Analysis of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character, Sherlock Holmes has always been known as the classic detective. He solves his cases through the use of the most logical methodologies, basing his investigation on deductive reasoning and observation to the right details. Yet, there are multiple instances where Holmes breaks the norm and relies on other devices. These seemingly happen to occur whenever the story breaks the structure of detective fiction laid out by Todorov.

The times when Holmes is forced to think outside the box and go beyond the standard observational investigation is usually when there’s not enough information to go on. In the case of the Speckled Band, Holmes manages to put together that the ventilator and the unconnected bell-pull were involved in the murder, but there is no evidence of the actual murder weapon. Instead of searching for some obscure detail leading to it elsewhere Holmes uses the present situation of the second sister’s upcoming marriage to wait for the criminal to strike. He verifies that it’s the snake but the crime is not solved based solely on his skills of logical deduction but catching the criminal in action. A similar situation arises in the Red-Headed League case when a confused man comes to Holmes for advice after suddenly losing his job with no notice. Holmes makes several inferences based on Wilson’s account and realizes the league was a ruse for a bank robbery. Holmes quickly calls in Jones and Merryweather and the group lies in wait in the tunnel for the robbers to appear. In both cases a crime is about to take place but because it hasn’t, the necessary evidence isn’t present making observation inadequate and requiring action along with inference to prevent the crime.

Aside from catching the criminal in the act, Holmes also seems to rely on stepping out of character when right observations when the crime scene doesn’t give enough. In the Bohemian Scandal case, Holmes decides to follow Adler dressed as Watson describes, “a drunken-looking groom….with an inflamed face and disreputable clothes...”(Doyle 249). Watson goes on to admit that he’s never failed to be amazed by Holme’s disguises suggesting that this is not a singular occurrence but that something Holmes has put much effort into(inferred by Watson’s amazement) and has used in multiple cases. Other than disguises, he’s also shown himself capable of stepping into the shoes of other characters to figure out their reasoning. In the Musgrave Ritual, Holmes forms several inferences following Brunton’s footsteps. He uses the ritual’s clues because it’s the last thing Brunton looked at before his disappearance, and after he figures out the height of the trees he asks Musgrave if Brunton asked the same question and after receiving affirmation he tells Watson that it was “excellent news...for it showed me that I was on the right road”(Doyle 617). He decides he’s on the right track because Brunton asked the same question about the tree and then that he’s in the wrong location because Brunton hadn’t been digging there. Holmes automatically sees the link between the ritual and Brunton’s abrupt disappearance but because there’s not much observable evidence, he uses the ritual as well as any signs of Brunton’s actions to infer what had taken place.

While most of the times Holmes stops playing the classic detective is due to lack of observable, hard evidence. There is one case, The Scandal in Bohemia, where Adler can be blamed instead. Watson, before the story even starts, starts off by implying that Irene Adler is special to Holmes and their association put him in a false position. According to Watson, Holmes is “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine”(Doyle 239), basically asserting that Holme’s essence is that of the classic detective that solves the case through observation and reason alone. However, in the case of Adler Holmes seems to rely on his biases to predict her movements instead of being a non partial observer. While creating his ploy to discover where the photograph lies, Holmes declares that, “When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most”(Doyle 258). While Holmes is correct and Adler does rush to the photograph, his findings are not based on pure observation alone but aided by trickery(pretending to be hurt to gain access to her home) that’s created on the one notion that she will act only as the average woman. While Holmes manages to succeed up to this point, he manages to miss a vital observation right afterward. Adler walks right by him and says goodnight but he fails to recognize her voice and forgets the incident without a second thought which as Watson puts it, places him in a false position. Holmes’s true nature is that of the classic detective that always finds the right observation and makes the correct inference. Yet, he fails to make that observation and recognize Adler’s voice even though he’s heard it earlier that same day and has proved himself capable of finding way obscurer details. Due to the failure of missing this detail, he doesn’t realize that Adler has uncovered his scheme which leads to her outsmarting him and escaping. Watson specifies that while Holmes isn’t necessarily in love, it’s undeniable that Adler is special to Holmes and because of this preference, he is incapable of viewing the case objectively and fails to fulfill his role.

It’s undeniable that Holmes is the primary example of the classic detective. Solving cases based on the smallest details that everyone else misses is what Holmes has always been known for and it’s something that comes as second nature to him in the stories that follow the structure Todorov describes as the whodunit. In the typical whodunit, the story follows a two part process of the crime followed by the investigation. All the clues are there, and since Holmes is in essence the classic detective, he can easily draw the right inferences from the right observations. However, several of the cases don’t follow the rules of the whodunit. In the Red-Headed League and the Bohemian Scandal no crime has occurred which means there’s no incriminating evidence. In both cases Holmes acts to prevent the crime from ever occurring through inferences he makes based on observations not having to do with the crime itself but on things surrounding it. For instance, in the Bohemian Scandal he discovers the photograph’s location through his bias on the behavior of women not through some evidence he finds pertaining to when or how Adler will disclose the photo’s contents. In the case of the Speckled Band, while a crime has been committed, a great amount of time has passed since then making it harder to find the right evidence including the snake which isn’t in plain sight, and is the only thing that can directly tie the crime to the stepfather. The point is whenever the story strays from Todorov’s structure of the whodunit, it’s no longer the “classic” detective story. While Todorov mentions other genres of detective fiction like the thriller and the suspense novel, both stories call for a different type of detective. The typical detective in a thriller is a hard-boiled, risk taker. Which is why in order for Holmes to act like the classic detective, he has to be placed in a classic detective story like the whodunit.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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