A Sherlockiana Primer by Christopher Roden

Fog swirls thickly in the streets, its gloom penetrated from time to time by the weak gleam of a gaslight; a hansom cab grinds its steady way through the murk; there are occasional shouts from vendors and street urchins, whistles as policemen go about their business. It is the London of 1895, the London that will bring a stream of unusual characters to 221B Baker Street seeking help from the world’s first and greatest consulting detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

When Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930) first created the great detective, little did he know that he was beginning a series of stories that would still be read some 120-odd years later. But Conan Doyle was an inventive writer, and the characters that filled his stories gripped the imagination of his readers, who devoured episode after episode of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In many ways the characters of the Holmes stories are often more interesting than the cases themselves.

So who are the major players on the Baker Street stage? Putting Holmes himself aside (for Holmes is recognisable even to people unfamiliar with the stories themselves), Dr. John H. Watson has to be given pride of place. A veteran of the second Afghan War, Watson, who served as a Duty Surgeon, had been injured by a Jezail bullet at the battle of Maiwand, and saved from certain capture by the courage of his orderly, known to us only as Murray. Pain and illness followed and an urgent return to England became necessary. Watson naturally gravitated to London where, following an introduction by a former colleague, Stamford, he made the acquaintance of Sherlock Holmes. It did not take the two long to decide to share rooms in Baker Street. Throughout the adventures Watson is the ever faithful companion, willing to accompany Holmes at a moment’s notice. He is never as smart as Holmes—indeed, his conclusions are often considerably off the mark—and Conan Doyle cleverly does not allow Watson to appear more perceptive than his readers. But without Watson there would be no Holmes stories, for Watson chronicled Holmes’s adventures and made Holmes famous by publishing them for the reading public in The Strand Magazine.

Although Holmes knew that he could always rely on Watson’s companionship and assistance, even a detective as astute as Holmes occasionally needed the wisdom and advice of others. But whose knowledge and deductive skills would be sufficient to assist our genius hero? Obviously someone who shared Holmes’s faculties of deduction and analysis—possibly to an even greater degree. For that person we need look no further than Holmes’s older brother, Mycroft. Mycroft is an unusual character indeed, a larger-than-life figure who spends his days passing between his lodgings in Pall Mall, his office in Whitehall, and the Diogenes Club (“the queerest club in London”).

It came as something of a surprise to Dr. Watson to discover that Holmes had a brother at all, and he could never have dreamed of Mycroft’s influence on national affairs. (“Occasionally,” Holmes told Watson, “he is the British Government. . . . His position is unique. He has made it for himself. There has never been anything like it before, nor will be again. He has the tidiest and most orderly brain, with the greatest capacity for storing facts of any man living. . . . The conclusions of every department are passed to him, and he is the central exchange, the clearing-house, which makes out the balance. Other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience. . . . Again and again his word has decided the national policy.”)

Quite a man. It’s no wonder that Holmes was able to entrust his affairs to Mycroft during the years of his “hiatus” following his presumed death at the Reichenbach Falls.

Our next major player is the long-suffering Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’s landlady—a saint if ever there was one for her tolerance of Holmes’s chemical experiments, the foul odours from his pipes, and his indoor pistol practice (who else, we ask, would have put up with a tenant who peppered the wall of his room with Boxer cartridges to carve out “a patriotic V. R. [1] done in bullet-pocks”?)

Smaller players, but invaluable to Holmes, are the band of a dozen or so ragged children (described as “street Arabs”) known as the Baker Street Irregulars, who can go everywhere, see everything, overhear everyone, and provide vital information to the great detective.

Given the nature of Holmes’s business, it is inevitable that Holmes should attract his fair share of enemies, and chief among his adversaries has to be Professor James Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime—“the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city.” Although Moriarty plays a major role in only one canonical story, his presence seems to pervade the canon. He is a criminal mastermind with “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.” As Holmes noted, Moriarty did little himself—he was the planner with numerous agents, and there was little or no reason for the authorities to suspect him of misdeeds. In what became the “Final Problem,” Holmes lured Moriarty and his henchman, Colonel Sebastian Moran, to Switzerland, where a final confrontation took place above the Reichenbach Falls—a struggle which Moriarty failed to survive.

Moriarty’s second-in-command, Colonel Sebastian Moran, once of Her Majesty’s Indian Army, and the best heavy game shot that Britain’s Eastern Empire ever produced, attempted to wreak vengeance with an air rifle for Moriarty’s death, in the adventure titled “The Empty House,” only to be deceived by a silhouette cast by a wax bust commissioned by Holmes from the craftsman M. Oscar Meunier of Grenoble.

Other villains worthy of mention are the master blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton (“the worst man in London”); the evil Dr. Grimesby Roylott, whose demise was brought about by the swamp adder with which he’d planned to kill his step-daughters; and the disgusting Baron Adelbert Gruner, murderer, and author of a “lust diary” which “no man, even if he had come from the gutter, could have put together.”

While the Sherlockian canon is dominated by men, Holmes encounters strong women, too. Prominent among these are Kitty Winter, a victim of Baron Adelbert Gruner, who takes her revenge for mistreatment at Gruner’s hand by throwing vitriol into his face. Nor should we overlook Rachel Howells (“a very good girl, but of an excitable Welsh temperament”), the jilted fiancée of the butler Brunton [2], who took her revenge by incarcerating her ex-lover in a cellar at Hurlestone Manor. Maud Bellamy [3] impressed Holmes: “[She] will always remain in my memory as a most complete and remarkable woman.” But of all the women Holmes encounters during his investigations, Irene Adler, or the woman, as Holmes thinks of her, stands out. Irene appears in only one story [4], but her presence casts a shadow over the entire canon. In this spirited, intelligent, daring, and courageous woman, Conan Doyle created the female counterpart to Sherlock Holmes: a woman who lives by her wits, is equal to Holmes in her use of disguise, and has a splendid disregard for the mores of the time.

Inevitably, Holmes’s business brings him in contact with the official police force from time to time, and during the course of the adventures we encounter a number of officers: some who are capable, and some who do little more than frustrate Holmes. We encounter the official force in the very first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, when Holmes is approached by Inspector Tobias Gregson. “Gregson is the smartest of the Scotland Yarders,” Holmes tells Watson. “He and Lestrade are the pick of a bad lot.” In A Study in Scarlet, Holmes also encounters Inspector Lestrade (“a little sallow, rat-faced, dark-eyed fellow”, according to Watson), and he becomes a regular of the Holmes adventures, appearing in thirteen of the stories. Despite occasional difficulties with the official force, Holmes is always prepared to assist; but on occasion Holmes is also prepared to stretch the law for his own ends, as instanced by the wonderfully humorous episode (which shows Holmes’s quiet contempt for the official force) in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” when Lestrade visits Baker Street on the morning following Milverton’s murder:

“Criminals!” exclaimed Holmes. “Plural!”

“Yes, there were two of them. They were, as nearly as possible, captured red-handed. We have their footmarks, we have their description; it’s ten to one that we trace them. The first fellow was a bit too active, but the second was caught by the under-gardener, and only got away after a struggle. He was a middle-sized, strongly built man—square jaw, thick neck, moustache, a mask over his eyes.”

“That’s rather vague,” said Sherlock Holmes. “Why, it might be a description of Watson.”

“It’s true,” said the Inspector, with much amusement. “It might be a description of Watson.”

Of the remainder of the official force, special mention need only be made of Stanley Hopkins (“for whose future Holmes had high hopes”), who appears in three of the adventures, and who seems the most likely of all to have been invited to Baker Street for a pleasant evening of conversation.

Despite the wealth of characters who appear in the Sherlockian canon, we lack information of a goodly number of others who are given no more than passing mention. We know that Holmes was involved in many more cases than are reported, because both Holmes and Watson tell us so. Who would not love to know more of the characters from the unreported cases: the Grice Patersons who had singular adventures in the island of Uffa; Mr. & Mrs. Dundas, who separated—not through any cause of infidelity, but because Mr. Dundas was in the habit of winding up every meal by taking out his false teeth and hurling them at his wife; Merridew, of abominable memory, who is recorded in Holmes’s index [5]; Ricoletti of the club-foot and his abominable wife; Mr. James Phillimore, who stepped back into his own house to get his umbrella, and was never more seen in this world. And who is not prepared to ponder what political disgrace may have ensued had the story concerning the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant been released to the public?

We should marvel at Arthur Conan Doyle’s creativity and the characters he gave us. Over the years others have built upon these characters, adding more of their own in an attempt to ensure that there is always a supply of new Holmes adventures. In the pages that follow you will find characters new and old—and some “rivals” of Sherlock Holmes—making their way through the fog and the gaslight to the door of 221B Baker Street. Hark! A barrel-organ is playing at the corner of the street, the light brightens in the window of Holmes’s room, and the scene is set for another adventure. The game is afoot!


[1] The initials of Victoria Regina, Queen of England from 1837-1901.

[2] In “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.”

[3] From “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane.”

[4] “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

[5] Sherlock Holmes maintained an extensive series of commonplace books in which he recorded all manner of information that came to his attention. We learn from the stories that he spent several hours compiling and cross-indexing his books, but generally when we read of him referring to his "index" he seems to be referring to the commonplace books themselves.