Posted by: Liv Pitcher | September 24, 2021

Cutting Off One’s Nose: Sherlock Holmes and Authorship in the Name of Spite

When we think of “fandoms,” we often envision people obsessively discussing a subject on internet forums to an extent that is almost disconcerting. As it just so happens, Victorians are not much different than us, only instead of a harsh screen, they discussed theories around inviting hearths and oil lamps. Often credited with being the earliest example of what we now describe as “fandom,” Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes inspired a cult following which had never before been seen. This is a topic that is written on by those with far greater knowledge than myself, but I have an intrinsic need to use all the time younger me spent obsessing over BBC’s Sherlock to some use, so this is my attempt.

First, some background on Arthur Conan Doyle’s original vision for the series. Conan Doyle perceived himself as a connoisseur of historical literature more than a mystery fiction writer. This dichotomy is most obvious in the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. While in the first part, “The Reminiscences of Watson” we follow many of the plot beats a modern audience would expect from a crime procedural, it has a whiplash-inducing tonal shift, where we leave the foggy streets of London to pivot to the American frontier, entitled “The Country of the Saints.” While still tangentially related to the UK based mystery, the audience is treated to a commentary on the Church of Latter-day Saints and the tribulations of those trying to settle a Utah still lacking statehood. We do eventually return to Holmes and Watson as the two stories are connected, but the second part reads more as a bureaucratic report than a story.

Conan Doyle would eventually adapt his storytelling style to more closely resemble what we would recognize today as a traditional detective story, lacking any dalliances into the American West. It was at this point that he began to gain a fanbase ravenous for more stories. While Conan Doyle did not live long enough to see fanclubs such as the Baker Street Irregulars come into being, he still did feel stifled in his pursuits. While the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes continued to earn The Strand Magazine a wealth of subscribers, his nonfiction works were often left in the dust of the notorious series. In an act of defiance, Conan Doyle murdered his beloved character in the “Final Problem.” This was followed by an estimated 20,000 subscriptions to the Strand being cancelled citing what they viewed as a rushed and untimely demise for their favorite character. Conan Doyle was in no rush to help his publisher, not reviving the detective until two decades later. 

Since the Victorian era, there have been a range of adaptations, looking to revive Conan Doyle’s universe for a new audience. Perhaps the most popular of these is BBC’s Sherlock. Often commended for its reconciliation of certain errors in the original, Conan Doyle is known for sometimes mistaking details such as which of Dr. Watson’s appendages were shot in Afghanistan, yet the show was far from flawless. Writers Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat were at first the subjects of momentous praise from critics and fans alike, yet as the years advanced, their popularity plummeted due to numerous controversies.

The first season is regarded by most fans as the better of the four released. Though there are some outlandish deductions credited to Holmes, such as that scratches on a phone near the charger mean the owner is a drunk, the tale was rooted in witty writing and reliable storytelling. 

The show proceeded to break a fundamental rule of mystery fiction: your audience should always have a chance of coming to the solution before the protagonist. In the episode “A Scandal in Belgravia,” Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler are investigating a murder caused by blunt force trauma in the middle of a field with no people around for miles. After failing to locate a murder weapon, they conclude the man was killed by the return trajectory of his own boomerang. While a creative ending to the case, there is no reason an audience member would assume this series of events. This was overlooked by many fans, most just taking it in good jest as being a tad ridiculous but not detracting too much from their enjoyment.

Perhaps the most highly critiqued moment of the series was in the aftermath of the show’s interpretation of the detective’s death. Moffatt and Gatiss knew that Sherlock would have to return and therefore staged it as a mystery for viewers to ponder over during the two year hiatus between seasons. This type of hypothesizing was also done in the time of Conan Doyle but there are two key differences. The first is that none of the 19th century audience knew Holmes would reappear twenty years later, so any guesswork that happened during that time was of a more casual nature, no one expected any confirmation from the creator. Secondly, unlike in the Victorian era where most people theorized about their missing detective in a much more private setting, the internet meant thousands of people commenting and collaborating on hypothetical methods the titular protagonist could have used to fake his own death. 

When it was time for the grand reveal, people were thrilled. Finally, an answer to the question that had riddled so many fans: how did Holmes do it? The best part of any mystery is the explanation and while we are given a sampler of a few possibilities, these are all dismissed as fake. The show even goes so far as to provide ample commentary, portraying those theorizing about the detective’s fall within the show itself, actively mocking not only those on the screen, but those watching at home, ridiculing them for daring to care. There never is that grand reveal, no reward for waiting with bated breath and collaborating as a community. 

In an interview before the premiere of the disputed episode, Moffat is quoted as saying: “Oh, no more questions about the fall. We’re not telling – the answer will come. He did it cleverly. Very cleverly. And we know, we’re not telling!” Though we can never know what precisely made the creators abandon their plan for a grand reveal, I would like to posit that it was, at least partly, the pressure of a zealous fanbase to create a scenario that was appropriate for the level of anticipation. 

Unlike other genres, mysteries are meant to be obsessed over. It is a form of storytelling that encourages active participation from the audience. However, this does result in a more involved fanbase that tends to be rather vocal and demanding of creators. Neither Conan Doyle or the BBC team dealt with this situation in perhaps the most productive way possible. Rushing a death and copping out on the “big reveal” are not exactly hallmarks of good detective writing. However, the constant requests from a fanbase to have their vision of a story become canon must be incredibly overwhelming, not just in terms of time, but also mental real estate. Yet, punishing the fanbase for caring is non-advisable as it sets a precedent that schools us to not engage with media, and that would make for a very bleak world.


  1. I too was making connections with our reading of Sherlock and the series of which I happen to be a fan. With only 13 episodes in total, they had to pick which of the 56 Sherlock stories to tell. It is not a bit surprising that they chose to include Irene Adler in one of them (they just couldn’t resist aro/ace erasure)… but it is intriguing to see how they handled the modern retelling of a Victorian story that had a very different relationship with photography.

    I watched the series first, and was only exposed to the literary Irene Adler in week 2 of this course. I was fixated on one detail that made the story sort of outlandish. The notion that obtaining a single photograph could save a king from scandal is odd in 1888. While it may have been much more believable that this Adler had only one copy of the photograph compared with a 21st century Adler, the use of a single photograph with no reproductions in “A Scandal in Bohemia” just doesn’t quite fit the timeline.

    In chapter one of “The Burden of Representation,” John Tagg outlines the history of photography, and it is evident that from the 1850’s on, accessibility and reproducibility of photographs increased rapidly (Tagg 43). By the 1870’s the “era of throwaway images” had begun – photographs were so common that they were rendered unremarkable (Ibid. 56). Wilhem Gottsreich Sigmond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein, and hereditary King of Bohemia, is only 30 years old in 1888. As he describes himself as “but young” when he had met Irene, it is plausible to assume that the affair happened in the 1870s (Conan Doyle 6). Why would Conan Doyle expect readers in 1891 to go along with the gambit of the single photograph? Photos were so commonplace that almost any person from any class could afford to sit for one, and to reproduce and distribute it. Perhaps the notion that one would want to keep a single copy of a particularly special photograph all to themselves wasn’t all that surprising? But because this photo was the method through which Irene hoped to secure safety, it is implausible that she would keep only one copy.

    Gattis and Moffat, writing in 2011, had to adapt this story to the digital age. In “A Scandal in Belgravia,” Irene is a dominatrix, and she alerts the British Government that she is in possession of compromising photographs and videos of her and a female member of the British Royal Family. Sherlock decides to take the case when he learns that Irene doesn’t want monetary compensation, and can’t be persuaded to accept anything in exchange for the photographs. Like the 19th century Irene Adler, she simply wants the royal to know that it exists, in an attempt to secure protection might she ever need it. Sherlock’s plan to resolve the case is to steal the flash drive on which the images are stored. The notion that a 21st century blackmailer would keep all of her copies of the scandalous images in one place is preposterous. It’s incredibly unbelievable and yet the entire case rests upon it… even the US CIA intervenes and holds Irene at gunpoint in an attempt to obtain this one single flashdrive. If Holmes’ complete faith that Irene had only one copy of the photo in 1888 was (arguably) folly, the notion that she has only one flash drive in 2011 is an absolute impossibility.

    If there is one striking similarity between the 19th and 21st century renderings of “A Scandal in Bohemia” it’s the apparent authorial faith that readers/viewers will be willing to set aside their knowledge of the contemporary functioning of photographic technology in order to ingest the story.

    Doyle, Arthur Conan. “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The Strand: Discovering Sherlock Holmes, Stanford Continuing Studies, 2006.

    Tagg, John. The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

    • This is a great post Liv, and I think it’s super interesting to look at modern adaptations of texts from previous time periods and how meanings of texts might change in this process. I had watched BBC’s Sherlock episode on Scandal in Bohemia before reading the actual text. When we finally studied it for class, I realized how important photography was to the story. The way I understood the role of technology while watching the tv show was quite different, almost as if taking it for granted.

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