Fiction, History, Literature, Novels, Short stories

Ten Facts about Sherlock Holmes

This post is the first part of a two-part bumper post featuring interesting facts about Sherlock Holmes. If you like these facts, have a read of the sequel to this post which gathers together further little-known facts about the great sleuth. For more great facts about popular fictional characters, check out our pick of the most interesting Harry Potter facts and our fascinating facts about Romeo and Juliet.

1. Sherlock Holmes was originally going to be called Sherrinford. The name was altered to Sherlock, possibly because of a cricketer who bore the name. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Holmes (of course), was a fan of cricket and the name ‘Sherlock’ appears to have stuck in his memory. Doyle was also a keen cricketer himself, and between 1899 and 1907 he played ten first-class matches for the Marylebone Cricket Club – quite fitting, since Baker Street is situated in the Marylebone district of London. For more on the creation of Holmes, see the detailed ‘Introduction’ in The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes.

sherlock22. The first Sherlock Holmes novel was something of a flop. The detective made his debut in the novel A Study in Scarlet (1887), written by a twenty-seven-year-old Doyle in just three weeks. Famously, Doyle was inspired by a real-life lecturer of his at the University of Edinburgh, Dr Joseph Bell, who could diagnose patients simply by looking at them when they walked into his surgery; the other important influence on the creation of Sherlock Holmes was Edgar Allan Poe’s fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin, two of whose adventures we include in our pick of Poe’s best short stories. Doyle wrote the book while he was running a struggling doctor’s surgery down in Portsmouth. The novel was rejected by many publishers and eventually published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual (named after the husband of Mrs Beeton, of the book of cookery and household management). It didn’t sell well, and more or less sank without trace.

3. The second Sherlock Holmes novel was the result of a dinner party with Oscar Wilde. One person who had admired the first novel was the editor Joseph Stoddart, who edited Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. He convinced Doyle, at a dinner party in 1889, to write a second novel featuring the detective, for serialisation in the magazine. Wilde, who was also present, also agreed to write a novel for the magazine – his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which appeared in 1890, the same year as The Sign of the Four, Doyle’s novel.

4. Sherlock Holmes didn’t wear a deerstalker. Much. The famous image of Holmes wearing a deerstalker hat is a product of the celebrated images which accompanied the short stories, which appeared in the Strand magazine from 1891 (beginning with the wonderful story ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’). It is when the stories began to appear that Sherlock Holmes became a worldwide sensation. Sidney Paget, who drew the illustrations, had Holmes wearing a deerstalker when the detective went into the country to investigate mysteries at country houses and in small rural villages, but most people think of the detective as always donning the hat when off to investigate a case.

5. Sherlock Holmes is the most-filmed fictional character. According to IMDb, Holmes has appeared in 226 films and been played by dozens of different actors since the advent of cinema in the late nineteenth century. It’s hardly surprising that the sleuth’s popularity inspired a raft of other writers to create rivals to Sherlock Holmes.

6. Sherlock Holmes is not the most-filmed fictional character. That is, not if you include non-humans (or partial humans). Dracula has been filmed more times than the great sleuth, at 239 times, but since Dracula is part-man, part-vampire, Holmes is the most-filmed fully human character.

sherlock17. Sherlock Holmes didn’t make deductions. At least, not most of the time. Instead, and if we want to be technically accurate, he used the logical process known as abduction. The difference between deductive and abductive reasoning is that the latter is based more on inference from observation, where the conclusion drawn may not always necessarily be true. However, in deduction, the conclusion drawn from the available data is always necessarily true. But then again, since Holmes’s reasoning always seems to be correct, perhaps it is deduction after all!

8. Holmes never says ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’. Not in the ‘canon’ of original Conan Doyle novels and stories. Holmes says ‘Elementary!’ and ‘my dear Watson’ at various points, but the idea of putting them together was a later meme, which possibly arose because it neatly conveys Holmes’s effortless superiority to his ‘dear’ friend and foil. The first recorded use of this exact phrase is actually in a P. G. Wodehouse novel of 1915, Psmith, Journalist.

9. The Sherlock Holmes Museum both is and isn’t at 221B Baker Street. Although the museum in London bears the official address ‘221B’, in line with the celebrated address from the stories, the museum’s building lies between 237 and 241 Baker Street, making it physically – if not officially – at number 239.

10. There’s more to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle than Sherlock Holmes. Much more, in fact. Among other achievements, his legal campaigning led to the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal. He was knighted for his journalistic work during the Second Boer War, not for his achievements in fiction, law, or medicine. We owe the word ‘grimpen’ to him (from Grimpen Mire, in The Hound of the Baskervilles). He wrote historical novels (such as The White Company and Sir Nigel, set during the fourteenth century) which he prized more highly than his detective fiction. Winston Churchill agreed, and was a devoted fan of the historical novels. Doyle also wrote science fiction romances, such as The Lost World (1912), which would inspire Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, and, subsequently, Steven Spielberg’s film (the sequel to the novel and film being named, in homage to Doyle, The Lost World). Doyle also took up legal causes himself: read Julian Barnes’s novel Arthur and George for his most famous real-life case. We’ve detailed some of Conan Doyle’s other extraordinary achievements in this post all about Doyle and his writing.

If this post has whetted your appetite, why not get hold of some of the greatest detective stories ever written? We recommend Sherlock Holmes Boxset (containing 10 Titles), which includes all five volumes of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short stories, the four full-length novels, and a collection of other Sherlock-inspired fun. In other words, the entire Sherlock Holmes ‘canon’. Well worth reading. We also have more about Sherlock Holmes, and a host of other literary curiosities, in our book The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History.

Fans of detective fiction might also enjoy our fascinating Agatha Christie facts, featuring an interesting anecdote involving a hedgehog.

Images: Top: ‘Sherlock Holmes’, © 1904 Sidney Paget, public domain. Bottom: ‘Benedict Cumberbatch filming Sherlock’, © 2011 Fat Les, free licence.

244 Comments

  1. And, of course, Conan Doyle believed in fairies… Abductive reasoning, I presume.
    Good post!

    • Haha, yes – forgot to mention the fairies and spiritualism thing. One of his later Professor Challenger books, ‘The Land of Mist’, explores that side of his interests. It’s actually not a bad story, whatever one may think of the whole world of seances and table rapping!

    • I, too, was interested that you didn’t mention Conan Doyle’s interest in spiritualism and fairies. it’s hard to imagine Mr. Holmes seeing fairies other than as a result of his cocaine habit.

  2. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is my favorite, think detective, think Sherlock Holmes…

  3. Historical fiction really..i hardly know of his any other wrk than sherlock..guess time to find out.

  4. Excellent post. very informative. Thank you.

  5. Fascinating, my dear “interesting literature” (Yes, I read number 8). I would have loved to have been at that dinner with Conan Doyle and Wilde. I love them both. Once again, most interesting post.

  6. Reblogged this on Mel Clayton.

  7. Fascinating post – I’m sad that there was no mention of the (in)famous Allahakbarries cricket team of which he was also a member though!

  8. Grimpen, eh? Actually I have never heard the word before … but now I’m going to use in whenever I can, IL … better find out what it means first :)

    • TS Eliot, a Sherlock Holmes fan himself, uses the word in East Coker:
      ‘In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
      But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
      On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
      And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
      Risking enchantment.’

      • Cheers for that, jfm … I did look it up and am now on the lookout for any grimpens that cross my path.

        • Absolutely. It’s a fine word. I think it was down to Eliot – who replaced the capital ‘G’ with a lower-case one – that the proper noun became a common (if rare) one (how’s that for a paradox: a rare common noun!). Donald Davie pointed out that the word had taken on a life beyond Baskerville Hall, and I think that’s how it ended up earning its place in the OED.

  9. Author Conan Doyle’s birth date is today, May 22.

    • Indeed, Paula – we felt it was about time we wrote a SH post, and what better day than his creator’s birthday? Even if Doyle himself may have grumbled about it (given what he thought of Holmes)…

  10. Good elementary stuff! Thank you. I never thought I’d be in search of a grimpen..

    • Grimpen should have made it onto our ‘Ten More Words We Got from Literature’ – two great writers, Doyle and T. S. Eliot, have used it. I’m sure others have followed suit – will have to look into it…

  11. I’ve been a Sherlock Homes fan since i was 10. I loved this post. I re-read the short-stories regularly and never get tired of them. Here’s another Holmesian myth for you: In movies and drawings Holmes is often seen smoking a Calabash pipe, but he never did in any of the stories and novels Conan Doyle wrote.

    • Oh yes, that’s excellent – it was a Meerschaum in the stories, wasn’t it? The old ‘three pipe problem’ referred to a very differently shaped pipe from the one people associate with Holmes.

  12. Given that today is Doyles’ birthday, perhaps it is not a coincidence that this blog was posted. As others have mentioned, he certainly was among the most ardent proponents of Spiritualism and metaphysics, although he was remarkably restrained when it came to writing about his beliefs.

  13. Wonderful post! I grew up reading all the Holmes mysteries. He was like my intellectual hero.

  14. I love Sir Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, and dear Watson equally (read: excessively—I may even have a tattoo of Holmes’ “However Improbable” theory somewhere).

    I’ve read all the works of Doyle that I can find, and he was an excellent writer. But of all his creations, Sherlock and Watson sort of surpass characterhood to the point where it’s difficult to remember there was an author involved at all . . . No wonder he was resentful.

    Thanks for sharing more about him!

    • A tattoo? Now that’s fandom! Love it.

      And I couldn’t agree more – Sherlock Holmes is one of those ‘archetypal’ characters, for want of a better word. Like Dracula or Frankenstein or Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde, the character has taken on a life of his own. No wonder Conan Doyle came to resent the old sleuth.

  15. I’ve just been to visit Holmes’ house in Baker Street so your post dedicated to the great man was perfect timing for me! Dying to start reading even more of the books now.

  16. Interesting indeed. I didn’t know about the historical fiction Doyle wrote. How exciting!

  17. As I understand it, Doyle somewhat despised his Sherlock Holmes novels and came to resent his “brand” so to speak, but the public clamored for them. Thanks for this great post!

  18. Pingback: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Birthday | Sarah's Notebook

  19. Nice fact that the old british lion liked the books.

  20. Reblogged this on We Will Wait.

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  22. Reblogged this on Flying Carpet and commented:
    Must read for every Sherlock Holmes fan out there!

  23. Pingback: Ten Facts about Sherlock Holmes | Sarahs verden

  24. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing.

  25. Pingback: Sunday Links | Super M

  26. Love Sherlock Holmes! Funny — I remember liking a Study in Scarlet .. — Did you ever see the Movie called Dr. Bell and Mr. Doyle? Pretty fun .. Thanks for liking my post!

    • I’d not heard of that film, so thanks for the heads up! Sounds intriguing – there have been some good documentaries over the last few years on Bell’s influence on Holmes, but I’ve not seen any dramatisations. I’ll have to go and look…

  27. Ah, my most favourite character! Thanks for this post. :)

  28. I love number 3! Oh, and fortunately he wasn’t named Sherrinford!

    “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Holmes (of course)…” — it would be interesting to note that a lot of Sherlockians consider Sherlock Holmes and Watson to be real people, existing on their own. I am currently reading a thoroughly annotated edition which upholds this view, and as such they pose theories and guesses as to who Holmes’s real clients were, the real identity of Irene Adler, etc.

    I am also surprised that a Dr. Bell fact did not make it up there! :)

  29. I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes, he’s very much a part of my character, he’s made me a much more observant person and hone my deductive reasoning – my spiritual father.

  30. Reblogged this on ABCKARROTS and commented:
    Interesting read from interesting literature!

  31. Fantastic post! I am such a Sherlock Holmes groupie, and this was fun to read! your blog looks so interesting–I will definitely be reading more!

  32. Great post. I enjoyed it very much! Concerning fact number 6, I guess it could be argued that Holmes is not human either; his deductive (or abductive?) powers make him at least “superhuman”, at least to the eyes of dumb ones like myself!

    • I think that’s a good point – Holmes is a superhero in many ways, with superhuman powers. The episodic nature of his adventures, his sidekick, and his (depressive) alternative state (the violin, the cocaine), all chime with twentieth-century comic-book superheroes too.

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  34. Loved the article – I learned lots. Doyle also famously defended the ‘Cottingley Fairies’ photographs making something of a fool of himself in the process. Fascinating man :)

  35. As a fan of the blockbuster, Robert Downey, Jr. movies as well as the newer BBC offspring with Benedict and Martin, I find these few facts quite interesting. Thanks :)

  36. Pingback: Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1 | The Spare Room

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  38. This was very interesting to me since I absolutely love the Sherlock Holmes books. I may have read every one.

  39. Reblogged this on robertbyron22 and commented:
    From a blog that I follow. I am a faithful Sherlock Holmes fan, but even more a fan of P.G. Wodehouse and, therefore, Fact #8 made my day. You’d think something that important would have made it into a Wodehouse biography!

  40. Thanks for following my blog-I cant wait to check yorurs out-Sherlock Holmes is a favorite! beebeesworld

  41. Sherrinford…could he ever have been famous with such a name? well, yes, but Sherlock is much better. Psmith, Journalist is my favorite humor book, but I don’t remember the ‘elementary’ phrase. I guess that’s an excuse to go read it again. : )
    thanks for the follow

  42. One of my favourite characters ever! And thanks for spreading the word about the quote “elementary, my dear Watson” not being said even once on the books!

  43. I always took Sherlock Holmes to be a mentalist, using thought that amazed some and that he acted theatrical about, but really, he was bombastic if not insecure behind a well constructed farce of the amviance of pipe smoking and slow English morbid staring contests.

    I like this exposé. I enjoy factual revelation of reality. Then I can act like I am as smart as Sherlock! Thanks for reading it. I surmise that… you read it… then you “liked” my blog. I know this is true. I cannot reveal my methods of extrapolatorian deductionary preduction duct functionary running function refictionalized… yes. Yes, this would be reckless to reveal the glorious method, the zen of zen zaizen zen from the zoo of my mind, like a mad, mad, almost superhero mind. And I think, google and wikipedia… heh heh heh!!

  44. You mean Sherlock Holmes was not a real person, just a little shock to reality. I would like to thank you for the follow.

  45. Love your blog! I have just nominated you for the Super Sweet Blogging Award! I hope that you will accept this nomination! http://nutfreenerd.wordpress.com

  46. I learned a lot from you today. Thank you.

  47. Thanks for the follow and the like – I enjoyed reading this post and look forward to more.

  48. Good job! I was surprised by #1 and #5, and I love being surprised.

    • Thanks, Marylin! We aim to include facts which will make the reader go ‘huh?’ and then ‘oh…’ in every post, so we’re glad we achieved that surprisingness here :)