In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sherlock Holmes

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Essay Collections
  • The Detective Genre
  • Scholarship on Adaptations
  • Literary Context
  • Historical Context
  • Publishing History
  • The Method of Holmes
  • Holmes and Science

British and Irish Literature Sherlock Holmes
Camilla Ulleland Hoel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0114


Sherlock Holmes is possibly the most immediately recognizable character in all of fiction. This is perhaps due to the fact that he has not remained limited to the texts he first appeared in, namely the four novels and fifty-six short stories written by the Scottish author Arthur Conan Doyle (b. 1859–d. 1930) in the forty years between 1887 and 1927. Holmes, along with his narrator and friend Dr. John H. Watson, has appeared in hundreds of films, TV series, advertisements, games, and literary pastiches; the deerstalker-clad profile, while never described in the books by Doyle, is iconic, largely thanks to the illustrations by Sidney Paget. With the exception of the first two novels, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of the Four (1890), all of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories first appeared in The Strand magazine, beginning with “A Scandal in Bohemia” (1891) and ending with “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place” (1927). Although the stories continued to appear until 1927, all were set before the First World War (the latest in the internal chronology is “His Last Bow” [1917], set in 1914). Doyle tried to cut the stories short in 1893 when he introduced Holmes’s nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, and plunged the two of them into the Reichenbach Falls. However, after a brief hiatus the detective was revived, first in the retrospective Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), and then properly in “The Empty House” (1903). Doyle never attempted to kill him again, and the detective retired to keep bees on the Sussex Downs. The volume of academic attention to the Holmes stories has suffered under their status as popular or genre fiction, and it is only in the last thirty years that this has changed. Some of the most interesting studies are therefore not in themselves academic (produced by academics or published in the academic presses), though sometimes quite scholarly in execution. The reception history of Sherlock Holmes is peculiar and should be taken into consideration in any complete study of the character: since the beginning of 20th century, fans have written their own stories featuring the character, frequently presenting possible backgrounds for the adventures mentioned but not described in Doyle’s texts. In parallel with these stories, a peculiar brand of “Sherlockian scholarship” developed, in which Doyle is taken to be merely the literary agent of a real Dr. Watson writing about a real Sherlock Holmes. The aim of this type of pseudo-scholarship, often referred to as the “Great Game” or the “Grand Game,” is to elucidate the “real” story behind Doyle’s texts.

Introductory Works

Jann 1995 does a good job synthesizing the insights of a number of discussions of the detective novel, drawing on Peter Brooks, Dennis Porter, and Roland Barthes. Gives a coherent discussion of how detective stories function formally and ties this to the social context in which they were made. Then it goes on to give specific readings of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by grouping the stories together with special attention to the social power and motivations of the villains. Pays particular attention to the power relations of class and gender. Useful as an introduction to the field.

  • Jann, Rosemary. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Detecting Social Order. Oxford: Macmillan, 1995.

    NNNDiscusses formal traits and social context, class, and gender. Focuses particularly on Adventures. Includes a useful analysis of villains, as well as a helpful annotated bibliography.

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