24 May 2018

Review: Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by A. Conan Doyle

So, I read for my Ph.D. exams many years ago now, from summer 2012 to January 2013. But because of the sheer amount of reading I did during that time, I fell hugely behind on my book-blogging, ending up in a hole it took me several years to get out of. Over five years, actually! Though from August 2015 to May 2017 I slowly reviewed most of the books I had missed during that time, the part of the "To review" pile still remaining were those books I read for my exams. Well, no more! With today's review, I finally slay that beast. All 103 complete books that I read for my exams have been reviewed! It's surely a bit belated to be writing up the last of your Ph.D. exam books after the end of the first year of your first full-time academic gig, but oh well. Five years is better than never!

Mass market paperback, 289 pages
Published 1976 (contents: 1891-92)
Reread January 2013
Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by A. Conan Doyle

There's a lot to like in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; what particularly piques my academic interest, however, is the vision of Sherlock Holmes. There are a lot of good stories here, but when I teach Holmes, I usually stick to three different stories from this volume, because between "A Scandal in Bohemia," "A Case of Identity," and "The Five Orange Pips," I think you get the whole Holmesian theory of vision in theory and in practice.

For my purposes it actually makes the most sense to handle these stories in reverse order. My scholarly interest is in "scientific sight," in the way that scientific reasoning is often figured as a literal visual power. Doyle makes the connection between Holmes's vision and science its most explicit in "The Five Orange Pips," where Holmes compares himself to the paleontologist Cuvier: "As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents, should be able to accurately state all the other results which the reason alone can attain to" (108). Holmes utilizes inductive reasoning (I think; I always get these things confused), moving from a part of the system to understanding the whole of the system, through observation and reason. Like Cuvier, he is a scientist.

Holmes sort of undersells himself there, though, because part of his prowess is that he observes the right thing, picking up on the little details that no one else notices. Holmes might be like Cuvier in that he can go from single bone to whole dinosaur, but the problem of other people isn't that they can't perform that inductive logic, it's that they don't even see the bone to perform induction on it! In "A Case of Identity," Watson complains that Holmes sees what is "quite invisible," but Holmes rebuts him: "Not invisible, but unnoticed, Watson. You did not know where to look, and so you missed all that was important. [...] Watson, you are coming along wonderfully. You have really done very well indeed. It is true that you have missed everything of importance, but you have hit upon the method [...]. Never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details" (61). Holmes then proceeds to enumerate a number of details of sleeves, nose, boots, and gloves that allowed him to induce (deduce?) a whole range of truths about the client.

Oddly, Holmes's ability to observe probably reaches its apex in the very first Sherlock Holmes short story, "A Scandal in Bohemia." To a degree, everything after this is anticlimax. But then, Watson does tell us from the story's first line that it is an unusual case for Holmes. Why Doyle started Holmes's (short form) adventures with an exceptional one I don't know, but it makes for one of the best Holmes stories in terms of entertainment, but also in terms of my interests. Again, the story emphasizes the distinctions between Watson's sight and Holmes's: both see, but only Holmes observes (4).

In this story, we're told that Holmes feels no emotions in this "cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind" and that he is the "most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen" (1). For Holmes, emotions "were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men's motives and actions. But for the trained observer to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results" (1). Holmes does not experience emotion in his observations because, like a scientist, he must remain objective in his work. But unlike (say) Star Trek's Mister Spock, he understands the emotions that he observes, and accounts for them in his reasoning.

However, something I often see in stories of scientific observation is that the keenest observers are able to observe the observations of others. I have a whole article in the Gaskell Journal actually, as regards Wives and Daughters, called "Observing Observation." That happens in "A Scandal in Bohemia": at the climax of the story, Holmes figures out where the incriminating photograph is by faking a fire and making Irene Adler look to where the photograph is hidden; he observes her observations: "The smoke and the shouting were enough to shake nerves of steel. She responded beautifully" (21).

But! It turns out that she was aware that Holmes was watching her, but he was unaware of this. In her letter to Holmes at the story's end, she tells him, "I followed you to your door, and so made sure that I really was an object of interest to the celebrated Mr. Sherlock Holmes" (24). That is to say, Irene Adler was observing Holmes's observations of her observations! So she ends up winning, and Holmes is awed by her.

At the beginning of the story, like I said, Watson claims that Holmes experiences no emotion. But something I've noticed throughout my reading of stories about observation, is not only are keenest observers able to observe observation itself, but that there is a correlation between this and emotion; my Gaskell Journal article ends with the claim that "to observe others carefully is to love them." Watson claims that Holmes knows no emotion, but we know by the story's end that this is untrue. If to observe others carefully is to love them, then to observe others' observations is the highest form of love, and that is why for Holmes, Irene Adler will always be "the woman" (25).


  1. Nifty! This helps me to understand why the modern tendency to interpret Holmes as on the Autism spectrum has always felt off to me. You are exactly right - he is not confused by feelings; he is, in fact, great at recognizing subtle expressions of emotion in others. He simply remains detached (mostly) himself.

  2. It's funny to me, though, that you single out "A Case of Identity," and "The Five Orange Pips"; I've been reading and rereading this collection since I was a kid but I barely remember those two!

    My favorites (in addition to "Scandal") are "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," "The Speckled Band," "The Blue Carbuncle," "The Man with the Twisted Lip," and of course, "The Red-Headed League."

    1. "The Five Orange Pips" is one of two I remember reading as a kid, I think because of the KKK thing. But I agree with you that "A Case of Identity" is pretty unmemorable; I couldn't tell you what it was about, and I wrote this review about a week before its posting date. The description of his methods just makes it useful from a teaching/scholarship perspective.

      My faves from an enjoyment perspective are "Scandal," "Speckled Band," and "Red-Haired League."

    2. But our knowledge of the KKK ruins his big reveal!

      Norton anthologizes "Speckled Band," but so far it hasn't been the most successful for teaching; I supplemented and found "Scandal" is popular, "Blue Carbuncle" leads to good discussion (because it's one where Holmes chooses to let the guy go -- "I dare say I've commuted a felony but it's possible I've saved a soul"), and I added one story not from the Adventures, "The Yellow Face," which raises interesting social issues.

    3. Adventures is actually as far into the Holmes canon as I've read-- the first two novels and this and that's it! I really must continue onwards someday.