Sherlock Holmes Part I - the Character Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Sherlock Holmes Part I - the Character

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Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes.
In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.
A Study in Scarlet1 (1887), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Known the world over as the greatest living detective, he's one of literature's most popular characters. Popular iconography depicts him in a deerstalker hat and checked cape, though fans and experts of the detective will recall that he was more often depicted as wearing a smart suit and a top hat. He was a noted violinist and there was more than a suggestion that he used opium, making him possibly the most widely-respected and best-loved drug-addict in British fiction. But it is his clinical, analytical mind for which he is most famous, able to detect a person's previous whereabouts or general situation by the subtlest of clues and minute evidence.

The Man Himself

According to the stories, Sherlock Holmes was born on 6 January, 1854. He was the son of a country squire and grandson of the sister of the artist Vernet.

In appearance, Holmes is tall - over 6ft - and thin. He has black hair and grey eyes, thin lips and a 'hawk-like' nose. Holmes is scrupulously clean and is always dressed neatly. Although he has never exercised for the fun of it, he is always fit and ready for action; he is adept at boxing and the martial art Baritsu, and is also proficient at single-stick and fencing. Another of Holmes's specialities is his wonderful disguises: from groom to priest, clergyman to opium smoker, all of which have been much needed to gain information or as a way to escape from the criminals. He is a music-lover who attends concerts and operas, and is also a violinist, preferring German music.

A highly knowledgeable individual, Holmes is also clearly an avid reader and learner throughout his life. For example, in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes appears to be ignorant of the Solar System, but by the time of 'The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter' he has a very good astronomical knowledge. Like many highly intelligent people, however, Holmes can be a little absent minded and lacking in common sense. An experiment with some fluids caused the apartment to be full of smoke, with Mrs Hudson in a panic, a fire-coach rumbling up the street, and Holmes and Watson hanging out of the window with Watson asking, 'did it go wrong?' Holmes answered, laughing, 'no, it was just what I expected'. For all his intelligence, he neglected to think about doing the experiment outdoors.

Holmes stays up late and gets up just as late. He is a smoker, and when a great depression sweeps over him, usually when he is not involved in a case, he has been known to indulge in cocaine. As related in 'The Reigate Squires', he suffers a nervous breakdown, and possibly a second breakdown some time later ('The Devil's Foot).

Holmes seems to be an unemotional person at first glance, but he is not. He cares deeply about his friends and is often concerned for his great friend and biographer Watson.

His reward for his brilliant detective work is generally a simple fee, although he has been known on occasion to waive the charge for his services. Sometimes the rewards were very large: £1000 for a missing item to £12,000 in another case. Holmes has also received a gold snuffbox, a ring and was rewarded by Queen Victoria herself with an Emerald tie-pin in 'The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans'.

Holmes lives at 221b Baker Street with Dr Watson and his housekeeper Mrs Hudson. In 'The Adventure of Black Peter' we learn that he keeps five other locations in London aside from 221b, in case he needs to disguise himself.

In 'The Second Stain', Watson reveals that Holmes retired to keep bees on Sussex Downs, though he comes out of retirement in 'His Last Bow'.

The Holmes 'Look'

The distinctive appearance of Sherlock Holmes was created by artist Sydney Paget, who illustrated the original stories in Strand magazine. Paget's version of Holmes, in particular the legendary deerstalker hat, which is never mentioned by name in the stories, was sufficiently strong that it has survived over 100 years.

In the stories, Holmes is described as wearing various different outfits:

  • In A Study in Scarlet, he wears an Ulster (a loose overcoat).
  • In 'The Boscombe Valley Mystery' he wears a long, grey travelling cloak and a cloth cap, and later a set of waterproofs.
  • In 'The Adventure of Silver Blaze' he wears an ear-flapped travelling cap2.
  • In The Hound of the Baskervilles, he wears a tweed suit and cloth cap.

Holmes's other 'trademark' is his curved or 'calabash' pipe. Like the deerstalker, this is not mentioned specifically in the stories. The addition of this particular type of pipe is thought to be by actor William Gillette, who wanted a pipe that would not hinder his pronunciation of the lines.

Holmes and Drugs

Holmes quite openly takes both cocaine and morphine in several of the stories. In A Study in Scarlet, the first work featuring Holmes, there were hints that he might have been using drugs:

...for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night. On these occasions I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.

Later it became quite clear that he was indeed using drugs. The Sign of Four opens with:

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

A little later in the story Holmes states, 'It is cocaine, a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?' This comment was the basis for the film The Seven Percent Solution, in which Holmes and Watson meet Sigmund Freud.

By the time of 'The Missing Three-quarter', Holmes has given up drugs.

Holmes and Zen Buddhism

Sherlock Holmes is an iconic figure in the history of detective novels. He is a cult figure whose expertise in solving crimes gave birth to an entirely new genre of detective novels/crime thrillers. Not only that, professional investigation teams round the globe are also indebted to him for intelligence and inspiration. With much improved technology than Holmes had during that period of Victorian England in the 19th Century, crime detection becomes a much easier job now. But we still look back at works of Sherlock Holmes for flashes of inspiration and the kind of classical discipline that was necessary in those days when little aid was available in terms of technology. Holmes was eclectic. He drew from Zen Buddhism: the ability to concentrate on a single object without the slightest wavering of the mind. He worked like a magician, the puzzles of crime were under his hypnotic spell. There has been mention in his novels of Holmes's special interest in the study of Buddhism.

The search for spirituality in mystery stories is established fact. Holmes had interest in mystery/miracle plays, 15th-Century palimpsest, and Cornish language and its similarities with Chaldean tradition. The basic tenet that binds all spiritual stuff and the mind of the detective is the ultimate quest for truth that's hidden beneath the surface. It's like decoding a scripture or message (hermeneutics).

Holmes started showing an interest in Buddhism during the unaccounted-for years between 'The Final Problem', when Doyle faked his detective's death, and 'The Adventure of the Empty House' where he resurrected Holmes. This move into Eastern Mysticism also eclipsed his cocaine habits. Holmes was looking for something far more refreshing than the hypodermic syringe, he was looking for symbols of wider meaning and depth. He 'added a touch of Zen to his life'. His powers of observation took a new height, the controlling of the five senses and the new add-on: the sixth sense, the inner eye; informed intuition and introspection without a tinge of psychedelia.

And Holmes commented to Watson, 'you see but you do not observe'. The implications here are profound. Sherlock Holmes becomes a 'larger than life' figure, a metaphysical detective whose 'bare attention' in decoding riddles is almost like a mystical way of decoding parables.

Sherlock Holmes is ahead of his times: he is the immortal Zen Master.

The Real Story

Sherlock Holmes, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, first appeared in the novel A Study In Scarlet in 1887. This was followed three years later by The Sign of Four. Two further Homes novels were later written by Conan Doyle: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and The Valley of Fear (1915).

In 1891, the first of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes short stories - 'A Scandal in Bohemia' - was published in Strand magazine. Between 1891 and 1927, Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories, which are collected into five volumes:

  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891 - 1892)
  • The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1892 - 1893)
  • The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1903 - 1904)
  • His Last Bow (1908 - 1917)
  • The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (1921 - 1927)

The ten-year gap between The Memoirs... and The Return... is explained by Conan Doyle's decision to kill Holmes at the end of 'The Final Problem' so that he could concentrate on writing other things. The outcry from fans of the detective was so great that Conan Doyle eventually relented and wrote 'The Adventure of the Empty House', in which it is explained how Holmes cheated death and returned to detective work in London.

The Supporting Cast

Dr Watson

And here it is that I miss my Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematized common sense, into a prodigy.
'The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier' (1926), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

John H Watson3 is a few years younger than Holmes. When he first meets Holmes he's been invalided out of the army after being wounded while serving as a doctor in Afghanistan. He's looking for affordable lodgings, and a mutual acquaintance of the pair introduces them to each other, as Holmes needs to find someone to share rooms with him in 221b Baker Street.

In spite of Holmes's 'hobbies' - chemical experiments, collections, pipe smoking and the occasional spot of indoor revolver practice - the pair develop a friendship and Watson becomes interested in Holmes's work, first observing him in action in A Study in Scarlet.

Many of the portrayals of Watson show him as a bumbling idiot on television and film, yet he is an intelligent chap (even if this is sometimes overlooked because of Holmes's superior intellect). He's a good doctor, which comes in very useful for patching up Holmes and others after the events in some of the stories, and a good shot with a revolver.

Watson often proves himself invaluable to Holmes. Sometimes, however, he is an unwitting assistant, as Holmes sends him in as a distraction so that the real detective work can be done unnoticed, as in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Holmes fully appreciates Watson's contribution and has a genuine affection for his friend. Nowhere is this more apparent than in 'The Three Garridebs', when Watson is shot in the thigh by 'Killer' Evans. Holmes helps Watson to a chair, crying, 'You're not hurt, Watson? For God's sake, say that you are not hurt!' As soon as he is reassured that the wound is superficial, he turns to Evans with a face 'set like flint' and growls, 'By the Lord, it is as well for you. If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive.' For Watson, this is the proudest moment of his long association with the detective.

One area in which Holmes and Watson don't quite see eye-to-eye is in Watson's chronicling of Holmes's deeds. While Watson wants to present the cases as he sees them, with Holmes's brilliant deductions, Holmes would rather tone them down. In 'The Red-headed League' Holmes goes so far as to accuse Watson of 'embellishing' his cases when he writes them up.

Eventually, Watson marries and moves out of Baker Street. His first wife, Mary Morston, dies in the period between Holmes's 'death' and his return. Watson later marries again, but will still drop everything to go on the chase with Holmes.


He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.
'The Final Problem' (1893), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Professor James Moriarty4 was Sherlock Holmes's greatest enemy, despite only appearing in one short story - 'The Final Problem' - and the novel 'The Valley of Fear'. As well as being a criminal genius, Moriarty was also a professor of mathematics who spent some time as a coach in the army. He does not get involved directly in crime himself, but is a master planner who allows nothing to be traced back to him. In The Valley of Fear, however, it is revealed that he has a small leak in his organisation, which is how Holmes becomes aware of a murder.

Holmes considered Moriarty him such a dangerous individual that he was willing to sacrifice himself - over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland - to take Moriarty with him. Even though the professor died at the hands of Homes, his character lives on in popular culture as the quintessential 'criminal mastermind'.

Scotland Yard's Finest

Gregson is the smartest of the Scotland Yarders. He and Lestrade are the pick of a bad lot.
A Study in Scarlet (1887), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

While clearing up the crimes that beset London, Holmes occasionally comes across the members of the city's police force. Most notable of these is Inspector Lestrade, whom Holmes describes as 'absolutely devoid of reason' but 'as tenacious as a bulldog'. Lestrade is actually rather good by the standards of the time; that he is always one step behind the great detective is not a reflection on him but on the methodologies employed by the police at the time. Lestrade's colleague Inspector Tobias Gregson is another regular character in the stories, in whom Holmes sees slightly more promise than in Lestrade. The only police officer who earns Holmes's genuine praise, however, is Inspector Baynes of the Surrey Constabulary, who appears in 'The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge' (1908) and succeeds in identifying and catching a murderer with little help from Homes.

Mycroft Holmes

I said that he was my superior in observation and deduction. If the art of the detective began and ended in reasoning from an armchair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived. But he has no ambition and no energy. He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solution, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right.
'The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter' (1893), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sherlock Holmes's more intelligent - but lazier - older brother Mycroft first appeared in 'The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter'. In appearance he is portly, with fat hands 'like the flippers of a seal'. He frequents the Diogenes Club from quarter to five to twenty to eight, he works in Whitehall auditing some of the government's accounts due to possessing a remarkable faculty for figures, and he lives in Pall Mall. The most significant aspect of the Diogenes Club was that it was founded by, and still contains, the most unsociable and 'unclubbable' men. It is in fact part of the club rules that no member is allowed to take the least notice of any other, except for the Strangers room, and that no talking is permitted.

Colonel Moran

On the margin was written, in Holmes's precise hand: 'The second most dangerous man in London.'
'The Adventure of the Empty House' (1903), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Colonel Sebastian Moran was originally a distinguished army officer and big-game hunter until he was sought out by Professor Moriarty to be his right-hand man. Moran was so brave he once climbed into a drain after a wounded man-eating tiger, and so dastardly that he murdered a man who discovered him cheating at cards.

Irene Adler

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.
'A Scandal in Bohemia' (1891), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Irene Adler is always referred to by Holmes with the deepest respect as 'the woman'. She appeared in the first Holmes short story, 'A Scandal in Bohemia', in which she is a woman scorned. Dumped by the King of Bohemia, she doesn't want to let him off the hook too easily, so she keeps him dangling with a photograph of them together. Despite Holmes's best efforts, she escapes with the photograph, but promises never to reveal it; a promise that is accepted by the king. Holmes is presented with an emerald ring for his efforts but, struck by the quick wit and resolution of a mere woman, requests a second gift from the king: a photograph of Irene.

Mrs Hudson

...her remarkable lodger showed an eccentricity and irregularity in his life which must have sorely tried her patience. His incredible untidiness, his addiction to music at strange hours, his occasional revolver practice within doors, his weird and often malodorous scientific experiments, and the atmosphere of violence and danger which hung around him made him the very worst tenant in London
'The Adventure of the Dying Detective' (1913), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Mrs Hudson, the long suffering housekeeper at 221b Baker Street. It is implicit in the stories that it is her ability to withstand Holmes's unruly habits and rudeness that enables him to conduct his life as he does.

The Baker Street Irregulars

...there came a swift pattering of naked feet upon the stairs, a clatter of high voices, and in rushed a dozen dirty and ragged little street Arabs. There was some show of discipline among them, despite their tumultuous entry, for they instantly drew up in line and stood facing us with expectant faces.
The Sign of Four (1890), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The irregulars, led by Wiggins, are a collection of street urchins that Holmes employs from time to time as spies on the streets of London.


London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.
A Study in Scarlet (1887), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Perhaps the greatest character, at least in the first few collections, is the city of London itself.

The Game's Afoot

More about Sherlock Holmes and the legacy that Conan Doyle left to popular culture can be found in Part II of this Entry.

1For clarity, titles in italics are full-length novels, titles in single inverted commas denote short stories.2Possibly a subtle reference to the deerstalker hat.3In 'The Man With The Twisted Lip', Watson's wife refers to him as 'James' - a mistake on Conan Doyle's part.4'Moriarty' was the surname of two brothers with whom Conan Doyle attended Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, England. Stonyhurst was also the inspiration for Baskerville Hall.

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