Contradictions in the Holmes stories, summarized by Joseph E. Dierkes
In following the Sacred Writings of Doctor Watson, a number of contradictory or inconsistent points have been noticed by untold legions of Sherlockians. Some of these are tabulated below.
Watson mentioned his wound from a Jezail bullet, received during the fatal battle of Maiwand, in three of the stories. In A Study in Scarlet, he told us that he was wounded in the shoulder, "grazing the subclavian artery." In The Sign of the Four, he stated that his wounded leg hurt. And finally, in "The Noble Bachelor," he said that the Jezail bullet "in one of his limbs" bothered him. Holmes mentioned his wound in both "The Resident Patient" and "The Cardboard Box" in the famous "brown study" scene when he observed that Watson's hand "stole towards [his] wound," but he didn't say where it was.
One popular, and possible, explanation of these inconsistencies is that Watson was shot while he was bending over at some point during the battle. The bullet could have conceivably passed through his upper leg, then lodged in his shoulder. At various times afterwards, one wound or the other would bother him enough for him to complain about it.
This is a perennial issue amongst Sherlockian scholars, and one which could continue to be hotly debated long into the future. Opinions range from Watson having been married only once, to as many as six times! Part of the confusion arising from this crux is that the good Doctor never once mentioned his wife by name throughout any of the Canon, only referring to her as "my wife."
It is generally agreed that Watson met Mary Morstan in September of 1888 (The Sign of the Four) and married her several months later, presumably in the Spring of 1889. Watson, in "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," and Holmes in "The Stockbroker's Clerk," made comments definitely linking this "wife" with The Sign of the Four. In "The Empty House," Watson mentioned that Holmes had learned of his "own sad bereavement." Since Holmes had ostensibly gone over the Falls in April of 1891 and returned in April of 1894, Mary Morstan must have passed away sometime between those dates. In "The Blanched Soldier," which occurred in 1903, Holmes wrote that "Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife." This "wife" was clearly someone other than Mary Morstan, and so it would appear that Watson was married twice. This seems simple enough.
The real difficulty, however, starts in "The Five Orange Pips" when Watson wrote that his "wife was on a visit to her mother's." Since Mary Morstan stated that her mother was dead in The Sign of the Four, and since Watson recorded that "The Five Orange Pips" occurred in September of 1887 (a full year before he met Mary), then this "wife" could not have been her. To make matters even more complex, Watson also mentioned "The Sign of Four," as part of a dialogue with Holmes, in this same story.
And the crux continues in "A Scandal in Bohemia," where Watson clearly recorded that the case started on March 20, 1888 and again referred to being married. Based upon these two stories, one might argue that Watson had a wife before Mary Morstan, but if this is true, then what became of her?
In an attempt to explain these inconsistencies, some Sherlockian scholars re-assigned dates to these stories. But those actions introduced new contradictions, didn't they? As for myself, I'll go with the three-marriage theory.
This one is a classic crux of the Canon! In "The Man with the Twisted Lip," why did Mrs. Watson (presumably Mary Morstan) refer to her husband as 'James' rather than 'John'? A number of theories exist: James was her pet name for Watson; it was a typograpical error made by the printer; she was referring to their child named James; Arthur Conan Doyle had a friend named James on whom he based Watson's character, and he subconciously wrote his name instead of John.
The year 1892
In his notebook, Watson recorded that "Wisteria Lodge" occurred at the end of March of that year. The problem with this one is that Holmes was supposed to be at the bottom of the Reichenbach Falls at that time. This has been most easily explained away as a typographical error.
Holmes's nemesis is mentioned in seven of the sixty cases in the Canon. In "The Final Problem," which occurred in April 1891, Watson claimed to have never heard of Professor Moriarty. This was corroborated later in "The Empty House" when Holmes also recalled that Watson had not heard of him. But, in The Valley of Fear, which occurred some three years before "The Final Problem" (in January of 1888), Dr. Watson did indeed seem to be somewhat familiar with the evil professor, and remembered that Holmes had spoken of Moriarty before.
The dates in 'The Red-Headed League'
Another crux involving dates, this one revolves around the formation of the Red-Headed League and its subsequent dissolution. According to Jabez Wilson, the newspaper advertisement for the Red-headed League was published April 27, 1890, "Just two months ago." This implied that the case began in early July of 1890. The problem is that Watson clearly stated he had called upon Holmes "in the Autumn of last year." Further, the cardboard note which Wilson found tacked to the door clearly stated that "The Red-Headed League is dissolved. October 9, 1890."
One interesting theory to resolve this was published by Brad Keefauver in the June 1983 issue of the Baker Street Journal. Mr. Keefauver's theory was that Jabez Wilson was lying to Holmes about the true length of his employment (really 24 weeks rather than 8 weeks). As he also later wrote, "the digging of a tunnel and the copying of all that encyclopaedia material would both fit more comfortably into a twenty-four week span." In other words, Watson correctly recorded the dates of the newspaper and the cardboard sign, but Wilson kept emphasizing an eight-week period. Was this to keep Holmes's fee down?
And speaking of this same case, something that has always bothered me was that 14-year-old girl who did "a bit of simple cooking." How could John Clay have been tunneling under the pavement all that time without her noticing anything amiss? Could she have been an accomplice? What ever happened to her?
And it continues
There are oddities in many of the stories. In "The Blue Carbuncle," for example, what happened to Catherine Cusack after Holmes let James Ryder escape? Further, why would Holmes let Ryder escape while allowing the innocent John Horner to languish in prison during the "season of forgiveness"?
In A Study in Scarlet, who was "Mrs. Sawyer"? Like Watson, Jefferson Hope was without kith or kin in England. If he was busily pursuing Drebber and Stangerson while struggling to stay alive as a cab driver, he hardly had the time or opport unity to make any friends. On the other hand, his meager earnings would not allow him to pay someone to help him pull off his rather elaborate ruse. Who did he get to masquerade as an old woman looking for a lost wedding ring? (This crux is a rather minor one, and could be simply dismissed as a "weak spot" in the story. After all, it was ACD's first.)
Part of the fun and enjoyment of Sherlockiana lies in finding, examining, and attempting to explain such inconsistencies in the Canon! This listing of the more obvious cruxes is by no means exhaustive, and certainly can be added to as new theories are developed.