I Can Call in Sherlock Holmes*

As this is posted, it’s 129 years since the publication of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the first collection of his short stories. Each of the stories had been published individually in The Strand, but this was the first compilation of them.  Many people (I am one of them) were drawn into crime fiction at least in part by these stories, and they remain influential today.

One of the interesting things about this collection is what it reveals about Holmes’ character. He’s often thought of as purely logical, dispassionate, and not attached to the people involved in his cases. But the stories suggest there’s more to his character than that.

In both The Adventure of the Speckled Band and The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Holmes takes on cases in which young women are in very dangerous situations. In the former, Helen Stoner approaches Holmes because she’s worried that the same fate that overtook her sister, Julia, will overtake her. Holmes investigates and finds that her fears were not fanciful. In the latter, Violet Hunter is considering accepting a job as a governess, and she wants Holmes’ counsel on the matter. There are some things that concern her about the position, and Holmes agrees that she has reason for that concern. She takes the job anyway, but when real trouble comes, she asks for (and gets) Holmes’ help. You might argue that these are cases of ‘rescuing a damsel in distress,’ but it’s also a demonstration of Holmes’ compassion. He is truly concerned about these women’s welfare.

Holmes shows his ability to be discreet, too. In The Boscombe Valley Mystery, he solves the murder of Charles McCarthy. It’s believed that the killer is McCarthy’s son, James, but he claims he is innocent. Holmes finds out who really killed the victim, and, equally importantly, what the motive was. Once he learns the truth, Holmes chooses not to reveal the killer’s identity unless it’s necessary to free James. It doesn’t turn out to be necessary, and we can guess that the real killer is left in peace. We also see Holmes’ discretion in The Man With the Twisted Lip. In that story, he solves the mystery of Neville St. Clair, a successful businessman who seems to have disappeared after his wife saw him at a disreputable opium den. When Holmes works out what happened to Mr. St. Claire, he finds that the man was keeping a secret. If that secret comes out, his reputation would be ruined (which to him, is far worse than a prison sentence).  Holmes and the police agree to keep St. Clair’s secret, as there is no need to reveal it. Fans of Conan Doyle’s work will know that there are several other stories, too, in which Holmes uses discretion to protect someone.

Holmes proves himself to be human, too, in this collection. He doesn’t always ‘get his man.’ For instance, in The Engineer’s Thumb, he takes the case of Victor Hatherley, who’s been injured in a bizarre incident that he recounts to Dr. Watson. It seems he was called to a private house to examine a hydraulic press that turned out to be used for counterfeit coins. When Holmes deduces where the place is and that it’s a counterfeit operation, he and the police rush to the scene, but they don’t get there in time; the counterfeiters have made their escape.

In A Scandal in Bohemia, Holmes proves himself to be human enough to be attracted to someone. In order to preserve the King of Bohemia’s reputation (so that he can marry), Holmes agrees to retrieve a compromising photograph of the king with an actress called Irene Adler. It turns out, though, that she is more than a match for Holmes, and makes her escape with the photograph in question. In a note to Holmes, she promises not to reveal the photograph unless it’s necessary to protect herself. In exchange, she leaves a photograph of herself, which Holmes keeps. He always thinks of her afterwards as the woman.

Of course, Holmes is also a brilliant detective. In The Red-Headed League, he uncovers a devious plan to rob a bank. It all starts when a pawnbroker named Jabez Wilson comes to Holmes with a strange story of being hired by a mysterious group called the Redheaded League. When the group suddenly disbands, Wilson wants to know the story behind the group. Holmes takes the case and finds out that Wilson’s pawn shop is close to a bank, and that a group of thieves has dug a tunnel from the shop to the bank. We see several of Holmes’ legendary skills at work in this story. Those skills are also on display in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. In that story, a man’s hat gives Holmes all sorts of clues about its owner, and that leads to an intriguing case of a stolen gem and a goose.

The other three stories in the collection (A Case of Identity, The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor, and The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet) also show Holmes’ skill at deduction. They also show that there’s more to his character than that. Little wonder the stories are still so influential.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sparks’ Sherlock Holmes.