Watson's huge man-crush on Holmes really comes through in the tone in all of the stories featured here. Watson frequently speaks of Holmes in glowing terms, and it's very clear that he admires the man. Holmes is usually characterized by positive adjectives like "genius" here. Watson is like the president of the Holmes fan club, and he's often as enthusiastic as a fanboy at Comic-Con:
Far from feeling guilty, I rejoiced and exulted in our dangers. With a glow of admiration I watched Holmes unrolling his case of instruments and choosing his tool with the calm, scientific accuracy of a surgeon who performs a delicate operation. (Milverton.92)
Watson uses very positive diction, or words, to describe Holmes here, as someone skilled and "calm" under pressure. Watson's tone is also very excited here. Crime-solving is a fun adventure for Watson and he often describes his job with words like "thrilling," and "exciting" (Milverton.92). Danger and close-calls and crimes are part of the excitement in these stories and, accordingly, Watson's tone is rarely upset or anxious or depressed. He is occasionally irritated, usually with Holmes, however. But even that irritation can't drown out his overall admiring and enthusiastic tone.
[I]t did not elicit that word of curt praise which I had hoped for and should have valued. On the contrary, his austere face was even more severe than usual as he commented upon the things that I had done [....]. (Solitary Cyclist.60)
Watson gets irritated with Holmes in the ensuing conversation and responds to his criticisms with "some heat" (Solitary Cyclist.62). But Watson never stops desiring praise from Holmes; and the fact that Holmes critiques are as upsetting as they are highlights how much Watson admires Holmes.
The last major tone worth mentioning is "curious." Watson is eternally curious and speculates constantly about cases, people's motives, and Holmes himself. Here's an example:
I gave a start of astonishment. Accustomed as I was to Holmes's curious faculties, this sudden intrusion into my most intimate thoughts was utterly inexplicably. (Dancing Men.3)
Fitting with the umbrella tones of excited and admiring, Watson's curiosity works with these tones to create fun, adventure stories that are filled at times with a kind of wonderment, or amazement.
The first genre we have here is adventure. If you were wondering whether or not that applies here, just check out the story titles. All of them are "The Adventure" of something. Watson himself often refers to the "adventures" that he and Holmes have. But if you don't want to just take Watson's word for it, you can definitely see aspects of a good adventure tale in these stories. Watson and Holmes have the occasional chase sequence, and often get into physical fights with criminals. This is sort of the original buddy-cop show, so adventure is a bit of a given here.
These stories can also qualify as biographies, albeit fictional ones. Despite what some fans say, Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character. (For more on that issue, check out our "Brain Snacks" section.) We're bringing up the biography genre here because of the way that Watson narrates. Watson sets out to narrate the professional career of Sherlock Holmes, one select case at a time. Watson functions as Holmes's biographer in a lot of ways and in terms of genre, the Sherlock Holmes stories can be read as a sort of fictional "life and times" of Sherlock Holmes.
Lastly, we come to our most obvious genre: mystery. The Sherlock Holmes stories basically gave birth to the modern detective story. Granted, there were other examples of detective fiction before Holmes arrived on the scene, most notably Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin stories about a super-smart French detective who could solve seemingly impossible crimes, including one involving a monkey. No, really. Don't believe us? Check out "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." But none of these early detective stories were quite as influential as the Holmes tales.
The stories in The Return of Sherlock Holmes are all classic examples of the mystery genre. We start with an impossible or bizarre case; Holmes works his detective voodoo on the situation; he catches the perpetrator, often the least likely suspect (a feature Law and Order loves to imitate); then Holmes sums up the case and his role in it for everyone, conveniently. Along the way, we also get clues and hints as to what may be going on in the case, though not as much as you'd probably get in a detective novel, where you can often solve the case alongside the hero. Take Agatha Christie stories, for instance. Since the Holmes stories are short stories, we pretty much have to wait for Holmes to provide us with a solution. There's just not a ton of room for hint-dropping and clues here.
With a title like that, you're probably wondering where Sherlock Holmes had gone if he is now "returning." Cruise in the Bahamas? Prison? The store? Holmes totally did better than all of that though: like zombies, soap opera characters, Tom Sawyer, and the New Kids on the Block reunion tour, Sherlock Holmes returned from the dead. Or from being presumed dead at least. It's complicated. Suffice to say, Conan Doyle changed his mind and after a publishing break that lasted nearly a decade, Sherlock Holmes returned for a series of new stories.
The thirteen stories collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes all have titles that give some clue as to what the story is about or where it is set, in typical Sherlock Holmes story fashion. So "The Adventure of the Three Students" is about an adventure with three students. Not all the titles are so obvious though; some give hints as to a main clue in a case, like "The Adventure of the Dancing Men," which refers to a type of code language that Holmes has to crack in order to solve the case. The titles of the stories here are generally highly descriptive and informative; you have a rough idea of what you're getting whenever you start a story.
Since this is a collection of short stories, we are actually dealing with thirteen separate endings here. However, there are definitely common elements in the ending to all these separate stories. The stories featured here are always neatly tied up in true detective show fashion. This makes sense; Holmes, after all, is pretty much the father of all modern detective shows and books.
At the end of a Sherlock Holmes story the bad guy has been caught; the bad guy makes a full confession; Holmes fills in any blanks in that confession and explains exactly how he used his gigantic brain to solve the crime; and Watson sometimes chimes in with some epilogue details, letting us know that a wounded person survived for example. The technique of having the hero-detective stand around and explain everything to everyone else can still be seen on tons of detective/legal/cop shows, from CSI to Psych.
It's worth noting that not every Sherlock Holmes story ends with the same tone though. Some cases are more gruesome or more depressing than others. Sometimes Holmes and Watson arrive too late to prevent a death. Other times they reveal that the case isn't all that serious and is actually rather humorous. So in the end the villains may always, in true Scooby-Doo fashion, confess all and gripe about those "meddlesome kids" Watson and Holmes. And Holmes may always stand around explaining everything to the audience. But what these characters say, and how they say it, differs from story to story.
When we think of Sherlock Holmes we think of gas-lamps and fog and other stereotypically Victorian London things. In this case, the stereotypes are pretty accurate, but they don't tell the whole story. The Sherlock Holmes stories are like quintessentially Victorian English tales, which means that they are great little representations of Victorian England. But it's important to know exactly what we mean by Victorian and English. We're going to start big and work our way inward here.
First off, we have the "when" part of the setting: the 1890s or the Late Victorian era. Victorian is one of those terms that get tossed around a lot and can mean a lot of different things. We here at Shmoop like being specific, so we'll be talking about the Late Victorian period for the setting. People who study English literature and history often say that the Victorian period lasted the length of Queen Victoria's reign, 1837-1901. Which is a really long time. The Late Victorian period lasted from around 1870 until the end of the nineteenth century. There are a lot of reasons this period is distinguished as "late" Victorian, aside from the obvious date reasons. These reasons include new technologies, changing fashions, political situations, new types of literature, etc. that set this period apart from the earlier parts of Queen Victoria's reign.
The 1890s are unique for lots of reasons. Technology and culture is one of them. In this period, a lot of new technologies changed the way people lived. Bicycles were the new rage; electric lights were becoming more common; automobiles made their first appearance; the London subway system was growing; trains were faster; telegraphs made world-wide communication easier. We see evidence of a lot of these technological advancements in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes and Watson ride the train all the time. Bicycles play a huge role in a number of stories. And Holmes and Watson also frequently read the newspaper, which changed a lot with the arrival of the telegraph. News was much faster and easier to get in the 1890s.
A lot of things were changing in the 1890s, which led to a lot of excitement and a lot of anxiety. This atmosphere is reflected in the Sherlock Holmes stories, particularly through the role of foreigners. (You can read more about this in the theme section on "Foreignness and the 'Other.'") The British Empire was huge, and growing, in this period. So even though a lot of the action in these stories occurs in London, these stories have a world-wide scope. A lot of the criminals Holmes deals with come from various places in the British Empire – South Africa, India, Australia, etc. London especially was an international hub in this era. Lots of people were anxious about the number of foreign people pouring into London and the crime rates of the city. Holmes, as a sort of ultimate crime-stopper, helped to combat that anxiety.
We've mentioned London, but it's important to note that lots of these stories are set in other places in England. Crime isn't just limited to the big city here, and this reflects the changing world of the 1890s. Communication and transportation were connecting far off places and the peaceful English countryside wasn't immune from the city anymore. It's also important to note that smaller towns and the English countryside reflected London in lots of ways. In the countryside, as in London, Holmes and Watson encounter rich people and poor people, natives and foreigners, etc.
London is arguably the main setting of the Holmes stories. But the city isn't as stereotypically Victorian as popular conceptions of Holmes suggest. True, Holmes and Watson encounter fog, gas-lamps, horse-drawn carriages, and "bobbies," or the London Metropolitan Police, in these stories. But they also live and work in a city with lots of social classes, nationalities, crime, confusion, and layers. Watson sums up London a few times. Good job, Watson.
[T]he gleam of street-lamps flashed [....] I knew not what wild beat we were about to hunt down in the dark jungle of criminal London [....] (Empty House.36)
Watson often compares London to a "jungle," which ties the city to the idea of Britain as a gigantic empire, containing deserts, and forests, and "jungles," in some interesting ways. London, the international city, isn't cut-off from the world here. This idea of "criminal" London is also important since it implies that there are a lot of different Londons, so to speak.
In rapid succession we passed through the fringe of fashionable London, hotel London, theatrical London, literary London, commercial London, and, finally, maritime London, till we came to a riverside city of a hundred thousand souls, where the tenement houses swelter and reek with the outcasts of Europe. (Six Napoleons.83)
There are a ton of different sections of London here that combine to make a gigantic, complex whole. It's notable that Watson refers to a "riverside city" where poor immigrants live, describing it as a sort of city within the larger city of London (Six Napoleons.83). The middle-class Holmes and Watson cut across class, and geographic, boundaries in their investigations.
But they always return home to 221b Baker Street. Stories often start from Baker Street as well. Holmes's iconic Baker Street pad acts as a haven from the outside world, a stage where exciting criminal investigations are jump-started, and an extension of Holmes's character.
My friend's temper had not improved since he had been deprived of the congenial surroundings of Baker Street. Without his scrapbooks, his chemicals, and his homely untidiness, he was an uncomfortable man. (Three Students.6)
Even though he's an über detective, Holmes is also a bit of a homebody. His bachelor pad with Watson might be kind of weird, functioning as a sort of science lab/police station. But it is also often described in cozy, domestic terms. It's a "congenial" (Three Students.6), or friendly and homey place, which helps it to stand out some from the international and criminal chaos of the other places featured in the book.
Sherlock Holmes stories are great because they are short. You can get a dose of late-Victorian literature without slogging through hundreds of pages (we're looking at you, Henry James and Thomas Hardy). At any rate, the stories in The Return of Sherlock Holmes are pretty easy to read. The language and vocabulary isn't very difficult, though it is very British, so you might need to look up a few words. The plots are always easy enough to follow and if you're confused, fear not, because Holmes will explain it all to you in a nice and tidy ending. The only really tricky thing here can be the historical references. Having a familiarity with culture, politics, and society in 1890s Britain definitely enhances these stories; but these stories are still fun to read and understandable without a ton of historical background knowledge. Find a nice annotated edition, or use this handy Shmoop guide, and you'll be good to go.
It's definitely tricky trying to analyze the style of thirteen separate stories. And while each story has a somewhat different style (none of them start the same way, for instance), we're going to focus here on a few common elements that exist in multiple stories, creating a sort of distinctive and recognizable Sherlock Holmes story style. So this might be a bit generalized, but we think it's a good jumping-off point for a closer look at any specific story in this collection.
First off, we have a linear style, which is a way of saying the events of a story are told in chronological order. Unlike Lost, Conan Doyle's stories don't hop around all over the place. Narrator Watson might start us off with a brief mention of the present and how he is remembering a certain case. He also tells his stories in the past tense. But, Watson still tells us the sequence of past events in chronological order; the man doesn't do spoilers in other words. By not giving things away too early, Watson allows readers to experience the mystery as he experienced it back in the day. The mystery stays mysterious in other words. All the characters we encounter tend to tell their stories in chronological order as well, though we'll get back to those narratives in a minute.
First though, it's worth noting Conan Doyle's style on a sentence-level. Linear helps us to describe how Conan Doyle orders events and how the plot develops. On a sentence level, though, we can describe Conan Doyle as pretty effusive, which means wordy and excited. Conan Doyle doesn't always use very long sentences, but he does tend to use lots of adjectives. He makes our narrator Watson downright gushy at times, especially when he's talking about his BFF Holmes or the women he meets.
Seldom have I seen so graceful a figure, so womanly a presence, and so beautiful a face. (Abbey Grange.21)
Watson never just says someone was "gorgeous" or "nice." Why use one adjective when you can use three? This sentence here also demonstrates another aspect of Conan Doyle's style: he's very literary at times, and his language can get pretty flowery. In the above sentence, we also see him making use of some parallel structure and repeating clauses. It's like he has a list of literary terms from an English class and is determined to use them all.
We had sprung to our feet in amazement at this ponderous piece of wreckage, which told us of some sudden and fatal storm far out on the ocean of life. (Priory School.2).
In that sentence alone we have some alliteration ("ponderous piece") and an extended ocean/sailing metaphor. Stylistically, these gushy and literary sections contrast to, and also compliment, the overarching style of these stories: detailed.
Detailed here refers to how much information we get. And we get a lot. We hear details about what people wear, how they look, how the events of a crime occurred (in order, of course), what the weather is like, Holmes's expressions, Watson's feelings, etc. They way detail is presented, however, varies. Conan Doyle's literary and effusive style is one way of presenting detail. But we most often get detail in the form of a newspaper article or a police report.
The minor characters we encounter in each story are always surprisingly well-spoken and long-winded. They always, conveniently, tell us everything we need to know about a particular case. Criminals too always make full confessions, explaining their motives as well as how they did whatever they did. What's interesting is that these characters often sound really similar to each other. But this makes some sense because Watson himself is recalling these stories. We're basically hearing Watson's memories of how these people spoke, which accounts for how similar a lot of these people sound. But Conan Doyle does include certain unique speech traits in a lot of the characters in these stories. We get minor variations on the overall linear, detailed, and sometimes effusive style that tends to dominate all of these stories. Here are two quick examples, the first from the "Norwood Builder" and the second from the "Missing Three Quarter":
"I was very much surprised, therefore, when yesterday, about three o'clock in the afternoon, he walked into my office in the city." (Norwood Builder.37)
"At ten o'clock I went round and saw that all the fellows had gone to roost [....]" (Three-Quarter.20).
Both characters are explaining their problems to Sherlock Holmes with a lot of detail, like the inclusion of time. But while the first character uses "therefore," to make a point, the other character uses slang and funny metaphor to make his point (Norwood Builder.37). We get similar types of details here, but the detail is spoken in different ways.
We also get a lot of graphic detail in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Conan Doyle gives us descriptions of blood and guts at murder scenes that border on the gory at times. Within these stories, we see a lot of contrast between different kinds of detail: romantic versus graphic descriptions, facts versus metaphors. All of these different styles unite in the newspaper clippings that Watson provides for us. In an article entitled "Murder in Westminster" in "The Second Stain," the article opens with a lengthy description of Eduardo Lucas, how well liked he "is" and his fancy house, before moving on to a description of how a detective came into his house and found him murdered (Second Stain.25). Rather than just open with "Eduardo Lucas was murdered," the article uses romantic and later graphic descriptions to build suspense before making the big "reveal."
It's interesting that Conan Doyle's narrative style heavily mimics the style of these newspaper articles. Conan Doyle frequently uses the same sorts of techniques in his own narratives, and the appearance of newspaper articles in these stories helps to demonstrate the journalistic aspects of his style. Or at least the aspects of a rather romanticized journalism.
Hunting metaphors and jungle imagery are motifs, recurring in nearly every story in The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Watson frequently compares crime-fighting to hunting, casting himself and Holmes as hunters or predators stalking their prey. Generally, Watson mentions hunting briefly, but he sometimes extends the metaphor for entire paragraphs. Here's an example of one of the longest hunting metaphors:
It was a long and melancholy vigil, and yet it brought with it something of the thrill which the hunter feels when he lies beside the water-pool, and waits for the coming of the thirsty beast of prey. What savage creature was it which might steal upon us out of the darkness? Was it a fierce tiger of crime [...] or would it prove to be some skulking jackal [....] (Black Peter.20)
"Fierce tiger of crime" (Black Peter.20)? Oh that Watson. He does get over-the-top at times. Since hunting references crop up so frequently, it begs the question as to why Watson links crime-solving with hunting. Well, both require patience. Watson and Holmes often go on stake-outs, just like hunters do. Hunting, for Watson, also seems to be an activity involving skill, strategy and adventure. This is also how he views fighting crime.
It's also worth noting that all these hunting references help to link solving crimes, especially in the "jungle" of London (Empty House.36), to the British Empire. In the 1890s, hunting was considered a "manly" sport that occurred out in the "wilderness" of the British Empire, in places like African savannas or Indian jungles. Holmes and Watson often go after foreign criminals in England, London especially. So crime-solving for Holmes and Watson is a sort of exciting sport where they track down and capture some sort of foreign "prey."
Watson's "tiger of crime" spiels might seem ridiculous, but his hunting references give us hints as to how detective work, criminals, and foreigners especially were thought of in the late nineteenth century.
Sherlock Holmes is a sort of paragon, or model, for science and rationality. He's frequently described as "cold," "inhuman," logical, etc. The man is practically a robot at times. Holmes is the ultimate detective, with his extreme scientific detachment and logic. What's interesting is that these recurring mentions of scientific detachment aren't always that positive. Holmes is so logical and detached that he's cold and often unpleasant. The use of the word "cold" to describe Holmes may be something of a subtle critique, as well as a stated fact, on Watson's part. Holmes is more of a tool than an actual role model for people. He's the ultimate scientist/detective, but he's also more like a machine than an emotional human being at times.
Crime-solving as theater is a comparison that appears in nearly every story in this collection. Watson notes that their house in Baker Street is like a stage (Priory School.1). In fact, Sherlock Holmes stories read a lot like TV show episodes, complete with new cases, guest stars, recurring cast members, and a handy sum-up at the end of every episode. Though to be more accurate, modern TV shows play out like a Sherlock Holmes story. At any rate, there's a lot of theatrics and performance themes in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes himself is often likened to a budding thespian, or actor; he has a definite flair for the dramatic.
Lestrade and I sat silent for a moment, and then, with a spontaneous impulse, we both broke out clapping, as at the well-wrought crisis of a play. A flush of colour sprang to Holmes's pale cheeks, and he bowed to us like the master dramatist who receives the homage of his audience. (Six Napoleons.43)
Holmes's penchant for acting contrasts with his extreme scientific detachment and helps to make him a more complex character. He may be a bit like a robot, but he's a robot with an acting-bug. Which is scary actually – he might be a Cylon.
Theater comparisons are also important in terms of narrative. The plots of Sherlock Holmes stories are often structured a lot like a play: they have a clear beginning, middle, and end; everything is resolved at the end; characters often go off on lengthy monologues to explain things; and Holmes often makes dramatic reveals to his audience.
As we noted in the "Writing Style" section, journalism plays an important role in the narrative of Sherlock Holmes stories. Watson's own narrative style has a lot in common with the style of 1890s journalism, as we can see in the fictional newspaper clippings included in lots of the stories. Newspapers also act as an important symbol in these stories though. Newspapers are a source of information and are a major part of daily life here. Journalism in the 1890s was becoming a lot more like the journalism we have today, thanks in part to new communication technologies (like the telegraph) that made it quicker and easier to get information. News was more fast-paced in this era and people were also a lot more aware of what was going on in the world. The cases that Holmes and Watson tackle often have an international scope, and it makes sense that newspapers would play a major role in their work and their daily lives. Holmes and Watson often solve cases very quickly too, which also is reflected by the speed of the news-cycle in this period.
The modes of transportation featured in these stories help to characterize the 1890s and act as important symbols. Trains and bicycles are especially important in the universe of Sherlock Holmes. Trains were getting faster and were going more places in the 1890s, and we frequently see Holmes and Watson catching trains to solve crimes outside of London. In London, the duo usually takes cabs (of the horse-drawn variety) to get around town, but a ton of the characters in these stories opt for a new form of transportation: the bicycle. One of the stories featured here, the "Solitary Cyclist," even hinges on bicycles, and the "Priory School" features a bike chase.
There was actually a huge bicycle craze in the 1890s. New bikes were safer and were relatively cheap, so people of all social classes could own and use them. Bikes and trains help to represent how connected the modern world was becoming; people could move around faster.
Trains and bikes help to collapse not only geographic boundaries (people could travel all over the place pretty easily), but also class boundaries (both rich and poor people could travel). These ideas are also reflected in the crimes that Holmes and Watson solve. Their cases involve people of all social classes and nationalities and often occur in places outside of London.
Want to read more about transportation in Victorian London? Check out this cool site, a Dictionary of Victorian London, that has primary source articles on every topic under the sun.
Watson is our first-person narrator in all of the stories in The Return of Sherlock Holmes. He acts as a sort of hagiographic historian here. That's a fancy way of saying that his purpose is to tell us stories about how awesome his BFF Sherlock Holmes is. Hagiographic, or hagiography, is a term that refers to the biography of a saint. And saints' biographies tend to be flattering. You aren't likely to find some sort of VH1 Behind the Music-type of special of Mother Theresa after all. So Watson is a very flattering biographer for Holmes. He's also an historian. He gathers together notes, newspaper clippings, etc. and decides which cases to share with the public. There's a touch of a memoirist here as well, since Watson is recording his own memories of Holmes and their adventures for readers.
Understanding what Watson is trying to do is important, since it helps us to better understand how he's doing it. While Watson narrates these stories in the first person, he spends most of his time talking about Holmes as opposed to himself. We get detailed descriptions of everything from Holmes's facial expressions, to his dialogue, to his views on suspects. We also get some of Watson's own thoughts and observations, but we often don't have mentions of his actions or his dialogue. With a first-person narrative, we are inside the head of our narrator, in this case Watson. So we see through Watson, which means that we mainly see Holmes.
Since Watson is telling the story himself, we see what he sees and hear what he thinks, but we often don't see what Watson himself is doing in scenes. This is a bit unusual for a first-person narrative, since the narrator often tells us all about him or herself and his or her actions. But Watson is telling us a story about someone else; he hasn't made himself the main character here, so we end up getting a fuller view of Holmes (or Watson's view of Holmes) than of Watson himself.
Whenever you have a first-person narrator, you often run into issues of reliable vs. unreliable narrators. Unreliable doesn't have to mean a liar; it can also mean someone who is biased or is limited in their view. Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird is an unreliable narrator in lots of ways since she's telling us a story from a child's limited perspective; all the first person narrators in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury are unreliable since they are all some combination of unstable, biased, uninformed, or liars.
Watson, though, is a pretty reliable narrator. This makes sense because Watson is trying to act as a biographer/historian of Sherlock Holmes. And even though he generally praises Holmes, he doesn't go totally overboard. Watson sometimes points out how annoying Holmes can be. It's the fact that Watson doesn't try to hide Holmes's less desirable qualities, combined with his self-proclaimed historian role, that makes Watson a somewhat unusually reliable first-person narrator.
Since we're dealing with thirteen separate short stories, it's tricky to apply a seven-part plot analysis. But even though a classic plot analysis isn't really effective here, there are lots of places in this guide where you can read up on all things plot related. First off, check out our "Brief Plot Summary" and our "Detailed Summary" for a run-down of each story. You can also check out the "Genre" write-up to learn more about the type of plot structures used in each story.