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Sherlock Holmes: A Primer on the Great Detective

Updated on June 1, 2016
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Christopher Peruzzi has been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for over 35 years. He writes about Sherlock, zombies, comics, and philosophy.

A Primer on Holmes
A Primer on Holmes | Source

Things You Really Need To Know

I have a young friend that I've been indoctrinating into some of the finer things in life. No, I'm not talking about cigars or fine wines.

Those of you who've been following my hubs know that I like to write about comic book stuff and zombies. Well, you can add Sherlock Holmes to the list as well.

Over the last two years, interest in the great detective has risen again through both the Robert Downey Jr. movies and the new BBC series, Sherlock. Each, while not a pure version of the character, have made new comers to the character easy to digest. However, you should realize that like a fine wine or a good cigar, the experience is enhanced if you spend a little time and do some research.

If you don't want do sit down and read the stories, the next best thing is the Sherlock Holmes Granada Series starring Jeremy Brett (Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Granada Television Series). Brett has been considered the definitive Sherlock Holmes in modern years. His passing in 1995 is still a sore subject of fans to this day.

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes (from the Granada Series)
Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes (from the Granada Series)

Why do research?

As the producers of both the latest movies as well as the BBC show have made both incarnations of Sherlock Holmes quite digestible for every new comer, many would debate whether or not further reading is required. To be honest, it isn't necessary. Should you wish to discover the character through the eyes of whatever writer or producer has rewritten the character, feel free to do so.

If, however, you want to really get an appreciation for the character, you need to look no further than either your local public library, the internet, or the local bookstore. The Complete Sherlock Holmes: All 4 Novels and 56 Short Stories (also known as "The Canon") is available on Amazon.com for $10 dollars in paperback.

Those of us who have been following Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character know that Sherlock Holmes has his quirks and a healthy primer of the following novels and short stories should help enrich your experience.

I recommend the following as required reading:

Cover of the first publishing of "A Study in Scarlet"
Cover of the first publishing of "A Study in Scarlet" | Source

Buy Sherlock Holmes on Amazon

A Study in Scarlet

The BBC series Sherlock did a variant on this called A Study in Pink. A Study in Scarlet is the first novel that introduces the reader to Sherlock Holmes and his colleague Doctor John Watson. Almost all of the stories are told from Watson's point of view.

Watson, a recently returned veteran from the Anglo-Afghan War, needs to find lodgings but can't afford an apartment by himself. His friend, Stamford, introduces him to Sherlock Holmes, who is conducting experiments on a cadaver to see how long after death bruising can occur. Holmes, by pure observation and deduction tells Watson everything he can deduce about him on his first glance. The two of them agree to take lodgings at 221b Baker Street.

In this story we get the bare essentials about the character. What he knows and, more importantly, what he doesn't know and why. For example, we learn that Sherlock Holmes is ignorant that the Earth revolves around the sun. Upon learning about this, he instantly wants to forget it as he believes that his mind is very much like a finely decorated attic and that he should only have the knowledge he needs at hand.

Here are Watson's observations regarding Holmes' limits:

  1. Knowledge of Literature. -- Nil.
  2. Philosophy. -- Nil.
  3. Astronomy. -- Nil.
  4. Politics. -- Feeble.
  5. Botany. -- Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
  6. Geology. -- Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
  7. Chemistry. -- Profound.
  8. Anatomy. -- Accurate, but unsystematic.
  9. Sensational Literature. -- Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
  10. Plays the violin well.
  11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
  12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

We are also introduced to The Baker Street Irregulars. The Irregulars are a bunch or street urchins that Holmes employs to cover the city of London to gather intelligence for him. The leader of the group is a boy named Wiggins. He pays the boys a shilling a day plus expenses - plus a guinea for whomever comes up with a vital clue.

A Study in Scarlet is a good starting place to learn about Holmes and many of the elements that are used in The Canon. This should be followed by...

The climax of the Sign of Four
The climax of the Sign of Four | Source

The Sign of Four

This is the second novel written by Doyle about Holmes.

In this story we learn a few things. We learn that Holmes has a drug habit. But we also learn that he never takes drugs when on a case. Apparently, Holmes only uses to relieve the endless boredom that is only relieved when he has a case to solve.

Holmes says, "My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation."

We also learn of Holmes first law of deduction as quoted below -

"You will not apply my precept," he said, shaking his head. "How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth? We know that he did not come through the door, the window, or the chimney. We also know that he could not have been concealed in the room, as there is no concealment possible. When, then, did he come?"

He also states is second rule:

"It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment."

The Sign of Four reveals more about Holmes and his methods than really any of this character flaws (other than his drug use, that is). In this story, we are introduced to the woman who will eventually become Watson's wife, Mary Morstan and find that at one time, Holmes had beaten a prize fighter.

Reading Holmes

How long have you been reading Sherlock Holmes

See results

More to come

I could write half a book regarding some of the more vital facts about the great detective, but for now, I'm going to leave you a list of the more prominent stories that you can read on your own.

Beginning with stories from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

  • "A Scandal in Bohemia"
  • "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League"
  • "The Man with the Twisted Lip"
  • "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle"
  • "The Adventure of the Speckled Band"
  • "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor"
  • "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

  • "Silver Blaze"
  • "The Adventure of the Gloria Scott"
  • "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual"
  • "The Adventure of the Crooked Man"
  • "The Adventure of the Resident Patient"
  • "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter"
  • "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty"
  • "The Final Problem"

The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Return of Sherlock Holmes

  • "The Adventure of the Empty House" (the return of Holmes)
  • "The Adventure of the Norwood Builder"
  • "The Adventure of the Dancing Men"
  • "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist"
  • "The Adventure of the Priory School"
  • "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton"
  • "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons"
  • "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange"
  • "The Adventure of the Second Stain"

His Last Bow

  • "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans"
  • "His Last Bow"

The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes

  • "The Problem of Thor Bridge"
  • "The Adventure of the Creeping Man"
  • "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire"
  • "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client"
  • "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane" (narrated by Holmes)

The Seven Per Cent Solution by Nicolas Meyer - Not Canon, but almost.

These are the best picks for Holmes readers. Are there some more required than others? Absolutely. Must reads are The Red Headed League, The Speckled Band, The Final Problem, and The Adventure of the Empty House.

I plan on continuing this subject and will give you a more in depth analysis in articles to come.


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© 2012 Christopher Peruzzi

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    • cperuzzi profile image
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      Christopher Peruzzi 5 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      On a personal note, Sherlock Holmes was the first common bond I had when I dated the woman who became my wife.

      I started reading the stories back in 1979 when I was in grade school. The Granada series brought me back to reading the books. Now with the new BBC Sherlock series I'm enjoying the new twist with modern tech.

      Thanks for reading. :)

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      Lady_Tenaz 5 years ago

      I absolutely love Sherlock Holmes...I am a huge fan of mysteries and crime solving stories. I have found that my writing style has evolved over the years from just poetry writing into full fledged investigative stories as well. I have to say that Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and the 1980's show "Murder, She Wrote" inspired me in that genre of writing...great hub!