You are on page 1of 7

Sherlock Holmes Biography

Appearance and physical profile

Holmes is generally depicted in various media as wearing a deerstalker hat and cloak, smoking a
pipe and clutching a magnifying glass. Indeed, this image is arguably one of the most instantly
recognizable and famous aspects of the character, and the deerstalker remains an instantly
recognizable symbol for a detective character. However, this was not the invention of Conan
Doyle (who only ever referred to Holmes wearing a 'travelling cap' in the original stories, and
then only when his investigations took him into the countryside), but of the artist of the stories,
Sidney Paget. Furthermore, contrary to many filmed depictions, Holmes is a fashion conscious
man and would never wear exclusive country clothes like the deerstalker in the city which would
have been an embarrassing fashion faux pas in his time.

Holmes is described as a tall, lean gentleman with sharp, piercing silver grey eyes and an
aquiline nose. Evidence in "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange" and "The Adventure of the
Three Students" suggests that Holmes is exactly 6' in height. His hair is black, and he is almost
always clean-shaven.

Despite his lean build, he is quite physically capable. He is a skillful boxer and fencer, and
usually gets the better of his opponents in the (relatively) rare times in the stories that he has to
engage in physical combat. He states in "The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet" that he is
"exceptionally strong in the fingers," which he demonstrates with his ability to unbend a metal
poker in "The Adventure of the Speckled Band." In "The Adventure of the Empty House",
Holmes mentions that he has "some knowledge" of "baritsu", "the Japanese system of
wrestling", by which means he escaped his arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty.

His knowledge and skills

Sherlock Holmes (right) and Dr. Watson, by Sidney


Paget.

In the very first story, A Study in Scarlet, something of


Holmes' background is given. On March 5, 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

1
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:

Sherlock Holmes—his limits

1. Knowledge of Literature.—Nil.
2. Knowledge of Philosophy.—Nil.
3. Knowledge of Astronomy.—Nil.
4. Knowledge of Politics.—Feeble.
5. Knowledge of Botany.—Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows
nothing of practical gardening.
6. 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.
7. Knowledge of Chemistry.—Profound.
8. Knowledge of Anatomy.—Accurate, but unsystematic.
9. Knowledge of 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, 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 recognizes the true identity of the
supposed Count von Kramm. 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, for example:

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:

2
"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."

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 trick on Watson in "The
Adventure of the Cardboard Box" (repeated word for word in the story, "The Resident Patient,"
when "Cardboard Box" was removed from the Memoirs), 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)


• A groom and a 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")

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.

3
Holmes 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 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 Squire")
• 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 Sussex Downs and took up bee farming.

His personality and habits

However, Holmes is not at all a stuffy straight-laced Victorian gentleman; in fact, he describes
himself and his habits as "Bohemian." He may suffer from bipolar disorder, alternating 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 was an occasional
user (a habitual user when lacking in stimulating cases) of cocaine and morphine, though Watson
describes this as Holmes' "only vice". But, as recorded in one of the last stories, Watson was
gradually able to convince Holmes to discontinue the use of these drugs:

"For years I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his
remarkable career. Now I knew that under ordinary conditions he no longer craved for this artificial
stimulus, but I was well aware that the fiend was not dead, but sleeping."

Typically of his time, Watson did not consider 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 honour 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".

4
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 showsmanship, 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 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. In addition, his comfortable residence at 221B Baker St. suggests he
has a good income from his business, although it is never revealed exactly how much he charges
for his services.

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.

His possessions

Besides fees, Holmes also has souvenirs from his cases:

• A black pearl and a shattered bust of Napoleon Bonaparte ("The Six Napoleons")
• A gold sovereign from Irene Adler on his watch chain ("A Scandal in Bohemia")
• A photograph of Irene Adler ("A Scandal in Bohemia")
• An old gold snuff box with an amethyst from the King of Bohemia. ("A Case of
Identity")
• A ring from the ruling family of Holland ("A Case of Identity")
• A crumpled piece of paper; a key; a peg of wood with string and three old coins ("The
Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual")
• An emerald tie-pin from Queen Victoria. ("The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington
Plans")
• A Stradivarius violin. ("The Adventure of the Cardboard Box")

Holmes, Watson and firearms

Although on occasion Holmes and Watson carry pistols with them (see also Dr. Watson's
revolver), there are only three times when these weapons are fired:

5
• They both fire at the Andaman Islander in The Sign of Four.
• They both fire at the hound in The Hound of the Baskervilles
• Watson fires at the mastiff in "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches".
• Watson pistol-whips Colonel Sebastian Moran in "The Adventure of the Empty House".

Besides a pistol, Holmes uses a riding crop as a weapon:

• To knock the pistol from John Clay's hand in "The Red-Headed League".
• To lash out at the snake in "The Adventure of the Speckled Band".

People in his life

Historically, Holmes lived from the year 1881 at 221B Baker Street, London, an upper-story flat
(in early notes it was described as being situated at Upper Baker Street), where he spent many of
his professional years with his good friend, Dr. Watson, and with whom he shared rooms for
some time before Watson's marriage in 1890. The residence was maintained by his landlady,
Mrs. Hudson.

In many of the stories, Holmes is assisted by the practical Watson, who is not only a friend but
also his chronicler (his "Boswell"). Most of Holmes' stories are told as narratives, by Watson, of
the detective's solutions to actual crimes. In some later stories, Holmes criticizes Watson for his
writings, usually because he relates them as exciting stories rather than as objective and detailed
reports focusing on what Holmes regards as the pure "science" of Holmes' craft.

Holmes also has an older brother, Mycroft Holmes, who appears in three stories: "The Greek
Interpreter", "The Final Problem", and "The Bruce-Partington Plans". He is also mentioned in a
number of others, including "The Empty House".

In three stories, including The Sign of Four, he is assisted by a group of street children he calls
the Baker Street Irregulars.

Law enforcement officers with whom Holmes has worked include G. Lestrade, Tobias Gregson,
Stanley Hopkins, and Athelney Jones, all four of Scotland Yard, and Francois Le Villard of the
French police. Holmes usually baffles the police with his far more efficient and effective
methods, showing himself to be a vastly superior detective.

Holmes' arch-enemy and popularly-supposed nemesis was Professor James Moriarty ("the
Napoleon of Crime"), who fell, struggling with Holmes, over the Reichenbach Falls. Conan
Doyle intended "The Final Problem", the story in which this occurred, to be the last that he wrote
about Holmes. However, the mass of mailings he received demanding that he bring back his
creation 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. Also,
numerous sources claim that Moriarty was initially Holmes' mathematics tutor, as is also
referenced in the work of Baring-Gould.

6
Holmes and women

The only woman in whom Holmes ever showed any interest that verged on the romantic was
Irene Adler. According to Watson, she was always referred to by Holmes as "The Woman."
Holmes himself never uses this term — though he does mention her actual name several times in
other cases. She is also one of the few women who are mentioned in multiple Holmes stories,
though she is actually only in one, "A Scandal in Bohemia". She is often thought to be the only
woman who broke through Holmes' reserve. She is possibly the only woman who has ever
"beaten" Holmes in a mystery; this point is unclear due to a comment with some chronological
problems in one of the stories (see the Irene Adler or The Five Orange Pips articles for details).

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 centre 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 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.

Watson, on the other hand, has a perhaps justifiable reputation as a ladies' man: he spoke
favourably 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.