Sherlockian.Net: Frequently Asked Questions

[From the collection of Charles Prepolec]

Was Sherlock Holmes a real person, or was he a fictional character?


Real, in the hearts and minds of readers since his adventures began appearing in print in 1887. Fictional, in the sense that he was created by one of the most remarkable authors of all time: Arthur Conan Doyle, and has become more famous even than his creator.

See also this article from the Straight Dope website.

Which Sherlock Holmes is the real one?

The world will never improve on the Holmes who is the central figure in four novels and 56 short stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle between 1887 and 1927. However, Holmes has become a figure of broader literature, media and popular culture — hence this website. In my opinion the best film or television Sherlock Holmes is Jeremy Brett. The most popular at present is certainly Benedict Cumberbatch in a modernized version of Holmes and Watson produced for BBC television.

What was the name of Holmes’s friend /landlady /arch-enemy /street?

See the World of Holmes and Watson section of this web site.

What was the name of Sherlock Holmes’s brother?

Mycroft Holmes — see the Mycroft Holmes page.

What three items did Sherlock Holmes never leave home without?

This question has no legitimate answer — there are no such three items. I suspect the originator is thinking of the deerstalker hat, the magnifying glass and the calabash pipe, one of which is authentic while the other two are pure folklore. What I'd like to know is who thought up the question, which keeps surfacing in searches on this site. Many thanks to @plexippa for tracing it as far back as this hilariously error-filled school assignment.

What is the story in which Sherlock Holmes dies?

Well, none of them exactly. You may be thinking of the events told in ’The Final Problem’ and ’The Empty House’.

Did Sherlock Holmes use illegal drugs?

No. He used morphine and cocaine; see The Sign of the Four and a few other tales. Both drugs were legal in Holmes’s time, could be bought at the corner drugstore, and were ingredients in patent medicines and popular products including Coca-Cola. In "The Man with the Twisted Lip", he goes undercover to an opium den, purely in the line of business.

And no, there is no evidence that Arthur Conan Doyle ever used recreational drugs. For much more, see Subcutaneously, My Dear Watson, by Jack Tracy and Jim Berkey, 1978. (This Sherlockian classic is available for sale from the original publisher, James A. Rock Publishers.)

If I’ve never read any of the Sherlock Holmes stories, where should I start?

A complete beginner should probably start with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, either the whole book at one whack or a couple of selections, particularly "The Speckled Band" and maybe "The Boscombe Valley Mystery". Those are among the best and at the same time the most characteristic of the stories. After the Adventures, maybe The Hound of the Baskervilles, and after that, whatever. Reading the stories in order is a very bad idea because the first one in particular, A Study in Scarlet, was written when Doyle was young and still learning, and is not by any means either strong or typical.

And what about my ten-year-old?

For a very young reader the most interesting and understandable story is probably "The Priory School", in which a child is the central character. Young teenagers can dive into any part of Sherlock Holmes just as adults can.

Did Holmes really have an affair with Irene Adler during the time he was in hiding after his "death" at the Reichenbach Falls?

Some people think so, but then some people will believe anything. It was probably William S. Baring-Gould, in his book Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, who established this legend, along with the interesting idea that Rex Stout’s detective Nero Wolfe was their son.

Can you tell me something about the literary influences on Arthur Conan Doyle and his contributions to the development of the detective story?

Either you are supposed to be writing a term paper on this topic, or you have become intrigued by a question that’s going to require research of a comparable extent. I can’t possibly give you the hours that would be required to answer this question adequately; and if a term paper really has been assigned, you’re the one who needs to write it, not me. But for a number of suggestions on how to proceed, please see How to write a term paper.

What’s that saying of Holmes’s about eliminating the impossible?

  • Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth. — The Sign of the Four
  • How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth? — The Sign of the Four
  • We must fall back upon the old axiom that when all other contingencies fail, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. — "The Bruce-Partington Plans"
  • When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. — "The Blanched Soldier"
    But a British court in 2013 refused to accept this line of reasoning.

    What’s that exchange about the dog that didn’t bark?

    "Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?" "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time." "The dog did nothing in the night-time." "That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes. (It’s from the short story "Silver Blaze".)

    What about Watson’s marriages and other inconsistencies in the stories?

    "Inspector Hopkins" briefly addresses some of the best-known "Canonical cruxes" in a special page on Sherlockian.Net.

    Is the character of Sherlock Holmes protected by copyright?

    I am not a lawyer, and a lawyer is what you need, if you are asking this question out of anything more than idle curiosity. I can tell you that a few of the original Holmes stories are still protected by copyright. According to a series of court rulings in 2013-14, however, the character itself (himself?) is not under copyright protection.

    What about the Sidney Paget illustrations? Are they copyright-free?

    I don’t have a definitive answer, but I can point out that Sidney Paget died in 1908, and that his drawings are constantly being reprinted in all sorts of contexts without news of anybody complaining. I think you are on safe ground. The best online source of Paget drawings is the Pinacotheca Holmesiana. However, you might do still better by finding the print versions and scanning them yourself with care. Anywhere in the English-speaking world, chances are good that you are within travelling distance of a major library that has copies of the original Strand magazines. The crispness of those illustrations will blow you away if you’re used to blurry modern reproductions.

    What was that movie about Holmes being frozen and waking up a century later?

    Actually there were two such made-for-TV movies. "The Return of Sherlock Holmes", with Michael Pennington as Holmes and Margaret Colin as Jane Watson, aired on CBS January 10, 1987; the plot involves the plague virus, government agents and counterfeit currency. "1994 Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes Returns", with Anthony Higgins as Holmes and Debrah Farentino as Dr. Amy Winslow, aired on September 12, 1993, also on CBS. The plot puts Holmes in San Francisco, tracking down an evil descendant of Professor Moriarty.

    Did you hear the story about the time Holmes and Watson went camping?

    Yes. Frequently. It’s on the web something like 64,000 times according to Google. (But searches for "Holmes Watson stolen tent" will also turn up chapter VI of The Sign of the Four.)

    The earliest known version of the tent joke for some reason refers to "Matthew Watson" — an unknown twin of John H., perhaps? That version was posted to the Hounds of the Internet July 2, 1998. The joke was subsequently published in Reader’s Digest for November 1998.

    I have a book report due tomorrow; can you send me a plot summary of The Hound of the Baskervilles?

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