Wednesday, November 10, 2021

"This is a case for… Sherlock Holmes!"

Sherlock Holmes in a 1904 portrait by Sidney Paget

Click to see Vol. I, Issue 2 of the newsletter in which this article first appeared.

Listen to the audio of this article! (3:36)

Someone's missing? You've misplaced your boss's money? Received five orange seeds in the mail without explanation?

This sounds like a case for... Sherlock Holmes!

In Mr. Holmes, the author Arthur Conan Doyle has created a character so vivid that many have mistaken him for a real person. The first Holmes stories appeared in 1887; by 1927, Doyle had written four novels and 56 short stories starring his "consulting detective."

Holmes uses highly scientific methods to untie the knottiest of problems--for a fee. Sometimes his powers of observation, logical deduction, and forensic science appear almost mystical, especially to his friend, biographer, and sometimes roommate Dr. John Watson.

With Watson, Holmes lives upstairs from his landlady, Mrs. Hudson, at 221B Baker Street, London. Watson writes down most of the stories, but Holmes claims that actual events were never nearly as sensational as Watson makes them out to be. Still, Watson is his only real friend. The relationship reveals to Watson that Holmes possesses "a great heart as well as... a great brain."

Holmes usually works for private clients, but he sometimes consults with Scotland Yard, and has been hired by high government officials in and out of England (including even the Vatican!). Sherlock admits that his brother, Mycroft, a government official, is the smarter of the two, but Mycroft is not interested in investigation.

In 1893, wishing to turn his attention to other projects, Doyle "killed off" Holmes in a struggle with his archnemesis, Professor James Moriarty. However, after 20,000 people cancelled their subscription to "The Strand," the magazine in which the stories had been published, Doyle was compelled to find an ingenious way to bring him back.

Holmes had "died" after a scuffle and fall near a waterfall; but as it turned out, he had faked his death to fool his enemies. (No body had ever been recovered.) This period is now known among fans (usually called "Holmesians" in the U.K. and "Sherlockians" in the U.S.) as "the Great Hiatus."

Sherlock Holmes was not the first fictional detective, but he is the best known. Stage, television, film, and print appearances--beyond those by Doyle--number in the tens of thousands, and no one who writes crime fiction today can ignore the character or the principles he practiced, including this one:

"When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

Sherlock Homes (Basil Rathbone) and John Watson (Nigel Bruce), in a 1943 film


Vocabulary Exercise

Match the words to their meaning. Answers in the first comment.

  1. archnemesis
  2. compelled
  3. consults
  4. deduction
  5. forensic
  6. hiatus
  7. ingenious
  8. knottiest
  9. sensational
  10. vivid
  1. break; interruption
  2. gives advice
  3. most difficult
  4. exaggerated for dramatic effect
  5. lively; realistic
  6. greatest enemy
  7. forced
  8. working from facts to a conclusion
  9. clever; brilliant
  10. for use in solving crimes


Answer the following questions in your own words. Suggested answers in the first comment.
  1. Is Sherlock Holmes a real person?
  2. What sorts of techniques does Holmes use to solve crimes?
  3. What character supposedly "wrote" the Holmes stories? How is he related to Holmes?
  4. What caused trouble for Arthur Conan Doyle and his publishers? How did Doyle fix the problem?
  5. What does this mean: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Activities

    Vocabulary: 1. f; 2. g; 3. b; 4. h; 5. j; 6. a; 7. i; 8. c; 9. d; 10. e

    Questions (suggested answers; yours may be slightly different)
    1. No, Sherlock Holmes is not a real person. He is a fictional character, but some people think he is real.
    2. Holmes uses highly scientific methods, such as observation, logical deduction, and forensic science, to solve crimes.
    3. Dr. John Watson, Holmes's roommate and friend, was supposedly the biographer of Sherlock Holmes.
    4. Arthur Conan Doyle "killed off" Holmes (because he was tired of writing the stories). The readers complained so much that he had to find a way to "bring him back."
    5. The saying, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth," means that, given several theories, you should disprove as many as you can. The one that you cannot disprove, even if it seems unlikely, must be the correct one.