champing and foaming in its rage, and one could conceive those small, vicious eyes darting pure malignancy as they looked forth upon the world. Ruffian, bully, beast – it was all written on that heavy-jowled face.
  • … the other, a small rat-faced man with a disagreeably furtive manner.
  • ‘For myself, I am deeply in the hands of the Jews. I have always known that if my sister were to die my creditors would be on to my estate like a flock of vultures.’
  • He clawed into the air with his bony hands. His mouth was open, and for the instant he looked like some horrible bird of prey. In a flash we got a glimpse of the real Josiah Amberley, a misshapen demon with a soul as distorted as his body.

And the fact that one story is about a vampire and another about a scientist who turns himself into a ape-man clinches the sense of the ab-human, of the human mutating into the Gothic creature or beast, which permeates the stories. Humans permanently poised on the edge of bestial violence.

The Strand Magazine, vol. 73, April 1927

The Strand Magazine, vol. 73, April 1927

Sex and seduction

There’s more sex, more overtly referred to, than in the earlier stories.

  • Baron Grüner is a smooth-talking seducer of women; the Illustrious Client hinges on Holmes purloining the Baron’s ‘Lust Diary’.
  • Similarly, the gorgeous Isadora Klein has seduced numerous young men, used them and then discarded them, and the case hinges (once again) on a text which records her sexual escapades, this time a roman a clef written by her lover.
  • Maria Gibson is jealous enough of her husband’s relationship with the maid to kill herself.
  • Professor Presbury is besotted enough with a young woman he’s met to experiment with a dangerous youth serum.
  • Leonardo the circus acrobat has ‘the self-satisfied smile of the man of many conquests’.

It is difficult to cast your mind back to the Victorian stories where the sex element is simply absent; where there is no reference to sex whatsoever, at any point; where men drop dead of heart attacks at the mere thought of their reputations being besmirched, where women are prepared to plunge their country into war rather than have their husband read an old billet-doux (The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plan).

This is the most obvious way that, despite the way the tales are still ostensibly set in the late ’90s or early noughties – in fact the post-War Holmes is operating in a new era with new conventions,

Anglo good, foreign bad

Foreigners are generally bad, such as the smooth Baron Grüner:

  • The fellow is, as you may have heard, extraordinarily handsome, with a most fascinating manner. a gentle voice and that air of romance and mystery which means so much to a woman. He is said to have the whole sex at his mercy and to have made ample use of the fact… His European reputation for beauty was fully deserved. In figure he was not more than of middle size, but was built upon graceful and active lines. His face was swarthy, almost Oriental, with large, dark, languorous eyes which might easily hold an irresistible fascination for women. His hair and moustache were raven black, the latter short, pointed, and carefully waxed. His features were regular and pleasing, save only his straight, thin-lipped mouth. If ever I saw a murderer’s mouth it was there – a cruel, hard gash in the face, compressed, inexorable, and terrible.
  • Isadora Klein was, of course, the celebrated beauty. There was never a woman to touch her. She is pure Spanish, the real blood of the masterful Conquistadors… She rose from a settee as we entered: tall, queenly, a perfect figure, a lovely mask-like face, with two wonderful Spanish eyes which looked murder at us both.
  • It was as if the air of Italy had got into his blood and brought with it the old cruel Italian spirit.
  • This gentleman married some five years ago a Peruvian lady the daughter of a Peruvian merchant, whom he had met in
    connection with the importation of nitrates. The lady was very beautiful, but the fact of her foreign birth and of her alien religion always caused a separation of interests and of feelings between husband and wife.
  • ‘She was a creature of the tropics, a Brazilian by birth, as no doubt you know.’ ‘No, it had escaped me.’ ‘Tropical by birth and tropical by nature. A child of the sun and of passion.’
  • He was looked upon as an oddity by the students, and would have been their butt, but there was some strange outlandish blood in the man, which showed itself not only in his coal-black eyes and swarthy face but also in occasional outbreaks of temper, which could only be described as ferocious.

But, thankfully, in contrast to the beast-people and dastardly foreigners, there are plenty of fine upstanding, Anglo-Saxon chaps (and the occasional chapess):

  • Mr. James M. Dodd, a big, fresh, sunburned, upstanding Briton.
  • ‘I have found out who our client is,’ I cried, bursting with my great news. ‘Why, Holmes, it is—‘ ‘It is a loyal friend and a chivalrous gentleman,’ said Holmes.
  • ‘He had the fighting blood in him, so it is no wonder he volunteered. There was not a finer lad in the regiment!’
  • “Of course I remembered him,” said I as I laid down the letter. “Big Bob Ferguson, the finest three-quarter Richmond ever had. He was always a good-natured chap.’
  • Our new visitor, a bright, handsome girl of a conventional English type, smiled back at Holmes as she seated herself beside Mr. Bennett.
  • Stackhurst himself was a well-known rowing Blue in his day, and an excellent all-round scholar.
  • Fitzroy McPherson was the science master, a fine upstanding young fellow…
  • ‘Forgive what is past, Murdoch. We shall understand each other better in the future.’ They passed out together with their arms linked in friendly fashion.
  • Who could have imagined that so rare a flower would grow from such a root and in such an atmosphere?.. I could not look upon her perfect clear-cut face, with all the soft freshness of the downlands in her delicate colouring, without realizing that no young man would cross her path unscathed.

High society and superlatives

These stories continue the trend of hobnobbing with the rich and famous – giving the reader a flattering Downton Abbeyesque feeling that they are rubbing shoulders with the glamorous, rich and aristocratic. If not actual aristocrats, the adversaries are generally men and women at the top of their field.

  • It is hinted that the illustrious client in the first story is the Prince of Wales.
  • All the doctors are the most eminent in their field – Sir Leslie Oakshott, the famous surgeon, Sir James Saunders the great dermatologist
  • The soldiers are all medal-winning heroes – Colonel Emsworth the Crimean V. C.
  • Ronder, of course, was a household word. He was the rival of Wombwell, and of Sanger, one of the greatest showmen of his day.
  • ‘There are the Shoscombe spaniels,’ said I. ‘You hear of them at every dog show. The most exclusive breed in England.’
  • ‘That is a colt you are running?’ ‘The best in England, Mr. Holmes.’
  • And the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary come calling in person about the Mazarin stone!

The stories

The Adventure of the Illustrious Client (1924)

Set in 1902. The dapper Sir James Damery visits on behalf of an anonymous client who wishes to prevent sweet & gullible Miss Violet Merville from marrying the Austrian Baron Adelbert Gruner, not only a cad to women but probably a murderer. While Watson is distracting the Baron with the offer of a rare Chinese antiquity, Holmes sneaks in the back and purloins the notebook the Baron keeps of all his conquests. There is little or no deduction involved. What is involved is shocking violence as a) Holmes is badly beaten up by two of the Baron’s men b) the Baron has vitriol thrown in his face by an embittered lover, Kitty Winter. The Wikipedia entry on vitriol-throwing says the French press coined the word La Vitrioleuse after a wave of 16 vitriol attacks in 1879, all of them crimes of passion. In 1894 the French artist Eugene Grasset (1841-1917) created a haunting lithograph title La Vitioleuse. Kingston.

La Vitrioleuse by Eugene Grasset, 1894 (Wikimedia Commons)

La Vitrioleuse by Eugene Grasset (1894)

The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier (1926)

Set 1903. First story narrated by Holmes himself. Fine upstanding soldier James Dodd fought side by side with good man Godfrey Emsworth, son of the famous Crimean VC. Rumoured to be wounded but then disappeared and family are strangely cagey about him. Holmes goes to Tuxbury Old Park and quickly deduces that the missing soldier has in fact contracted leprosy in South Africa and is hiding from the world with his family’s help. Near Bedford.

The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone (1921)

Set in 1903. First use of 3rd person narrator. Holmes has a mannekin of himself in the window to distract his watchers. By adroitly swapping places with it he persuades Count Negretto Sylvius to take out the stolen £100K jewel to show to his accomplice at which Holmes simply swipes it. Baker Street.
The Adventure of the Three Gables (1906) Set 1903. Steve Dixie, a black boxer bursts in to warn Holmes off Harrow Weald which is a coincidence because he’s just had a letter from Mary Maberley who lives there. Off we go to meet her and hear her story, that an agent suddenly offered her a fortune for her house and everything in it. Through various clues Holmes deduces the involvement of the imperious Spanish beauty Isadora Klein who has dallied with half the men in London, including Mary Maberley’s dead son. Turns out he wrote a novel dramatising Isadora’s wicked ways and she suspected it was in his luggage, hence the offer for the house and all its contents. Harrow Weald.

The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire (1924)

Set in 1896. Good solid rugger player Bob Ferguson comes to Holmes stricken: after some suspicions he caught his wife at the throat of his little baby, and she turned with blood on her lips! then ran off weeping to her rooms and won’t emerge. On a visit to the rundown house Holmes quickly sees the lie of the land: the 15 year old son of the first wife is deadly jealous of the new baby by the second, Peruvian, wife and had nipped it with an south American arrow tipped with poison. The wife was gallantly sucking it out only to be completely misaccused. The prescription for 15 year old Jacky is a year at sea! Near Horsham.
The Adventure of the Three Garridebs (1924) Set 1902. An American named Garrideb reluctantly appears before Holmes after an English eccentric with a vast collection of bric-a-brac named Garridenb has messaged him. His irritation and worn English clothes belie his cock and bull story about a multi-millionaire American back in Kansas named Garrideb who bequeathed his millions to whoever could find three Garridebs in the world. He claims to have found the third one in Birmingham and packs the eccentric off to meet him but, of course, Holmes and Watson stake out the now empty house where they reveal the first Garrideb to be none other than ‘Killer’ Evans from Chicago, who’d killed a confederate in London and served five years fr it during which time the eccentric Garrideb moved into his flat, thus blocking access to the forger’s kit in the basement. Ryder Street, St James’s.

The Problem of Thor Bridge (1922)

Set in 1900. Mr Neil Gibson, the Gold King, the richest gold magnate in the world, marries a Brazilian lady and settles in England but as her looks fade they argue a lot, and he becomes attached to his children’s maid, Miss Grace Dunbar. The wife Maria is found shot dead and the gun is found in Grace’s wardrobe. What could be simpler? Holmes deduces from the way the little bridge over the lake is chipped, that the wife planted a copy of the gun to implicate the maid, and then shot herself with a gun tied to a weighted string dangling into the lake! (The story is notable within the Sherlock Holmes canon for the initial reference to a tin dispatchbox, located within the vaults of the Cox and Co. Bank at Charing Cross in London, where Dr. Watson kept the papers concerning some of Holmes’ unsolved or unfinished cases.) Near Winchester, Hampshire.

The Adventure of the Creeping Man (1923)

Set 1903. Mr. Trevor Bennett comes to Holmes with a problem. He is Professor Presbury’s personal secretary engaged to the professor’s only daughter, Edith. After a trip to Prague the professor has been behaving strangely, with a new vigour but also, on some nights, loping around the house and climbing the walls! Holmes shows he has been taking an experimental youth serum extracted from apes in Madagascar. Camford ie fictional version of Cambridge.

The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane (1926)

Set 1907. One of the last of Holmes’s adventures and the second one to be narrated by Holmes himself! In his retirement on the South Downs cases still follow him. One of the teachers at the nearby ? academy is found stumbling up the cliffs from an early morning swim on the beach, his back horribly flailed and bloody. There is an interlude while speculation about his murderer implicates his rival in love for a nearby maiden. Only for Holmes to suddenly remember the same marks are made by a rare tropical giant jellyfish, but not before the chief suspect is himself stung almost to death. Sussex coast.

The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger (1927)

Set in 1896. The veiled lodger is the wife of the world famous circus owner ? He was a tyrant and sadist who whipped her. Her lover Leonardo the strong man cooked up a plan to stave the tyrant’s head in with a club with spikes in it to replicate a lion’s paw and release the lion they fed every day. The murder went ahead but, unfortunately the lion was maddened by the smell of blood and turned on Mrs, ripping her face off while the coward Leonardo ran off. She feels free to tell her story now she’s read that Leonardo is dead. And she has lived in retirement hiding behind a veil ever since. Holmes gallantly talks her out of committing suicide. South Brixton.

The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place (1927)

Set in 1902. Head trainer John Mason from Shoscombe Old Place, a racing stable in Berkshire, comes to Holmes about his master, Sir Robert Norberton. Mason thinks he has gone mad. The stables are actually owned by Norberton’s sister, Lady Beatrice, and the old man has huge debts. He is staking everything on the next race featuring his colt. Meanwhile Mason lists various odd events which capture Holmes’s attention: Lady B has stopped greeting her favorite horse; Sr Robert has become increasingly angry and stressed; in a fit of anger he gave Lady B’s dog away to the local publican; he’s been seen going into the local church crypt at night to meet a stranger; and then burnt human bones are found in the furnace at Shoscombe! Holmes deduces that Lady B has actually died, but Sir Robert is maintaining the fiction that she’s alive to prevent his creditors seizing the estate before his horse can win the Derby. Which it does, and with his huge winnings he pays off his debts. Berkshire.

The Adventure of the Retired Colourman (1926)

Set 1898. Holmes is hired by a retired supplier of artistic materials, Josiah Amberley, to look into his wife’s disappearance. She has left with a neighbour, Dr. Ray Ernest, taking a sizeable quantity of cash and securities. Amberley wants the two tracked down. Holmes deduces that Amberley himself did away with the couple, locking them in his strong room and gassing them and then throwing them down a disused well. Holmes prevents Amberley committing suicide, predicting he will end up in Broadmoor not swinging from a rope. Lewisham.

Town versus country

Despite Holmes’s association with pea-soupers etc, only four of these 12 stories actually take place in London. All the rest are located in the countryside.

Related links


Short story collections

The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle (1915)

The Valley of Fear was serialised in the Strand Magazine between September 1914 and May 1915. Like the first two Holmes novellas it is divided into two parts: the first half is a murder mystery set in a quiet English country house; part two provides the backstory to the murder, which began 15 years earlier in the grim, industrial coalmining districts of America. Note: America again.

The ‘now’ of the main story is the early days of Holmes’s career – ‘Those were the early days at the end of the ’80’s’. This allows the brief reintroduction of Professor Moriarty and lavish descriptions of him as the Napoleon of crime etc in the first and last chapters.


‘The greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld, a brain which might have made or marred the destiny of nations—that’s the man!.. When you have one of the first brains of Europe up against you, and all the powers of darkness at his back, there are infinite possibilities…  (Part 1, chapter 1)

‘No, no, my good sir,’ said Holmes. ‘There is a master hand here. It is no case of sawed-off shotguns and clumsy six-shooters. You can tell an old master by the sweep of his brush. I can tell a Moriarty when I see one. This crime is from London, not from America.’ (Epilogue)

The superlative criminal against the superlative detective. Comic strip stuff, the godfather of a thousand pulp magazines and comics…

Part one: The Tragedy of Birlstone (the country house murder mystery)

Birlstone is a Jacobean country house with a moat and drawbridge on the northern border of Sussex. In chapter 1 Holmes receives a message in cipher warning that danger threatens its owner, but even as Holmes and Watson decipher the message they are overtaken by events for the police come to say the owner, John Douglas, has been murdered. Holmes and a London detective, MacDonald travel to the house, but are puzzled by discrepancies at the crime scene. Apparently, someone has broken in, blown Douglas’s head clean off with a double-barrelled shotgun, and escaped through the open window and across the moat.

The cast of characters is interviewed one by one: tall beautiful Mrs Douglas; the family friend Banks who may or may not have been having an affair with her, and thus have motive; Ames the quiet butler; the housekeeper et al. It is the cast from a country house murder mystery, each character with apparent motives and only the supersleuth can find the truth. The setting and plot made me think of Inspector Poirot and indeed, it was only a few years later, in 1920, that Agatha Christie introduced the Belgian detective, and the format crystalised into a long-running genre.

In part one the mystery at the house is fully solved to everyone’s satisfaction. But why was the murdered man pursued? That requires part two and the backstory in America. What makes these stories so nostalgic and comforting is the old fashioned narrative voice which is unafraid of buttonholing the reader and guiding us around the twists and turns of the text:

And now, my long-suffering readers, I will ask you to come away with me for a time, far from the Sussex Manor House of Birlstone, and far also from the year of grace in which we made our eventful journey which ended with the strange story of the man who had been known as John Douglas. I wish you to journey back some twenty years in time, and westward some thousands of miles in space, that I may lay before you a singular and terrible narrative—so singular and so terrible that you may find it hard to believe that even as I tell it, even so did it occur.

Do not think that I intrude one story before another is finished. As you read on you will find that this is not so. And when I have detailed those distant events and you have solved this mystery of the past, we shall meet once more in those rooms on Baker Street, where this, like so many other wonderful happenings, will find its end. (Part one, chapter 7)

The story may be grim and violent; but the telling and the teller, dear sweet Watson, are as honest and reassuring as possible.


For whatever reason, the first part of this novella contains an unprecedented description of Holmes working through various theories and scenarios. Generally, in almost all the stories, his progress through and discarding of multiple theories is only hinted at – the texts tend to focus on the final dramatic revelation of the true events. Here, tens of pages are spent discussing with Watson the pros and cons of various scenarios which fit the observed facts, talking them through in detail and rethinking them as inconvenient facts block progress. I found this very enjoyable and for this reason I prefer it to the two earlier novellas.

Part two: The Scowrers (lawless America)

Like the two first novellas, The Valley of Fear has a backstory set in a distant land – for the second time the wild and lawless USA – which explains why the central character has been tracked across America and then to England by a vengeful secret society. In A Study in Scarlet it was the good guy chasing two wicked Mormons; here it is the good guy seeking sanctuary from the Society of Freemen, a countrywide association of working men pledged to self-defence which, in the sinister Vermissa Valley, has been perverted into a league of assassins and murderers and nicknamed ‘the Scowrers’.

Hard man McMurdo arrives in Vermissa Valley from Chicago where he was inducted into the freemen. He quickly ingratiates himself with the Bodymaster of the lodge, Boss McGinty, by talking brave, and taking part in various beatings and murders. Sentimentally, he falls in love with the tall blonde Swedish daughter of his landlord and worms his way deeper into the heart of the evil gang…

Animal imagery

There had always been animal imagery in the Holmes stories – ‘tiger’ is his favourite animal with which to compare criminals throughout the stories, appearing eight times in this text, 10 times in the Return stories – but there seemed to be more animal analogies in this book, maybe reflecting the harsher, crueller atmosphere of the story.

  • ‘Porlock is important, not for himself, but for the great man with whom he is in touch. Picture to yourself the pilot fish with the shark, the jackal with the lion—anything that is insignificant in companionship with what is formidable: not only formidable, Watson, but sinister—in the highest degree sinister… You have heard me speak of Professor Moriarty?’ (Part 1, Chapter 1)
  • Among the older men were many whose features showed the tigerish, lawless souls within.
  • Only once did McMurdo see him, a sly, little gray-haired rat of a man, with a slinking gait and a sidelong glance which was charged with malice. (2: 5)
  • McGinty had instruments enough already; but he recognized that this was a supremely able one. He felt like a man holding a fierce bloodhound in leash. There were curs to do the smaller work; but some day he would slip this creature upon its prey. (2:5)
  • The long room was crowded, and through the haze of tobacco smoke he saw the tangled black mane of the Bodymaster, the cruel, unfriendly features of Baldwin, the vulture face of Harraway, the secretary, and a dozen more who were among the leaders of the lodge. (2:6)
  •  There was not a man in the room whose hands had not been reddened a dozen times before. They were as hardened to human murder as a butcher to sheep. (2:7)
  • At the sight Boss McGinty gave the roar of a wounded bear and plunged for the half-opened door. (2:7)

Socialism and Fenianism

A lot could be written about the true history of the Molly Maguires and their role in American industrial relations ie were they mafia-style criminals or heroes of the working man? and similarly about the role of American emigrants in founding and funding Irish republicanism via secret societies like the Fenians in the later 1800s.

Presumably, like any conservative professional man of his day and age, Conan Doyle thought both were criminal operations. Probably, as an author of popular fiction he was only interested in them insofar as they provided plausible fodder for his ripping yarns. A hundred years later, their use in this story indicates the rifts and fractures of two rich, troubled societies.Crime novels by definition focus on criminal elements but, insofar as Conan Doyle chooses secret societies as the core of his two American novellas, he is highlighting not only the simple crimes he requires, but also the complex injustices which lie behind them.

Just as in the Hound, a central character voices the reader’s thoughts, that he is reading a pulp fiction and just as in the Hound voicing it, doesn’t dispel it:

‘When I reached this place I learned that I was wrong and that it wasn’t a dime novel after all.’ (2:7)

The finishing end

Oh it is, it is a dime novel – but a dime novel lifted out of its genre by the presence of Holmes. Also by the ending.An initial reading highlights the interesting parallel Conan Doyle makes between his ascetic, intellectual detective Holmes and the heroic, tough, courageous Pinkerton agent, Birdy Edwards. Just as the violence of the Scowrers is brought to an end by the devoted Pinkerton man, so the murder mystery is solved, as hundreds of other cases have been in the short stories, by the soothing presence of Holmes. Both heal clear the air, capture the criminals, cage the animals and make society safe again, as a doctor sets a broken bone and cures a disease.

Except they don’t. The hero doesn’t escape. Holmes doesn’t save his man. Moriarty cuts him down in his prime, thus leaving a bitter and ominous aftertaste to the book. It was serialised during the initial hysteria of the Great War. On the face of it, Conan Doyle used the novella to add more depth to the spooky figure of the Napoleon of crime, who only actually appears in one previous story, the Final Problem. And Sherlockains have not been slow to point out the contradiction between Dr Watson seeming familiar with Moriarty here in the late 1880s, and yet blissfully ignorant of him in the Final Problem, set later.

But we know Conan Doyle cared little about anomalies and contradictions, having Watson wounded in the shoulder int he first novel and the leg in the second etc. Seems to me he was happy to sacrifice that kind of pedantic consistency for the much greater dramatic affect the end of this book creates. On the face of it Holmes’s staring off into the distance artistically anticipates the final death struggle at the Reichenbach Falls; but given the times, this ending seems to me to echo the dark atmosphere of His Last Bow, giving this flimsy though pacey yarn a powerfully dark and ominous undertow.

We all sat in silence for some minutes while those fateful eyes still strained to pierce the veil. (Epilogue)

The Valley of Fear on Project Gutenberg

Holmes examining the cipher which opens The Valley of Fear, 1915

Holmes examining the cipher which opens The Valley of Fear, 1915


A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

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)

His Last Bow by Arthur Conan Doyle (1917)

Unlike previous collections these aren’t twelve or 13 stories published in monthly instalments but a collection of just seven Sherlock Holmes stories published intermittently between September 1908 and December 1913, plus the one-off title story published in September 1917. Ie these were written by the successful and well-off author as and when he had an idea or needed some cash.

Anglo-Saxon good, foreign bad

Villains are generally foreign and frequently compared to animals. Mr Henderson aka the Tiger of San Pedro is both, as well as being the characteristic ‘superlative’ ie very worst of his type (Holmes rarely tangles with average criminals):

He is a man of fifty, strong, active, with iron-gray hair, great bunched black eyebrows, the step of a deer and the air of an emperor – a fierce, masterful man, with a red-hot spirit behind his parchment face. He is either a foreigner or has lived long in the tropics, for he is yellow and sapless, but tough as whipcord… The Tiger of San Pedro! The whole history of the man came back to me in a flash. He had made his name as the most lewd and bloodthirsty tyrant that had ever governed any country with a pretence to civilization. Strong, fearless, and energetic, he had sufficient virtue to enable him to impose his odious vices upon a cowering people for ten or twelve years. His name was a terror through all Central America. (The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge)

I got past it and got one in with my stick that crushed his head like an egg. I would have spared her, perhaps, for all my madness, but she threw her arms round him, crying out to him, and calling him ‘Alec.’ I struck again, and she lay stretched beside him. I was like a wild beast then that had tasted blood. (The Adventure of the Cardboard Box)

The murderer Georgiano is, of course, foreign (being Italian) and a monster to boot:

Not only was his body that of a giant but everything about him was grotesque, gigantic, and terrifying. His voice was like thunder in our little house. There was scarce room for the whirl of his great arms as he talked. His thoughts, his emotions, his passions, all were exaggerated and monstrous… and even when his words were to my husband those terrible, glaring, wild-beast eyes of his were always turned upon me. (The Adventure of the Red Circle)

In The Adventure of the Dying Detective Culverton Smith isn’t foreign, but the ambience of the dirty Eastern world and the deadly disease he used to kill his nephew, certainly are. A rare literal example of a foreign infection killing an innocent Anglo-Saxon.

In The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax the Rev. Dr. Shlessinger, missionary from South America, is none other than Holy Peters, one of the most unscrupulous rascals that Australia has ever evolved.. [with his wife] This poor lady is in the hands of a most infernal couple, who will stick at nothing.’

For Queen and country

It is noticeable that the final story of The Return ie The Adventure of the Second Stain, and here in the Bruce-Partington Plan, Holmes can rise no higher. In both he finds purloined documents whose loss jeopardised England’s safety. In the latter he is rewarded by an emerald tie-pin from mthe Queen-Empress herself.

At the same time, in the same story, it is made perfectly plain that Holmes is the classic English gentleman-amateur: When Mycroft says he will be rewarded with an honour, Holmes smiles and replies: ‘I play the game for the game’s own sake.’

Until the tone is changed forever by the outbreak of the Great War and the Buchanite setting and mood of His Last Bow (1917).


It is an endlessly pleasurable feature of the stories the way that the mysteries have to be pieced together from varying bits of evidence and so the texts are themselves made up of various types of text patched and sown together. Lots of letters and notes and diaries and telegrams and secret messages. It also makes the stories feel swift and punchy, since sudden revelations can come in very brief new texts which interrupt the 3rd person narrative.

The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge features a crucial message sent to Garcia telling him the coast is clear for an assassination attempt. The Adventure of the Cardboard Box features the box and message, as well as an exchange of telegrams and a long confession, taken down in shorthand, from the murderer Browner. The Bruce-Partington Plan is not the first story to hinge on messages sent via the agony column of popular newspapers, apparently a routine place for crims to send coded messages.

The stories

  • The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge (1908) March 1892. John Scott Eccles makes friends with a Hispanic man and goes to stay with his odd household in Wisteria Lodge, when he awakes the house is empty but the dead body of his host is found. The tale is in two parts because it takes a while to work out that Garcia and his accomplaices were part of a brotherhood dedicated to tracking down and killing The Tiger of San Pedro, a deposed Latin American dictator on the run. Esher.
  • The Adventure of the Cardboard Box (1892) Date n/a. This story was the second of the twelve Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes in most British editions of the canon, and second of the eight stories from His Last Bow in most American versions. It was suppressed in some editions because it deals with actual adultery. Miss Cushing receives a cardboax with two ears in and calls in the police. Turns out her sister, with the same initial, was part of an adulterous menage in Liverpool with the sailor who married the third Cushing sister, she introduced a second man into Jim Browner’s household who began to make love to Browner’s wife, Mary – Browner said if he ever found Fairbairn in his house he’d send Sarah Cushing his ear. He finds him, kills his wife and the adulterer, and does send the severed ear of wife and lover, but to the wrong Cushing sister. Croydon and Wallington.
  • The Adventure of the Red Circle (1911) Date n/a. Mrs Warren comes to see about a mystery lodger who never moves from his room, now her  husband has been kidnapped! Holmes quickly deduces the lodger is a woman, different from the man who arranged it. They notice signals being sent by lantern from a room across the street; on entering the room find the body of the giant Gorgiano who is head of the Red Circle, an offshoot of the Carbonari, an Italian secret society. The hidden woman, Emilia then tells the backstory about herself & husband falling love in Italy, fleeing to New York, him being asked to murder his patron for the Red Circle, and so fleeing on to London.
  • The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans (1912) November 1895. Mycroft makes a rare visit about plans for the Bruce-Partington submarine which have gone missing – 7 out of 10 papers were found on the body of a young engineer from the Woolwich office, his body found by Aldgate tube railway lines, after he ran off deserting his fiancee in the fog. Holmes makes the key deduction that the body had been laid on the roof of a tube train and fallen off at Aldgate because of a curve in the line. Cross-referencing against foreign spies in London he finds one whose dwelling backed onto the railway, and he and Watson break in. Once again the agony columns of the papers come in useful where they find coded correspondence between buyer and seller and publish an invite to collect more secret papers, thus entrapping the traitor and, ultimately, the German spy.
  • The Adventure of the Dying Detective (1913) Date n/a. Holmes fakes an obscure Asian illness and worries Watson in order to lure over Culverton Smith who promptly admits to the dying Holmes that a) he poisoned him with a spiked box sent through the post b) he killed his nephew using the same device. At which point the police enter and Watson comes out of his hiding place. Culverton Smith isn’t foreign, but the ambience of the deadly Eastern world and disease he used to kill his nephew, is.
  • The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (1911) Date n/a. A middle aged noblewoman, famous for her inherited jewels, goes missing. Holmes sends Watson blundering round Europe on her trail for she had seemed to be trying to evade a large ‘savage’ man trailing her. Turns out to be a nobleman back from the colonies to woo her. Back in London that they track down a missionary Lady C is reported as meeting who turns out to be none other than the Australian swindler Holy Peters. After a lot of fuss, Lady C is found in a double decker coffin!
  • The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot Spring (1910) March 1897. Many of the other stories use the word horror or describe moments of horror, but this is a sustained meditation on people who have been horrified to death. It is close in spirit to Conan Doyle’s fantasy and science fiction stories. Briefly, for his health Holmes and Watson decamp to a cove in  Cornwall, where they are interrupted by vicar and tenant Mr Mortimer Tregennis. His sister and brothers have died and been driven mad by horror. A day later the vicar rushes up to announce Mortimer himself has also been scared to death. Holmes identifies gravel in the garden with that at the cottage of famous African adventurer Dr Leon Sterndale and forces a confession. Leon, married, in secret loved Tregennis’s sister. Tregennis stole some obscure African horror powder from Sterndale’s house, when he was showing it once, and used it against his siblings, with whom he had a financial dispute. Sterndale realises it and takes more powder to Tregennis, throws it on the lamp, and watches him died horribly as revenge for the only woman he ever loved. On reflection, Holmes lets Sterndale return to Darkest Africa. Cornwall.
  • His Last Bow (told in the third person) (1917) August 1914. An epitome of Anglo-Saxon good, foreign bad, this story is, uniquely, told in the 3rd person, with a description of two German spies standing on the cliffs of Dover in the last days before the Great War breaks out, congratulating themselves on all the spying they’ve done for Berlin. One leaves and the other awaits the Irish-American traitor who’s supplied him so much material over the past few years. It is of course Holmes in disguise who hears the German spy explain everything then chloroforms him and explains the backstory to Watson, the chauffeur ie how he came out of Sussex Downs retirement to save his country in its time of need.
Holmes, Watson and Inspector Lestrade inspecting the two ears by Sidney Paget (1892)

Holmes, Watson and Inspector Lestrade inspecting the two ears by Sidney Paget (1892)


A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

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)

The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1905)

The return of Sherlock Holmes

Having killed off Holmes in the 1893 story The Final Problem, Conan Doyle came under intense pressure from fans and publishers to revive him. Finally he did so in 1901-2 serial The Hound of the Baskervilles, though this was set before Holmes’ fictional demise and so doesn’t mention it. And then came these 13 new short stories, published monthly in the Strand from September 1903 to December 1904, and collected in book form in March 1905. In the first of them Conan Doyle bites the bullet and gives his explanation of how Holmes survived his fight with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.

In the ‘real’ world there had been a 10 year gap between the 1893 death story and the 1903 miraculous survival story; in the Holmes universe the gap is just three years, from 1891 when The Final Problem is set until 1894 when the Empty House is set. This period is referred to by Holmes specialists as ‘The Great Hiatus’, and the first story also describes his adventures around the globe during this period.

The 1890s, decade of -isms

I’ve read the 1890s described as the decade of -isms because so many movements began and proliferated. It was the Yellow decade, the Mauve Decade, the Naughty Nineties, part of the Gilded Age, the fin-de-siècle, the Reckless Decade, and saw the flourishing of symbolism, Art Nouveau, Arts & Crafts, Aestheticism, Art for Art’s Sake, post-Impressionism, neo-Impressionism, the Secession and Jugendstil in the arts, the zenith of Imperialism in Britain and the USA (the Spanish-American War 1898), and the flourishing of nihilism, anarchism, communism, socialism, the New Woman and feminism, vegetarianism and so on.

What all this really shows is that the decade marks the beginning of the Modern Period because too much was beginning to happen, too many social, economic, political and cultural trends, with international affairs becoming more complicated as new powers arose (America and Japan) and old powers threatened Britain’s hegemony (Germany looming).

Theories of degeneration

But Holmes himself is not immune to the siren call of the innumerable theories which the age spawned. As we know, one of the consequences of Darwin placing humans firmly in the Natural world and the product of evolution rather than Divine Creation, was that thinkers galore pondered the possibility that humankind could be actively bred to create a new race of superbeings – an idea that appealed to Nietzsche and HG Wells, to name but two – or its disastrous opposite, that the race or individual races were just as capable of being degraded, of collapsing through moral and physical decay. This theory had been immensely popularised by Max Nordau in his gloomy bestseller Degeneration (1896) whose tone is given by this extract:

‘We stand now in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; of a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria…’

and received garish expression in Bram Stoker’s Gothic fantasy about an invasion of blood-drinking anti-humans from Eastern Europe who corrupted and depraved pure, white virginal damsels – Dracula (1897).

In these troubled times the Holmes stories bring tremendous reassurance, that justice can be brought to the seething underworld of crime and order to the confusion of international affairs by the steely logic of one patriotic, fair-minded, aristocratic superman.

Holmes and the Boer War

The Boer War (1899-2902) had given all thinking Britons a profound shock. It was the first time in decades that the British Army had fought white men and, instead of the easy victories we’d come to expect of ‘our boys’ over fuzzy wuzzies and tribesmen, it turned out that British soldiers and British generals were simply no match for the fit, motivated and highly skilled Boers, or of the colonial troops from Australia, New Zealand or Canada who came to our aid. Eventually we won the war, but only after being internationally humiliated.

Interestingly, Conan Doyle and Kipling both responded to the South African debâcle by setting up gun clubs in their neighbourhoods with a view to training the local yeoman up to the standards of the Boers. And in their writings there is an increased emphasis on the importance of good breeding and the danger of its opposite, moral decay.

Thus Kipling’s poem, The Islanders (1902) warns the English that they have become lazy and decadent and will lose their Empire unless they buck up their ideas. Thus Conan Doyle wrote not one but two books, justifying Britain’s conduct of the Boer War (for which patriotic work he was knighted in 1902).

And thus, in a much more implicit way, the Holmes stories after The Hiatus show a keener interest in the subjects of Englishness, of lineage, of noble families either maintaining themselves or degenerating.

The Hound of the Baskervilles a novel about Degeneration The whole plot of The Hound is a civil war among the Baskerville clan: the upright Sir Henry, nephew of the noble Sir Charles and toughened up by a life in the Anglo-Saxon colonies, is threatened by the grandson of the Sir Charles’s degenerate younger brother Rodger, of part-Spanish (ie non Anglo) parentage, now masquerading as the lepidopterist Stapleton, a black-hearted villain who has inherited the degenerate blood of the lecherous libertine Hugo Baskerville. Good blood versus bad blood. Nobility versus degeneracy. And a man toughened and matured by life in the Anglo-Saxon colonies versus a creeping, hypocritical villain brought up in corrupt Latin America.

Thus, in the story of his return, we find Holmes speculating on the importance of family and breeding:

There are some trees, Watson, which grow to a certain height, and then suddenly develop some unsightly eccentricity. You will see it often in humans. I have a theory that the individual represents in his development the whole procession of his ancestors, and that such a sudden turn to good or evil stands for some strong influence which came into the line of his pedigree. The person becomes, as it were, the epitome of the history of his own family. (The Adventure of The Empty House)

This post-Boer War anxiety leaks out various ways, including its opposite, the over-enthusiastic patriotism or jingoism which characterised the period and can be defined as ‘excessive bias in judging one’s own country as superior to others’:

‘It is my duty to warn you that it will be used against you,’ cried the inspector, with the magnificent fair play of the British criminal law.


To some extent these anxieties are the continuation of Victorian stereotypes, but with a new, pseudo-scientific edge. After all, stereotypes of all kinds are the staple of both detective fiction and Victorian melodrama. The Holmes texts are extremely simple-minded in this respect. Can you work out which of the following is a wicked baddy and which is a sterling English goody?

He was blinking in the bright light of the corridor, and peering at us and at the smouldering fire. It was an odious face – crafty, vicious, malignant, with shifty, light-gray eyes and white lashes. (The Adventure of the Norwood Builder)

He was a fine creature, this man of the old English soil—simple, straight, and gentle, with his great, earnest blue eyes and broad, comely face. His love for his wife and his trust in her shone in his features. (The Adventure of the Dancing Men)

Or take honest true Captain Croker in The Adventure of the Abbey Grange.

There was a sound upon the stairs, and our door was opened to admit as fine a specimen of manhood as ever passed through it. He was a very tall young man, golden-moustached, blue-eyed, with a skin which had been burned by tropical suns, and a springy step, which showed that the huge frame was as active as it was strong.

Tall, blue eyes, strong & fit from exercise, preferably in the colonies; that is the ideal hero.

Goodies and baddies There is something reassuring and consoling about Holmes’s knowledge, about his certainty – the world of crime isn’t opaque and murky but clear and obvious to him and, via these stereotypes, it is made childishly simple for us. Tall with blue eyes, good; short or dark-haired, bad.

Superlatives At the same time, there is something childish, something of the playground, in his confident superlatives; all the people Holmes has to deal with are the best or the worst: Abe Slaney is, apparently, ‘the most dangerous crook in Chicago’. Jack Woodley is the greatest brute and bully in South Africa – a man whose name is a holy terror from Kimberley to Johannesburg. (The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist). Charles Augustus Milverton is ‘the worst man in London… the king of all the blackmailers.’ ‘Lord Mount-James is is one of the richest men in England.’ Sir Eustace Brackenstall is the richest man in Kent. Lady Hilda Trelawney Hope is ‘the most lovely woman in London’. The wickedest man, the noblest woman, the Napoleon of crime etc. A comic strip view of the world.

The abhuman, or humans becoming animals

The Wikipedia article on Degeneration introduced me to the term abhuman – ‘a “Gothic body” or something that is only vestigially human and possibly in the process of becoming something monstrous, such as a vampire or werewolf’. If not quite Gothic monsters, it seems to me that these post Boer War stories are nonetheless haunted by the notion of people, criminals specifically, turning into animals, of the degraded subhuman emerging from the human:

Have you not tethered a young kid under a tree, lain above it with your rifle, and waited for the bait to bring up your tiger? This empty house is my tree, and you are my tiger. (The Adventure of the Empty House)

It was a long and melancholy vigil, and yet brought with it something of the thrill which the hunter feels when he lies beside the water-pool, and waits for the coming of the thirsty beast of prey. What savage creature was it which might steal upon us out of the darkness? Was it a fierce tiger of crime, which could only be taken fighting hard with flashing fang and claw, or would it prove to be some skulking jackal, dangerous only to the weak and unguarded? (The Adventure of Black Peter)

Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the Zoo, and see the slithery, gliding, venomous creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that’s how Milverton impresses me. I’ve had to do with fifty murderers in my career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion which I have for this fellow. (The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton)

It was evidently taken by a snapshot from a small camera. It represented an alert, sharp-featured simian man, with thick eyebrows and a very peculiar projection of the lower part of the face, like the muzzle of a baboon. (The Adventure of the Six Napoleons)


As usual, the stories are littered with references to other stories which Watson hasn’t had time to write up, thus continually expanding the Holmes universe and reinforcing the Holmes myth.

The references in this volume include the case of the Ferrers Documents, and the Abergavenny murder (The Adventure of the Priory School). the sudden death of Cardinal Tosca, the case of the canary-trainer, the tragedy of Woodman’s Lee (The Adventure of Black Peter), the Conk-Singleton forgery case (The Adventure of the Six Napoleons), the repulsive story of the red leech and the terrible death of Crosby, the banker, the Addleton tragedy and the singular contents of the ancient British barrow, the famous Smith-Mortimer succession case and the tracking and arrest of Huret, the Boulevard assassin (The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez).

The stories

  • The Adventure of the Empty House (The return of Holmes). The Hon. Ronald Adair has returned from Australia, where his father is governor of a province, with his mother. He is found shot dead in a sealed room. Holmes proves it was done with a rifle by Colonel Moran who served in India but had gone bad, over a gambling debt.
  • The Adventure of the Norwood Builder – John Hector McFarlane is framed by the wicked Jonas Oldacre who hated his mother ever since she rejected him for a better man, and therefore faked his own murder in order to frame JHM. Norwood, south London.
  • The Adventure of the Dancing Men – Hilton Cubitt, fine upstanding Norfolk squire marries an American lady and then mysterious letters and notes start appearing, scaring her. Obviously this a Return of the Repressed type story, sure enough American crook Abe Slaney believes she’s promised to him and there’s a shoot-out in which the upstanding English squire is killed.
  • The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist – Violet Smith goes to be housekeeper to a Mr Carruthers near Farnham. Every Saturday she is followed on her way to the train by a solitary cyclist. On the day H&W go down, her trap is empty because she has been kidnapped and forcibly married by wicked Jack Woodley, because she has just become heir to Ralph Smith, who made his fortune in South African gold.
  • The Adventure of the Priory School – Thorneycroft Huxtable, The Duke of Holdernesse, has allowed his wicked natural son, James, to arrange kidnap his son by the Duchess, Lord Saltire, but hadn’t reckoned on the rascally kidnapper killing the schoolmaster who followed the young heir.
  • The Adventure of Black Peter – a drunk old sailor and tyrant to his family is found transfixed by a harpoon in his garden shed/workroom in Forest Row, Sussex. H&W watch a young man break into the shed and keen young Hoplins arrest him but he claims innocence that his father fled a failing bank with securities on a boat to Norway; he suspects Black Peter’s ship picked him up, murdered him and was selling the securities. Holmes advertises for a harpooner and of the applicants correctly identifies the killer who claims it was self defence.
  • The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton – client Lady Eva Blackwell. The worst man in London collects information to blackmail highborn men and women. H&W break into his house with a view to retrieving the letters which incriminate their client and, hidden, watch another high-born women assassinate CAM.
  • The Adventure of the Six Napoleons – Lestrade comes with a case of plaster casts of Napoleon which have been burgled and shattered. On the latest one an Italian is found with his throat cut. Holmes pieces together that Beppo, a savage simian criminal member of the Mafia, stole ‘the famous black pearl of the Borgias’ and, on the run from the cops, stopped by the plaster casting workshop where he worked and quickly embedded the pearl into one of the many casts of Napoleon the factory was producing. Released from prison a year later, he’s systematically tracking down all the casts to recover the pearl.
  • The Adventure of the Three Students – Hilton Soames, tutor at one of our ancient universities, steps out of his room for a moment while proofing tomorrow’s Greek exam texts, when he returns they’ve been removed along with odd signs. Holmes deduces which of the possible undergraduates did it, and how he was protected by Soames scout who was previously the student’s father’s servant. The whole thing a hymn to Edwardian probity as the undergraduate offers a fulsome apology and goes to take up a job in the Rhodesian police. Empire as refuge, opportunity for a second chance, to redeem oneself.
  • The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez – Inspector Stanley Hopkins arrives with news of the murder of Mr. Willoughby Smith, secretary to Professor Coram of Yoxley Old Place, Kent. Turns out the old professor is a former Nihilist from Tsarist Russia who turned in his comrades and fled to England. His former wife, Anna, followed him here to secure papers which proved her lover was innocent & release him from the salt mines but poor Willoughby intervened and was accidentally stabbed. She kills herself.
  • The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter – being student Godfrey Staunton who abandons the Cambridge rugby team on the eve of the match against Oxford, last seen running off with a bearded man. Trail leads to Cambridge and one Dr Armstrong who is all obstruction until Holmes tracks Staunton to a cottage where he had been called to the bedside of his beautiful but poor-born wife, married and treated in secret because it was against the wishes of his super-rich uncle Lord Mount-James.
  • The Adventure of the Abbey Grange – Inspector Hopkins calls H&W down to Chiselhurst to Abbey Grange where the horrible drunkard Sir Eustace Brackenstall is dead. His wife was tied up by a local gang of burglars who killed EB and made off with the silver. Except they didn’t Holmes deduces that the entire story was cooked up by honest bluff Captain Croker who loves Mary, Lady Brackenstall, and was in a midnight assignation when Lord B came raving in and they had a fair fight. Holmes tests Croker’s loyalty, then releases him. True to my Empire theme, Mary is Australian, and Capt C a man who has seen service in sunbaked climes.
  • The Adventure of the Second Stain – the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, no less, require Holmes to find a letter written by an angry foreign leader whose publication could lead to war. It emerges the PM’s wife was being blackmailed and forced to hand over the Diplomatic Letter in exchange for a youthful love letter. Holmes helps her replace it. England is saved! At the end of which, Watson declares Holmes has now retired to the Sussex Downs to keep bees!

Related links


A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

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)

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)

‘Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!’

Fed up with the difficulty of constructing the crossword-puzzle-like short stories, and keen to concentrate his energies on the historical yarns which he much preferred, Conan Doyle had killed off Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem, published in the Strand magazine in December 1893 (one hundred and twenty years ago to the month).

But his other novels and stories (and plays) didn’t do nearly so well financially, the clamour from fans and publishers alike grew louder and, on board ship back from the Boer War where he had worked as a volunteer doctor at Bloemfontein, he struck up a friendship with one Fletcher Robinson who knew a story about a legendary monster hound – and so the seed of his most popular story was sown.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was serialised in the Strand from August 1901 to April 1902 before being published in book form later the same year.


As usual the text is itself made out of a tissue of other subsidiary texts which are, in effect, pasted together to make up the master text. Thus in the first few pages Watson looks up details of Dr Mortimer in a medical register, Dr Mortimer presents H&D with a manuscript from the 1730s which tells the legend of the Baskervilles, before reading out the newspaper report of the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, there is the mysterious letter made from words cut & pasted from the Times newspaper, a number of telegrams and, of course, most of the events down in Devon are described in the letters the faithful Watson posts to Holmes, before he uses diary form, and before he reverts to traditional 3rd-party narrative.

So the texts themselves enact the problem or challenge of assembling disparate evidence into an orderly narrative.


I’ve made up this word to describe the way every Holmes text mentions a sizable number of other Holmes cases/texts, thus creating the impression of a potentially endless universe of stories. Thus increasing the plausibility of the fictional context or universe in which the fictional character can operate. Hence the many people who write letters to 221b believing Holmes is an actual person. Thus the crossover fictions which involve him with Jack the Ripper or the Great War. Bigging up Holmes’s reputation.

One wonders whether Conan Doyle, exasperated at having to revive his fictional puppet, wrote some of these ones tongue in cheek:

I was exceedingly preoccupied by that little affair of the Vatican cameos, and in my anxiety to oblige the Pope I lost touch with several interesting English cases. (Chapter 2)

In chapter five Holmes claims to have dealt with ‘five hundred cases of capital importance’, quite an inflation since the 70 or so Watson mentioned in the previous volume. In the epilogue a few other quick cases have been solved before Holmes has time to tie up all the loose ends: the card scandal of the Nonpareil Club and mystery of Mlle Carère.


As Holmes lays the situation before him the young Sir Henry Holmes, barely returned from the colonies to claim the cursed title and house, exclaims: ‘I seem to have walked right into the thick of a dime novel’. But making a character point out that he is appearing in a cheap melodrama doesn’t in any way prevent him from actually appearing in a cheap melodrama.

Not only the Gothic atmospherics laid on heavily in the gloomy and accursed ancestral home in the middle of the bleak and ominous Dartmoor, but the characters have a wonderful Edwardian cheesiness:

There he sat, with his tweed suit and his American accent, in the corner of a prosaic railway-carriage, and yet as I looked at his dark and expressive face I felt more than ever how true a descendant he was of that long line of high-blooded, fiery, and masterful men. There were pride, valour, and strength in his thick brows, his sensitive nostrils and his large hazel eyes. If on that forbidding moor a difficult and dangerous quest should lie before us, this was at least a comrade for whom one might venture to take a risk with the certainty that he would bravely share it. (Chapter 6)

Or the description of the fine specimen of Edwardian womanhood, Miss Stapleton:

She was darker than any brunette whom I have seen in England—slim, elegant, and tall. She had a proud, finely-cut face, so regular that it might have seemed impassive were it not for the sensitive mouth and the beautiful dark, eager eyes. With her perfect figure and elegant dress she was, indeed, a strange apparition upon a lonely moorland path. (Chapter 7)

And her subsequent realisation that her husband was a bounder:

‘Thank God! Thank God! Oh, this villain! See how he has treated me!’ She shot her arms out from her sleeves, and we saw with horror that they were all mottled with bruises. ‘But this is nothing—nothing! It is my mind and soul that he has tortured and defiled. I could endure it all, ill-usage, solitude, a life of deception, everything, as long as I could still cling to the hope that I had his love, but now I know that in this also I have been his dupe and his tool.’ She broke into passionate sobbing as she spoke. (Chapter 14)

Only the figure of Holmes the calculating machine lifts these fictions above the pulp melodrama which so many of their situations consist of. That and the soundness of Conan Doyle’s sentences. They are beautifully grammatical. Even when describing the most overwrought emotions Conan Doyle’s prose remains clear and sound. (Contrast him in this with Kipling’s horrible prose style, infected with archaisms and biblicalisms and tags of argot.) They are the textual equivalent of Mrs Hudson and the bachelor rooms, they are anchors of safety and security, a measure of the man’s bluff Edwardian hearty good cheer.

The horror

I was standing in front of him, when I saw his eyes fix themselves over my shoulder and stare past me with an expression of the most dreadful horror. (Chapter 2)

Something brown was rolling and tossing among the green sedges. Then a long, agonized, writhing neck shot upward and a dreadful cry echoed over the moor. It turned me cold with horror. (Chapter 7)

Barrymore sprang up from the window with a sharp hiss of his breath and stood, livid and trembling, before us. His dark eyes, glaring out of the white mask of his face, were full of horror and astonishment. (Chapter 9)

A terrible scream—a prolonged yell of horror and anguish—burst out of the silence of the moor. That frightful cry turned the blood to ice in my veins. (Chapter 12)

Holmes laid his hand upon him and held it up again with an exclamation of horror. (Chapter 12)

You only have to compare the liberal use of ‘horror’ in Conan Doyle’s penny-dreadful melodramas with Joseph Conrad’s famous use of it in Heart of Darkness, to realise how thin and superficial the Conan Doyle is. There is pretty much no psychology at all in them. Gentlemen have a hereditary nobility, ladies are dignified and beautiful, criminals are stunted and coarse, the baddy is a cunning fiend! We are barely dealing with people but ciphers in a game of Cluedo.

In the Holmes texts we can see Victorian melodrama, a strand in Dickens and a central concern of Wilkie Collins, giving birth to its offspring, the American dimestore novel which mutates into the pulp fiction of the 1920s and 30s, and in its country of birth gives rise to the Golden Age of Detectives between the wars, Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercules Poirot et al.

The British Empire

As in all the previous stories there is a strong colonial connection: the previous Baskerville, Sir Charles, had made his fortune in South African gold and the new tenant, Sir Henry, has to be recalled from adventures in the States and Canada where he had lived a manly outdoor life.

As in the previous two novels and many of the short stories there is a strong sense of the interconnectedness of, the easy travel to and from, the Anglo-Saxon colonies – America, Canada, Australia, South Africa – and that these are places where a man goes off to make his fortune, to forge a new personality, to return transformed. Kipling is the great embodiment of this moment, carrying his Indian heritage with him to the South Africa of the Boer War or the Vermont of Teddy Roosevelt, an ideology of supreme confidence in the White Man’s destiny to rule and triumph.

Though both Conan Doyle and Kipling are concerned at the rise of Germany or our unpreparedness to defend the Empire, neither of them begins to doubt that the ideology is itself fatally flawed, unlike the bitter fatalism of Conrad for whom the entire project is a savage farce.

No, after all the twopenny ‘horror’, Holmes and Watson are home again by the fireside in 221b Baker Street, as Holmes ties up the last outstanding loose ends of his latest and greatest triumph.

Holmes and the Boer War

See also my analysis of Holmes and the Boer War ie the war revealed the shocking malnutrition and stuntedness of English conscripts, crystallising late-Victorian anxiety about the degeneration of the race. The Hound of the Baskervilles is, at bottom, a cautionary tale about degeneration within one family: in which the degenerate, dastardly, half-Spanish Stapleton/Baskerville who has inherited the degraded blood of the libertine Hugo, mistreats his lovely wife and tries to murder the fine, upstanding Sir Henry, not only the heir to the noble blood of the family, but steeled and hardened in the tough, manly world of the Anglo-Saxon colonies. Pure blood versus impure blood. Nobility and pure breeding versus half-breed mongrel. Sincerity and honesty versus criminal concealment. Anglo-Saxon morals versus low, half-hispanic treachery!

Read The Hound of the Baskervilles on Project Gutenberg

Illustration for the Hound of the Baskervilles by Sidney Paget (Wikimedia Commons)

Illustration for the Hound of the Baskervilles by Sidney Paget (Wikimedia Commons)

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1894)

Being the second set of a dozen short stories which appeared in The Strand magazine December 1892 – November 1893, and took Holmes to still greater fame.

Holmes and Freud (England versus Europe)

In the Adventure of the Yellow Face Holmes tells Grant Munro:

‘…my friend and I have listened to a good many strange secrets in this room, and … have had the good fortune to bring peace to many troubled souls.’

which makes me think straightaway of Freud: Sherlock and Sigmund both being freelance consultants hired to solve puzzles which more traditional doctors/policemen cannot treat. Freud’s fearless and epoch-making investigations of the psyche and its origins in sex and violence couldn’t make be a bigger contrast with Conan Doyle’s cosy crimes – a bit of horse-stealing or treasure-finding or bank-robbing or counterfeiting all sorted in time to be home at Mrs Hudson’s for tea and crumpets. They may both clearly date from the same fin-de-siècle culture with its fascination for the decadent, for the criminal and transgressive, but Holmes is jolly good chap English nursery games compared to the terrifying investigations Freud made and which embarrass our culture to this day.

Compare the English writers of the day (Stevenson, Kipling, Wells, Conan Doyle, Haggard) and their ripping tales of derring-do, or Wilde’s sparkling fairy tales, with the psychological depth of Europeans like Freud, Chekhov, Maupassant or Mallarmé, Ibsen or Strindberg. Compare Elgar to Mahler. Or Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s dark-eyed Arthurian maidens to the sophisticated psychology of Klimt or Munch.

The return of the repressed

In Freud it is repressed drives and instincts which return in dreams and neurotic symptoms. In Holmes it is peoples’ past lives which catch up with them, so often from adventures abroad: the Australian convict, the black America child, the rival soldiers during the Indian Mutiny. Abroad is seen as more primitive, primal, a place where men commit crimes and make huge fortunes, a place where more instinctive drives can flourish. Upon returning to Blighty, names must be changed and past liberties repressed, hushed, silenced. Half of these cases aren’t about crimes at all, they’re about people petrified their squeaky clean Anglo reputations will be damaged.


Again, Conan Doyle uses the old technique of making throwaway references to numerous other cases to build up the sense of Holmes’s vast achievements and far-flung fame. Watson breezily refers to: the Tarleton murders, the case of Vamberry the wine merchant, the adventure of the old Russian woman, the singular affair of the aliminium crutch, Ricoletti of the club foot and his abominable wife (in The Musgrave Ritual, p.97) or the adventure of the Second Stain and the adventure of the Tired Captain (in The Naval Treaty, 199).

This has the effect of making Holmes seem famous even as his real-life fame increased, a kind of echo.

The stories

  • Silver Blaze – clients: none. The prizewinning racehorse goes missing and it turns out was being led into the moor to be hobbled by its own trainer John Straker who owed money to support a fancy woman. King’s Pyland, Devon.
  • “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” (Omitted from English editions because it eals with adultery! This story is in His Last Bow in American editions of the canon) Client: Susan Cushing.
  • The Adventure of the Yellow Face – client: Grant Munro. A strange yellow face at the window of the cottage across the fields and his wife mysteriously disappearing. It is to see her black child from her first, American, husband. Norbury, south London.
  • The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk – client: Hall Pycroft is puzzled to be offered a job in Birmingham days after accepting one in London. He goes and meets the badly disguised same man who interview him in London. Holmes realises they’ve decoyed Pycroft so the crooked brother can go take his place at a big merchant bank in the City. Indeed, they see in the papers that a massive robbery was foiled though the interviewer had murdered the bank’s nightwatchman. In a melodramatic twist the Birmingham brother tries to hang himself.
  • The Adventure of the Gloria ScottHolmes’s first case – client: Victor Trevor was a friend of the generally anti-social Holmes at college and invited him to his home in the Norfolk Broads where he met old Trevor a landowner and JP. It emerges OT has been living in fear and Victor tells him about a good-for-nothing chav named Hudson who came to stay and terrorised the household. Old Trevor dies of apoplexy after receiving a letter from an old colleague, Beddoes, Hudson has gone to stay with. In a letter to his son he explains he and Beddoes were convicts involved in the mutiny on the prison ship Gloria Scott which is blown up. They are picked up and taken on to Australia, make their fortunes, change their names and return to decent lives in Britain. But Hudson knows the true story and returns to haunt them.
  • The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual – client: Reginald Musgrave. An old family tradition turns out to be disguised instructions as to how to find King Charles I’s crown. Musgrave’s butler had realised as much but, having gained entry to the cellar where it was, had the heavy stone flagstone slammed shut on him by the wronged housemaid who fled. Hurlstone.
  • The Adventure of the Reigate Squires – clients: none. Recovering from a big case, Holmes and Watson go for a rest cure near Reigate where a spate of burglaries climax in the murder of the butler to the Cunninghams, found with a tear of paper in his hand. Holmes is able to show there was no burglary, and the Cunninghams murdered their own servant who had discovered it was they who’d burgled their neighbour Major Acton in an effort to settle a land dispute between them. They try to strangle Holmes but are arrested on the spot.
  • The Adventure of the Crooked Man – client: Major Murphy. ‘Excellent!’ I cried. ‘Elementary,’ said he. Colonel Barclay is heard arguing with his wife in a locked room at his villa near Aldershot, there is a piercing scream, and he is found dead. Goes back 30 years to the Indian Mutiny when he and handsome Henry Wood, in the same regiment, were both in love with Nancy. The town was besieged. Barclay arranged for handsome Henry to go for help but betrayed him into the hands of the waiting mutineers who horribly tortured him and sold him into slavery. Thirty years later the twisted wreck Wood reappears, along with the scampering mongoose he does tricks with, and his mere appearance gives Barclay a fatal heart attack.
  • The Adventure of the Resident Patient – client: Arguably Dr Percy Trevelyan (Trevelyan was sent to Sherlock Holmes by Mr. Blessington). Trevelyan is a poor doctor whom a mysterious man approaches and offers to invest in his career; he sets him up in rooms and all he wants is 3/4 of the doctor’s income in return. After years of success Trevelyan is visited by a Russian count and his son; while he consults the father the son goes snooping, then both disappear. The next day, surprisingly, they return. It turns out to be an elaborate scam by the great Worthingden bank robbers – climaxes with Blessington apparently committing suicide, as usual all the signs of a great horror and fear on  his face. Harley Street, London.
  • The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter – client: Mr. Melas. First mention and appearance of Mycroft Holmes, fat and slothful and founder member of the Diogenes Club for the terminally anti-social. Mr Melas was kidnapped by a creepy small man with pointy moustache and scary giggle, taken in a sealed coach to a house in grounds where he has to translate for a walking skeleton of a man his face bound with bandages. He is dropped back on Wandsworth Common. He goes to the police then Mycroft. Someone replies to a newspaper advert revealing the house is in Beckenham, south London, where they arrive to find the two baddies and the woman they’re holding hostage long gone, and the skinny man and Mr Melas dying in a sealed room with a charcoal fire.
  • The Adventure of the Naval Treaty – client: Percy Phelps is a promising young diplomat asked by his uncle the Foreign Secretary to copy out a naval treaty with Italy. He leaves  his room to go get coffee and is talking to the commissionaire when the bell in his room rings, he returns to the room to find the treaty gone. Panic and a mental collapse, he returns to the family home in Woking where he is nursed by his sweetheart for 10 weeks until Holmes arrives. Turns out it was the fiancee’s brother who is in debt due to gambling on the Stock Exchange. Holmes confronts him as he removes the treaty from where he’d hidden it in the sick man’s room.
  • The Final Problem – clients: none. Holmes appears in Watson’s rooms saying he has finally uncovered the mastermind behind most of London’s crimes, the Napoleon of Crime, Professor Moriarty. He will die happy if he has eliminated Moriarty. He describes a vivid encounter where the two cleverest men in England realise they are set on collision course. If he can just stay safe till the following Monday, the trap will be sprung, Moriarty and his accomplices arrested. So Holmes flees with Watson to the Continent and moves about. But at a walk near the Reichenbach Falls Watson is called back to the hotel by what turns out to be a fake medical emergency, leaving Moriarty to trap Holmes on the cul-de-sac path to the Falls. Here he allows him, conveniently, to write a last message to Watson, before the two fight and both fall into the raging waters.


Some fatefulness in Conan Doyle’s intentions, or some magic in his touch, that even when he tries to get rid of Holmes as an albatross round his neck, tired and fed up with the character, he comes up with an out-of-the-blue, jimmy-rigged plot contraption of an evil mastermind of crime to provide a fitting end to his master detective, even then he hits fictional gold and Moriarty – in reality little more than a plot device – has himself become a fictional icon.

Read the stories

Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes at Project Gutenberg

Cover of 'The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes', 1894 (Wikimedia Commons)

Cover of ‘The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes’, 1894 (Wikimedia Commons)


A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

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)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)

The first two Holmes novellas, first published in magazines then in book form, weren’t particularly successful. But the editor of The Strand magazine, George Newnes, saw the potential and commissioned Conan Doyle to write 12 short stories using the Holmes and Watson characters, publishing one a month from July 1891 to June 1892. It was these monthly instalments which began Holmes’s rise to global fame.

  • A Scandal in Bohemia – client: The King of Bohemia calls to say he is engaged to an eligible aristocrat but has had an affair with Irene Adler who has photos of them together. Holmes disguises himself as a groom to get the lie of the land, visits her and arranges an elaborate ruse whereby a fire cracker is thrown into the living room and her startled glance at the wall shows Holmes where the safe is. But the next day when he calls to claim them, she has decamped. She is always The Woman
  • The Adventure of the Red-Headed League – client: Jabez Wilson. Jabez is invited to join a league established by an American philanthropist; he is paid to go sit in a room and transcribe the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is an elaborate ruse to get access to his cellar and tunnel into the bank next door.
  • A Case of Identity – client: Mary Sutherland a quiet legatee of a will becomes engaged to Hosmer Angel at a dance but he mysteriously disappears. Turns out it is none other than her mother’s young second husband trying to swindle her out of her inheritance.
  • The Boscombe Valley Mystery – client: Alice Turner. In Herefordshire a landowner has been murdered by Boscombe pool and his son found bloodied and with the weapon. Eventually the richer neighbouring landowner reveals the back story where one was a bandit and one a security guard in Australia. The bandit, John Turner, came back to Blighty to go straight but was haunted by the blackmailing McCarthy who was determined to marry his son to Turner’s daughter, Alice.
  • The Five Orange Pips – client: John Openshaw, his uncle Elias returned from the States in the 1860s but has been nervous since receiving an envelope containing 5 orange pips, becoming drunk and paranoid until he is found dead in a pool. Then his brother receives a letter containing five orange pips and instructions to leave ‘the papers’ on the sundial… It is leaders of the Ku Klux Klan coming and going to Britain on sailing ships, posting threats and murdering the unfortunate recipients of the pips.
  • The Man with the Twisted Lip – client: Mrs. St. Clair. She glimpses her husband at the window of an opium den, runs upstairs, there is no-one but a raddled addict. The addict is her husband, ashamed to be a City beggar.
  • The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle – no client. A goose contains a vast blue jewel. It was stolen by James Ryder in league with a serving girl to the Countess of Morcar, smuggled across London then, in a panic, stuffed down the crop of one of his sister’s geese at her goose farm in Brixton, but then the wrong goose is despatched in a job lot to a pub where it is bought by a man who, drunk, is beset by toughs and drops the goose, which is rescued by a hotel commissionaire who brings it to Holmes!
  • The Adventure of the Speckled Band – client: Miss Helen Stoner. Impoverished Dr. Roylott forces Helen Stoner, an heiress, to move into a particular bedroom of his heavily mortgaged ancestral home, Stoke Moran where her sister had mysteriously died, her last words being, ‘The speckled band’. It is a poisonous snake brought back by Roylott from India.
  • The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb – client: Victor Hatherley. Victor is hired by a German-speaking man to fix a powerful hydraulic device in the country. He quickly realises it is not mining but counterfeiting equipment and makes his escape with the help of a sweet anguished lady but not before the swinish German has hacked off his thumb with a cleaver! He makes his way to Watson who brings him to Holmes…
  • The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor – client: Lord Robert St. Simon marries Miss Hatty Doran of San Francisco in a very high society wedding but she disappears from the wedding breakfast. Holmes establishes she has been contacted by her first, American, husband, long thought to be dead and has returned to him.
  • The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet – client: Alexander Holder of Streatham, a banker, brings home a priceless coronet but awakes in the night to find his son wrestling with it, half of it snapped off and stolen, his son refuses to say more and is charged. Holmes to the rescue!
  • The Adventure of the Copper Beeches – client: Violet Hunter is mysteriously offered a job at very high pay to be a governess, to have her hair cut, wear a blue dress and sit in a window just so every day. She realises there is a locked wing of the house and suspects someone is incarcerated there, and asks Holmes’s advice…

The Sherlock Universe

From the get-go Conan Doyle deploys the simple strategy of having Dr Watson refer to innumerable cases which Holmes has investigated, most of them never written up in his case notes or stories. He mentions that in 1887 Holmes was involved in the Adventure of the Paradol Chamber, the Amateur Mendicant Society, the loss of the Sophy Anderson, the adventures of the Grice Patersons, the Camberwell Poisoning, the Tankerville Club Scandal and so on. In The Speckled Band he says that Holmes was involved in some 70 cases between 1882 and the time of writing (1891).

This multiplicity, this cornucopia of events and cases creates a universe around the adventures which are actually reported which helps to give them plausibility and also continually reinforces the sense of Holmes’s fame and superhuman abilities. It is also attractive to a certain type of mentality, a certain type of fan, who loves immersing themselves in the minutiae of the fictional universe – a mentality which in our day extends to a vast range of adaptation and merchandising – the Robert Downey Jnr movies, the Benedict Cumberbatch TV series, the new books and stories, the books about the historical background and wider context, quiz books, the board games and mugs and t-shirts and top trumps sets etc etc.

Literature and quotations

Early on in A Study Watson humorously summarises Holmes’s fields of knowledge and says ‘Literature: Nil’. In fact this is extensively refuted in the texts themselves where Holmes is very given to sententiously quoting from a wide range of literary sources:

  • In A Study he quotes Boileau: ‘Un sot trouve toujours un plus sot qui l’admire’. The very last words of the novella are a quote from Horace: ‘Populus me sibilat, at mihi plaudo / Ipse domi simul ac nummos contemplor in arca.’
  • Almost the last words of Sign of Four are a quote from Goethe: ‘Schade dass die Natur nur EINEN Mensch aus Dir schuf / Denn zum wuerdigen Mann war und zum Schelmen der Stoff.’
  • In Boscombe Valley, when bored, Holmes pulls out his pocket Petrarch.
  • In A Case of Identity he quotes the Persian poet Hafiz.
  • In the Red-Headed League he quotes Flaubert writing to George Sand.
  • In the Noble Bachelor he quotes Thoreau.

Apart from Watson getting it wrong, I think these literary quotations demonstrate two aspects of the texts:

  1. Their sententiousness: Holmes is an extremely didactic character. On one level the stories consist of Holmes endlessly lecturing, teaching and scolding Watson.
  2. Their multitextuality: they are made up of numerous other texts: newspaper reports and adverts, notes, police reports, Holmes’s own files and records, and so on. The stories are pieced together, stitched together like puzzles made of fragments of other texts.

The fin-de-siècle and Oscar Wilde

We’ve seen how The Sign of Four was commissioned by the same publisher who commissioned The Picture of Dorian Gray, an indication of how close the London literary scene was, and of the finances underlying the creation of short dramatic stories. But Holmes also has a lot in common with Wilde’s aristocratic protagonists, Lord Henry Wotton or Lord Arthur Saville. It’s true he is not an exquisite fainéant, a dandy, an aesthete. But he does display plenty of aristocratic disdain for convention, effortless superiority over the laughable bourgeois police detectives, a lordly indifference to how he is perceived, sang-froid and indifference to personal danger. He suffers from aristocratic ennui which drives the Wildean hero into dangerous moral territory:

‘My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so.’ (cf ‘I play the game for the game’s own sake.’ from The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans)

And he is much given to paradoxes: all his detective work reveals the strange and telling in the apparently innocent and mundane, and vice versa, and sometimes he summarises his attitude in witty paradoxes worthy of Wilde:

‘It is, of course, a trifle, but nothing is so important as trifles.’

London the cesspool of Empire

One of the many appealing things about the stories is how Doyle capitalises on London’s position as heart of the greatest empire the world has ever known to bring in characters with stories from all over the world:

  • The Red-Headed league claims to have been set up by an American millionaire
  • In Boscombe the two fathers made their money in the colonies, in Victoria state, Australia
  • The Five Orange pips is about the long reach of the sinister Ku Klux Klan from the American South
  • In the Speckled Band the ill-fated Dr. Grimesby Roylott has brought his snakes back from his time in India
  • The Noble Bachelor marries the daughter of an American who made his pile in the California Gold Rush

and so it goes on, creating a particularly quaint and dated vision of the world when half the map was painted red and the world was run by Anglo-Saxon chaps.


If the chaps are, for the most part, noble Anglo-Saxons, then the women are even more dated, fixed in amber from that period, as saintly, innocent, virginal helpmeets and dutiful daughters and damsels in distress. The image of the concerned and helpless young lady, flushed and panting, caught in a hapless plight and requiring help from Holmes the Master-Male, repeats again and again. Any grown-up would be repelled by this stereotyping, but Holmes isn’t for grown-ups.

Read the stories

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes at Project Gutenberg

Cover of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, First edition (Wikimedia Commons)

Cover of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, First edition (Wikimedia Commons)


A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

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)

The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)

The second Sherlock Holmes novel opens with the great man injecting himself with cocaine, a ‘seven per cent solution’, to stave off crushing boredom. Watson received his Afghan campaign wound in the shoulder in the first novel; in this one the wound has mysteriously moved to his leg (as it is in the first BBC TV episodes). Hmmm, inconsistencies. In this one Watson meets young Mary Morstan and they fall instantly in love.

London, cesspool of Empire

One of the many pleasures of these books is Conan Doyle’s evocative descriptions of a long-lost London.

It was a September evening and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghostlike in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light — sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all humankind, they flitted from the gloom into the light and so back into the gloom once more. (Chapter 4)

Reminds me of the foggy cityscapes of Vaughan Williams’ 2nd (London) Symphony, with its use of market cries and the jingle of harnesses of waiting horses. (Scherzo from Vaughan Williams’ Second Symphony)

‘Wordsworth Road,’ said my companion. ‘Priory Road. Lark Hall Lane. Stockwell Place. Robert Street. Cold Harbour Lane. Our quest does not appear to take us to very fashionable regions.’ We had indeed reached a questionable and forbidding neighbourhood. Long lines of dull brick houses were only relieved by the coarse glare and tawdry brilliancy of public-houses at the corner. Then came rows of two-storied villas, each with a fronting of miniature garden, and then again interminable lines of new, staring brick buildings — the monster tentacles which the giant city was throwing out into the country. (Chapter 4)

Even its most vivid depictors have rarely loved London. It inspires horrified fascination.


The text is itself built from other texts, pretending to be a narrative account created by and in the voice of Dr Watson, which also includes newspaper reports, adverts, scribbled notes and messages, offers of reward and, of course, a True Account or Backstory which explains the bizarre goings-on in the present or foreground of the plot.

Plot and story

Plot  1888 Miss Mary Morstan arrives at 221b Baker Street. Tells a preliminary backstory: her father, Captain Arthur, disappeared abruptly in 1878; since 1882 she has received a pearl ear-ring in a box once a year. Now she has received an invitation to meet a stranger at the Lyceum. Holmes discovers one Major Sholto knew Morstan out in India and died in 1882. Holmes and Watson accompany her to the rendezvous, meet a servant who takes them to a dingy house in Brixton (again with Brixton, scene of the murder in A Study in Scarlet) where lives the dilettante Thaddeus Sholto. He explains his father and Morstan were in cahoots about a treasure from India, Morstan visited Sholto, they had a violent argument and Morstan dropped dead of heart failure. Sholto buried the body and the treasure. One day he received a letter form abroad and became a bag of nerves. He was about to reveal the whereabouts of the hidden treasure to Thaddeus and his brother Bartholomew when a face appears at the window and Sholto also drops dead. Holmes and Watson and Mary and Thaddeus set off to the brother’s mansion in Norbury only to find him dead, in a sealed room!!

Two chases

Chase 1 Bloodhound Toby leads H&W from Pondicherry House to the Oval, to a Thames cruiser for hire but the baddies have got away. H&W advertise for its whereabouts but are foxed.

Chase 2 Eventually tracking it down, H&W hire the fastest police launch on the river and give high speed pursuit to the Aurora as it heads from London Bridge downriver, finally overtaking it near Plumstead Marshes.

This high-speed boat chase reminded me of Dickens, in particular:

  • the exciting three-chapter-long pursuit of Lizzy Hexam’s father, the corpse-fisher, in Our Mutual Friend, in among the boats and wherries and tugs and cruisers moored around the Pool of London
  • the climax of Great Expectations where Pip is trying to get Magwitch safely out of England aboard a hired boat, but is pursued by a police boat
  • also of the strange death of Daniel Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop, the wicked chandler who ends pursued downriver by the police, falls into the river and drowns, to be washed up on a muddy bank not dissimilar to the muddy shore of Plumstead Marshes where Jonathan Small gets his peg leg stuck, until lassooed free by Holmes & Watson

The strange story of Jonathan Small

The one legged man, Small, was in cahoots with three Indians who, during the Indian Mutiny, murdered a rajah’s servant and stole the treasure of Agra. they hid the treasure but were then arrested and convicted to penal servitude on the distant Andeman Islands. Here Sholto and Mary’s father both supervised prisoners. They discovered the secret of the treasure, dug it up and stole it for themselves but lived in fear of ‘the Four’.

Victorian womanhood

She was seated by the open window, dressed in some sort of white diaphanous material, with a little touch of scarlet at the neck and waist. The soft light of a shaded lamp fell upon her as she leaned back in the basket chair, playing over her sweet grave face, and tinting with a dull, metallic sparkle the rich coils of her luxuriant hair. One white arm and hand drooped over the side of the chair, and her whole pose and figure spoke of an absorbing melancholy. At the sound of my footfall she sprang to her feet, however, and a bright flush of surprise and of pleasure coloured her pale cheeks. (Chapter 11)

How pre-Raphaelite. Like a painting by Millais.

Victorian love

“The treasure is lost,” said Miss Morstan calmly.
As I listened to the words and realized what they meant, a great shadow seemed to pass from my soul. I did not know how this Agra treasure had weighed me down until now that it was finally removed. It was selfish, no doubt, disloyal, wrong, but I could realize nothing save that the golden barrier was gone from between us.
“Thank God!” I spoke from my very heart.
She looked at me with a quick, questioning smile.
“Why do you say that?” she asked.
“Because you are within my reach again,” I said, taking her hand. She did not withdraw it. “Because I love you, Mary, as truly as ever a man loved a woman. Because this treasure, these riches, sealed my lips. Now that they are gone I can tell you how I love you. That is why I said, ‘Thank God.’ ”
“Then I say ‘Thank God,’ too,” she whispered as I drew her to my side.
Whoever had lost a treasure, I knew that night that I had gained one. (Chapter 11)

Oscar Wilde

The Sign of Four was commissioned at a dinner hosted by Joseph M. Stoddart, managing editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, at the Langham Hotel in London on 30 August 1889. Stoddart wanted to produce an English version of the magazine. Also present was Oscar Wilde who, as a result, contributed The Picture of Dorian Gray to the July 1890 issue. Amazing times! And an indication that döppelgangers were in the air. Jeckyll and Hyde (1886), Dracula (1897), London was a place where unparalleled refinement and luxury coexisted with what the Victorians termed the most squalid vice, certainly with starving children, mass prostitution, opium dens and drunken violence. The Holmes novels and stories capitalise on this fin-de-siècle sense of corruption and depravity, contrasting high luxury and deepest sin at the extremes with the homely middle way of Holmes and Watson’s happy, well-educated bourgeois lifestyle. Whatever else happens they’ll come home to tea and scones served by Mrs Hudson.

The neatness of cheap art

The book ends as it began with a bored Holmes reaching for the consolation of his cocaine.

 “The division seems rather unfair,” I remarked. “You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit, pray what remains for you?”
“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there still remains the cocaine-bottle.” And he stretched his long white hand up for it. (Chapter 12)

Full text of The Sign of Four on the Literature.com website

'The Sign of the Four" in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (1890) (Wikimedia Commons)

‘The Sign of the Four” in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (1890) (Wikimedia Commons)


A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

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)

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

Introducing Sherlock

A Study in Scarlet is the first of the four canonical Sherlock Holmes novels. It was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1887 and attracted very little attention. Conan Doyle went on to write a sequel, The Sign of Four for Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (1890), and then persuaded Strand magazine to take 13 short stories to appear monthly in 1890-91. These stories are collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892). It was the stories which became popular and led to a further 13 being commissioned (collected as The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894).

Watson’s metafiction

The novella (130 pages) is described as being a ‘Reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson MD, late of the Army Medical Department’. This is very much of the period which revelled in intertextuality, enjoying texts made of other texts, from letters, journals, diaries, newspaper accounts etc. Later Watson reads out newspaper accounts of the murder, includes his transcript of the killer’s confession taken down shorthand, and the text includes notes, adverts, even the message scrawled in blood on the wall.

At the end of the book, Holmes laughs at the way the incompetent Scotland Yard detectives get the glory of solving the crime in the Press. Watson comforts Holmes that he will publish the truth: ‘Never mind. I have all the facts in my journal, and the public shall know them.’ To the duality of story and plot (see below), and the duality of the various disguises characters adopt in the story, is added a fundamental duality between what actually happens in the detection of the crime, and a) what is reported in the Press and b) what is published in Watson’s accounts/stories.

Watson’s career and character

For someone interested in late Victorian history, Watson’s biography as as interesting as Holmes’s. Watson took a medical degree from University of London in 1878. He enlists in the army and joins his regiment in India just in time to take part in the Second Afghan War (1878-80) and sees action in the Battle of Maiwand where he is shot in the shoulder and, upon recovering, invalided out of the service a pension. Not exactly a long career, then.

Because he is not a freak, like Holmes, his views can be presumed to be characteristic of the times and therefore have great sociological interest. It is notable, then that he refers to ‘London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained’.

Plot and story

In a way the stories are made out of, or capitalise on, one of the fundamental ideas in narrative, the difference between story and plot, or story and discourse, or fabula and sujet – ie between the actual chronological course of events in the ‘real world’ and the way the narrative reveals these for our entertainment. Study in Scarlet and most of the other Holmes stories are in two parts: the mystery; and the backstory or mystery explained. Thus:

Plot 1881. A murder in the Brixton Road, the word Rache in German written in blood; Lestrange and Godfrey of the Yard pursue their wrong-headed theories; Stangerson found dead in lodgings. Finally, in a coup de theatre, Sherlock arrests the cabman they call to their rooms.

Story 1840s. John Ferrier dying in the Salt Lake Desert with a little girl, daughter of one of his party. Rescued by the Mormons migrating to Utah, at the price of demanding they adhere to their beliefs. 1860s Ferrier thrives but the Mormons insist his (adopted) daughter, Lucy, marries one of the sons of the founding Elders – Drebber or Stangerson. Instead she loves the trapper Jefferson Hope. One night Jefferson, Ferrier and Lucy make a break for it. Three days into their trek Jefferson leaves them to catch game, returns to find Ferrier dead and Lucy kidnapped by the Mormons. She is forced to  marry Drebber, pines and dies. Jefferson vows revenge, goes away to plan. 1880s Hope returns years later to find Drebber and Stangerson have quit the Mormons and left Utah. He tracks them across the States, to Europe and to London, where he confronts Drebber with the choice of two pills he has concocted, one with deadly poison, one anodyne. Drebber picks the poison and is dead & contorted in seconds, as the police find him. Hope’s nose had bled and on a whim he wrote the German word Rache on the wall in his own blood, thus foxing the coppers but not our Sherlock.

London the cesspool of Empire

Cesspool of Empire London may well have been (see Conrad’s spooky vision of it in Heart of Darkness or Kipling’s bitter disillusionment in stories like One View of the Question); but its awesome size (4 million inhabitants!) and its place at the centre of the great Empire mean criminals and victims with concerns from all over the world turn up there and provide Holmes and Watson with a potentially vast cast of characters and limitless possible plots.


To the two categories, above, created by various literary theorists from Aristotle to Shklovsky I would add the tidy-up or wash-up, as Press Offices call it. The Post-script. Addendum. Loose ends. While awaiting trial Hope dies in custody from a weak heart brought on by a life of trial. Leaving Holmes and Watson with cheesy reflections on Justice Done.

Cover of Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887, featuring 'A Study in Scarlet' (Wikimedia Commons)

Cover of Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, featuring ‘A Study in Scarlet’ (Wikimedia Commons)


A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

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)

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