A reading of a classic Sherlock Holmes story
‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ was the short story that transformed the fortunes of Sherlock Holmes, or at least those of his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Although the great sleuth had previously appeared in two short novels, A Study in Scarlet (1887; it was originally published by Mrs Beeton’s husband, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual) and The Sign of the Four (1890), it would be the short stories, published in The Strand magazine from 1891, that would transform Sherlock Holmes into one of the most recognisable fictional characters in all fiction. And it all began with ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, closer analysis of which reveals the debt Conan Doyle owed to Edgar Allan Poe. You can read ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ here.
Before we get to the analysis of this story – arguably one of the most important in the annals of detective fiction – it might be useful to offer a brief summary of the story’s plot. Dr Watson, the narrator of most (though not quite all) of the Sherlock Holmes stories, tells us about Holmes’s admiration (though not love) for Irene Adler, whom Holmes always refers to as ‘the woman’. Watson then launches into his recollections of the events surrounding Irene Adler. He called upon Holmes to see his friend, and found Holmes working on a new case. Holmes deduces that Watson has put on some weight and that he is practising medicine (and also, using his trademark analytical deductions – though technically we mustn’t call them ‘deductions’ – that Watson’s servant girl is clumsy). Then Holmes presents Watson with the note in which a new client announces that he will call on Holmes that evening. Holmes has already deduced that the notepaper is from Bohemia (in the modern-day Czech Republic) and that the author of the note is German.
When the visitor arrives, a tall, well-built man wearing a mask to conceal his identity, Holmes quickly sees through the man’s false identity and realises he is in the presence of the King of Bohemia. The King tears the mask from his face and admits it, before explaining his situation to Holmes and Watson: that when he was a younger man and Crown Prince of Bohemia, he had become romantically entangled with an adventuress named Irene Adler. He foolishly allowed a photograph of both him and Adler to be taken, as well as exchanging compromising personal correspondence with her. Adler, he explains, now keeps the picture of her and the King, to use for blackmail purposes – when the King’s marriage betrothal is announced, Adler plans to ‘go public’ with the picture, and thus bring an end to the royal marriage, because if she can’t have the King, she doesn’t want anyone to marry him. (Holmes says that the letters could be explained away as forgeries, but the photograph of the two of them together is damning, and must be recovered.) Adler will not consent to sell the incriminating picture, though the King has tried to buy it from her; he’s also tried several times to steal it back.
In the next part of ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, Holmes shares the initial stages of his investigation with Watson, the following afternoon. Disguised as a groom, Holmes had spent time among the cabmen working in the area of London where Irene Adler lives, and had learned a great deal about her and her house. He had followed Adler and her lawyer-friend, Godfrey Norton, who had been a frequent visitor to her house. The two of them had driven to church, and Holmes had followed them – there they had been married, with Holmes (in disguise) being dragged in as a witness to the marriage. Holmes tells Watson about his plans for that evening, and Watson agrees to help.
That evening, they travel to Irene Adler’s house, with Sherlock Holmes disguised once more – this time as a clergyman. Holmes has deduced that that incriminating photograph must be hidden somewhere in Adler’s home, because it is too big for her to carry around with her. So, having hired some men to act as ruffians outside Irene Adler’s house, Holmes – disguised as a priest – contrives to ‘come to her rescue’ while the ruffians are fighting over her. He pretends to fall, as if injured in the scuffle, and Adler takes him in to check he is all right. Holmes asks for air, so Adler has the window opened – allowing for Watson, as planned, to throw a firecracker into the room and raise the alarm of fire. Watson then retreats to wait for Holmes at the end of the street. Later, when they are on their way back to Baker Street, Holmes reveals that his plan was to get Adler to reveal to him where she had concealed the incriminating photograph – and, when she thought her house was on fire, she did so, against her better judgment, by instinctively heading for the place in the room where the photograph was hidden – ‘in a recess behind a sliding panel just above the right bell-pull’.
Armed with this knowledge, Holmes plans to return to Adler’s house with Watson and the King of Bohemia the following day, to retrieve the photograph. When they arrived back at Baker Street, a mysterious youth passes the two of them, and bids Holmes goodnight. Unusually for Sherlock Holmes, he doesn’t know who it is.
The next morning, the three of them go to Irene Adler’s house, but find that she and her husband have left for Europe early that morning, never to return. Going to the secret panel where the incriminating photograph was hidden, Holmes finds a new photograph of Irene Adler, along with a letter for him. In the letter, Adler confesses that she had been outsmarted by Holmes when she had fallen into his trap and inadvertently revealed the hiding-place of the photograph during the fire alarm. She had resolved that the best plan was to leave for the continent with her newlywed husband, but she reassures Holmes that she has no plans to use the incriminating photograph – which she has taken with her – and merely kept it to safeguard her own reputation. She explains that as soon as Holmes had left her house the evening before, she had realised she’d been found out – and so followed Holmes to Baker Street, in disguise as a boy; she was the mysterious person who had bid Holmes goodnight.
Although she feels she has been outwitted and discovered by the great detective, Sherlock Holmes is singularly impressed, for his part, by Irene Adler’s ingenuity. In an ambiguous remark, he reveals that he thinks the King did well ever to win the affection of such a clever, resourceful woman. The King is just relieved that his reputation is intact and his marriage can go ahead. Acknowledging his debt to Holmes, he offers the sleuth one of his expensive rings. Holmes requests to keep the photograph as a memento of Irene Adler – the woman.
‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, like many of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, carries the strong influence of Edgar Allan Poe’s pioneering detective stories featuring C. Auguste Dupin. In particular, several plot features of ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ bear a close resemblance to Poe’s story ‘The Purloined Letter’: in particular, the incriminating item (a letter in Poe’s story, a photograph in Doyle’s), the previous unsuccessful attempts by other parties to recover the item (the police in Poe, the King and his hired burglars in Doyle), and the use of a diversion to allow for the recovery of the item (Dupin’s hired accomplice in Poe, and Holmes’s faithful Watson in Doyle). In both cases, the personage whose reputation is threatened by the incriminating item is noble or royal (though in Poe’s story the precise status or identity of the personage is unstated).
But as T. S. Eliot observed, sometimes genius is a matter of being ‘original with the minimum of alteration’, and what makes ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ more than just a pastiche of Poe is the way in which Doyle transforms these plot features and makes them his own. The key catalyst in the transformation is the central character, Sherlock Holmes. Like Poe’s Dupin, he is a master of rational analysis and somebody who can solve cases that leave everyone else scratching their heads. But Doyle’s breakthrough was to take inspiration from his real-life university lecturer, Dr Joseph Bell (who could diagnose patients as soon as they walked into his surgery, merely by observing them), and make Holmes an analytical ‘machine’, who can make ‘deductions’ about people, and discover their inner secrets, from merely glancing at them. The plot of ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ may be heavily indebted to Poe, but what makes it a fine story in its own right is that key ingredient which would make Doyle’s stories so popular: Sherlock Holmes himself.
The Sherlock Holmes stories in The Strand would be illustrated by Sidney Paget, the man who, after Conan Doyle, probably did more than anyone else to create our idea of the great detective. Curiously, he only got the job because of a clerical error. The publishers had meant to hire his younger brother, Walter, but they inadvertently addressed the letter to the wrong brother. It turned out to be one of the most serendipitous mistakes in the world of literary illustration.
Continue to explore the world of Sherlock Holmes with our analysis of the classic Holmes story, ‘The Speckled Band’.
Image: ‘He tore the mask from his face’, illustration from the Strand publication of ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, by Sidney Paget; via Wikimedia Commons.