Study Guide

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes What's Up With the Title?

By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

What's Up With the Title?

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is actually not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first publication featuring our favorite private consulting detective. Nope, the novels A Study in Scarlet (1888) and The Sign of Four (1890) preceded this collection of twelve tales (by the way, all of Conan Doyle's Holmes stories and novels were published in magazines before they came out as books. But we're going by the book publication date rather than the magazine release). Still, it wasn't until Conan Doyle started publishing one Holmes-centered short story per month in the (then-new) pop fiction magazine The Strand (to learn more, see our "In A Nutshell") that the character of Sherlock Holmes really took off in the public imagination.

By the time this first run of twelve short stories was collected into one volume in 1892, Holmes had become such a blockbuster with the English reading public that The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes didn't need anything more than the character's name to sell. No longer did Conan Doyle have to rely on sexily mysterious titles like The Sign of Four to get his work into bookstores (though we have to acknowledge the two other Holmes novels in there, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and The Valley of Fear (1915)).

All of Conan Doyle's later Holmes story collections, with the exception of His Last Bow (1917), relied on the name of the main character to bring in the big bucks, including The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894), The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1904), and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (1927). In fact, if you think about it, Holmes had become so famous as a character that Conan Doyle could feel confident titling a collection His Last Bow – trusting that the reading public would know that "his" refers to our old friend Holmes. Holmes is like the late-nineteenth-century version of House: sure, each individual episode has its own mystery, its own plot, but you keep reading because you like the guy in the title.

So how about the titles of Conan Doyle's individual stories? From July 1891 to June 1892, Conan Doyle supplied his eager reading public with "A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Red-Headed League," "A Case of Identity," "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," "The Five Orange Pips," "The Man with the Twisted Lip," "The Speckled Band," "The Engineer's Thumb," "The Noble Bachelor," "The Beryl Coronet," and "The Copper Beeches." The title of these stories often names the Central Clue that Reveals All, without providing any other hints as to what it could mean – enticing you to read further.

This formula became one of the characteristics of Conan Doyle's Holmes stories – consider his later short story titles from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, such as "The Naval Treaty," "The Adventure of the Crooked Man," and "The Musgrave Ritual." As with the individual stories we mentioned earlier, these names bring up a mysterious character (who is the man with the twisted lip?) or object (such as the five orange pips) that the story promises to explain. The title becomes another marketing device: if you want to know what the heck the Red-Headed League is, buy The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and read all about it. Or at least check it out on Google Books.