Study Guide

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Literature and Writing

By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Literature and Writing

A Scandal in Bohemia
Sherlock Holmes

"I think that I had better go, Holmes."

"Not a bit, doctor. Stay where you are. I am lost without my Boswell" (Scandal.1.36-7).

(James Boswell was the famous biographer and friend of eighteenth-century English writer Samuel Johnson.) Holmes is always razzing Watson for romanticizing him and his work. Holmes wants to see his adventures logged like police reports or something, listing his deductive achievements without any of the emotion or color Watson brings to these tales. But at the same time, Holmes needs Watson to make his name known at all. Holmes would literally be lost without Watson, without his particular special friend/narrator.

The Red-Headed League
Sherlock Holmes

"You will remember that I remarked the other day, just before we went into the very simple problem presented by Miss Mary Sutherland, that for strange effects and extraordinary combinations we must go to life itself, which is always far more daring than any effort of the imagination."

"A proposition which I took the liberty of doubting."

"You did, Doctor, but none the less you must come round to my view, for otherwise I shall keep on piling fact upon fact on you until your reason breaks down under them and acknowledges me to be right" (League.8-12).

Honestly, this exchange is kind of weird to us: so, Holmes is saying that life is always stranger than fiction. But this is a fictional story. So why is Holmes busy talking smack about fiction? The thing is, given what we know of Holmes's character – his fascination with science and the rational, and his love of puzzles – it makes total sense that he would prefer life to fiction. But we the readers, who may admire Holmes from afar but who do not possess his degree of logic or precision – we want the color and glamour of fiction, Conan Doyle's fiction, to be exact. So there's a kind of meta-commentary (in other words, a commentary about commentary) going on here. Holmes may be the kind of logical guy who prefers fact to fiction, but it's his logic (strangely) that makes him a great fictional hero for us to enjoy.

A Case of Identity

"My dear fellow," said Sherlock Holmes as we sat on either side of the fire in his lodgings at Baker Street, "life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outré results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable" (Identity.1).

Again, Conan Doyle's fictions are anything but "conventional" or filled with "foreseen conclusions," so Conan Doyle seems to be funning with us a bit. But something we like about this passage is this image of "this great city" "working through generations." So much of Holmes's world depends on a bunch of different people conducting entirely independent lives right next to one another – like the strange chain of events linking Henry Baker to James Ryder in "The Blue Carbuncle." And those chains only appear plausible to the reader because Holmes's stories are set in a diverse, cosmopolitan marvel like London. Can you imagine Holmes setting up shop in a small English country village? Would he even be able to find enough cases to fill one story collection?

The Boscombe Valley Mystery
Dr. John Watson

I walked down to the station with them, and then wandered through the streets of the little town, finally returning to the hotel, where I lay upon the sofa and tried to interest myself in a yellow-backed novel. The puny plot of the story was so thin, however, when compared to the deep mystery through which we were groping, and I found my attention wander so continually from the action to the fact, that I at last flung it across the room and gave myself up entirely to a consideration of the events of the day (Valley.106).

During "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," Watson is left to his own devices for a bit, so he turns to a novel for a good time. A "yellow-backed novel" is a cheap, generally melodramatic book often sold in railway stations in days of yore – kind of like the Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs books we find in airport bookstores now. There's a neat bit of self-marketing here: Watson's disgusted with the plot of the novel when compared to the depth of the mystery he's right in the middle of. But that mystery is, again, a piece of fiction invented and sold by one Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. So there's a lot of nod-nod-wink-wink self-referential joking going on in this passage. Does all of Conan Doyle's poking at fiction make his Holmes stories seem more realistic to you?

The Engineer's Thumb
Dr. John Watson

The story has, I believe, been told more than once in the newspapers, but, like all such narratives, its effect is much less striking when set forth en bloc in a single half-column of print than when the facts slowly evolve before your own eyes, and the mystery clears gradually away as each new discovery furnishes a step which leads on to the complete truth (Thumb.1).

Ah ha! Now here we get a neat argument from Watson about why it's important to include color and intrigue in a story. A newspaper article gives you all the facts at once, without suspense. But the process of the slow reveal is essential, says Watson, to create a "striking" effect for the reader. In other words, what makes Watson's narration memorable is that he chooses to withhold information from us until he's good and ready to let us in on the secret. That's some good suspense!

The Copper Beeches
Dr. John Watson

If I claim full justice for my art, it is because it is an impersonal thing – a thing beyond myself. Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore it is upon the logic rather than upon the crime that you should dwell. You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales (Beeches.5).

So, we've had Watson make a case for his form of narration, the suspense story. Here's Holmes's rebuttal: by dwelling on the crime, Watson's ignoring what's scientifically important to Holmes's deductions. Sadly for Holmes, Watson is a first-person narrator, so the doctor gets the last word on how the story should be told. But what would a first-person Holmes story look like? Would it have suspense at all? Why might Conan Doyle choose to portray these arguments between Holmes and Watson on how their fictional adventures should be told?