Elementary, my dear Watson
A Scottish doctor, having served as a surgeon on a ship, decided to turn writer, since his medical practice was floundering. The first story he wrote was The Mystery of the Sasassa Valley that was published in 1879. Several years later in 1886, he wrote a detective story inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s Monsieur Dupin, which he named “A Study in Scarlet”. The story was published in 1887 in Beeton Christmas Annual. It introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes and his faithful sidekick Dr Watson.
In his stories Sherlock Holmes described himself as a "private consulting detective" – (the only one in the world), which meant that he was brought into cases that would prove too difficult for official investigators. We are told that he is often able to solve a problem without leaving home (although this aspect is somewhat lost in the stories themselves, which focus on the more interesting cases that often do require him to do actual legwork). He specialized in solving unusual cases using his extraordinary powers of observation and "deduction".
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle credited the inception of Holmes to his teacher at the medical school of Edinburgh University, the gifted surgeon and forensic detective Joseph Bell, forensic science being a new type of science at the time. However, some years later Bell wrote to Conan Doyle: "you are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it".
In fact, the similarities between Sir Arthur and Sherlock are too many to be ascribed to coincidence. In one of the stories, Holmes tells Watson "My ancestors were country squires... my grandmother... was the sister of Vernet, the French artist." Vernet happened to be an ancestor of Sir Arthur.
Sir Arthur was knighted in 1902. Holmes had been offered knighthood due to certain services rendered to the crown in the same year. He however rejected the knighthood. Sir Arthur too was tempted to reject the knighthood, but his mother persuaded him that doing so would be an insult to the queen.
It is a popular myth that Sherlock Holmes gave rise to the entire genre of murder mystery fiction; in reality, the detective genre was alive before Holmes, if not one which followed a logical progression to the solution. However, Holmes popularized the genre to such an extent that now, Holmes has become a byword for mystery solver. Many fictional detectives have imitated Holmes' logical methods and followed in his footsteps, in many different ways. Some of the more popular fictional detectives to continue Holmes' legacy include Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot & Miss Marple, Father Brown and Perry Mason. In one of the stories in the Three Investigators’ series (The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot), there is a reference to Sherlock Holmes, and his legendary residence address (221 Baker Street), which is incorrectly mentioned as 222B Baker Street.
In many of the stories, Holmes is assisted by his only friend, the practical Dr. John H. Watson, with whom he shared rooms for some time, before Watson's marriage. Watson is not only Holmes's friend but also his chronicler (his "Boswell"). Most of Holmes' stories are told as reports, by Watson, of Holmes' solutions to actual crimes; in some later stories, Holmes criticizes Watson for his writings, usually because of Watson's decision to tell them as exciting stories rather than as objective and detailed reports. He gives Watson a piece of his mind in The Sign of Four, which occurred just after Watson had publised an account of Holmes' previous case -- A Study in Scarlet.
In the very first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, something of Holmes's background is given. On March 4, 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 toward making Holmes superior at solving crimes. In another early Holmes story, "The Gloria Scott", more background on what caused Holmes to become a detective is provided: a college friend's father complimented him very highly on his deductive skills.
In A Study in Scarlet, Dr. Watson makes an evaluation of Holmes’ skills:
"Sherlock Holmes–his limits"
1. Knowledge of Literature. -- Nil. 2. Philosophy. -- Nil. 3. Astronomy. -- Nil. 4. Politics. -- Feeble. 5. Botany. -- Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening. 6. 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. 7. Chemistry. -- Profound. 8. Anatomy. -- Accurate, but unsystematic. 9. Sensational Literature. -- Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century. 10. Plays the violin well. 11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman. 12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.
Later stories make clear, however, that the above list is misleading. Two examples: Despite Holmes' supposed ignorance of politics, in "A Scandal in Bohemia" he immediately recognizes the true identity of the supposed Count von Kramm. Regarding non-sensational literature, Holmes' speech is replete with references to the Bible, Shakespeare, and even Goethe.
Holmes is also a competent cryptanalyst; he relates to Watson that he is "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 code is deciphered in "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" which uses a series of stick figures.
Elsewhere Holmes himself mentions that he has "some knowledge" of baritsu, "the Japanese system of wrestling", by means of which he escaped the death-grip of his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty.
In A Study in Scarlet, Doyle presents a comparison between his debuting character and two earlier established and better known at the time fictional detectives: Edgar Allan Poe's Auguste Dupin and Emile Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq. The brief discussion between Watson and Holmes about the two characters begins with a comment by Watson:
"You remind me of Edgar Allan 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 textbook for detectives to teach them what to avoid."
Sherlock 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 Doyle to pay some respect to characters by writers who had influenced him, while insisting that his character is superior to them.
Holmes' arch-enemy, and popularly-supposed nemesis was Professor James Moriarty ("the Napoleon of Crime") who fell, struggling with Holmes, over the Reichenbach Falls. He however, figures in only two of the stories, despite his later reputation. Conan Doyle intended "The Final Problem", the story in which Holmes and Moriarty fell over the cliff, to be the last that he wrote about Holmes; however the mass of mails he received demanding that he bring Holmes back convinced him to continue. "The Adventure of the Empty House" had Conan Doyle explaining that only Moriarty fell over the cliff, but Holmes had allowed the world to believe that he too had perished while he dodged the retribution of Moriarty's underlings. It is interesting to note that, Moriarty never appears directly in the stories; Watson never encounters Moriarty, and all encounters between Holmes and his nemesis are described by Holmes.
Moriarty has been spoofed by T.S.Eliot in his hilarious poem
"Holmes' in the company of women"
Irene Adler was always referred to by Holmes and his fans as "The Woman". She appeared only in "A Scandal in Bohemia", but she is often thought to be the only woman who broke through Holmes' reserve. In one story, "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", who 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 centre of one of his problems."
Watson, on the other hand, has a perhaps justifiable reputation as a ladies' man: he spoke favorably of some women and actually married one, Mary Morstan of The Sign of Four.
However, Holmes is not at all a stuffy strait-laced Victorian gentleman; in fact, he describes himself and his habits as "Bohemian". 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". Modern readers of the Holmes stories are apt to be surprised that he is an occasional user of cocaine (in today’s age he would have been put into jail!), though Watson describes this as Holmes's "only vice". Watson might not have considered as a vice Holmes's habit of smoking (usually a pipe) heavily, nor his tendency to bend the truth and break the law (i.e. lie to the police, conceal evidence, burgle, housebreak, but not, say, murder or rape) when it suited his purposes; in Victorian England these were probably not considered vices as long as they were done by a gentleman for noble purposes.
"From a drop of water"—Holmes wrote in an essay described in A Study in Scarlet—"a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other." Holmes stories would often begin with a bravura display of Holmes' talent for "deduction". It is of some interest to logicians and those interested in logic to try to analyze just what Holmes is doing when he performs his deduction. Holmesian (the British adjective; Americans say "Sherlockian") deduction appears to consist primarily of drawing inferences based on either straightforward practical principles—which are the result of careful inductive study, such as Holmes's study of different kind of cigar ashes—or inference to the best explanation. Holmes often follows the principle of elimination -- "How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, HOWEVER IMPROBABLE, must be the truth?".
In 2002, Holmes was inducted as an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry—the only fictional character so honored—in appreciation of his contributions to forensic investigation.
The instances in which Holmes uses deduction tend to be those where he has amassed a large body of evidence, produced a number of possible explanations of that evidence, and then proceeds to find one explanation that is clearly the best at explaining the evidence. For example, in The Sign of Four, a man is found dead in his room, with a ghastly smile on his face, and with no immediately visible cause of death. From a whole body of background information as well as evidence gathered at and around the scene of the crime, Holmes is able to infer that the murderer is—not the various people that Scotland Yard has in custody (each of them being an alternative explanation)—but rather another person entirely.
In the latter example, in fact, Holmes's solution of the crime depends both on a series of applications of general principles and argument to the best explanation.
Holmes's success at his brand of deduction, therefore, is due to his mastery of both a huge body of particular knowledge of things like footprints, cigar ashes, and poisons, which he uses to make relatively simple deductive inferences, and the fine art of ordering and weighing different competing explanations of a body of evidence. Holmes is also particularly good at gathering evidence by observation, as well locating and tracking the movements of criminals through the streets of London and environs (in order to produce more evidence)—skills that have little to do with deduction per se, but everything to do with providing the premises for particular Holmesian deductions.
In the stories by Conan Doyle, Holmes often remarked that his logical conclusions were "elementary", in that he considered them to be simple and obvious. However, the complete phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson" does not appear in any of the 60 Holmes stories written by Doyle.
It should be noted too, that our modern stereotype of police procedure—someone who looks for physical clues, rather than someone who examines opportunity and motive—comes from Holmes.
Readers of the Sherlock Holmes stories have often been surprised to discover that their author, Conan Doyle, was a fervent believer in paranormal phenomena, and that the logical, skeptical character of Holmes was in opposition to his own in many ways.
The word "Sherlock" has entered the language to mean a detective or nosy person; it is also commonly used in American slang to mean a knowledgeable person, as in the sarcastic phrase "No shit, Sherlock", uttered when someone says something obvious.
"So many regard him as a machine rather than a man." Watson describes Holmes a "dessicated calculating machine", "as deficient in human sympathy as he was pre-eminent in intelligence", and states that "all emotions... were abhorrent to his cold, precise, yet admirably balanced mind."
His bipolar nature, skill as a musician and composer, and occasional fondness for showmanship however, count against this. While "his cold and proud nature was always averse... [to] public applause" and "turned away with disdain from popular notoriety" but "for an instant he ceased to be a reasoning machine, and betrayed his human love for admiration and applause... from a friend."
Conan Doyle wrote four novels and fifty-six short stories about Sherlock Holmes, now known as The Canon. All were narrated by Dr. Watson, with the exception of two narrated by Holmes himself and two more written in the third person. The stories appeared in magazine serialization, notably in The Strand, over a period of forty years. This was a common form of publication in those days; Charles Dickens wrote in a similar fashion. The stories cover a period from around 1878 up to 1903, with a final case in 1914.
In addition to the canonical Sherlock Holmes stories, Conan Doyle's "The Lost Special" (1908) features an unnamed 'amateur reasoner' clearly intended to be identified as Holmes by his readers. His explanation for a baffling disappearance, argued in Holmes' characteristic style, turns out to be quite wrong - evidently Conan Doyle was not above poking fun at his own hero. Another example of Conan Doyle's humor is "How Watson Learned the Trick" (1924), a parody of the frequent Watson-Holmes breakfast table scenes.
Holmes fans refer to the period from 1891 to 1894—the time between Holmes's disappearance and presumed death in The Final Problem and his reappearance in The Adventure of the Empty House—as "the Great Hiatus". It is notable, though, that one later story (The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge) is described as taking place in 1892.
For Conan Doyle, writing the stories, the period was ten years long. Conan Doyle, wanting to devote more time to his historical novels, killed off Holmes in The Final Problem, which appeared in print in 1893. After resisting public pressure for eight years, Conan Doyle wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles, which appeared in 1901, setting it before Holmes's "death". The public, while pleased with the story, were not satisfied with a posthumous Holmes, and so Conan Doyle resuscitated Holmes two years later. Many have speculated on Conan Doyle's motives for bringing Holmes back to life, but the actual motives are not known, other than the obvious: publishers offered to pay generously. For whatever reason, Conan Doyle continued to write Holmes stories for a quarter-century more.
Some writers have come up with alternate explanations for the hiatus. In Meyer's novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, the hiatus was explained as a secret sabbatical that Holmes indulged in for those years, while he requested Watson to write a fictitious account claiming he had died. In that 3 year hiatus Holmes met up with Sigmund Freud, whence he was cured of his addiction to cocaine. Another Tibetan writer called Jamyang Norbu wrote an account of the two years that Holmes had apparently spent in Tibet. He ostensibly came upon the account written by Huree Chunder Mookerjee's (Kipling's Bengali spy and scholar) in which he describes his travels to Tibet with Holmes.
In his memoirs, Conan Doyle quotes a reader, who judged the later stories inferior to the earlier ones, to the effect that when Holmes went over the Reichenbach Falls, he may not have been killed, but he was never quite the same man after.
Same man or not, Holmes’ popularity continues unabated. Even Doyle, who considered his Holmes writings to be trivial and even killed him off to devote time to his “more serious writings”, is now known entirely as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. And that is the ultimate tribute to “the world’s only private consulting detective”.