#1021: Little Fictions – ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Today begins a long-range project in which I work through the 56 canonical short stories featuring Mr. Sherlock Holmes written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle…some of which I haven’t read in over 20 years. I’m fascinated by Holmes, especially when he is as his creator made him, and, while I doubt I’ll have anything new to say, I intend to enjoy rereading him from first to last.

And so we begin with the first short story in Doyle’s output…

‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891)

The Case

A masked caller reveals himself to be the King of Bohemia with a delicate problem: as a young Crown Prince he became infatuated with Miss Irene Adler, and she, in possession of certain incautious letters and photographs, is now threatening to send all such materials to the King’s fiancée upon the announcement of his engagement in three days time. Suffice to say, such an outcome would be disastrous and likely see his wedding called off — so, since his own efforts at retrieving the documents have failed, might Holmes be more successful?

The Characters

Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, King of Bohemia; bad at disguises.

Irene Adler, a known adventuress; eager to marry.

Mr. Godfrey Norton, a lawyer; tall, dark, and handsome.

The Timeline

Watson’s narrative gives these events an exact starting date — 20th March 1888 — and fixes us solidly post-A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four by making references to both those cases herein. He is by now married to Mary Morstan and living independently of Holmes, the two men having “drifted…away from each other” as a result.

The Tropes

Perhaps the most meaningful of the Sherlockian tropes herein — by which I mean the ideas or references which have become so over-used in the 180 years since their first inception as to feel like cliches — is the old chestnut of “you see but you do not observe” in reference to the seventeen steps which lead up to Holmes’ rooms at Baker Street. As with the best of Doyle’s writing, it’s a beautifully simple example that illustrates the genius of Holmes so clearly for we mortals.

We also get references to the wider canon — hinted at by Watson, and never written by Doyle — in the form of:

  • Holmes’ “summons to Odessa in the case of the Trepoff murder”
  • “his clearing up of the singular tragedy of the Atkinson brothers at Trincomalee”
  • “the mission which he had accomplished so delicately and successfully for the reigning family of Holland”
  • “the Darlington Substitution Scandal”
  • “the Arnsworth Castle business”

Holmes’ talent for disguise come into play when he dresses up as a clergyman: “It was not merely that Holmes changed his costume. His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed. The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime”.

See also the reference to our detective’s continued drug use, as he spend his time “alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature”.

Points of Interest

This is, rather famously, one of the few times in the canon that Holmes is unsuccessful in his intentions — though he’s far more devastatingly wrong elsewhere, in a scandalously overlooked tale that we’ll get to in due course — but it’s interesting in rereading this to note how there doesn’t actually seem to have been any urgency anyway. We’re told that Adler’s rushed marriage to Godfrey Norton all but precludes her making public the documents she held over the King’s head, since it would likely damage her reputation in the eyes of the man she loves…but wouldn’t that always have been the case? The narrative would have us believe that the King’s appeal to Holmes for help is what motivates he hurried Adler/Norton union to which Holmes bears witness, but that’s entirely immaterial and seems to be done purely from a perspective of narrative intrigue. For such a famous case, it’s a thoroughly inconsequential utilisation of the World’s Greatest Detective.

Interesting to note, too, that Watson actually tells us quite early on that Holmes will be unsuccessful: “So accustomed was I to his invariable success that the very possibility of his failing had ceased to enter into my head”. A beautifully subtle piece of clewing right there, waving under our nose that which will have a markedly more significant meaning upon second reading.

This might also be the only mention in the canon of Mrs. Turner, who from context — “When Mrs. Turner has brought in the tray [of food] I will make it clear to you” — would appear to be Holmes’ housekeeper (the far more famous Mrs. Hudson being, of course, their landlady). I seem to remember a Turner cropping up in a later story, but whether there is any connection remains to be seen.

Is a cabinet-size photograph (4.25″ x 6.5″) really too large for a woman to carry about her person, especially one as valuable as this?

I’m surprised from memory how much of this Steven Moffat was able to work into his script for the episode ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’ (2012) for the BBC’s Sherlock (2010-17). Holmes disguising himself as a clergyman, the false fight by which he gains entrance to Irene Adler’s residence, the use of a false fire alarm to make her reveal the location of the photographs…I know not everything about that show worked for everyone, but the core ideas here are adhered to respectfully and updated very well.


The Sherlock Holmes canon by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on The Invisible Event

A Study in Scarlet (1887)
The Sign of Four (1890)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes [ss]:

  1. ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891)
  2. ‘A Case of Identity’ (1891)
  3. ‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891)
  4. ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ (1891)

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

4 thoughts on “#1021: Little Fictions – ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. I am excited that you will be tackling the Holmes Canon like this. SCAN has never been my favorite Holmes story, but it is undeniably one of the cornerstones and really brave of Conan Doyle to introduce his range of short stories with Holmes failing in his mission to his client, but claiming the moral high ground. It adds depth and nuance to the character and his world which was somewhat lacking in the introductory novellas as much as I love them. It’s no new thing to say that Holmes really thrives in the short story format, but it’s true that Doyle’s writing comes alive here. He was a master of the form and so, even when the mysteries at the heart of the tales are not strong, we feel properly immersed in the Holmesian mythos and the world Doyle has created.


    • I’m quite excited, too, which is why I’m undertaking this…undertaking. To revisit the canon with a better appreciation of what Doyle was doing, and with potentially a better eye on how his influence was felt going forward, should be a lot of fun. Hopefully reading about it will be, too, but mainly I’m just looking forward to making the acquaintance of these stories a second time — as I say, it’s been over two decades since I read a lot of them, so I can’t wait to see how they stand up.

      And, yes, they definitely do a lot to fil in the somewhat simplistic world outlined in the first two novels. Fascinating to think of someone actually building this world which has become so familiar is fairly incredible.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.