Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3598
In spite of his desire to be acknowledged as a writer of “serious” literature, Arthur Conan Doyle is destined to be remembered as the creator of a fictional character who has taken on a life separate from the literary works in which he appears. Sherlock Holmes, as the prototype of almost all fictional detectives, has become a legend not only to his devotees but also to those who have not even read the works in which he appears, the detective being immortalized by reputation and through the media of movies, television, and radio.
Doyle claimed that the character of Sherlock Holmes was based on his memories of Dr. Joseph Bell, a teacher of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh, whose diagnostic skills he had admired as a student of medicine. Bell, however, disclaimed the honor and suggested that Doyle himself possessed the analytical acumen that more closely resembled the skills of Sherlock Holmes. Regardless of the disclaimers and acknowledgments, there is little doubt that Doyle owed a large debt to Edgar Allan Poe and other predecessors in detective fiction, such asÉmile Gaboriau and François-Eugène Vidocq. Doyle records that he was familiar with Mémoires (1828-1829; Memoirs of Vidocq, Principal Agent of the French Police, 1828-1829) and had read Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq (1880). It is the influence of Poe, however, that is most in evidence in the character of Holmes and in many of his plots.
Poe’s character of C. Auguste Dupin bears remarkable similarities to the Sherlock Holmes character. Both Holmes and Dupin, for example, are eccentrics; both are amateurs in the detective field; both have little regard for the official police; and both enter into investigations, not because of any overwhelming desire to bring a culprit to justice but out of the interest that the case generates and the challenge to their analytical minds. In addition, both have faithful companions who serve as the chroniclers of the exploits of their respective detective friends. While Dupin’s companion remains anonymous and the reader is unable to draw any conclusions about his personality, Dr. Watson, in contrast, takes on an identity (although always in a secondary role) of his own. The reader shares with Watson his astonishment at Holmes’s abilities. In effect, Watson becomes a stand-in for the reader by asking the questions that need to be asked for a complete understanding of the situation.
Generally, the Sherlock Holmes stories follow a similar pattern: There is usually a scene at the Baker Street residence, at which time a visitor appears and tells his or her story. After Holmes makes some preliminary observations and speculates upon a possible solution to the puzzle, Holmes and Watson visit the scene of the crime. Holmes then solves the mystery and explains to Watson how he arrived at the solution. “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” follows this formula, and it is apparent that Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” had a direct influence on this “locked room” mystery. The murder, the locked room, and the animal killer are all variations on the ingredients in the first case in which C. Auguste Dupin appears. Even the reference to the orangutan on the grounds of the Manor House would appear to be an allusion to the murderer in Poe’s story. The gothic romance influence is also apparent in this adventure of Sherlock Holmes: There is the mysterious atmosphere and the strange, looming manor house; and there is the endangered woman threatened by a male force. Changing the murderer from the ape of Poe’s story to a serpent in Doyle’s story suggests at least symbolically the metaphysical (or supernatural) struggle between the forces of good and evil.
Typically, this story as well as all the Holmes stories ends with the solution to the mystery. Sherlock Holmes acknowledges that, by driving the snake back into the room where Dr. Roylott, the murderer, is waiting, he is indirectly responsible for his death; yet he matter-of-factly states that it is not likely to weigh heavily on his conscience. The mystery has been solved; that has been the detective’s only interest in the case. Because of this single-minded interest on the part of the detective, what happens to the criminal after discovery is no longer relevant. If the criminal is to stand trial, the story ends with the arrest and no more is heard of him. There are no trials, no dramatic courtroom scenes, and no reports of executions or prison sentences which had been popular in earlier detective stories and which were to regain immense popularity in the future.
While the solution to the “ingenious puzzle” is the prime concern for the detective and certainly of interest to the reader, it is Sherlock Holmes’s character with his multifaceted personality and his limitations which makes Doyle’s stories about the detective’s adventures so re-readable. Holmes, for example, is an accomplished musician, a composer as well as an instrumentalist; he is an expert in chemical research and has educated himself to be an authority on blood stains; he is the author of innumerable monographs on such esoteric subjects as different types of tobacco, bicycle tire impressions, and types of perfume; and he is an exceptionally fine pugilist.
His limitations, however, are what make Sherlock Holmes so attractive to the reader. He is sometimes frighteningly ignorant; for example, after Dr. Watson has explained the Copernican system to him, he responds: “Now that I know it. I shall do my best to forget it”; he considers this information trivial, since it is not useful, and he feels that retaining it will crowd practical knowledge out of his mind. Holmes can also make erroneous judgments, and, perhaps most appealing of all, he can fail as a detective. It is this capacity for the detective to fail or to be outwitted that is perhaps Doyle’s most significant contribution to the detective-fiction genre. Whereas Holmes’s predecessors such as Lecoq and Dupin are presented as unerring in their conclusions and infallible in solving their cases, Doyle’s hero demonstrates his fallibility early in his career.
“A Scandal in Bohemia”
It is in the first of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” without doubt Doyle’s version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” that this very human fallibility is revealed. Both stories deal with the need to recover items that are being used to blackmail a person of royal heritage. In both cases, attempts to find the items have failed and the detectives are called on for assistance; and, in both stories, a ruse is used to discover the whereabouts of the incriminating items.
While the debt to Poe is large in this story, “A Scandal in Bohemia” also displays some significant departures that establish the work as Doyle’s own, artistically. The scenes in the streets of London are conveyed with convincing detail to capture effectively “the spirit of the place” of Victorian England. The characters in Poe’s Dupin stories are lightly drawn, and the central interest for these tales is not in the people but in what happens to them. While the characters in Poe’s stories talk about matters which are relevant only to the mystery at hand, the direct opposite is true in Doyle’s story. The people in the Holmes story are interesting and full of dramatic movement, and Holmes’s conversations with Watson and the others are filled with comments which are not related to the case.
In addition, Doyle introduces the device of disguises in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The King of Bohemia, wearing a small face mask to hide his identity, visits Holmes in his lodgings; his disguise, however, is immediately penetrated by the detective. Sherlock Holmes also assumes a disguise in the story that is so convincing and successful that even his close friend Dr. Watson is unable to recognize him. It is the skill of Irene Adler, Holmes’s antagonist in the story, in assuming another identity that leads to the detective’s being foiled. Holmes’s failure in this story, however, in no way detracts from him. On the contrary, this failure and his others (such as in “The Yellow Face”) serve to make him only more convincing and more three-dimensional as a human being than the always successful C. Auguste Dupin. Holmes loses no status through his errors; instead, he gains in the light of his past and future successes.
“The Red-Headed League”
While there will always be disagreement among Sherlock Holmes aficionados about which of the many short stories is best, there is broad agreement that one of the best-constructed stories by Arthur Conan Doyle is the second short story in the first series, “The Red-Headed League.” Doyle himself ranked the story very high when he was queried, and the Victorian reading public’s response attested to its popularity. This story also introduces one of the recurring themes of the short stories: that of the Doppelgänger, or double. The dual nature of the world and of personalities is developed in parallel manners throughout the unraveling of the mystery of Jabez Wilson’s involvement with the Red-Headed League. The contemplative side of Holmes is repeatedly contrasted with his energized side, just as the orderliness of Victorian England is seen in stark relief against “the half that is evil.” Repeatedly, when there is a lull in the chase or a mystery has been solved, Sherlock Holmes retreats to his contemplative side to forget at least temporarily “the miserable weather and the still more miserable ways of our fellowmen.”
“The Red-Headed League” follows the traditional formula of a Sherlock Holmes story. Holmes is visited at his flat by Jabez Wilson, who relates his problem. Wilson, the owner of a small pawnshop, has been working for the Red-Headed League for eight weeks, until abruptly and under mysterious circumstances, the League has been dissolved. He qualified for the position because of his red hair, and his only duties were to remain in a room and copy the Encyclopædia Britannica. He has been able to perform these chores because his assistant, Vincent Spaulding, was willing to work in the pawnshop for half-wages. He has come to Sherlock Holmes because he does not want to lose such a position without a struggle.
Holmes and Watson visit the pawnshop, and Spaulding is recognized by the detective as being in reality John Clay, a master criminal and murderer. The detective is able to infer from the circumstances that the opposite of what is expected is true. He concludes that it is not the presence of Jabez Wilson in the room performing a meaningless “intellectual” task for the League that is important; rather, it is his absence from the pawnshop that gives his alter ego assistant the opportunity to perform the “physical” task of tunneling from the cellar into the nearby bank. Setting a trap, Holmes, Watson, and the police are able to capture Clay and his confederates in their criminal act.
The double theme of the story is also reinforced in Jabez Wilson’s account of the applicants lining up to apply for the position with the Red-Headed League. He describes the crowd lining up on the stair; those in anticipation of employment ascending the stairs with hope; those who have been rejected descending in despair, forming a “double” stream. John Clay, Holmes’s antagonist in this story, is the first in a long line of adversaries of the detective who serve in effect as Doppelgängers of the sleuth. Clay has an aristocratic background and possesses royal blood. Holmes also has illustrious ancestors, being descended from country squires, and his grandmother is described as being “the sister of Vernet, the French artist.” Clay is well educated and urbane, characteristics Holmes repeatedly shows throughout his adventures. Clay is described as being “cunning” in mind as well as skillful in his fingers, again a reflection of the detective’s characteristics. Clay is also gracious in his defeat and expresses admiration for the ingenuity displayed by the victorious Holmes. He is truly a worthy adversary for the detective and the direct mirror image of Sherlock Holmes.
“The Final Problem”
Other great master criminals and, in effect, doubles for the great detective are Colonel Sebastian Moran of “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Van Bork of “His Last Bow,” and, the most famous of them all, Professor Moriarty, who is described in “The Final Problem” as the “Napoleon of crime” and the “organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city.” In essence, “The Final Problem” is a departure from the formula that characterizes the previous twenty-two Holmesian short stories, basically because Doyle intended that this would be the final work in which his detective would appear. Tiring of his creation and motivated by the desire to pursue his other literary interests, he has Watson record the demise of his friend. The story has no ingenious puzzle for the detective to unravel but instead is a detailed account of Sherlock Holmes’s confrontation with his nemesis. For years, Holmes, who could “see deeply into the manifold wickedness of the human heart” and who could “leave his body at will and place himself into the mind and soul” of others, had been unable to penetrate the veil that shrouded the power “which for ever stands in the way of the law, and throws its shield over the wrongdoer.” In this manner, Doyle almost casually proposes a conspiracy theme in this story which, in the hands of other writers, becomes one of the overriding characteristics of the detective fiction and thriller genres.
It is the character of Professor Moriarty, however, which commands the interest of the reader, particularly when seen as a reflection of Holmes. Professor Moriarty’s career, like Holmes’s, “has been an extraordinary one. He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by Nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty. At the age of twenty-one he wrote a treatise upon the Binomial Theorem, which has had a European vogue.” When the Professor visits Holmes at his flat, his physical appearance is described as “extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve, and his two eyes are deeply sunken in his head. He is clean shaven, pale, and ascetic looking.” To Holmes, his appearance is quite familiar, even though he has never met the man before. It is entirely likely that Holmes’s immediate recognition is intended to suggest that the detective, for the first time in his life, is viewing in the flesh the side of his nature which his great intellect has refused to allow him to acknowledge.
Even though Dr. Watson had made special efforts to characterize Holmes as being almost totally devoid of emotion in his previous chronicles of Holmes’s adventures, there are many instances in which there are outbursts of extreme feelings on the part of the detective. Holmes fluctuates between ennui and expressions of delight. He is often impulsive and compassionate. He is patient and deferential to his female clients. He is moved to indignation and intends to exact a form of revenge in “The Five Orange Pips.”
In this story, “The Final Problem,” he shows a level of nervousness and caution which is almost akin to fear in response to the threat that the malevolent genius Moriarty poses toward his person. Professor Moriarty is too much like himself for the detective to remain scientifically detached. There is no doubt that Holmes is totally conscious of the significance of the parallels that exist between the two when the Professor states:It has been a duel between you and me, Mr. Holmes. You hope to place me in the dock. I tell you that I will never stand in the dock. You hope to beat me. I tell you that you will never beat me. If you are clever enough to bring destruction upon me, rest assured that I shall do as much to you.
Holmes, with Watson, flees this enemy whom he acknowledges as “being quite on the same intellectual plane” as himself. Then, at Reichenbach Falls, he is inevitably forced to come face-to-face once again with his other self. Sidney Paget, the illustrator of many of the original publications in the Strand Magazine, depicts the struggle between Holmes and Moriarty just before their dual plunge into the chasm as being entwined together.
Thus, the culmination of Holmes’s illustrious career, as originally intended by Doyle, was brought about in an entirely satisfactory symbolic and literary manner. Holmes, who could idly concede, “I have always had an idea that I could have made a highly efficient criminal,” and “Burglary was always an alternative profession had I cared to adopt it,” had resisted those impulses. In “The Final Problem” he could say: “In over a thousand cases I am not aware that I have ever used my powers upon the wrong side.” The detective, however, was keenly aware throughout this story that “if he could be assured that society was freed from Professor Moriarty he would cheerfully bring his own career to a conclusion.” With the death of Moriarty, he achieves that end. While “London is the sweeter for [my] presence,” the destruction of the other side of his nature in Professor Moriarty makes it all the more so. The death of Sherlock Holmes along with his nemesis is comparable to self-destruction.
“The Adventure of the Empty House”
When Doyle “killed off” his detective hero, he was in no way prepared for the public reaction that followed. He resisted almost continuous pressure from his publishers and the public until 1902, when he finally relented and resurrected Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles and later in the story “The Adventure of the Empty House.” In this story, a lieutenant of Professor Moriarty, Colonel Sebastian Moran, is the culprit and functions as the alter ego for Holmes. One of the more subtle acknowledgments of the double theme in this story is the use by Holmes of a wax model of himself to mislead his adversaries. Similar to “The Final Problem,” the story of the return of Sherlock Holmes does not follow the usual formula for the previous works, but the rest in the series adheres rather closely. When the stories are read in sequence, however, one can understand why the mere presence of the detective, however contrived his survival, would be cause for rejoicing by his followers. Even a lapse of more than ten years since his last appearance (three years within the stories) has in no way diminished his skill or intellectual capacity. Sherlock Holmes remains all that he was before his showdown with Professor Moriarty. The dialogue between the characters is as crisp as ever; the scenes are portrayed as vividly as before; the careful construction of the plots and the unraveling of the mysteries are as provocative as ever; and the imagination of the author is very much in evidence. There is evidence, however, of Doyle’s reluctance to take his hero as seriously as he had before.
“The Adventure of the Dancing Men”
The story “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” for example, is extremely contrived, almost totally dependent on cartoons as a cipher, and the reader is left with a feeling of dissatisfaction. The stories in the first series after the “death” of Sherlock Holmes are nevertheless of generally high quality and possess many memorable scenes which remain after the mysteries have been solved.
Later Holmes Stories
There is agreement that the quality of the Sherlock Holmes stories published in the two collections, His Last Bow and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes is significantly diminished. Published in 1917 and 1927 respectively, the books demonstrate that Doyle was tired of his detective, as the works were written casually and almost impatiently. The onset of World War I in the title story of His Last Bow is pointed out by Jacques Barzun as being “perhaps symbolic of the end of a world of gaslight and order in which Holmes and Watson could function so predictably.” The stories in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, published only a few years before Doyle’s death, possess some fine moments, but there is a singular failure on the part of the author to re-create the vividness of the Victorian world that had lifted the previous series of short stories out of the ordinary and enabled the reader to accept and admire so readily the reasoning powers of Sherlock Holmes.
Despite the uneven quality of these works, it is a tribute to Doyle’s ability that Sherlock Holmes remains a memorable character. Although Watson informs the reader that Holmes’s knowledge of formal philosophy is nil, he is a philosopher in his own way. Holmes has probed the most abstract of understandings—ranging from the motivation of humans to the nature of the universe—from the study of the physical world. He possesses a peculiar morality akin to the John Stuart Mill variety: Evil is doing harm to others. When he seeks justice, he inevitably finds it; justice in the social and structured sense. Holmes has little regard for the laws of human beings; he recognizes that they do not always serve the purposes of justice, so at times he rises above them and often ignores them. For him, the distinction between right and wrong is absolute and beyond debate. It was Doyle’s skill in infusing such depth into his character that makes Holmes greater than Dupin and Lecoq.