Canon of Sherlock Holmes  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Traditionally, the canon of Sherlock Holmes consists of the 56 short stories and four novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In this context, the term "canon" is an attempt to distinguish between Doyle's original works and subsequent works by other authors using the same characters.



The traditional canon—usually capitalized by aficionados of the Sherlockian game—consists of four novels and 56 short stories.

The description of these 60 adventures as the Sherlock Holmes canon and the game of applying the methods of "Higher Criticism" to it was started by Ronald Knox as a playful use of the traditional definition of Canon as an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture.


Here is the list of the four novels of the canon:

  1. A Study in Scarlet (published 1887)
  2. The Sign of the Four (published 1890)
  3. The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
  4. The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915)

Short stories

The 56 short stories are collected in five books:

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (published 1892)
  2. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (published 1894)
  3. The Return of Sherlock Holmes (published 1905)
  4. His Last Bow (published 1917)
  5. The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (published 1927)

Frequently, "The Adventure of …" is dropped from some story titles in current-day anthologies. However, in their original appearance in The Strand, this is how the titles were given in many cases.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Published 31 October 1892; contains 12 stories published in The Strand between July 1891 and June 1892 with original illustrations by Sidney Paget.

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Contains 12 stories published in The Strand as further episodes of the Adventures between December 1892 and December 1893 with original illustrations by Sidney Paget. (American editions sometimes have 11 stories, moving "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" to His Last Bow.)

The Return of Sherlock Holmes

Contains 13 stories published in The Strand between October 1903 and December 1904 with original illustrations by Sidney Paget.

His Last Bow

Contains 7 stories published 1908–1917. (American editions often have 8 stories, including "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" in this collection instead of in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.)

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

Contains 12 stories published 1921–1927.

Extracanonical works

Since the author's death, professional and amateur Holmesians have discussed endlessly the expansion of this canon, to include other works by Doyle, including works in other media, into the current complete adventures. Rumours have always surrounded lost works, and in recent years further investigations have revealed more to the traditionally collected canon. As there exists no definitive body to argue what is, and what is not canon beyond the already established novels and stories, it is unlikely that any piece, no matter how good its claim to be "canonical" will ever be popularly received into published versions of the Complete Sherlock Holmes. However, as many as eighteen works have been cited as possible entrants. These works include plays, poems, essays on the character, and even short stories.

Published collections of extracanonical works include: Sherlock Holmes: The Published Apocrypha, edited by Jack Tracy; The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Peter Haining; The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes, edited by Richard Lancelyn Green; and the final volume of Leslie S. Klinger's Sherlock Holmes Reference Library titled The Apocrypha of Sherlock Holmes. These works, each with slightly different contents, discussed several titles and their place in the canon.

Works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

In addition to the canon, Conan Doyle wrote (occasionally with a co-writer) a number of vignettes, play adaptations and essays involving Holmes, and two short stories in which Holmes makes a possible cameo appearance. Most were published in various places during his lifetime; another has only come to light since his death. These are listed below with further detail.

Short stories

"The Field Bazaar" (1896)

"The Field Bazaar" was written for an Edinburgh University fundraising event. Doyle had been requested by his university to contribute a short piece of literature for a charity magazine. In the story Watson has received a similar request and whilst he reads the letter at breakfast, Holmes correctly deduces the sender of the letter and Watson's thoughts with regard to the letter. It shares many similarities to the canonical stories. Aside from the metafictional twist in which Watson supplants Doyle as the author publishing his own stories in a magazine, it also plays not only about the famous skill of Holmes' observations producing apparently miraculous results, but also upon the notion of the "traditional breakfast scenes" which open many Holmes short stories.

"The Lost Special" (1898)

Though Doyle had killed off his character by 1894, he still wrote other short stories for publication in the Strand Magazine. "The Lost Special" was one such story, a seemingly inexplicable mystery in which a special train and its few passengers disappear between two stations. After the mystery is described in full, it is stated that a letter appeared in the press, giving a proposed solution from "an amateur reasoner of some celebrity". It is possible, and has been proposed by Haining, Tracy, and Green, amongst others that this "amateur reasoner" was Sherlock Holmes. The strongest clue to this is the quotation, "once one has eliminated the impossible...", used by Holmes throughout his deductions. However, this suggested solution is proved wrong by a confession from the organising criminal once he is later arrested for an unrelated crime. Haining suggested that Doyle was "getting out some Holmes" during the series hiatus, but given the failure of the unnamed detective it appears he was parodying his most famous creation. The story was published in book form in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Tales of Terror and Mystery in 1923 and has for years appeared in French editions of the complete adventures.

"The Man with the Watches" (1898)

Like "The Lost Special", "The Man with the Watches" appeared in the Strand (in 1898), and later in Round the Fire Stories and Tales of Terror and Mystery. It follows the same pattern; the mystery this time surrounds the appearance of a dead man in a railway carriage, with six pocket watches in his jacket. An explanation is offered by an amateur detective but the narrator notes it is flawed, as it doesn't take into account all the facts. A man involved in the accidental murder of the victim writes a letter to the detective, saying that it was a "mighty clever solution" but entirely incorrect and continues to share the true events of that day. It shares the same backing for categorising as a Sherlock Holmes story as "The Lost Special", and appears in French anthologies. The story was adapted for BBC Radio 4 in 2009 as "The Thirteen Watches", in an episode from The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The number of watches was changed because the new title came from a reference (in the Holmes story The Noble Bachelor) to Holmes' involvement with the watches incident.

Plot for Sherlock Holmes Story (c. 1900)

When searching through Conan Doyle’s papers, Hesketh Pearson, a biographer of his, came across a plan for an unwritten story. As Richard Lancelyn Green notes, "there is no evidence to show that it is by [Conan Doyle] and strong internal evidence to suggest that it's not". Various authors have attempted to complete the story (named "The Adventure of the Tall Man" by Peter Haining) and put it alongside the canon. Some are very close to Doyle’s plot, others include variations from it. However no 'official' completion has been made (In the same way as The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes was intended as an official continuation of the canon).

"How Watson Learned the Trick" (1924)

In 1924, several authors were approached to contribute to the library of Queen Mary's Dolls' House. Conan Doyle wrote a short Sherlock Holmes story, just 503 words long, onto the tiny pages of a specially constructed miniature book: How Watson Learned the Trick. The story was later published alongside works by other authors in The Book of the Queen's Dolls' House Library. Though written 28 years after "The Field Bazaar", this is almost a companion piece to that story. Like "The Field Bazaar", this story is a breakfast scene, during which Watson attempts to mimic Holmes' style in guessing his thoughts. Watson's intuitions are proved wrong, however. Unlike almost all parts of the Sherlock Holmes story it is written in the third person, presumably due to its length.

Sherlock Holmes on stage

Angels of Darkness (c. 1889)

Unpublished until 2000, this play was written shortly after A Study in Scarlet was published. It is essentially a rewrite of the American chapters of A Study in Scarlet, with the London action moving to San Francisco. Holmes is not present, but Watson is, in a very different form. He acts discreditably and even marries another woman. The publication of this play was at first suppressed, Doyle’s biographer, John Dickson Carr stated that it would do no good for the public to read this, a view that Haining endorses readily. The play is notable for its contrasting sensationalist and comic scenes, and it is contained in Klinger's Apocrypha.

Sherlock Holmes: A Drama in Four Acts (or Sherlock Holmes) (1899)

The original Sherlock Holmes play written by Arthur Conan Doyle and William Gillette had a successful run of over 30 years. It has many original parts which are not found in the short stories but borrows many events from the canonical adventures, namely "A Scandal in Bohemia" and "The Adventure of the Final Problem". Also, it had elements from A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, "The Boscombe Valley Mystery", "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter", and "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty". It includes the very first mention of the phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson". While Conan Doyle wrote the original version, it is unclear how much of his material survived in the play as performed, which was written by Gillette. Conan Doyle and Gillette later revised the play together; it has since been revised by others twice.

The Speckled Band (or The Stonor Case) (1902)

Around 1902, Doyle wrote and produced a play based on his short story "The Adventure of the Speckled Band". It premièred 8 years later, at the Adelphi Theatre, London on 4 June 1910, with H. A. Saintsbury as Sherlock Holmes and Lyn Harding as Dr. Grimesby Roylott. The play, originally entitled The Stonor Case, differs from the story in several small details, such as the names of some of the characters.

The Crown Diamond: An Evening With Mr Sherlock Holmes (1921)

"The Crown Diamond" is an alternate version of the short story "The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone" though it predates its counterpart by some time, Sometime during the original run the short story was adapted from the play, this is the reason that the narrative is told in third person rather than by the traditional narrator Watson. Some claim that the play originally appeared in an early draft of "Sherlock Holmes" (above) and was later removed, with some elements finding their way into "The Adventure of the Empty House" before the entire play was resurrected, some years later, into "The Crown Diamond" and "The Mazarin Stone."

Essays and retrospectives

Arthur Conan Doyle rarely gave interviews or publicly discussed his character. However, the following is a list of Conan Doyle essays on his character which are currently in publication, either in Green or Haining's book or in standard editions of the Complete Stories:

"To An Undiscerning Critic" (1912)

Guiterman first published his homage in America in Life (5 December 1912) and then in London Opinion (14 December 1912), and in his collection The Laughing Muse. Conan Doyle’s answer appeared in the 26 December 1912 issue of London Opinion and was reprinted in the memoir of the editor of London Opinion, Lincoln Springfield. The late Dean Dickensheet appears to be the first to print the poems together, in An ‘Undiscerning Critic’ Discerned.

"Some Personalia about Mr. Sherlock Holmes" (1917)

This essay was featured in the Strand Magazine as a Christmas treat to its readers. It talks of the way Holmes had caught the public imagination and Conan Doyle’s view on his character.

"The Truth About Sherlock Holmes" (1923)

An essay from Collier's Weekly, in which Doyle explains exactly where Holmes came from. It contains, at the end, J. M. Barrie’s "The Adventure of the Two Collaborators".

"Mr. Sherlock Holmes to His Readers" (1927)

This appeared in The Strand Magazine to introduce a competition to name the best Sherlock Holmes adventures. The same essay, with two paragraphs cut, appears as the preface to The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

"How I Made My List" (1927)

This is the sequel to the article mentioned above. In it, Conan Doyle listed what he thought were the best Holmes adventures. He noted that had he been able to include stories from The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes he would certainly have included "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane" and "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client". The list is as follows:

  1. "The Adventure of the Speckled Band"
  2. "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League"
  3. "The Adventure of the Dancing Men"
  4. "The Adventure of the Final Problem"
  5. "A Scandal in Bohemia"
  6. "The Adventure of the Empty House"
  7. "The Five Orange Pips"
  8. "The Adventure of the Second Stain"
  9. "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot"
  10. "The Adventure of the Priory School"
  11. "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual"
  12. "The Adventure of the Reigate Squire"

Richard Lancelyn Green's The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes also includes five prefaces to the various editions of Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, Conan Doyle's speech at the Stoll Convention Dinner (1921), some chapters from Conan Doyle's autobiography Memoirs and Adventures, and several interviews.

Works of interest by other authors

These are works which have in the past been thought to have been written by Conan Doyle. Some have been conclusively proved to have no Conan Doyle input, the composition of others still remains unclear.

The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes

The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, is a collection of stories written by Conan Doyle's son Adrian Conan Doyle and Arthur's biographer, novelist John Dickson Carr. The stories are generally extrapolations of cases briefly mentioned in the canonical work, but tend to contradict themselves and each other. They are generally considered Sherlock Holmes pastiches.

The stories contained in the collection are:

Short stories

"The Case of the Man Who Was Wanted" (c. 1914)

This mystery, a completed Sherlock Holmes story, was found in 1942 by a Conan Doyle biographer, Hesketh Pearson, searching through a box of Conan Doyle's papers. It was originally announced that the story would not be published by the Doyle estate, but it was announced it certainly was by Doyle, as the manuscript supposedly appeared in his own handwriting. However, according to Jon L. Lellenberg in Nova 57 Minor, the manuscript was not in Conan Doyle's handwriting, but typewritten. The Strand Magazine published extracts from it in August 1943, and it was finally published after demand from Sherlock Holmes societies in 1947, when it was embraced as a new (if slightly inferior) part of the canon by The Baker Street Irregulars amongst others. Initial suspicions of forgery were reported by Vincent Starret and it was eventually discovered by Hesketh Pearson that the story was originally written by Arthur Whitaker, who had sent it to Conan Doyle in hope of a collaboration. Doyle had bought the story, in the thought that he might use the idea at a later date, but he never did. Pearson, Green, Tracy and the Doyle estate agree that Whitaker wrote the story, though Haining still claims that “the opening scene between Holmes and Watson betrays the hand of the master,” and that the story is partly written by Conan Doyle. He points out that Doyle's wife, sons and biographer were fooled by the style, and it is possible there was a redraft made. The story is published in Penguin's The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes collection under the title of "The Adventure of the Sheffield Banker."

"The Adventure of the Two Collaborators" (first published 1923)

Though never claimed by any serious critic to be a Conan Doyle work, this parody is listed here due to a popular misconception that this was written by Doyle for his friend, J. M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame). (Perhaps contributing to this misconception is the fact that the story appears for the first time only in a work of Conan Doyle's, and all subsequent printings are from that source.) In fact, this story was written by Barrie for Doyle following a period of the two of them working together on a play. The story itself involves Doyle and Barrie visiting Holmes, with Doyle killing Holmes due to his irritating intelligence (which perhaps reflects Doyle's killing off of the character in "The Adventure of the Final Problem").

Sherlock Holmes on stage

The Painful Predicament of Mr Sherlock Holmes (1905)

The recognition of William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes was growing as a result of the success of the play Sherlock Holmes. Playing upon his most famous role, a short comedy sketch performed by William Gillette as a curtain raiser to an unrelated play. It involves a mute Sherlock Holmes, and a very talkative client. In Haining and Tracy’s books, they speculate as to whether or not this play was written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Certainly Gillette would have needed Doyle’s consent to write an original work involving Sherlock Holmes, as the character was under copyright, but it is presumed by most Sherlockians that Gillette wrote the whole thing himself. Haining, however claims that Gillette may have asked Doyle to ‘whip up something quickly for him’. However, no manuscript exists in Doyle’s hand, and no reference of the play is left by him, it has been assumed by most that it is little more than a William Gillette curiosity.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Canon of Sherlock Holmes" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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