- This article is for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character. For other versions of the character see Versions of Sherlock Holmes.
Little is known of Holmes’ early life or his family background, save that he is the grand nephew of the French artist Emile Jean Horace Vernet. An estimate of Holmes’s age in “His Last Bow” places his year of birth at 1854; the story, set in August 1914, describes him as 60 years of age. It is also known that in his younger years, Holmes attended at least one of the country’s leading universities … though it cannot be ascertained whether he was an alumnus of Oxford, Cambridge, or both. Sherlock has an older brother, Mycroft, whom the younger Holmes considered to be more intellectually gifted than himself. Mycroft spent much of his life in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter“, Sherlock refers to Mycroft as being “[s]even years [his] senior”. If Sherlock date of birth of 1854 is correct, that places Mycroft’s date of birth as 1847.
At the age of 20, Holmes was to find his life’s calling. For it was in that year that he began his illustrious career as the world’s first consulting detective, taking his first case…which his future friend and companion Dr John Watson would come to title, in his chronicles of Holmes’ endeavours, “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott“. His study of science at university having informed his already keen mind and powers of observation, Holmes employed a process of deductive reasoning in his work, with great success.
In early 1881 he is presented as an independent student of chemistry with a variety of very curious side-interests, almost all of which turn out to be single-mindedly bent towards making him superior at solving crimes. In another early story, “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott”, more background on what caused Holmes to become a detective is presented: a college friend’s father complimented him very highly on his deductive skills.
In “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter“, Holmes states that his grandmother was the sister of the French painter “Vernet” (presumably Horace Vernet).
In A Study in Scarlet, Dr Watson makes an evaluation of Sherlock’s skills:
- Knowledge of Literature – Nil.
- Knowledge of Astronomy – Nil.
- Knowledge of Politics – Feeble.
- Knowledge of Botany – Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
- Knowledge of Geology – Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks, has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
- Knowledge of Chemistry – Profound.
- Knowledge of Anatomy – Accurate, but unsystematic.
- Knowledge of Sensationalism – Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
- Plays the violin well
- Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman
- Has a good practical knowledge of British law
Later stories make clear, however, that the above list is misleading, and that Holmes, who has just met Watson, is pulling Watson’s leg. Two examples: despite Holmes’ supposed ignorance of politics, in “A Scandal in Bohemia” he immediately recognises the true identity of the supposed Count von Kramm as Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Feldstein and hereditary King of Bohemia. Regarding non-sensational literature, his speech is replete with references to the Bible, Shakespeare, and even Goethe. This is somewhat inconsistent with his scolding Watson for telling him about how the Earth revolved around the Sun, instead of the other way around, given that Holmes tried to avoid having his memory cluttered with information that is of no use to him in detective work.
Holmes is also a competent cryptanalyst. He relates to Watson, “I am fairly familiar with all forms of secret writing, and am myself the author of a trifling monograph upon the subject, in which I analyse one hundred and sixty separate ciphers”. One such scheme is solved in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”, which uses a series of stick figures.
In A Study in Scarlet, Conan Doyle presents a comparison between his sleuth and two earlier, more established fictional detectives: Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Emile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq. The former had first appeared in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, first published in 1841, and the latter in L’Affaire Lerouge (The Lerouge Affair) in 1866. The brief discussion between Watson and Holmes about the two characters begins with a comment by Watson:
- You remind me of Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.”
- Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. “No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,” he observed. “Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.”
- “Have you read Gaboriau’s works?” I asked. “Does Lecoq come up to your idea of a detective?”
- Sherlock Holmes sniffed sardonically. “Lecoq was a miserable bungler,” he said, in an angry voice; “he had only one thing to recommend him, and that was his energy. That book made me positively ill. The question was how to identify an unknown prisoner. I could have done it in twenty-four hours. Lecoq took six months or so. It might be made a text-book for detectives to teach them what to avoid.”
Holmes seems convinced that he is superior to both of them, while Watson expresses his admiration of the two characters. It has been suggested that this was a way for Conan Doyle to pay some respect to characters by writers who had influenced him, while insisting that his is an improvement over them. However, Holmes pulls a very Dupin-esque mind reading trick on Watson in “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” (repeated word for word in the story, “The Adventure of the Resident Patient“, when “The Cardboard Box” was removed from theMemoirs), and, to a lesser extent, in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men“.
Holmes has shown himself a master of disguise:
- A seaman (The Sign of Four)
- An unemployed groom and a Nonconformist clergyman (A Scandal in Bohemia)
- An opium addict (“The Man with the Twisted Lip“)
- A common loafer (“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet“)
- An old Italian priest (“The Adventure of the Final Problem“)
- A bookseller (“The Adventure of the Empty House“)
- A plumber (“The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton“)
- A dying man (“The Adventure of the Dying Detective“)
- An old sporting man (“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone“)
- A woman (“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone“)
So great a master of disguise is Holmes, in fact, that in “A Scandal in Bohemia“, Watson is compelled to remark of him, “The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime.”
Although Holmes looks upon himself as a disembodied brain, there are times when he can become very emotional in a righteous cause, as when he disapproves of the banker Holder as to how the man treated his son, in “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet“. At the end of “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons“, he is touched by Lestrade’s deep gratitude for assisting Scotland Yard. Watson says, “he was more nearly moved by the softer human emotions than I had ever seen him”. And, in “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs“, Watson is wounded by a forger he and Holmes are pursuing. While the bullet wound proved to be “quite superficial”, Watson is moved by Holmes’ reaction:
“It was worth a wound – it was worth many wounds – to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.”
Holmes’ techniques could be looked upon, then, as the forerunner of modern forensic sciences:
- The use of footprints, shoe prints, horseshoe prints, carriage wheel tracks, and bicycle tracks to identify actions at a crime scene (A Study in Scarlet, “The Adventure of the Silver Blaze“, “The Adventure of the Priory School“)
- The use of tobacco ashes and cigarette butts to identify criminals (“The Adventure of the Resident Patient“,The Hound of the Baskervilles)
- The use of typewritten letters to expose a fraud (“A Case of Identity“)
- The deduction of murder from two pieces of human remains (“The Adventure of the Cardboard Box“)
- The observation of gunpowder residue on victim (“The Adventure of the Reigate Puzzle“)
- The observation of use of bullets from murder weapon from two crime scenes (“The Adventure of the Empty House“)
- The use of a fingerprint to free an innocent man (“The Adventure of the Norwood Builder“) (an especially subtle case, as Holmes recognises the fingerprint as a forgery)
In “The Adventure of the Second Stain“, Dr Watson says that after his long career, Holmes moved to the Sussex Downs and took up beekeeping. But even in “retirement” Holmes would again come to the aid of his country as the First World War approached. In 1914, at the age of 53, he was instrumental in the capture and arrest of a Prussian spy known as Von Bork.
The Von Bork case seems to have been Sherlock Holmes’ last bow. Following the arrest, Holmes returned to his life of seclusion in Sussex to live out his life in peace and solitude, keeping bees and eventually publishing a manual on the subject. The details of his later life and death are not known, but he lives on to this day through the records of his thrilling cases, and will always be remembered and regarded as the “World’s Only Consulting Detective”.
Watson describes Holmes as “bohemian” in habits and lifestyle. Although Holmes is described in The Hound of the Baskervilles as having a “cat-like” love of personal cleanliness, Watson also describes Holmes as an eccentric, with no regard for contemporary standards of tidiness or good order. He alternates between days or weeks of listless lassitude and similar periods of intense engagement with a challenging case or with his hobby, experimental chemistry: “extreme exactness and astuteness… [or a] poetic and contemplative mood”, “outbursts of passionate energy… followed by reactions of lethargy.”
Nevertheless, Watson was very typical of his time in not considering a vice Holmes’ habit of smoking (usually a pipe) heavily, nor his willingness to bend the truth and break the law (e.g., lie to the police, conceal evidence, burgle and housebreak) when it suited his purposes. In Victorian England, such actions were not necessarily considered vices as long as they were done by a gentleman for noble purposes, such as preserving a woman’s honor or a family’s reputation (this argument is discussed by Holmes and Watson in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton“). Since many of the stories revolve around Holmes (and Watson) doing such things, a modern reader must accept actions which would be out of character for a “law-abiding” detective living by the standards of a later time. (They remain staples of detective fiction, being done in a good cause.) Holmes has a strong sense of honour and “doing the right thing”.
Holmes can often be quite dispassionate and cold; however, when hot on the trail of a mystery, he can display a remarkable passion given his usual languor.
He has a flair for showmanship, and often, he prepares dramatic traps to capture the culprit of a crime which are staged to impress Watson or one of the Scotland Yard inspectors (as at the end of “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder“). He also holds back on his chain of reasoning, not revealing it or only giving cryptic hints and surprising results, until the very end, when he can explain all of his deductions at once.
Holmes does have an ego that sometimes seems to border on arrogance; however, his arrogance is usually deserved. He seems to enjoy baffling the police inspectors with his superior deductions. Holmes is usually quite content to allow the police to take the credit for his work, with Watson being the only one to broadcast his own roles in the case (in “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty“, he remarks that of his last fifty-three cases, the police have had all the credit in forty-nine), although he enjoys receiving praise from personal friends and those who take a serious interest in his work.
Although he initially needed Watson to share the rent of his comfortable residence at 221B Baker Street we are told in “The Adventure of the Dying Detective” (when he was living alone) “I have no doubt that the house might have been purchased at the price which Holmes paid for his rooms” suggesting he had developed a good income from his practice, although it is never revealed exactly how much he charges for his services. It is possible, however, that he charges based on the client’s ability to pay in “The Adventure of the Final Problem“, Holmes states that his services to the government of France and the royal house of Scandinavia had left him with enough money to retire comfortably, while in “The Adventure of Black Peter” Watson notes that Holmes would refuse to help the wealthy and powerful if their cases did not interest him, while he could devote weeks at a time to the cases of the most humble clients. Certainly, in the course of his career Holmes had worked for both the most powerful monarchs and governments of Europe (including his own) and various wealthy aristocrats and industrialists, and also been consulted by impoverished pawnbrokers and humble governesses on the lower rungs of society.
Holmes is generally quite fearless. He dispassionately surveys horrific, brutal crime scenes; he does not allow superstition (as in The Hound of the Baskervilles) or grotesque situations to make him afraid; and he intrepidly confronts violent murderers. He is generally unfazed by threats from his criminal enemies, and indeed Holmes himself remarks that it is the danger of his profession that has attracted him to it.
Finally, Holmes does have capacities for human emotion and friendship. He has a remarkable capacity to gently soothe and reassure people suffering from extreme distress, a talent which comes in handy when dealing with both male and female clients who arrive at Baker Street suffering from extreme fear or nervousness. He also has a close personal friendship with Watson, whose near-death at the hands of a counterfeiter in “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs” elicits grief and anger from Holmes. Over time, Holmes’ relations with the official Scotland Yard detectives goes from cold disdain to a strong respect.
- Watson: “Which is it today? Morphine or cocaine?“
- Holmes: “It is cocaine, a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?“
- ―The Sign of Four
Holmes occasionally uses addictive drugs, especially when lacking stimulating cases. Modern readers of the Holmes stories are apt to be surprised by this, though Watson describes this as Holmes’ “only vice”.
Holmes believes the use of cocaine stimulates his brain when it is not in use. He is a habitual user of cocaine, which he injects in a seven-per-cent solution using a personal syringe that he keeps in a Morocco leather case. Holmes is also an occasional user of morphine but expressed strong disapproval on visiting an opium den. These drugs were legal in late 19th-century England. Both Watson and Holmes are continual tobacco users, including cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, though this was not an uncommon habit during this era. Holmes is an expert at identifying tobacco-ash residues, having penned a monograph on the subject.
Dr Watson strongly disapproves of his friend’s cocaine habit, describing it as the detective’s “only vice” and expressing concern over its possible effect on Holmes’ mental health and superior intellect. In “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter“, Watson claims to have “weaned” Holmes off drugs. Even so, according to his doctor friend, Holmes remains an addict whose habit is “not dead, but merely sleeping”.
In one story, “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton“, Holmes is engaged to be married, but only with the motivation of gaining information for his case.
He clearly demonstrates particular interest in several of the more charming female clients that come his way (such as Violet Hunter of “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches“, whom Watson thought might become more than a client to Holmes). However, the context implies that Holmes found their youth, beauty, and energy (and the cases they bring to him) invigorating, as opposed to an actual romantic interest, as Holmes inevitably “manifested no further interest in her when once she had ceased to be the center of one of his problems”.
If he was able to turn on a certain amount of charm, as indicated by these episodes, there is no indication of a serious or long-term interest apart from the case of Adler. Watson states that Holmes has an “aversion to women” but “a peculiarly ingratiating way with [them].” Holmes stated “I am not a whole-souled admirer of womankind.” His dislike may have stemmed from the fact he found “the motives of women… so inscrutable… How can you build on such quicksand? Their most trivial actions may mean volumes… their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin.” This perceived resistance to his deductive processes may have annoyed him. On the other hand, it may be noted that the landlady, Mrs Hudson, is never actually described. Another point of interest in Holmes’ relationships with women, is that the only joy he gets from their company is the problems they bring to him to solve. In “The Sign of Four”, Watson quotes Holmes as being “an automaton, a calculating machine.” this references Holmes’ disinterest in relationships with women in general, and clients in particular, as Watson state that “there is something positively inhuman in you at times”.
Watson writes in “The Adventure of the Dying Detective” that Mrs Hudson is fond of Holmes in her own way, despite his bothersome eccentricities as a lodger, owing to his “remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women.” Watson notes that while he dislikes and distrusts them, he is nonetheless a “chivalrous opponent”. Holmes cannot be said to be misogynistic, given the number of women he helps in his work, but it may be that his own detached and analytical personality is annoyed by their excessively emotional (from his perspective) natures.
Watson, on the other hand, has a perhaps justifiable reputation as a ladies’ man, boasting in The Sign of Four of “an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents.” In addition, he speaks favorably of some women indeed, in virtually all the longer stories he remarks on the exceptional beauty of at least one female character and actually married one, Mary Morstan of The Sign of Four.