Study Guide

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Introduction

Sherlock Holmes is not the first fictional detective. C. Auguste Dupin, hero of a bunch of stories by American author Edgar Allan Poe, as well as a very few others detectives, came before. Poe invented the classic formula: the super-smart private detective and his less smart (but more literary) narrator buddy, amazing leaps of logic that prove to be right, and a bumbling cop who can never quite seem to get it right. So, props to Poe.

Though Holmes may not be the first detective in fiction, but we kind of think he's the best. When you hear the word "detective," we're betting dollars to donuts that one of the first things that comes into your mind is the sharp-featured, pipe-smoking, deerstalker-hat-wearing Sherlock Holmes. He's like Frankenstein or Dracula – one of those characters who becomes so fundamental to his genre that, even if you've never read a single Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story, you probably still know who Sherlock Holmes is. (Though maybe you picture him as Robert Downey, Jr.)

Holmes wasn't instantly popular by any means. Conan Doyle had some minor success with his first two Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet (1888) and The Sign of Four (1890), but it wasn't until Doyle started publishing Holmes-based short stories in a new fiction magazine, The Strand, that the character and his tales really started to take off.

It was still pretty standard in the late nineteenth century for English novels to appear chapter by chapter in magazines before being collected into one published volume – that's how the first two Holmes novels appeared. Conan Doyle had the idea that this format would be perfect for a series of episodes from his detective's life. After all, sustaining a reader's interest in one detective plot across multiple chapters is kind of hard, and if you miss one issue, you're sunk. But if each story has its own self-contained plot arc, readers can get both the suspense and the resolution they want every month, while continuing to crave more Holmes-y goodness from one magazine issue to the next. So Conan Doyle basically invented the episodic drama. And as any viewer of House, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Ugly Betty can tell you, having a character-focused genre series is a great strategy for commercial success. Sherlock Holmes is no exception.

Conan Doyle selected The Strand because it occurred to him that he could tie the success of this new magazine (which started in January 1891, six months before Conan Doyle started publishing his "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes") to his new series of short stories. And it worked: Conan Doyle's Holmes tales raised The Strand's circulation and established it as the popular fiction magazine of its day.

Weirdly, despite the fact that he wound up writing dozens of short stories and five novels around this character, Conan Doyle was actually not that fond of his creation. A retired army surgeon and medical doctor (like a certain Dr. John Watson whom we know!), Conan Doyle had other, more serious ambitions. He wanted to be known for his historical novels and for his writings on the South African Boer War. He didn't mind the money that came with being a commercial writer, but he hated that public demand for Holmes totally overwhelmed anyone's interest in his more serious work.

So Conan Doyle tried to kill off Holmes at the end of his second story collection, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1895). Public outcry was so strong, though, that he eventually brought Holmes back to life after a decade's hiatus (he did publish The Hound of the Baskervilles during this period, but it's set before Holmes's death). Luckily, if his creator couldn't love Sherlock Holmes as Holmes deserves, those of us here at Shmoop can totally fill in the gap.

 

What is The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes About and Why Should I Care?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal – except for Sherlock Holmes, who is better than everybody. Seriously, this guy's a superhero: it's like asking why we should care about Batman (hint: because he's awesome). For one thing, Sherlock can look at people and see right into their minds (basically). We bet we can think of a million situations in which that ability might be useful, up to and including: (a) crime fighting, (b) bickering with our significant others, or (c) trying to convince our parents to loan us money. So Holmes is a guy who we either want to be, or who at least we want on our side.

Speaking of having him on our side, Holmes totally uses his powers for good. Everyone in Victorian London, from the lowliest governess to the highest nobleman, eventually comes to see Holmes when they need help. He's like a super-genius, disguise-loving Victorian version of Dear Abby. And it's reassuring to read about a guy who just goes around making sure that life is fair for the little guy. Sure, Holmes may be in his business of private detective work mostly for the intellectual work rather than the moral judgment, but for us, reading Holmes is like reading Chicken Soup for the Nerdy Soul: he's so sure, and so good at getting things right, that reading his stories leave us with a comfortable glow.

If that's somehow not enough to convince you that Holmes is worth caring about, let's just add that the bromance scale goes up to eleven in these stories. Holmes's relationship with Dr. John Watson is so emotionally satisfying that Watson's wife Mary eventually just dies so that the two guys can be roomies again. Holmes and Watson restore our faith in (Platonic) love – we hope we're as excited to spend time with our friends fifteen years down the line as Holmes and Watson seem to be during their later adventures. The guys may not be romantic partners in the least, but they are life partners. And we must admit, reading about their adventures leaves us a little choked up.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Resources

Links

Sherlockian.Net
Basically the introduction to "Sherlockiana," available on your computer. Contains links not only to stories and character information, but also to contextual stuff about Victorian London. Sadly, not all the links remain active.

The Victorian Web
An extremely useful resource on the Victorian era in England and on events in the U.S. during the same period, for those who are looking for more historical background to our favorite detective.

The Strand Magazine
A revival of the old fiction magazine in which Conan Doyle published his Holmes stories.

The Sherlockian Atlas
A (still-in-progress) interactive world map of all of the places mentioned in Holmes's stories.

"The Official Web Site of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate"
Even though Conan Doyle passed away 79 years ago, his trustees are still out there protecting his good name. This here is his official site, with a specially-prepared biography and some information about some non-Sherlock characters created by Conan Doyle.

"A Baker Street Glossary for Beginning Sherlockians"
This is a useful PDF file introducing the terms common in Holmes-related scholarship, such as "the Baker Street Irregulars" and the "Sherlockian Game." Also contains chronologies of the stories and a quick list of famous Sherlockians.

Pinacotheca Holmesiana: Sidney Paget
An online database of Sidney Paget's original Strand illustrations for Conan Doyle's Holmes stories.

Movie or TV Productions

Sherlock Holmes, 2009
This is the new one, you know, with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, made by the guy who also made Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. We are so there!

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1984
This British miniseries was aired on American television in the '80s, and was later followed by The Return of Sherlock Holmes and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. Lead actor Jeremy Brett has played Holmes more than any other single actor, and has totally influenced how some of us here at Shmoop think of Holmes (i.e., as neurotic and fidgety).

Dressed to Kill, 1946
This is only one of many, many Holmes movies made by Basil Rathbone (as Holmes) and Nigel Bruce (as Watson); other titles include Terror by Night, Pursuit to Algiers, The House of Fear, and The Scarlet Claw. As you can probably tell from the titles, these aren't as faithful to the stories as, say, the Jeremy Brett versions are, but the look of Basil Rathbone is a total continuation of the Sidney Paget tradition.

Documents

The Sherlock Holmes Collection
Original collection of Holmes manuscripts, at the University of Minnesota.

Videos

Sherlock Holmes 2009 Trailer
Check out the official trailer for the upcoming movie, to be released on Christmas Day 2009.

The Voice of Terror, 1942
An example of Basil Rathbone's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, who is, because of his setting, a bit different from Conan Doyle's. This film is set in contemporary times and deals with World War II and the fight against the Nazis.

The Real, Live Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
An interview with the author, in which Conan Doyle explains what he hates about early detective novels and how Sherlock Holmes fixed all that. Really, really (really) cool.

Audios

William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes
This is the only surviving audio of famous turn-of-the-twentieth-century actor William Gillette, who played Holmes on the stage and screen for over 35 years.

Jeremy Brett in the Stage Play The Secret of Sherlock Holmes
We don't know if we buy this secret, but – listen to find out what it is.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Check out the Project Gutenberg audiobook version of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Then put your own accents in, for fun!

Images

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Author
Even his best friends couldn't deny that his mustache makes him look like a walrus.

Sherlock, In Seeds (Seriously)
Yes, this is a framed image of Sherlock Holmes, depicted with seeds. What more can you say?

Floor Plan of 221B Baker Street
Beautifully drawn 1950s print that appeared in The Strand.