With Conan Doyle’s birthday this month, we’re paying tribute to his best known character, Sherlock Holmes. I set out to write this Sourcebook and it ended up being waaaaaaaay too long for a single post. This collection of synopses and character biographies will actually take us all the way to end of this week. Check back all week long to find out more about “The Great Detective” and the supporting characters.
Fun Facts and Context:
- The Strand Magazine, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first published his Sherlock Holmes tales as individual short stories and serialized novels, was founded the same year that the great detective debuted. It was a monthly digest that included fiction by many of Victoriana’s stars, including Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, E. W. Hornung, author of 26 short stories starring A. J. Raffles, “gentleman thief.”
- Sherlock Holmes was not the only detective to solve mysteries within the pages of The Strand. J. E. Preston Muddock wrote a series about his character, Dick Donovan. At the time enjoyed as much popularity as Conan Doyle. Later, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot also graced its pages.
- Arthur Conan Doyle was only paid 25 GBP for his first Sherlock novel. In later years, he received 50 GBP per short story, and then 1,000 GBP for a set of six. Sources agree that he drove up the price of his work because he wanted to get out of the detective novel business and focus on “higher pursuits” like the promotion of Spiritualism.
- Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off his hero in “The Final Problem” (1893), but the fans, including his own mother (not to mention his pocketbook) couldn’t let Holmes go.
- All of the Sherlock Holmes short stories and novels are now in the public domain.
“Biographical” and Character Information
According to the stories, Sherlock Holmes was born on January 6, 1854. He was a consulting detective from 1881-1904 operating out of 221B Baker Street, arguably the most famous address in literary history. He also did some amateur detecting during his college days at either Oxford or Cambridge, but the Conan Doyle never actually names a specific university.
Details about Holmes’ early life are difficult to find, but the reader gets an occasional glimpse in the stories. He never talks about his parents, but his older brother Mycroft does make the occasional appearance. Holmes tells Watson in The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter that his great-uncle was a French artist named Horace Vernet (1789-1863). He has very little interest in women and never marries, though he is intrigued by criminal mastermind Irene Adler whom he refers to as simply “the woman.”
Holmes is meticulous when it comes to his own cleanliness, but his quarters are often in chaos. He sometimes becomes so engrossed in a case that he goes without food for days at a time, much to the chagrin of his housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson. He operates within his own moral code and often breaks the law and lies to the authorities on behalf of his clients. He was a boxer during university and knows how to handle a pistol, but rarely carries one.
The character of Sherlock Holmes was based on a real person. Conan Doyle trained as a medical doctor under the tutelage of Dr. Joseph Bell (1837-1911) at the University of Edinburgh. In his teachings he emphasized the importance of observation and deduction in order to facilitate a doctor’s ability to diagnose an ailment. To illustrate this point he would sometimes choose a member of the audience and make observations about his life and occupation, just as Sherlock Holmes often does in the novels. Bell was a man before his time and is considered a pioneer of forensic science.
There are 56 short stories and four novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and to write a full summary of each would spoil the fun for you as a reader. The hope of these short synopses is to help jog your memory when you can’t remember the title of a tale you have already read, or to entice you to check out a story that you have not had a chance to experience yet. Depending on the edition you are using, these stories may be in a different configuration. The order listed below is from the original printing of the compilations.
Dates: First published serially in The Strand Magazine 1891-1892 (set between 1888 and 1890)
1. “A Scandal in Bohemia” (set in 1888)
۞ Sherlock is approached by the King of Bohemia because his impending nuptials may be put in danger by a former lover.
2. “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” (set in 1890)
۞ A confused man seeks Holmes’ aid after his employer, The Red-Headed League, suddenly closes.
3. “A Case of Identity” (set in 1888)
۞ A young woman hires Sherlock to investigate the disappearance of her fiance, who has a strange way of communicating with her.
4. “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (set in 1889)
۞ Inspector Lestrade reluctantly brings Sherlock and Watson into a murder investigation he believes to be an open and shut case.
5. “The Five Orange Pips” (set in 1887)
۞ The remaining member of a family with a history of “tragic accidents” fears he may be next in line for murder.
6. “The Man with the Twisted Lip” (set in 1889)
۞ A woman sees her husband yanked into the window of a strange building, but when the room is searched only his clothes can be found.
7. “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” (set in 1890)
۞ After a spectacular and recently pilfered jewel is found in the crop of a mugging victim’s Christmas goose, Holmes sets out to solve the mystery of the jewel thief and his strange choice of hiding places.
8. “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (set in 1883)
۞ A young woman dies in her own chambers muttering something about a “speckled band,” and her sister fears she may be next.
9. “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb” (set in 1889)
۞ An engineer loses his thumb as he flees for his life from a mysterious job in the country.
10. “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor” (set in 1887)
۞ In between the wedding ceremony and the reception, a bride disappears and her husband is left perplexed.
11. “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet” (set in 1890)
۞ A valuable piece of jewelry is found in the hands of the young man of the house, but Holmes believes him to be innocent.
12 “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” (set in 1890)
۞ A governess becomes suspicious of her employer when she thinks she is meant to be impersonating his daughter as part of her duties.
Volume: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
Dates: Many of the stories were first published in The Strand between 1892 and 1893 (set between 1875 and 1891)
1. “Silver Blaze” (setting unknown)
۞ A racehorse that is the clear favorite to win goes missing the night before the big race.
2. “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” (set in 1888)
۞ When a parcel containing two human ears arrives Lestrade thinks it is a hoax. Sherlock finds out that a much more serious crime has been committed.
3. “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” (set in 1888)
۞ A husband grows suspicious of his wife after she installs a yellow-masked stranger in a cottage nearby. (This is one of the rare cases where Holmes gets it wrong.)
4. “The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk” (set in 1889)
۞ When a job sounds too good to be true, a clerk seeks Holmes’ aid to discover the truth about his employers.
5. “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” (set in 1875 when Holmes was in college)
۞ Holmes solves the mystery of a dying father’s checkered past for a friend.
6. “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” (set in 1879 and narrated by Holmes)
۞ In one of his first-ever cases, Holmes unlocks the secret to a document that means nothing to the owner, but has piqued the butler’s interest.
7. “The Adventure of the Reigate Puzzle” (or, The Reigate Squire, set in 1887)
۞ During what was supposed to be a restful retreat in the country with a friend of Dr. Watson, Holmes uses his deductive powers and capitalizes on a recent illness to solve a murder most foul.
8. “The Adventure of the Crooked Man” (set in 1888)
۞ It appears a man has been murdered by his wife during an argument in a locked room, but Holmes has other ideas.
9. “The Adventure of the Resident Patient” (set in 1881)
۞ A young doctor is perplexed by a Russian patient whose presence causes his live-in benefactor to grow more and more paranoid.
10. “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter” (set in 1888)
۞ In Mycroft Holmes’ first appearance, he brings a strange tale of kidnapping and coercion to Sherlock’s attention.
11. “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty” (set in 1889)
۞ An important document goes missing, but even two months later the predicted consequences of its sale to a foreign power have not come to pass.
12. “The Adventure of the Final Problem” (aka “The Final Problem,” set in 1891)
۞ Professor Moriarty warns Holmes he’ll be crushed by his criminal network, but Sherlock can’t let the “Napolean of Crime” get away with his dastardly plots.
Ready for more? Come back tomorrow for the next round of synopses and illustrations.