A Study in Sherlock Holmes


7 March 2015

A Study in Sherlock Holmes:

A Comparison between Doyle’s and Horowitz’s Literary Portrayal

of the Famous Detective

            Even though Sherlock Holmes was not the first private detective who entered the world of fiction, he has become the most famous detective of all time. Designed with features of both Doyle’s lecturer Joseph Bell, who was “a master of observation, logic and deduction” (Miller 49) and  the eccentric and brilliant detective C. Auguste Dupin with whom Poe launched the genre of detective fiction (Miller 42), Sherlock Holmes has become the archetype of the amateur private detective.

Between 1887 and 1927 the Scottish writer Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four lengths novels featuring the unique hero figure of Sherlock Holmes, a detective with scientific knowledge and deductive reasoning, who has not only become a well-known literary figure, but also a cultural phenomenon (Smith 17). His enormous popularity is recognisable by the great number of essays and books which have been written analysing Doyle’s stories and characters, and the fact that Holmes is “the most filmed fictional character in history, with several hundred television and film productions to his name” (Smith 189).  Particularly after Doyle despatched Holmes in “The Final Problem” in 1893, before he reintroduced him in 1901, a high number of new Sherlock Holmes stories have been written by other authors in order to keep the famous detective and his companion Dr Watson alive (Johnson, Upton 182).

Down to present day the number of new Sherlock Holmes stories is vast and constantly growing. In this context Anthony Horowitz was asked by the Doyle estate to write a new Sherlock Holmes story (Horowitz 391). Since the book is also promoted with “The bestselling Sherlock Holmes novel” on its cover, Horowitz’s The House of Silk (2011) will function as a contemporary representation of the Sherlock Holmes stories in this essay. Hence, the objective of this essay is to analyse Horowitz’s literary realization of Doyle’s fictional character Sherlock Holmes to demonstrate that despite bearing some superficial similarities, the differences between the literary portrayal of Doyle’s original protagonist and Horowitz’s Sherlock Holmes are remarkable, and eventually lead to two different characters.

According to Meyer, a fictional character can be defined by “a name, which suggests an individual, a bundle of character traits (psychological disposition), the internal activities of perception, emotions, thought and subconscious phenomena, and the external appearance and activities of speech and action” (93). This definition will serve as a basis for the following comparison between Doyle’s and Horowitz’s Sherlock Holmes.

At first glance, Doyle’s and Horowitz’s Holmes share many things in common. Most notable is the use of the same name, which suggests that both authors refer to the same fictional individual. This impression is supported by the description of the external appearance. While Doyle’s Holmes is “rather over six feet [and] excessively lean [with] sharp and piercing eyes, a hawk like nose” (V1 11), “thin lips” (V2 769), and “heavy, dark brows” (V2 462), Horowitz describes his Sherlock Holmes in similar adjectives as “distinctly lean and [of] cadaverous physique [with] sharp eyes accentuated by his aquiline nose” (10). Both characters can occasionally be found to be wearing Persian slippers (Doyle VI 604, Horowitz 24), and holding a tobacco pipe (Doyle V1 653, Horowitz 9) or even a syringe containing a seven-per-cent-solution of cocaine (Doyle V1 123, Horowitz 100). However, not only the external appearance of Horowitz’s Holmes is described similarly to Doyle’s, but also the fictional world in which the detective lives – including Victorian London (Horowitz 8) and Baker Street (Horowitz 7) as predominant settings – are the same. Horowitz even imitates Doyle’s stories to an extent that he reintroduces already known characters like Wiggins from the Baker Street irregulars (68), Lestrade from Scotland Yard (57), Holmes’s brother Mycroft (154), Stamford who introduces Holmes to Watson (3), and Professor James Moriarty (259) in order to recreate a traditional Sherlock Holmes story in the mould of Arthur Conan Doyle. The integration of The House of Silk in Doyle’s universe is also supported by direct or indirect references to former cases given by Watson within the narrative. For example the statement: “Only a week before […] I had observed him [Holmes] helpless and delirious, supposedly a victim of a coolie disease from Sumatra” (Horowitz 179) refers not only to Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Dying Detective” (V2 430), but also makes the exact temporal assignment of Horowitz’s story possible. With further references to “The Red-headed League” and its “three pipe problem” (Doyle V1 430, Horowitz 131) as well as “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs“: “[…] I remember that there would be another occasion, ten years later, when I would be hurt in the company of Sherlock Holmes” (Horowitz 123), the illusion of Doyle’s own world is created as a basis for further exploration.

However, both characters differ noticeably in three major character traits. First of all, in “A Scandal in Bohemia” Watson describes Holmes as someone “who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul” (Doyle V1 239). Hence, Holmes is presented as unsociable. His bohemian, independent life is completely taken up by his detective work (Doyle V1 130). Even social relationships are neglected in order to expand his scientific knowledge and to focus on his observation and reasoning skills (Doyle V1 585). Merely Watson becomes Holmes’s “intimate friend” (Doyle V1 398) while sharing rooms at Baker Street. Despite being friends, Holmes produces an inhuman effect upon Watson: “Sometimes I found myself regarding him as an isolated phenomenon, a brain without a heart, as deficient in human sympathy as he was pre-eminent in intelligence” (Doyle V1 682). Nevertheless, Holmes is capable of displaying emotions (Doyle V2 624). Since emotions, however, interfere with clear reasoning, he deliberately behaves cold and unemotional (Doyle V1 135). Horowitz, on the other side, portrays his Sherlock Holmes as sociable and emotional. Instead of seeing clients as a “mere unit, a factor in a problem” (Doyle V1 135), Holmes develops an interest in their life and feels responsible for them (Horowitz 129). The strong manifestation of the emotional bond can be seen when Ross, one of the Baker Street irregulars, is killed. “Would I have allowed a young boy to stand alone outside a hotel in the darkness had it been your son or mine?” (Horowitz 129) Holmes does not only blame himself, but he also considers leaving his profession (Horowitz 130). Since Doyle does not usually portray children sympathically (V1 184, V2 608) – even the boys from the Baker Street irregulars are treated sternly and condescendingly by Holmes (V1 184), Horowitz’s positive depictions of children as well as Holmes concern for their well-being appear out of character. Additionally, Horowitz disposes Holmes of the ability to suppress his emotions in order to operate analytically. In fact, he creates a detective who acts on a personal level with children and clients. Secondly, Doyle’s Holmes is smart. He has acquired profound knowledge on chemistry, botany, geography, anatomy, the British Law, and sensational literature (V1 14). His greatest strength are, on the one side, his accurate knowledge of London (Doyle V1 140), and, on the other side, his logical and perfectionist approach on important information, e. g. his own index in which he categories information on “men and things” (Doyle V 246). In comparison, Horowitz describes a Holmes whose knowledge is more limited. His index, namely, is not filled with information regarding the House of Silk (125), albeit it is “a criminal enterprise that operates on a massive scale […] that its tentacles have spread out to ensnare government ministers and police officers” (174). Furthermore, he is not aware of the fact that the House of Silk is located in London, and that it functions both as a drug den, supplying drugs to London, Liverpool, Portsmouth, and all the “other outlets in England – Scotland and Ireland” (Horowitz 174) as well as a place where wealthy customers can rent boys (Horowitz 339). Obviously, Horowitz’s Holmes’s lacks the immense knowledge of Doyle’s detective. This is particularly evident when Holmes admits that the answer to his questions, and therefore, the solution to the case have been in front of them all the time, an early success merely prevented by his failure of realization (Horowitz 348). Lastly, Horowitz’s Holmes is not only less smart, but also less observant. Instead of relying on his power of observation, and his reasoning and deduction skills, he chooses to be guided by his instinct and by coincidence (Horowitz 118, 338). Doyle’s Holmes, however, is described as a reasoning machine, trained to observation and analysis (V1 16). Instincts, on the other side, are attributed to women (Doyle V1 480, 510, V2 260), and are in contrast to the male intellect in Doyle’s stories.

From these differences in their character traits arise the different ways in which Doyle’s and Horowitz’s Holmes investigate. First of all, with his predilection for showmanship, Doyle’s detective is known for holding back the solution of the case until the very end, when he explains all deductions and his chain of reasoning in one dramatic revelation. This can be observed in stories like “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty”, in which Holmes served up the previously missing treaty and the solution of the case as breakfast (Doyle V1 731), in “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”, in which Holmes and the police feign a fire in order to smoke out their missing witness from behind a wall (Doyle V1 801), or in “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”, in which Holmes is asked to find a man who shatters plaster busts of Napoleon, but at the moment the last bust is found unharmed, Holmes shatters it himself to reveal a valuable piece of jewellery (Doyle V1 942f).  Secondly, he always places reliance on his mind and on his ability to observe. “[…] without any help save a few very ordinary deductions I was able to lay my hand upon the criminal within three days” (Doyle V1 115). Eventually, Holmes needs no help as long as he can rely on his mind. Relying on his mind also excludes guessing since it is “destructive to the logical faculty” (Doyle V1 129). However, to ensure that his mind works at its best and without interruption, he scarcely eats or sleeps while his mind is occupied with investigations (Doyle V2 559, 561). Lastly, Doyle’s Holmes has shown himself a master of disguise. For instance, he appeared as a seaman in “The Sign of Four” (Doyle V1 195), as an old Italian Priest in “The Final Problem” (Doyle V1 746), as a dying man in “The Adventure of the Dying Detective” (Doyle V2 442), and even as a woman in “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” (Doyle V2 559). By comparison, Horowitz’s Holmes shows no predilection for showmanship. Albeit Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade are able to track down the owner of the House of Silk, the detective cannot draw his final conclusions regarding the murder of Ross from the Baker Street irregulars as well as the function of the House of Silk independently. The solution, therefore, is presented by the offender, Fitzsimmons, who not only admits the deed himself, but also explains the function of the House of Silk (Horowitz 352 – 55). Aside from that, the success of his arrest is  reduced by the fact that the case does not come to trial since a royal family member is involved, and Fitzsimmons will soon be free again (Horowitz 355). Even the solution of the second case regarding the “Flat-Cap-Gang” is presented in a conversation between Holmes and Mr and Mrs Carstairs (Horowitz 374 – 80). In this particular case, Horowitz’s Holmes indeed imitates Doyle’s detective and holds back his chain of reasoning until the end. His revelation, however, is not dramatic, but surprising since the second leader of the Irish gang is not as presumed a man, but a woman, namely Mrs Carstairs. Furthermore, instead of dramatic revelations, Horowitz relies on dramatic narrative elements like a wild chase with hansoms (Horowitz 343), or gunfights including injured and dead persons (Horowitz 342, 345). Thereby, Horowitz differs intensively from Doyle, who uses the same basis plot in most of his stories. This plot starts with a conversation between Holmes and Watson discussing former cases, followed by a visit of a client who explains his misery, while Watson makes a wrong deduction, he and Holmes visit the crime scene. There, Watson shares his thoughts with the reader and Holmes observes, putting the clues together, before he reveals the solution of the case in one dramatic speech. Obviously, Doyle avoided inordinate action in order to foreground Holmes’s brain power. Horowitz’s Holmes is even arrested after visiting a drug den while investigating (Horowitz 224). Therefore, he has to rely on the help of Dr Watson and Dr Trevelyan, a former client but now friend, in order to escape from prison. Eventually, this is achieved through Dr Trevelyan’s support and Holmes’s ability to disguise perfectly. However, while Holmes is in a precarious situation, Watson has to investigate on his own. Surprisingly, he gets help from James Moriarty. The criminal mastermind gives Watson the key to Holmes prison cell and admonishes of danger regarding Holmes’s prison life (Horowitz 262f). This behaviour appears out of character since Doyle’s Professor Moriarty wishes death upon Holmes and has a desire for vengeance (V1 765). Yet, Horowitz introduces this character for this scene only by what the impression is created that Horowitz merely introduces the character because he is the well-known villain in the universe of Sherlock Holmes.  Additionally, Horowitz’s Holmes tends to guess (Horowitz 83), instead of relying completely on reason and mind, and therefore, is occasionally at his wit’s end when he cannot piece together the clues gathered (Horowitz 83, 97 118, 174), albeit he fasts on cases in order to stimulate his mind (Horowitz 165) like Doyle’s detective does.

In conclusion, it can be said that Horowitz imitates Doyle’s famous character with regard to his look and name, his friends and living conditions. It is, however, obvious that they differ in their character traits, and in their activities of speech and action. Doyle’s detective is famous for being a cold-hearted reasoning machine, gifted with great intelligence and a sense for locality, especially London. The detective work is his life, and therefore, his assistant Dr Watson is his only intimate friend. Doyle’s Holmes enjoys dramatic revelations after observing every detail of a case since he is flattered by appreciation. Horowitz’s Holmes, on the other hand, shows limited knowledge and abilities regarding his observation and reasoning skills. He relies on his friends and assumptions while chasing criminals through London. Clients are not only pieces of puzzles, but human beings he feels responsible for. Hence, Horowitz’s detective differs from Doyle’s – particularly in his core personality. Since the core personality of a character gives the audience an expectation about how the character will act, it must persist in order to recognise the same character – even without giving its name and description of its outward – otherwise they are perceived as two different fictional characters. It is obvious that Horowitz has created his own fictional character with its own traits, merely borrowing the famous name of Doyle’s detective. This clearly demonstrates how Doyle and his fictional character “Sherlock Holmes” are affiliated with each other, and how the use of his famous detective by Horowitz leads to the creation of a distinct detective.



Primary Literature:

Doyle, Arthur Conan. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories. Vol. 1. New York: Bantam Classics, 2003. Print.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories. Vol. 2. New York: Bantam Classics, 2003. Print.

Horowitz, Anthony. The House of Silk. London: Orion Paperbacks, 2014. Print.


Secondary Literature:

Johnson, Roger, and Jean Upton. The Sherlock Holmes Miscellany. Stroud: The History Press, 2012. Print.

Meyer, Michael. English and American Literatures. 4th ed. Tübingen: Francke, 2011. Print.

Miller, Russel. The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle. London: Pimlico, 2008. Print.

Smith, Daniel. The Sherlock Holmes Companion: An Elementary Guide. Rev. ed London: Aurum Press, 2014. Print.



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